No heating this winter: What now?
September 23, 2008 5:10 AM   Subscribe

How do I keep warm this winter in an unheated apartment?

This winter I'll be living in Connecticut in an unheated house. My room is about 15 x 10 feet with a drafty window and a sky light; the apartment is large (2 floors, 2 bathrooms, four large bedrooms, a dining room, a very large family room & very large kitchen, and I share it with 3 other people. The building is pretty old and not particularly well-insulated; the decision not to have heating this winter is because evidently they paid a mint in central heating last winter just to keep the house in the 50s.

I've purchased a fancy-looking space heater and I have a good down comforter and wool blanket. I'm fine with dressing warmly. What else should I be doing to keep not only my room but the apartment, bathroom, etc. livable?
posted by MaddyRex to Home & Garden (42 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Can you get a heat lamp for the bathroom? Those post-shower moments are going to be cold.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:26 AM on September 23, 2008

Seal up all of the windows. First, fill the cracks with that gray putty that isn't permanent like caulk; then cover the whole thing with window film and go to town with a hair dryer to tighten it up (SO FUN).

Please, please be careful with your space heater; aside from the fire risk, I've heard of a few cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. I know it's one of your better options, but I worry about people falling asleep while using them.
posted by Madamina at 5:32 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

You are going to be spending an enormous amount for electricity, it sounds like.

If your room doesn't have heat when you're not there, it's going to get dank. Your bedding and clothes are all going to be moist and .... cold. You could get an electric blanket, and keep the space heater going all the time, but that's expensive.

What are you going to do when the power goes out?
posted by reflecked at 5:33 AM on September 23, 2008

I lived in a large unheated flat for three winters and the best thing I came across was clear shrink-wrap for windows. You tape all around the inside of the pane and apply sheets of polythene wrap. You then blast the wrap with a hairdryer (much fun!) and it seals up the window keeping drafts out for winter. You can't open the windows while it's up so you might want to leave out the sky light to let air in from time to time. It was a bit tricky to put up the first time but it kept the heat in a treat.

I'm in the UK so not sure where you'd get it over there but here's a random link to explain what I'm on about.
posted by freya_lamb at 5:36 AM on September 23, 2008

This winter I'll be living in Connecticut in an unheated house... the decision not to have heating this winter is because evidently they paid a mint in central heating last winter just to keep the house in the 50s.

I don't think "they" have thought this through very well. You keep warm this winter by finding another apartment.
posted by Kwantsar at 5:36 AM on September 23, 2008 [13 favorites]

Gah, on preview Madamina beat me to it.
posted by freya_lamb at 5:38 AM on September 23, 2008

P.s. The oil-heater looks fine, I had one of these - they're really safe and do generate a fair bit of heat.
posted by freya_lamb at 5:40 AM on September 23, 2008

the decision not to have heating this winter is because evidently they paid a mint in central heating last winter just to keep the house in the 50s.

who's decision is this? who is they? your landlord is required by law to provide you with a working heating system

that said, insulate all your windows with plastic & heavy curtains, get thick rugs for the floors & find some cheap wool blankets for the walls - shut down & seal any & all rooms you might not need - also, unless you find the light from the skylight to be indispensable, you should seal it up plastic & plywood - otherwise all the heat in your room is going to sail right up & out

lastly, do alot of baking - this will help keep the kitchen nice & toasty
posted by jammy at 5:43 AM on September 23, 2008

err.. with plastic & plywood, that is - you can ditch the plywood suggestion & just double/triple layer the plastic if you really want the light to still come in
posted by jammy at 5:46 AM on September 23, 2008

and umm.. make that "whose decision is this?"

posted by jammy at 5:48 AM on September 23, 2008

This is a dumb idea, for Connecticut. No heat in that latitude means no running water, because the pipes freeze. No running water means no flushing the toilet. It's not going to be livable.
posted by jon1270 at 5:49 AM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

If your apartment is cold and expensive to heat because of it's large, open layout and poor insulation, it's going to be cold and expensive to heat no matter what methods you use. Not turning on the central heat is a terrible, terrible, terrible idea and not only will it not save you any money, it will also inevitably lead to frozen plumbing pipes and the associated bursts and flooding. Furthermore, it will be your fault since you neglected to turn on the heat, so say goodbye to your entire security deposit.

