Updated on 09.19.14

Stay Warm This Winter Without Huge Energy Bills

Trent Hamm

November is here. Winter is sneaking up on us, and with winter comes winter heating bills for most of the United States. I live in northern Iowa, where temperatures can get quite cold in the heart of the winter months and, since I work from home, I have to utilize lots of different tricks to ensure that we’re not burning too much energy just to keep the house warm.

Last winter, I catalogued several of the best tactics to share with you at the dawn of the next winter. Here they are.

Ten Tricks for Staying Warm On a Budget

1. Check your insulation

Take a quick peek in your attic. What do you see? Do you see any bare spots not covered in insulation? Attempt to identify what type of insulation you have and make sure it’s up to the level of insulation you need for your area using this helpful insulation guide along with this tool for understanding insulation R-values. Proper insulation is key to keeping your house warm.

2. Make sure your home is air sealed

Air leaks and drafts allow warm air to quickly escape your house, resulting in tremendous heating and cooling bills. The solution to this problem is to check your home for air leaks and properly air seal any leaks you discover. This useful guide from the Department of Energy will walk you through the entire process.

3. Close the vents in unused rooms (and seal them off, if possible)

If your home is well insulated and you have a room or two that’s not actively being used, turn off the air vent in that room and seal the room as best you can. The temperature in that room will drop significantly when you do this as you’ll no longer be heating it – and no longer paying the bill for heating it, either.

4. Invest in thick socks

I work from home in Iowa, and I’ve learned that there’s no better way to stay warm in the winter at home than to wear thick socks. Thick socks keep my feet warm even if I keep the temperature in the house low, and feet are one of the primary thermal indicators for the body as well as being a relatively poorly circulated extremity. Keep the feet warm and the rest of you will be fine.

5. Test the lower levels of your thermostat

Along with wearing warm socks, I often tend to turn the heating down during the day (raising it when my family is at home, which is basically just a manual version of the effect one would get from installing a programmable thermostat). I work on the upper level of my home where it’s warmest, so reducing the house temperature during the day rarely has any negative impact on my work – but it certainly saves on energy costs.

6. Use a hot water bottle

We also tend to dip our thermostat down a bit at night when we’re snuggled in our beds. Unfortunately, after a long winter day, a bed might not necessarily be cosy right at first. Thus, I often use a trick that my father used when he was a boy – a hot water bottle. We use a reusable microwaveable hot water bottle filled with a gel-like substance. A quick heating in the microwave just before bed means that the bed quickly gets cosy warm – a perfect resistance against the cold nights.

7. Open the blinds on the sunny side of the house – close them on the other side

In the winter, I do this on the top two floors of our home (where most of the windows are). In the morning, I open all of the blinds and curtains on the east-facing side of the house and make sure everything is closed on the west side (usually done the night before). Then, when I eat lunch, I switch the two. Then, just before dinner, I close everything on the west side of the house. This goes a long way towards maximizing the benefits of direct sunlight and minimizing the heat lost to windows not facing the sun.

8. Stick together – share a blanket

If you walked into our family room, you’d see that we already have several blankets out for the winter months. We love to cuddle up as a family under a blanket or two on the couch, sharing our natural body warmth with each other. It keeps us all close together and toasty warm.

9. Use the oven

Who wants to go out to eat in the deepest part of winter anyway? Stay home and cook something in the oven. Not only will the food preparation save you money, you’ll also find that the oven is far more energy efficient in the winter. How so? It works with the warming of your house rather than against the summer cooling of your house.

10. Drink warm fluids

For me, winter is filled with cup after cup of hot tea and hot chocolate. Drinking a warm fluid makes me feel much warmer (and likely does slightly raise my body temperature). For me, the effect lasts for about forty minutes, a time in which I can get away with a temperature a few degrees lower. During the day, I’ll often prepare myself a giant mug of hot tea and slowly sip it over the course of a few hours. The small energy expense of heating up the water is more than replaced by the energy savings of being able to lower the house temperature a bit more.

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  1. KC says:

    We’ve used to live in a two story townhouse with one heat pump. It would get hot as Hades upstairs and cool downstairs. So not only would we have a sweatshirt at the top of the stairs to put on when going down, but we would close about half of the vents upstairs to help even out the air flow. It did help some to have a more even temp – not sure if it saved money or not, but it was more comfortable.

    Now we have three stories and two heat pumps. The upper story consists of rooms we rarely use – we just close the doors and turn the heat really low – it rarely comes on and with the doors closed the colder rooms don’t affect the thermostat in the hallway. The two stories we live on we have to do what we did in the previous house – open some vents and close others. It helps moderate the temp. This is actually more important for the air conditioning months than it is for the heat months (the bottom story is partial basement, so it tends to be colder). But I was really pleasantly surprised at how we keep our bills down in this newer, larger home. It has good windows and insulation, but by heavily regulating the temperatures in the unused parts of the house we save quite a bit.

