Help me stay warm with a broken furnace.
November 29, 2009 7:16 AM   Subscribe

Yesterday I woke up to my furnace screeching like a banshee. Turned it off, and called for service, but they won't be able to get out for a while. I'm not sure when, because the service will be through my home warranty. I have a fireplace and wood, south facing windows that let in lots of sun, and a very small, not-so-awesome electric space heater. I have some questions about the combination of heating sources I should use until the furnace gets repaired.

I live in North Carolina, US, so it's relatively mild, but it is getting down near freezing at night.

Today will be fine; it's getting up to 67ºF/19ºC this afternoon. However, here's a question about today specifically. Which will give the better bang for the buck: opening up the house, or using passive solar to warm it up without opening windows?

Secondly, the forecast for the rest of the week is going to alternate between sunny and rainy, with typical temperatures of about 54º-56ºF/12º-14ºC for the high and lows kind of all over the place, from 32ºF/0ºC to 47ºF/8ºC. See here for the full forecast.

I'm planning on closing off unused rooms, but I have a pretty large space consisting of the kitchen and two living spaces (one of which has the fireplace) that are all open to each other.

What combination of fire, space heater and sunlight will maximize heat gain and minimize heat loss for me until the furnace is repaired?

Also, any other suggestions about keeping the house warm will be gratefully accepted!
posted by Stewriffic to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well, it sounds like this is the perfect time to do any Christmas baking -of course cooking heats up the house.

Also, if you have a microwave and access to a corn bag, at least your bed can be toasty warm.

(I have spent some Carolina winters without access to heat (long story) and I think electric space heaters are not all that. Used with care, a kerosene space heater rocks. But you gotta be careful with it.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:23 AM on November 29, 2009

Are you sure the furnace is completely broken (as in unable to heat or dangerous) and not just noisy? Do you have a carbon monoxide detector? If the furnace is generating heat but not carbon monoxide, could you run it from time to time (and put up with the noise) to help keep the house heated?

If you're going to use any sort of fuel-burning heat (gas, fireplace, kerosene, etc.) you should have a carbon monoxide detector anyway.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:27 AM on November 29, 2009

I am in Wisconsin, much colder than North Carolina, and our furnace broke recently. It was also serviced by a home warranty, and was fixed on the Tuesday after the weekend it broke. Our house was cold, but all you should just be concerned with pipes freezing, and from that forecast, pipes freezing is not going to be an issue. I would suggest keeping the house closed up and let the sun in the windows. Bake some bread if you are cold.
posted by sulaine at 7:28 AM on November 29, 2009

Response by poster: It's an electric furnace, sorry to have omitted that info. I had someone out to look at it yesterday before I realized I have a home warranty (big bucks, but the guy might be bringing by 1/2 to 3/4 of a deer's worth of venison for me, so that's a wash). He diagnosed it as needing a new motor and SPRINTED to pull the fuse when he heard it.

I'll go out and get a CO detector today, though, for the fireplace. Thanks for reminding me about that.

(And baking: good idea!)
posted by Stewriffic at 7:30 AM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: very small, not-so-awesome electric space heater

Obvious, but wear a hat to bed. Makes a huge difference. And if it's going to be more than a few days, get another space heater. I used just a wood stove and a space heater for years in NC winters, and found an oil-filled radiating space heater on wheels worked nicely to keep an enclosed space warm. They're very quiet and relatively energy efficient - once the oil warms up it retains and radiates heat for a while so the internal heating element isn't constantly using electricity. I kept it in the bedroom at night and then moved it into the bathroom for 10 minutes before showering in the morning. You should be able to find one for around $50.
posted by mediareport at 7:45 AM on November 29, 2009

I assume a corn bag is like a rice bag, so if you don't have one, here are instructions on how to make one. If you have an old pillowcase you're willing to sacrifice, and you can sew a seam, it's very easy. Warm it up and put it down by your feet at night.
posted by cabingirl at 8:10 AM on November 29, 2009

Don't leave the oven on with the door open, it can ruin the oven thermostat. Pretend you're camping, wear extra layers, sleep under extra quilts.
posted by mareli at 8:34 AM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: Depending upon the design and construction of the fireplace, you may actually lose more warmth than you gain; they are mostly for show anymore, nice to sit in front of toasting your toes, not so nice to warm your home.