Seal up the windows as suggested, close off vents in rooms that you don't use, dress warm, and accept that you can't afford to be toasty warm all winter, which it seems you've already done, and you'll be fine.
posted by coryinabox at 5:49 AM on September 23, 2008

It really doesn't sound good. Ideally, you'll want to insulate no matter what else you try. Use the window film mentioned by Madamina. Check the seal on doors.

For you own comfort, sleep in a warm hat and nice wool socks. It'll make a big difference. So do nice slippers.

For safety's sake check all your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.

If you are renting, know your rights. In Connecticut, your landlord could be arrested
posted by advicepig at 5:50 AM on September 23, 2008

Watch out for pipes bursting in the winter? Burst pipes are not very fun, and if they paid a mint to keep it in the fifties, I'm guessing you're getting below freezing enough for this to be a concern.

I'd personally try to convince them to think again about not paying for heat. Work to seal off drafts and insulate the best you can. Plastic up the windows, get draft stoppers for the doors, check your furnace/boiler and the filters. Make sure things are working right, and make sure your house has as few holes for the heat to get out as possible.

A space heater, like others said, will replace the high gas bills with high electric bills.
posted by that girl at 5:55 AM on September 23, 2008

I lived in a large, unheated loft for a few years. In addition to the recommended plastic wrap on the windows and space heaters, I set up my small dome tent and a sleeping bag. At night, when you're not creating a lot of heat through movement, it really helped. I'm a woman, but several guy friends who were in the same situation also set up portable pee-catchers (uh, 2 liter soda bottles) so they didn't have to get too far out of bed at night to pee.

A Terrible Llama is right that post-shower will be miserable. Rugs or other soft floor coverings in as many paces as you can afford them will do a lot psychologically, and a little actually, to make you feel warmer.
posted by cocoagirl at 5:56 AM on September 23, 2008

I live in CT, and have to second the people telling you that the pipes will freeze and burst. I have had a pipe freeze in an uninsulated spot in a house that was being kept at at least 60 degrees. If the pipes then burst, then the apartment will go from being unlivable, which it will be without heat, to UNLIVABLE.

If this were one unheated room in a house that was otherwise being at least minimally heated, then the strategies you are considering might get you through an uncomfortable winter. But if, as you say, the whole house will be left unheated, then this simply won't work.
posted by MsElaineous at 6:03 AM on September 23, 2008

Whoa, it sounds like you are only one step away from living in a yurt! And the yurt might be a step up!

You really need to find another solution. Whatever you "save" on living with no heat will be spent on your first of many plumber visits. Homess people squat in buildings like yours, and they cover up with newspapers and cardboard, and sleep in winter coats and hats. Sure you might be able to stay warm enough to sleep with a sleeping bag, electric blanket, space heater, etc., but that place will never be warm enough to actually live in.

All I can suggest is what's already been suggested. But to keep it warm enough for life, you will need a lot of space heaters, and those will cost as much to run as central heat.

Try sealing everything up as suggested above, and then use the central heat. It can make a dramatic difference in the heating bill.

Or, better, move. I'd rather live in a one-room hovel with heat than a bigger place without.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 6:11 AM on September 23, 2008

I've just moved to London from Australia so this whole central heating thing is a bit new to me. But if you just want to save a bit of money I woudl have thought, with GOOD INSULATION, curtains and sealing windows, doors - etc. then you could turn the Central heat Down to Low, or on just for X hours a Day, to keep the house livable but not run up an excessive bill?

oh and frozen pipes sounds bad (we don't get them in London. it generally doesn't even snow here)
posted by mary8nne at 6:28 AM on September 23, 2008

Nthing the burst pipes warning. Heating your little living pod won't do anything to warm the pipes in the rest of the house, and your area of the country does get cold enough for this. According to this page at, the usual temperature threshold is 20 degrees F. If the outside temperature drops below this value, you will almost certainly see burst pipes.