  2. Thick socks and hot fluids, that makes a lot of sense, Trent.

    Thanks, John

  3. sueand says:

    Great suggestions. We thought we had the whole house pretty well sealed up but when I opened our closet this summer I noticed it was pretty warm, and discovered that where the drywall was installed when we remodeled 7 years ago there was a space at the edges that allowed warm outside air in from under the house. It always pays to check again, I can’t believe I didn’t notice it for that long.
    I also use a hot water bottle in bed during the winter, but I use an actual wine bottle. I heat the water up in the microwave, cork it and slip it into and old sock so the too hot glass doesn’t touch my skin. Works great!

  4. Heidi says:

    I got my thick socks in my Christmas stocking a few years back. My husband found Army issue wool socks at a surplus store. They’re not pretty, but they’re fantastic at keeping warm. They’re so thick they offer a little cush as well.

  5. Matt says:

    If you have forced-air heating and want to close off vents, check your basement first. Many duct systems have valves right near where the duct for that particular vent breaks off from the “main”. Rather than shutting the vent after the air has traveled 50 feet, you can prevent it from even going 1.

    I spent about 30 minutes one afternoon going up and down the stairs, flipping valves in the basement then seeing what effect it has on the vents. I labeled each duct with where it went and which position was on/off, so now I can easily manipulate the airflow in our house to exactly what I want.

  6. Faculties says:

    But if your heat is based on the thermostat in one room (say your living room), will shutting off other rooms (say upstairs bedrooms) make any difference at all? The furnace will still come on when the living room gets cold, stay on until the living room gets warmer, then shut off again. The shut-off upstairs bedroom has no impact on the amount of heat the furnace puts out or the fuel required to run the furnace.

  7. Katrina says:

    Something I am a huge fan of in the winter is Smart Wool socks. I know LL Bean makes them, among others. They are very thick, very comfy, and they are made in such a way that they wick moisture away from your feet, which goes a long way towards keeping them warm. They put regular wool socks to shame! I started wearing them to deal with being outside in the winter, as my feet would freeze here in Pittsburgh, but found that they kept me very warm at home, too, where I was less at risk of frostbite in my toes.

    Also, I have found that if you just wait long enough, your body adjusts to the lower temp, and you find living at what other people consider ‘normal’ temperatures to be uncomfortably warm for you. Then it’s not a sacrifice you have to make to save money: you WANT to be cooler!

    One last thing: you can make rice packs that do the same thing has hot water bottles. Take a clean hand towel, fold it in half, and tightly sew up two sides to form a sleeve. It’s best with a sewing machine. Fill it to not quite full with uncooked rice. Sew up the last side, and stick it in the microwave for a few minutes. We put them in bed, under our backs on the sofa, wherever. It makes a huge difference and it’s only as expensive as a towel and some rice!

  8. Petmom says:

    Wear a hat! I wear a loose fleece cap at night when I am home – most body heat is lost through your head. The cap is sort of a fleece pill box, so it doesn’t give me “hat head,” it just makes me feel warmer. Those fleece things with sleeves are great when reading. If the TV is on, I march in place during long commercial breaks to keep the blood flowing. Pets help too – a dog curled up on your feet and a cat in your lap work really well. Thanks, Trent – stay warm!

  9. dave says:

    If you have a forced hot air furnace, make sure you do not block off to many of the vents, the furnace could overheat, because it makes the same amount of heat just with less air flow. If a room you want to block off has a thermostat in it, turn it down or off if you can, it has it’s own zone, if that is the only thermostat in the house, then you can’t block that room off.
    An electric blanket is a good thing too.
    heavy blinds or better moveable shutters for windows work well to.

  10. Melissa says:

    Long johns are where it’s at. I spent a winter in an uninsulated attic and the two things that helped the most were long johns and an electric blanket. Between the two of them, I was a pretty happy camper.

  11. IRG says:

    As apartment dwellers, we live with several rooms being incredibly hot and others being very chilly despite heat. (It’s just like many offices in the city; in one part people are almost in swimsuits, in the other parts, they keep their coats on!)

    First thing we do is seal up the windows on all but one window in the bedroom and living room. And by seal, I mean insulation (foam)on the sides of the windows where it’s “open” and then putting up clear plastic film and affixing it all over the window to literally seal it. We’ve done two rounds of that on some windows that get a lot of wind (we face the water–the good news and bad news).

    We do the same for our one AC unit since it can’t come out. It’s a very improvised method because no sealing kit actually works. But if we do it right, we’ve prevented major air leaks.

    We then switch out one set of curtains to a much heavier set (with an insulated back), which we can close.

