Here in north-central Iowa where I live, we recently enjoyed a severe and unseasonal November cold snap which drove the temperatures down below zero (Fahrenheit) for a couple of days. While such temperatures aren’t out of the ordinary for January and February, they were a bit of a shock to the system for November.
Thus, a big part of the last week was rediscovering how exactly to keep our home temperature as low as possible while still being comfortable at home. I keep it lower during the day when I’m alone working and low at night when we’re all sleeping, but a little higher when all of us are at home.
The reason for keeping it on the cool side is obvious – lower energy bills. Even dropping our thermostat by a degree on a cold day means that the furnace and fan kick on less frequently, and if lowering it by a degree means that it goes through one fewer heating cycle every two hours, that adds up to a surprising amount of energy savings over the course of a winter month.
Of course, you also want to be comfortable in your own home. I don’t want to sit around freezing all the time, and neither do you. The trick is to find the exact point where your house is cool but not uncomfortably so, and that exact point is different for each person. I’ve learned, for example, that my parents like to have their house much hotter in the winter than we do, and our house is certainly cooler today than the house was when I was a kid living with my parents.
My usual tactic for figuring out that temperature is to keep nudging the thermostat a little lower and a little lower until it reaches a point where I don’t quite feel comfortable, then I raise it by a degree or two. What I’ve learned over the years is that I can make that temperature dive go quite a bit lower if I take some proactive steps around the house to encourage those lower temperatures.
Here are twenty things I do at home all throughout the winter to enable things to be a few degrees cooler while still being comfortable, which translates into huge energy bill savings.
I dress warmly around the house, often in layers. As I write this, I’m wearing a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt underneath a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, with some thick comfy socks on. I feel really comfortable and also quite warm, even though the house temperature is pretty cool.
If I start to feel overly warm, I can always just strip off the sweatshirt or knock the temperature down another degree, but while I’m working, I feel pretty good. If I were to just take off the sweatshirt or the jeans, I’d probably be fine for a while and then gradually start feeling cold, which would make me want to nudge up the temperature.
Just wear comfortable clothes in layers around the house. You can adjust situationally as needed, and it allows you to keep things just a bit cooler.
We keep the ceiling fans running on “low” in “winter mode.” By “winter mode,” I mean that the blades are running in a clockwise direction so that you don’t actually feel it blowing down on you if you’re standing right underneath it. Rather, the air is pushing upwards against the ceiling, which causes the warm air that collects at the top of the room is pushed down along the walls and mixes with the cooler air on the floor to warm the room.
You don’t need to run it on “high”; in fact, it’s less efficient that way. Just run it on “low” with the air pushing upwards. You can set the direction of the blades with a little switch on most ceiling fans.
I drink a lot of warm beverages throughout the day, particularly tea. There are two reasons for this. The obvious one is that, well, I’m ingesting warm stuff, which will make me feel warmer. A cup of hot tea on a cold day is a great way to warm yourself up.
There’s a second reason, too: it helps me stay hydrated, and when you’re hydrated, you retain water much better than when you’re dehydrated. Water retains heat fairly well, so when you drink that hot water, you’re going to stay warm for longer.
We keep blankets near every chair or couch where people might sit, so they can drape them over their legs if they want. Every room in our house has a pile of blankets available in the winter for people to cover up. We have a variety of thicknesses, a variety of sizes, a variety of cloth types – there’s something for everyone! (I’m partial to the biggest ones, because I’m tall and I like to keep my toes covered up.)
If someone happens to feel cold while others don’t, they can just grab a blanket and drape it over their laps or completely cover up with it. We’ll often do this in the evenings if we’re watching a movie as a family or playing a board game or working on a puzzle or something, because we tend to feel most cold when we’re sedentary.
We cuddle and share blankets. I really love getting huge blankets that can cover multiple people. Not only do they make it easy to wrap yourself up in a blanket on the couch like a mummy, it also makes it very easy for two people to cuddle together under a blanket, which is a fantastic way to feel warm on a cold winter night.
There are few things that will make you feel warm under a blanket faster than the warmth of another person, so if you have someone you don’t mind cuddling with, keep a big blanket around and cuddle with that person often. It’s one of the most enjoyable money savers around.
We layer blankets on the beds. In the winter, every bed in our home has several blankets on it. This enables people to easily add and remove blankets as their needs change throughout the night. Several blankets can also create a mild “weighted blanket” feel, which some people like.