Whoever owns or rents the house has to bite the bullet and heat the place at least 40 degrees F. Then use the tricks suggested above to warm your room to a tolerable level. I live and work in a well-insulated new townhouse in Toronto that I almost never heat, and I find that after a few days of shivering in early winter, I can adapt well to room temperatures in the low 60s while wearing jeans and a t-shirt. If I was willing to dress more warmly, I think I could function well in the 50s. All bets would be off if the place dropped to the 40s.

If you work at home, you can try putting plastic on the windows, but keep your blinds open on any window or skylight when it gets a few hours of direct sunlight, covering all windows and skylights when the direct sun goes away. Obviously, if you work out of the house, this isn't going to work.

For safety's sake, preheat your bathroom for about 30 minutes, then TAKE OUT THE SPACE HEATER before you have your shower.
posted by maudlin at 6:32 AM on September 23, 2008

I live in CT and I cringe every time I get an electrical bill. The rates are beyond ridiculous. This may be far more expensive than you plan.
posted by smackfu at 6:47 AM on September 23, 2008

I think you need to have a chat with your future roommates. What constitutes "a mint" ? I live in Michigan in a nearly century old house with all the insulation and drafty problems you describe and even when my 20 year old furnace was on it's last inefficient leg (truly: in it's last month of life in a frosty November it was running at around 20 percent efficiency) I was paying $300 a month or so to heat the house. In the depths of January with the temp in the single digits and a new furnace I only paid around $200 to keep a 2500+ sqf house in the 70s.

But I'll second some advice already given: find a new place to live, your future roomies sound like goons.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 6:47 AM on September 23, 2008

Sounds uncomfortable, but could be an interesting experiment. Seconding the suggestion that the house will have to have minimal heat or the pipes will freeze and burst.
posted by electroboy at 6:49 AM on September 23, 2008

Another thought: call your utility company and get on "balanced billing" or whatever it's called there. They will spread out the estimated annual bill over 12 months, which will make it more managable. During winter, you'll be paying less than your actual bill, but it will catch up over the warmer months.

Also, most states have a program where you can apply for assistance with your heating bill, right through the utility company. Don't automatically think you don't qualify. I qualified one winter when I had a good-paying job, but I lived in an old, big house, and my daughter had some unusually high medical expenses.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 7:03 AM on September 23, 2008

I am from Connecticut. Why in the HELL have your roommates decided to forgo heat? What are they, HEADLESS???

seriously, this is a seriously dumb idea. They would be better served sealing up window cracks and doorjamb cracks and cutting down on the need for heat that way rather than doing away with it altogether.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:05 AM on September 23, 2008

That's good that you bought a space hater. Now try some footsie pajamas.
posted by thetenthstory at 7:07 AM on September 23, 2008

Not heating is a _terrible_ idea. Move somewhere warm if you don't want to pay for heat. Barring your decision to move out...

Normally a shower curtain doesn't go all the way up to the ceiling. Hot air rises. Buy some plastic sheeting and tack it to the wall immediately above the curtain to seal in all that warm, steamy goodness. If your shower is hot enough, getting out into a cold room isn't so bad. Also, if it's a bathtub and not a shower stall, plug the drain so that all that nice warm water stays in the tub. Let it drain once the water is down to room temperature.

Of course, this suggestion is moot if you're genuinely not heating AT ALL, since your pipes will burst. You'll need to make sure the water is turned off before the cold hits, so you won't be bathing unless it's with water that you've heated on the stove.