    When it gets VERY cold and windy, we have an old comforter that we’ve fashioned into a window “drape” and that goes over the windows in the coldest room (bedroom).

    FYI: We always have one window unsealed to get fresh air. When it gets cold, we do a temporary seal or cover it with the heavier curtain.

    And the window always stays a bit open in the kitchen.

    We also keep scarves and sweaters and warm house “boots” around to put on when it gets too cold, which isn’t often.

    The easiest thing to do at times is just do more stuff in the living room (Our office is in the bedroom) and we sometimes sleep in there if it gets too cold in the bedroom. (Which happens even with heat and window insulation.)

    It feels silly wearing a scarf or hat at times, but what are you gonna do? I suspect it’s a lot colder in many homes around the U.S., especially the older ones with poor insulation.

    We’re also huge tea drinkers and that hot tea really helps. Just holding a hot mug is great at times.

    The trickiest part is staying warm in the bathroom, because it can get mighty cold. We have big, thick terrycloth robes that really help.

    They say there is no global warming, but it’s been years since we’ve needed our insulated “underwear” (I can still remember wearing it under dressy clothes at the theater. A good thing I did; it was freezing.)

    The upside of a city surrounded by water is that weather is, for the most part, mitigated. And when it gets damp and cold, we heat up these special “wraps” for our neck, body and hands and feet. Really great (aromatic and warm) if you don’t have anyone around to snuggle with!

  12. kristine says:

    I’d like to add: flannel PJs, and micro-fleece sheet sets. If you do not like the feel of the micro-fleece (a superb insulator), then just put a flannel sheet over it! Mattress pad plus micro-fleece, plus flannel sheets plus flannel PJs equals keep the heat at 55 and be toasty anyway!

    And I will try the fleece hat.

  13. Johanna says:

    I’ll add: Don’t sit still for too long. Get up and walk around the house every so often, find some chores to do that get you moving, or (if nobody’s watching) put on some music and do a little dance. This works really well for me, anyway – I spent an annoying few days without heat a few weeks ago, and I was amazed at how I could be huddled under a blanket and still shivering, yet as soon as I got up to do some vacuuming I was nice and warm in no time.

  14. Rosa says:

    other tips: Exercise! When my fingers start getting cold, I get up and do 15 minutes on the treadmill or play Dance Dance Revolution for 15 minutes. The blood flow is good for your brain, too.

    And go outside! Our house never feels so warm as the first half hour after we come in from a snowy day. I walk my son to daycare in the morning, and that makes our 55 degree house seem positively balmy in winter. It also helps your body acclimate in general.

  15. Rosa Rugosa says:

    We love our electric mattress pad and flannel sheets! The mattress pad has not made a noticeable difference in our electric bill, and our bed welcomes us like a warm hug on a chilly night.

  16. Bookaunt says:

    We are great fans of rice bags, but take the easy (lazy) route in making them. I pour 1-2 pounds of cheap white rice into a singleton cotton athletic sock (left over after its mate has either disappeared in the wash or developed a hole), then fasten the sock with a rubber band and tie the end in a knot. I often double bag the sock just in case I missed seeing any small holes through which the rice might leak. For our microwave it takes 1-3 minutes to heat it to the desired temperature – depending on the size of the rice bag and how hot we want it.

  17. Brittany says:

    Add some whole cloves to the rice when you’re sewing up for heat bag… adds to the cost a bit, but smells wonderful when you heat it up!

    Especially like tip number 8! Snuggling with friends and family is the best way to spend chilly winter evenings.

  18. Ryan says:

    Your furnace is set up to optimally heat your entire house. By closing off one of the rooms, you will force your furnace to overwork which won’t really save you much money and it could shorten the life of your furnace.

    Closing the vents is kind of like an old wives tale. It makes sense in your head, but when it really comes down to doing it… it’s not a good idea.

  19. Treva says:

    I didn’t see it in your list, but wear layers. I used to live in a warmer, humid area of VA. Now I’m in Indiana. Big climate difference to say the least. Around the house I wear a cami and long sleeve t-shirt or turtleneck. If I get chilly, I’ll put a sweater on over that. Building thin layers seems to work best and it keeps that bulky feeling away.

    I completely agree about the thick socks. My husband just got me 3 new pair as part of my birthday presents and they are so cozy! I’m not big on tea, but I love decaf coffee, so we’ve upped our intake on that as well.

  20. Daina says:

    When I lived alone in an apartment (where the temperature never dropped below 50 because of the heat in the adjoining apartments), I was able to turn the heat completely off at night once I got a super-warm sleeping bag — the kind made for camping in the winter. It was so toasty at night, but oh, so hard to get out of bed in the morning when the apartment was chilly!