These layered blankets can keep you very warm at night, which is perfect if you drop the temperature in your home a few degrees on winter nights so that the furnace isn’t running constantly.
I make a lot of hot meals at home (and bake a lot, too). During the winter, I make a lot of hot meals in our kitchen. I love making casseroles and soups and stews. I love baking things – bread and cookies and crusts and pies. It’s wonderful to do this, but particularly during the winter.
Why? When I’m cooking something in the kitchen, the excess heat is flooding out into the kitchen, keeping the temperature higher in the house without the furnace kicking on. Now, our oven isn’t nearly as efficient as the furnace for heating the house, but it’s a far better proposition than cooking in the summer, when a hot kitchen works against the air conditioning. Rather, the excess heat helps you a little bit, so it’s even more cost effective to cook at home during the winter than during the summer.
There’s also the additional effect of eating warm foods. If you eat something warm, you’re going to feel warmer and for good reason – your body temperature is going to go up a little bit. That helps you feel nice and toasty even when the house is cool.
We cook lots of things in the slow cooker. I particularly like using the slow cooker during the winter, for a few reasons. As noted above, it heats up the house, and eating warm foods makes you feel warm.
However, a slow cooker adds a wonderful additional effect that isn’t a guarantee with other methods of cooking: it’s going to add moisture to the house.
Most recipes that you make in a slow cooker have a significant water content. In fact, we often cook soups and stews in the slow cooker, which means a lot of liquid. Cooking things with a lot of liquid in them adds humidity to the air, and during the winter when the furnace or when radiators are running, it’s easy for the air to get very dry. A bit of humidity helps the air hold heat a little better and gradually adding a little moisture to the air throughout the day raises that humidity.
Let’s talk a little bit more about humidity…
I leave water sitting out for a few hours, particularly if it’s hot water. If I heat up water for any reason, I won’t just dump it down the drain. Rather, I leave it sitting out for a few hours, letting the warmth from that water migrate out into our house and letting the water evaporate a little, adding moisture to the house, too.
If I make pasta, I’ll save the water when I drain it. If I make tea and have some extra water, I let it sit out in a bowl. If I cook something via sous vide, I let the basin of hot water sit out for several hours, spreading the heat and evaporating. If I draw a hot bath, I’ll let the water sit in the tub for a few hours until it’s down to room temperature. If I have a sink full of hot water for dishes, I let it sit until it’s at room temperature. Let that heat go into our house rather than down the drain!
Sometimes, I’ll even just put normal containers of water near the hot air vents. One great additional trick if you have some extra water is to sit it in a bowl or something near a hot air vent in your home. This won’t directly heat your home, but what it will do is encourage evaporation as the air coming out of your vent will be quite dry, and having sitting water there will cause it to evaporate at a relatively high rate, adding moisture to the air. Again, water holds heat well, so adding a bit of moisture to the dry air in your home is a great way to make the air in your home hold heat better.
I’ll usually do this with a glass bowl. I’ll just sit it near a vent for a while, let some of it evaporate, and eventually dump the rest. Sometimes our dogs will drink from the bowl rather than their dog dish, so this will convince me to dump it a little sooner.
I shower with the bathroom door open and a fan outside the door running. This is another heat and humidity trick. During other seasons, I just run the vent fan in our bathroom when I’m taking a shower as I want that heat and humidity out of the house. In the winter, though, I want to keep that heat and humidity in the house, but I don’t want it concentrated in the bathroom where it can eventually damage the paint.
My solution? I usually shower with the bathroom door open and run a fan in our bedroom (the bathroom where I shower is attached to our bedroom) while not running the vent fan. That way, the hot, moist air spreads out into other areas of the house rather than just blowing out of the vent.
Also, the last few minutes of my shower are as cold as I can stand it. This is a trick I learned that actually helps me keep warm, even though it seems really counterintuitive.
During a shower, I’ll wash myself with nice warm water, but when I’m rinsing all the soap and shampoo off, I turn the temperature down as cold as I can stand it, for perhaps the last three minutes of the shower.
Why? Believe it or not, cold water actually causes your core temperature to rise while your outer surface cools off. After the shower and a bit of warming up as you get dressed, this elevated core temperature will actually leave you feeling quite a bit warmer about 15-30 minutes after the shower than taking a warm shower will leave you. Don’t believe me? Give it a try!