You're heating with body heat, whatever your water heater and space heater kick out, and sunlight, so make the space you're heating smaller. Block off ANY non-functional space with plastic sheeting and duct tape. IE, if you can move your stuff in from the wall by 4 feet, turn that 4 feet into a big sealed air void.

Electric blankets are nice and all, but what you REALLY want is an electric mattress pad on a timer. Have it set up so that the bed is preheated for when you get in. Even if the house is at 68-72, the mattress pad is a ridiculously awesome luxury.
posted by paanta at 7:18 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seriously, your pipes will freeze. Your landlord may hold you responsible. You really have to keep the heat close to 50 to keep pipes from freezing. Or, get heating tape, and use it to heat the pipes; not actually a great plan, just less bad than frozen pipes.

Your electric space heater will not produce carbon monoxide. It will suck electricity like crazy. Bathroom - make absolutely certain the landlord has installed GFCI outlets; they're required by every state, AFAIK. That way, the electric heater is a lot less likely to electrocute you.

The dome tent is a great idea for providing a small area of warmth in a bigger space. Electric blankets provide great spot heat. Get a serious down or down-alternative quilt. Make lots of soups and tea, wear a hat, long underwear, wool sweaters and fingerless gloves.
posted by theora55 at 7:25 AM on September 23, 2008

You can wrap the pipes with insulation but if this winter was anything like last, welcome to Pipeburstytown, population you. Having lived in a big ol' house in Boston where our pipes froze regularly even WITH heat, I gotta say you're really asking for it.

General toastyness advice: keep your core warm. Haramaki = good. Wool sweaters, particularly cabled ones (the cables are lofty and trap more air in, which heats up and locks in). Wool hat and socks (I am in love with these ones -- put these on top of those for twice the toasty). Stretchy gloves that are supercheap early in the season at Target with fingerless gloves on top. And super-nthing the electric mattress pad and electric blanket. I used to LIVE under my electric blanket in my horribly-heated college apartment of leaky-window doom.
posted by at 7:57 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Piling on with the burst pipes warning. Not turning on the heat at all is a terrible, terrible idea. If your roommates insist, get out. Seriously. The monetary damage caused by burst pipes makes the cost of heating a drafty house in CT look like pocket change. The landlord is going to at least try to hold you responsible for it to the tune of more than your deposit. Also, check your lease -- it may be expressly forbidden to not heat the house.

If your roommates are all running electric heaters, brace yourself for the electricity bill, too. Not to mention that someone's going to score an old secondhand space heater from Craigslist that's lousy at energy efficiency.

Electric mattress pads are divine for under-heated rooms -- not much electricity to keep you warm while you sleep. Also plastic insulation for the windows, hot water bottles, polarfleece, exercise, electric radiator, caulking up cracks, etc.
posted by desuetude at 8:20 AM on September 23, 2008

Just a word of warning. I did have a Delonghi oil radiator very similar to yours that spontaneously started on fire a few years ago. I like them and have bought another one but do not use it while sleeping or whenever you aren't nearby.
posted by JJ86 at 8:23 AM on September 23, 2008

I've purchased a fancy-looking space heater and I have a good down comforter and wool blanket. I'm fine with dressing warmly. What else should I be doing to keep not only my room but the apartment, bathroom, etc. livable?

What everyone else said, first of all.

What you need to do is not so much think about how to keep the place liveable but how to keep yourself alive during the winter, because you're really dealing with a survivalist mentality here. I've lived in your situation during a winter in Seattle and that was hard enough. Things you will need to keep in mind

