Heat is expensive!
January 3, 2009 7:50 PM   Subscribe

My heating bill is about twice as much as my downstairs neighbors'. What's going on, and what can I do to mitigate the cost?

I live in a multifamily house on the second floor. My gas bill was $240 last month, twice that of my downstairs neighbors. Even with the differences in the apartments (enumerated below), this seems ridiculous. I left a message for the landlord to talk about it, but I would like to know two things - what should I ask her to look at, and what can I do to the apartment to insulate it better?

Some data points:

-Replacement windows were installed a year or two before I moved in, but they're very drafty. I can feel a breeze while sitting on the couch.
-There are lots of doors to the apartment. Two doors to the unheated stairway (one is sealed but not insulated around the jamb), one to the front balcony, and one in the kitchen to the (also unheated) back staircase. None of them seem terribly well insulated. Downstairs only has two doors, one main entrance and a door to the backyard.
-Downstairs only uses one of the two bedrooms. They've turned off the radiator to the guest room.
-Downstairs also has doors in the doorways that go to the back half of the apartment, which they keep closed. The kitchen is in the back and is unheated. The previous tenants in my place removed the doors and hardware.
-The heat is natural gas with radiators (unsure what type, but they do hiss and spit a lot).
-Downstairs also replaced their thermostat with a programmable model. I only have the manual round dial type that requires me to remember to turn the heat down.
-I keep the heat at about 68 when I'm in the apartment and 60-ish at night and when I go to work.
-Both apartments use the same model boiler and same basic heating setup.
-There is a third apartment above mine that uses electric baseboard heaters (I think). There's no boiler for upstairs.
-The apartment is two bedrooms, maybe 700-800 square feet. Lots of windows - 6 plus two doors in the living room alone.

With all that, does it seem there's enough of a difference between the two apartments to warrant such a huge discrepancy in heating costs? Is it reasonable to ask the landlord to seal up the windows? Could the thermostat be broken? How can I seal the doors to the apartment?

Also, I realize this is paranoid but is it at all possible that the upstairs apartment is leeching heat from my boiler? How can I tell if that's the case?

This is my first winter in this apartment, and the first place I haven't had heat included in the rent, so I really have no idea what I should be paying on my gas bill.
posted by backseatpilot to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well where is the breeze coming from? Are the windows improperly installed? Defective? Run your hand (or cheek for more sensitivity) around the windows. Wherever cold air is blowing in, your landlord (or as it might be more likely to turn out, you) should fix. Blowing cold air is the enemy here - a few tubes of caulking or some weatherstripping would be a very small investment compared to $240. Uninsulated attic/ceiling is the other enemy, but you can't fix that yourself so easily.
posted by fritley at 8:07 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Every time I've moved, my dad has harangued me about the heat and hot water setup in the new place. A friend of his in college evidently rented in a situation similar to yours, and while the different units were heated separately, only one boiler heated the hot water for the whole building. It turned out that the friend's bill factored in not only his heat but also the hot water heater for all of his neighbors. You might want to look into that.
posted by phunniemee at 8:09 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think everything could be legit. It sounds like downstairs is heating significantly less space, and the programmable thermostat saves a surprising amount of money. One thought: are common areas (stairwells, etc) heated? If so, who's paying for that? I once had a three story hallway and outside lights on my electric bill, and those items doubled my bill. I got the landlord to give me a rent credit.
posted by robinpME at 8:15 PM on January 3, 2009

I'm a total pest about heat costs, but I was paying a lot more than that when I was heating a drafty [admittedly large] house last winter, and I kept the heat at 62 all the time. I've usually got absentee landlords so my advice is centered around DIY stuff....

- plastic up your windows, especially the drafty ones, using that window plastic, consider getting some of that window putty stuff if the windows are leaky enough to be drafty. Consider putting up curtains
- get weather stripping for every door that goes to someplace unheated, think about getting some little pillow things to put under the doors for extra heat sealing
- consider putting up a curtain between the front and back of the apartment, so you can keep the heat where you want it and you're not reheating air that is cooling off as it migrates to colder parts of the house.
- consider asking for a programmable thermostat, it's a huge money saver and you can set it to be extra cold when you're not home [I keep mine at 55 when I'm away for days and/or when I'm dead asleep, ymmv if you have pets] and they're generally easy to install
- pay special attention to where the thermostat is and consider getting some little thermometers for other parts of the house. Even if a lot of your house is decently air tight, if the thermostat room/wall is leaky it's going to keep chugging along.
- you can use a candle to check for drafts too, pretty simple
- Do your downstairs tenants keep their place at 68? It's possible they're seeing such a savings because they're keeping the heat at 64 and wearing a scarf. Not saying you should do that but cost differences COULD be due to differences in temperature preference. I keep my place at 64.