(The reverse is true – in the summer, you should take a warm shower if you want to feel cool after your shower. Start off with cold water to cool off, but then switch to warm water during the rest of the shower.)
I heat up “rice bags” and throw them under the sheets and blankets a few minutes before I go to bed. These are just small cloth bags of dry rice sewn shut, nothing special. I’ll put these in the microwave for about 3 minutes before I go upstairs to bed, toss them under the blankets, and then go about my pre-bedtime routine, which takes about ten minutes. When I climb into bed, it’s already really warm under the blanket, as the heat has spread but hasn’t escaped.
In the morning, when I make the bed, I grab the little rice bags and put them downstairs near the microwave, so they can be easily microwaved again.
This makes it much nicer to get into a cozy warm bed at night, and it doesn’t risk spillage as a hot water bottle might do.
I heat up my clothing with those same little “rice bags.” I also use those exact same rice bags in the pockets of my clothes, particularly when I’m about to go outside, but occasionally on a really chilly day around the house. I’ll just microwave one for a couple of minutes (not as long as the ones for bedtime, as I actually want to be able to touch these) and slip them in a coat pocket or in the pocket of a hooded sweatshirt.
This not only heats up the item I’m wearing, but also gives me something warm to put my hands on when I’m out and about. It doesn’t last forever, but it lasts for a surprisingly long time.
We keep windows uncovered when sun is shining through them, but cover them the rest of the time. When direct sunlight is shining on the windows in our home, we’ll open up the curtains or blinds and let that sunlight stream in through the windows, naturally heating the interior of our home. The heat of the sunshine exceeds the loss of insulation from keeping the window coverings closed. I particularly like sitting for a while in the sunshine on days when it shines in the window, as it makes me feel warm.
When direct sunlight isn’t shining on the windows, we do the opposite and keep them closed because the insulation effect of the window coverings exceeds the nonexistent warmth of sunlight.
I keep some warm house slippers around and keep them on my feet if it’s chilly. I’m normally barefoot around my house in the spring, summer, and fall, but in the winter, having bare feet can make me feel really cold. My first line of defense against this is a nice pair of slippers – I currently wear these and love them.
These do a great job of keeping my feet nice and toasty during the day while I’m working. But I also do something else…
I also wear socks on really cold days, sometimes even in layers. If I still feel cold on a really cold day with my slippers, I’ll go put on at least one pair of socks. Again, I don’t normally wear them around the house except for when it’s cold, but when it’s really chilly, they help a ton.
I tend to like wearing wool socks. On cold days, I’ll wear wool socks on top of athletic socks, as two layers of wool socks or athletic socks on top of wool socks feel really tight on my feet.
I go on a lot of walks, even when it’s really cold. A nice long brisk walk makes me feel a lot warmer, and that warmth seems to continue for a surprising amount of time after I get home. Walking elevates my core temperature and the temperature stays elevated for a while, leaving me feeling warm all over.
Thus, once or twice a day, even on really cold days, I’ll bundle up and go on a fast walk. My goal is to feel slightly sweaty on my innermost layer, such that I feel like changing clothes or even taking a shower when I get back to the house. If I do this along with the shower technique described above, I’ll feel warmer all day long.
I keep a towel to stuff along the bottom of all exterior doors, even those with weatherstripping. Like it or not, cold air does seep in a little around the edges of doors, especially when the wind blows against them. Although our doors are pretty well lined, it’s still beneficial to add a bit of extra protection on the coldest and windiest days.
Stuffing a towel along the bottom of an exterior door reduces a lot of that cold airflow. This is particularly important because the cold drafts it blocks flow in along the floor, where your feet are, and this can make you feel doubly cold.
We burn candles. We’re not big candle people, but we sometimes receive them as gifts. Candles are universally saved for the winter, where we’ll often burn them in the evenings. Candles contribute a surprising amount of warmth to a room, often enough to make a room feel noticeably more comfortable.
Dig out your candles and light them in the room where you are, ideally fairly close to a thermostat so that the thermostat continues to register the current temperature of the room you’re in and the furnace doesn’t needlessly kick on.
You don’t need to keep your furnace on full blast all winter long. Drop the temperature a few degrees and use these strategies instead to save yourself quite a lot of money.