- space heaters are less efficient than central heating, so you may not save much in electricity. If this is a personal responsibility thing, you and your roommates will have to argue over who gets to heat the space under the sink in the kitchen to keep the pipes form freezing and exploding. A heating bill will look cheap compared to a plumbing bill
- you don't say if you are renting/owning. There are legal responsibilities as far as heat for an owner as well as for a renter. I just had to drag out the old landlord/tenant law to get my landlady to turn on the heat because it's 50 outside. Connecticut can get seventy degrees colder that than. You will have to seriously consider frostbite and chillblains in a heatless house in February
- solar - make sure all wondows have insulated curtains and go around opening and closing them with the sun. Pray for good sunlight and south-facing exposure.
- if you own, have you thought about putting in a woodstove? Having one location with heat can make chilly bedrooms that much more manageable. Similarly, you can always insulate the hell out of the one room with the thermostat, turn on the central heat a little and just have that room be the one main heated room.
- get an office and/or a gym membership so you can be warm part of the day and/or shower somewhere where it's not 40 degrees. Taking cold extremeties [fingers and toes] from being super cold into hot water can make capilaries burst and make your fingers and toes feel like they've got poison ivy. Be very careful about how you warm up. Again, heating bills may be cheaper than doctor bills
- Cook a lot. The oven and stovetop produce heat and can be used to keep the kitchen at a bearable temperature if you're making stews, soups, breads and other long cook/slow cook items.

I do not know if you have ever lived in Connecticut before, have lived someplace unheated before, or have even lived in your own place before but let me tell you that this course of action is not just going to make you oncomfortable, it could also make you sick and possibly broke. You haven't given us enough information to know exactly why you are doing this, btu I can say if it were me, I'd be getting an office or a significant other and staying the hell out of that place until the thaw. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 8:25 AM on September 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm a CT resident and if you're renting, it's definitely illegal for the landlord not to provide heat.

Also ditto the comments about pipes bursting.
posted by reptile at 8:47 AM on September 23, 2008

This has got to be illegal. I live in MA and I know not providing heat here if you have renters definitely is illegal; I can't imagine it would be different in CT.

It gets very cold in the winter in New England. Temperatures go below zero, especially at night. This is not safe for you or for anybody living there. Like others have said, there's a really good chance the pipes will burst. If the place is as drafty as it sounds, you risk exposure to cold air and cold winds. Wearing an extra sweater with an extra-warm blanket is not going to help if the temperature inside the house is freezing, or below freezing. Space heaters can only do so much. Have you ever lived through a New England winter before? It is difficult even when you have central heating. It snows a lot - which is another concern if the house is not well-insulated. It could snow inside the house.

I would strongly urge you to not live in this place and to find other accommodations. It doesn't just get chilly in the wintertime - it gets very cold. Below 0 cold sometimes. it is dangerous to live in such conditions.
posted by sutel at 9:06 AM on September 23, 2008

I don't get the impression that they are not provided with heat - just that they don't want to pay for it and as I beleve most Americans overdo it with heating and air conditioning anyway good for you for attempting this. It will be a test of your households resolve though when it gets really cold and all you need to do is turn on the heat.

Preparation prior to the winter months will be key, so repeating what others have said: Seal the windows and doors, create a barrier between the 1st and 2nd floor. Rugs on any bare floors and window coverings. Utilize any windows that face the east / west as a heat source. I also found these items that could help with the pipe problems.

Finally, the average annual temperature for Connecticut, Just so you can plan ahead.

From Oakland, CA where the average winter months temperature is in the low 60s.
posted by pianomover at 9:49 AM on September 23, 2008

I'm a landlord, and I wouldn't dare let someone live in an unheated house. If I had a tenant who turned off the heat, I would evict them.

Whoever owns or rents the house has to bite the bullet and heat the place at least 40 degrees F.

The law usually sets the minimum temperature around 60F. Below that, and hypothermia can be an issue for older adults, children, or the ill.

Additionally, keeping the house below a certain temperature means that the recirculated air hits the furnace with a greater differential. Most new furnaces have a warranty that is violated by running below a temperature in the 50F-55F range. (This could be an issue if you have a weekend cabin, for example.) By the same token, the reason for the warranty is that you can get a cracked manifold, which can both dramatically reduce the efficiency of the furnace AND allow carbon monoxide to escape into the airflow. As you can imagine, this can be deadly.