    Am also a fan of the warm socks and the long johns. :~)

  21. Jane says:

    I used to live in England, and I have to tell you that no form of warming device (rice, gel, etc.) holds a candle to the warmth you get from a traditional hot water bottle. They are actually hard to find in this country. Somehow they think only geriatric patients want them here, but if you can find one (I did on e-bay), invest in one! If you make the water hot enough (I pour it in boiling even though they say not to), it will still be warm well into the night at the foot of your bed. I fill it after my son goes to bed (they really aren’t safe with children around), and use it in my lap all evening. And I second the thick socks. It makes a huge difference.

    With the oven, once I am done, I open it and let the rest of the heat go into the kitchen. This is a little tricky with kids (we have a gate to keep him out of the kitchen), but if you leave your oven closed after you’re finished, you’re not getting the full benefit of the heat you already paid for.

  22. ChrisD says:

    there’s no better way to stay warm in the winter at home than to wear thick socks.
    Agreed, it used to really annoy me when my brother and sister wore jeans and a t-shirt, but no socks and no jumper in winter, and then switched the fire on because they were cold.
    Re rice in bags, traditionally my mother’s family used bags of cherry stones and she still prefers them to other grains).

  23. Kevin M says:

    I’ll second Johanna’s comment…get up and move around – don’t just park in front of the TV all night.

    Our second story doesn’t get nearly as warm as the first (isn’t hot air supposed to rise?) so I’ve started wearing scrub pants and socks to bed – it definitely helps.

    Also, after you’re done using the oven – leave the door open and let the heat filter into the house. We used to do this in our old 800 sq ft home and it made a huge difference.

  24. Bavaria says:

    Learn to knit….and make a fuzzy, little scarf or neck gaitor. With such a small project, you can splurge and buy some yarn that is warm and luxurious such as mohair, merino, or cashmere. Since the neck is highly vascularized, keeping it warm makes a big difference.
    Also, eat spicy food. It’s hard to feel cold after a meal of Indian curry, Kung Pao chicken, or Hot and Sour soup, and all can be easily made at home.

  25. Dana Booth says:

    nice post. thanks for the reminder of thick socks :) never thought about the hot water bottle in the bed either. Living in a house w/too expensive baseboard heat (so we don’t use it) and thus heating with one portable heater and the fireplace, we can use all the suggestions you can come up with :)

  26. Lenore says:

    Here in St. Louis, we spend much of the summer complaining, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” On the converse, moisture in the air makes a house feel warmer and is great for skin and hair. We don’t have room or want to spend money for a humidifier, so we follow some tips from my Aunt Ruby who survived the Depression. We frequently cook soups, stews and chili on the stovetop and leave an old pan with water on a burner while it cools down. Containers of water set near heat vents evaporate slowly and give our pets more opportunities to drink. (Did you know the wide-sleeved robes of ancient China were used to stow pet dogs as hand warmers? When my cats sleep at the foot of the bed, who needs a hot water bottle?) When taking a shower, we stop up the tub and leave the curtain open afterwards so the moist heat can circulate. We never use the drying function on our dishwasher, propping the door open instead so we can reap all that steam. Hanging some clothes to dry adds a little water vapor to the air and saves money running the clothes dryer. Rubbing lotion into my hands and feet seems to make them feel warmer, either by improving circulation or helping them retain body heat.

    We keep our heat set at 68 most of the winter and pay $100 a month to power our 800-square feet house. I don’t know how people can function with their house temperature in the 50s, but I admire them for their resilience. Wearing hats inside the house makes a huge difference in comfort, and my bald boyfriend even sleeps in a stocking cap. I’m addicted to fuzzy booties and sleeved blankets, and I use pillows to block drafts when I’m near a window.

  27. jonnyzbabe says:

    I second the use/purchase of a heated mattress pad!!

    I got one a few years ago for $20-$30 and it was well worth the investment. We turn it on when we come up to bed – then by the time you’ve brushed your teeth and gotten ready, the bed is nice and toasty. You can set the temp – but we mostly use low – and it automatically goes off after 5hrs (I think). But the awesome part is that it’s warmer at the bottom (near your toes) than at the head end. Having the heat under you instead of over you (like an electric blanket)where it easily disapates into the air I think also makes a big difference.

  28. Johanna says:

    Another thing for staying warm at night: get a comforter/duvet/blanket that’s bigger than the bed you have. The extra “seal” you get around the edges really does make a difference. I used to sleep in a full size bed with a queen size comforter, and it was nice and warm. Now I have a queen bed and the same comforter, and it’s a bit more of a balancing act to arrange everything so that I’m not letting in drafts from all sides.

  29. I often sip hot tea when I am in front of the pc in the morning… But after a quarter of an hour it’s already cold… I have to drink it quickly.

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