Let me know if you don't know what any of these things are that I mention. TRo my mind your heating bill doesn't sound crazy, just a little high and probably lowerable.
posted by jessamyn at 8:31 PM on January 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

We once had an incredible 3 bedroom apartment - or it WAS incredible until the winter. This was a duplex style apartment building, and we were on top of an identical unit below us. We had identical heating systems, and that was verified by the gas company. We both used radiator heat. We had the exact same newer windows. Their gas bill during winter months? $132.00. Ours, for almost 10 degrees less on the thermostat? $500. I'm not joking. I chalked it up to insulation, and the landlord refused to do anything about it. 2 heating specialists and the gas company verified multiple times that the heating system was in working order and that the meter was not malfunctioning. If you're living in an old place, drastic differences in heating bills can be expected. We moved out.
posted by theantikitty at 8:50 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I replaced a dial thermostat with a programmable one recenlty. I paid less than $40 for it at Home Depot, and the installation took about 45 minutes, going slow and triple-checking the directions. The only tools I needed were a screwdriver and a small pair of pliers. My utilities are a fraction of the cost you are paying, and even so I expect this thermostat to pay for itself quickly not only because I can no longer accidentally leave the heat on all day, but also because my old dial thermostat was a little bit erratic and not accurate. With your utility prices, a programmable thermostat should be a no-brainer.
posted by Forktine at 8:57 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I once lived on the first floor apartment of a three-apartment multifamily. That winter, my heating bill was ridiculously low - something like $60 a month or something (and I live in Boston). People in the second and third floor apartments asked us what we were paying, and were shocked, because they were paying $150 (second floor) and $250 (third floor).

Now, the whole building was very old, and not maintained well at all, so there is that. However, our guess was that because all three apartments shared the same boiler and pipes, the first floor apartment was getting the benefit of everyone's heat as it traveled up from the basement through the building up to the third floor. The same pipes that delivered our heat in the first floor apartment also provided the heat (to travel up) to the second and third floor apartments. Every time they turned up their heat, we on the first floor were the partial recipients, if that makes sense. So we could keep our heat pretty low and the apartment was still pretty warm.

I don't know if there is any scientific basis to that at all, but the shared pipes thing was our best guess.
posted by sutel at 8:58 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The other thing to think about (though it may be a long shot) is cooking gas. I cooked a lot during Thanksgiving, and my gas bill was quite high, even though we had the heat on for only a few days of a cold spell. That bill was $113.

As an aside, setting your heat at 68 seems really high to me, though I tend to have a higher tolerance for cold than others. We keep our programmable thermostat at 58 when we're awake/home and 55-57 at night/away. We have a space heater (made by vornado) that we use to heat up only the rooms we are occupying at any given moment, which of course increases our electricity bill, but it hasn't been bad so far - about 15-20% increase in the bill.

Thinking about it more, $240 just doesn't seem that much considering the circumstances you've listed.
posted by anthropoid at 9:06 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

jessamyn's advice above is dead on: you're renting a large, drafty space with little insulation where it counts, like your windows and doors etc.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:33 PM on January 3, 2009

Single best thing you can do, and easy too. Get the V-shaped (v-seal / v-strip) weather stripping. It's sticky plastic with a crease in the middle. It fits around doors and windows and stops drafts. Costs a few bucks for a big roll at your local hardware store or Home Depot.
posted by zippy at 10:03 PM on January 3, 2009

Dude, the programmable thermostat. Really. Even though I was pretty diligent about turning things down when I left, making *damn*sure* via the program has almost halved my heating bill - even though I no longer do the plastic sheeting thing!
posted by notsnot at 10:10 PM on January 3, 2009

I just bought some caulk and weather stripping and it's has made a big difference in my bill.
posted by magikker at 10:34 PM on January 3, 2009

The heat is natural gas with radiators (unsure what type, but they do hiss and spit a lot).