Space heaters in an unheated building will have to run 24/7. It is likely that your space heaters are not rated for this and you will overtax the heating elements and/or the electrical system. Heaters have oversized, short cords for a reason -- they heat up more due to the heavy load. Ultimately this can increase the risk of a fire.

Do not do this.

(If you're having trouble paying for the heat, see if your utility will allow a monthly plan to spread out the winter payments over a longer period. Many let you sign up in the fall for such plans.)
posted by dhartung at 9:59 AM on September 23, 2008

I have done this in North Carolina before.

It is a seriously stupid idea.

But if you must-hopefully you have a microwave. Get one of those tube thingees filled with rice or corn, heat in microwave, and take it to bed with you.

But regardless-stupid, stupid, stupid idea.

I don't recommend it.
posted by konolia at 11:31 AM on September 23, 2008

Nthing that this is an idiotic ridiculous idea and one you will regret.

Assuming you are in the warmest part of the state which is probably Greenwich (on the coast and part of the New York megalopolis) the *average* daytime high is 36 degrees F and the *average* night-time low is 21 degrees F. You could get lucky if it is a warm winter. But assuming temperature variability from average of just fifteen degrees, which is not unreasonable, you will be confronted with nights of 6F. That basically will mean, as others have said, no water, frozen pipes, burst pipes sanitary issues, death, space heaters suffocating you or catching on fire - Jeez, this is a palpably bad idea.

Space heaters get knocked over catch fire and kill poor families all the time in cold areas. Seriously they are dangerous.
posted by xetere at 11:48 AM on September 23, 2008

Regarding the sleeping arrangements, just get a really good comforter or sleeping bag and you'll be fine. When I was living in Saskatchewan, I used to close the door to my bedroom and open the window about an inch or so in the middle of winter. When I'd wake up in the morning the temperature in the room was usually in the -5 to -10 range and it didn't bother me at all while I was asleep, since I did have good blankets. However, others have raised the point about what will happen to the rest of the house if you adopt a similar posture throughout, and that will be expensive really fast. Not to mention unless you like moving around under a blanket all day in the remainder of the house, it'll suck.
posted by barc0001 at 11:50 AM on September 23, 2008

Whoa. Well, thanks for the suggestions/dire warnings. My impression was that it was a bad idea in general but this definitely confirms it. Looks like I'm in for a talk with the roommates and also some makeshift window & floor insulation.
posted by MaddyRex at 12:41 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've slept in an uninsulated shack in January in NH. I slept inside two sleeping bags, long underwear, sweatpants, socks, two or three shirts, a hat, and mittens. I kept my alarm clock inside the inner bag so it wouldn't freeze.

I woke up one morning so.cold. It was 27 below outside (and inside). It was not a sustainable way to live.

So, nthing everyone else that you can't/shouldn't do this.
posted by rtha at 7:34 PM on September 23, 2008

I've lied in two unheated places, one in Brooklyn and one in northern Indiana, and I wouldn't do it again if I had any sort of choice. AAAAND they both actually had some sort of heat - one woodburning cookstove in the kitchen in Indiana, ONE itsy-bitsy, terrifying, natural gas burner attached to the wall in the 7 room apartment with broken windows in Brooklyn.

Now, I suspect your roommates are exaggerating and that they actually got charged a ton for keeping the place at, you know, 68. So, if this year y'all DO actually keep the heat just high enough to keep it in the 50's, cover windows, weatherstrip everything, embrace the blanket, sweater, silk long underwear lifestyle and you'll be OK. But no heat at all? No way.
posted by dirtdirt at 1:28 PM on September 30, 2008

Let me just reiterate how horrible an idea turning the heat off completely is. You will have burst pipes and other nastiness.

Sure, keep it in the low 60s or high 50s, and wear long undies. Sure, go out of your way to insulate the windows. But for goodness sake, don't turn off the heat completely.
posted by Alterscape at 11:34 AM on May 18, 2009

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