It sounds like they should've been bled. Ask your landlord about ways that you can lower your utility bills without being accusatory. See if he'll check the radiators, install a programmable thermostat, better insulate the doors, caulk the drafts, etc. Meanwhile, you can insulate your windows with the plastic-wrap stuff and keep the thermostat lower even when you're home.
posted by desuetude at 11:12 PM on January 3, 2009

You don't mention if you've got a fireplace or not.

If you do have a fireplace, make sure you've closed your flue. I know that probably sounds very obvious, but you'd be surprised how often people move into new places without checking these things out.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:52 AM on January 4, 2009

I'm no steam specialist, but I wonder if steam heat isn't well suited to programmable thermostats?

Besides that, my guess is that the steam pipes running up to your unit aren't insulated. (Not that there's probably anything you can do about it.) The way I understand steam heat is that the boiler creates steam, it travels up the pipes to the radiators, turns back into water and drains back down to the boiler to be reboiled. The reason it works is just like condensation on your windows. Inside of the radiator is hot, outside is cold. So the steam inside the radiator condenses on the inside walls of the radiator and in doing so, liberates its heat to the radiator, making it hot. What I imagine is happening is that because your steam pipes are running through the apartment below you (or worse, along an outside wall as well), the steam is liberating a portion of its heat to the apartment below you on its way up to your radiators. So your boiler needs to work harder to make enough steam to maintain the temperature in your unit. At the same time, the apartment below you is gaining this heat and has to work less hard.

Depending on the setup of the system, there MAY be a solution. I have no idea if it CAN be done, I just know that it's possible in physics land. This would be to convert your system to hot water rather than steam. The reason to do this is that heat transfers quicker depending on the temperature gradient from inside the system to outside of it, as well with surface area. Say your steam is 250 degrees. The difference between that and the apartment below is what, 170 degrees? That's a big differential. So what you do is change that to hot water at say 180 degrees. Now the differential is more like 100 degrees. Heat will transfer less to their unit and more to yours, since the surface area of the radiators is much larger. And the return pipe, rather than being really hot water still giving off heat to the lower apartment, is far less hot water giving off far less heat.

This will work, but I have no idea how well or whether it would be worth it.

Besides that, yeah, that window wrap stuff works great. If you take care and install it neatly, you can't even see it. And makes a huge difference. I have a giant patio door. Even though it's already double insulated glass, when you walk next to it, you can feel the coldness coming from it. I installed a sheet on the frame of the doors, with a small air gap between it and the windows, and it made a huge difference. If I touch the sheet, it feels almost warm to the touch. If I push in on it and touch the window, it gets much colder.

Also, feel the wall behind your radiators. Does it feel warm, or warmer than the wall away from the radiator? That means you are heating the wall and heating the outside. Put a piece of insulation between the radiator and the wall, so the heat that's given off by the radiator goes into your room and not into the wall. The optimum solution for this would be that insulation foam that has an aluminized surface. The aluminum reflects the heat back into the room, and the foam prevents conductive transfer. But that's probably going to be ugly. Next best thing is a sheet of foam that you paint the same color as the walls. That will, at least, prevent conductive transfer.

(and what desuetude said- it might be as simple as bad bleeders on your radiators making the system less efficient.)
posted by gjc at 7:45 AM on January 4, 2009

Thanks all. I bought some of the adhesive V-shaped weather stripping for the back door (the entrance and balcony doors already had it installed, apparently) and installed it. Also got some rope caulk for the sealed door and window plastic. I'll see if the landlord will get the heating radiators bled.

Quick follow up: I got an awful lot of this rope caulk. If it turns out the windows are leaking around the frames (as in, between the window frame and the wall rather than between the frame and the sash), where do I apply this caulk to seal those leaks? Indoors or outdoors?
posted by backseatpilot at 12:56 PM on January 4, 2009

I have a monster size house, which was apparently built with no consideration for energy usage, and I've been able to drastically reduce our bills by not only following the recommendations above, but also, I just whipped together some door and window sill "snakes"*, and they have saved us a ton of money. Well, when the cats don't carry them off to make nests, anyway.

(*snake: Go the fabric store and get some 36" wide fleece and some batting. Cut 8-9" strips, sew them into tubes, stuff with batting, voila...door and sill snakes. Put snakes by where the windows open and at the bottom of the door.)
posted by dejah420 at 5:35 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

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