I think mediareport has it -- an oil-filled space heater or two; those things really are warm. And it's not wasted money, either, not just for this purpose; as mediareport pointed out, keep one anywhere you'll want extra warmth, so you need not warm your entire living space, put one in the bedroom and close off the bedroom door. Mmmmmmm, toasty warm....

Sweaters, hats, long johns, extra blankets, cooking indoors, rice packs or heating pad in the bed -- these are a few of my favorite things, as the song says. If you've got you a 'heater cat' this would be the time to get close to it, feed it extra snacks. I had a 'heater girlfriend' once, she radiated TONS of warmth, always fun to sleep with of course but the cold nights extra nice, "Hey baby, let's hit the rack, I think I'm tired and stuff."

Rice bags are also what I use for both heat and cold packs for sore muscles and inflammation, respectively; toss them into the microwave for warmth, the freezer for cold. One of my sisters is a massage therapist, she gave me the idea, has them in her freezer always, and now I do the same. They rock.

posted by dancestoblue at 8:41 AM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

mareli writes "Don't leave the oven on with the door open, it can ruin the oven thermostat"

No it won't.

Most ovens have a broil stop on their door hinges that will hold the door open a few inches. If you want to use your oven for heat set the door in that position and turn it up to the max without engaging broil. In some ovens that will turn on both elements instead of just one getting the maximum heat possible out of your oven. Your oven is good for somewhere between 5000 and 7500 Watts, or about 3-5 large space heaters.
posted by Mitheral at 9:20 AM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and our weather is pretty similar to yours right now. Leave your windows closed, but your curtains open to get the passive solar from the south windows, that should warm the place up pretty well into the evening. Get one of those closed oil heaters - it's the only thing I need in my drafty old victorian apartment - and put it in your bedroom on low - it should keep things pretty warm and you don't need to worry about them overheating or starting a fire. Bake a casserole for dinner and hang out in either the kitchen or your bedroom if you get cold. Don't bother lighting a fire in the fireplace - it may actually make it colder in your house depending on the draft up the chimney. Wear socks.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:31 AM on November 29, 2009

Crazy! I'm in Durham and have been without heat all week. I have a tiny little ceramic heater - the house is chilly in the mornings, but I've been totally fine. Open the blinds during the day, close them as soon as the sun sets. If you're working at a desk, put a rug on the floor beneath your chair - helps a ton. These old Southern houses aren't really that well insulated and my floors especially are always *freezing*.

This little unintentional experiment has actually proven that I should lower my thermostat and get another heater or two. It seems way more efficient than heating the whole house, even to 60 or 65.

Bake, light some candles, run around your house once if you're freezing, and hang your towel near the heater when you're in the shower. Toasty towel in a warm bathroom...heaven.
posted by barnone at 10:07 AM on November 29, 2009

If you have one of those steam humidifiers, I've found that they can really warm up a room. Bonus: they're good for your sinuses.

Now's a good time to treat yourself to some fancy tea, if you're so inclined.

And yes, wear hats! They help a lot.

I've also had some success with running hot water into the bathtub and warming up my feet & hands (or whole body) before slipping into bed for the evening.
posted by amtho at 11:00 AM on November 29, 2009

Response by poster: I've got my parents in the house till Tuesday, so they're fighting the good fight with me. I'm not too worried about myself, mind you. I've got a down comforter and tons of camping-level warm clothes.

mediareport: interesting you mention sleeping in a hat; I did that last night. I also slept with two sweaters and wool socks.

I'm thinking it won't get much below 55 in the house. Even with it being warm out today, the house has only gotten up to 60 so far, though. We had the windows open because the promise of airing the wood smoke smell out trumped the small gain the closed windows would provide. We've closed the windows for the rest of daylight now and to keep in the heat generated by cooking and will avoid the fireplace.

posted by Stewriffic at 11:16 AM on November 29, 2009

PS: I was at Home Depot earlier, and they had ceramic heaters of various sizes for about $30-50 and this really nice-looking mica panel heater for about $80.

Just tell your parents you wanted to see what it was like in the good ol' days, back before we had it so easy. And then offer them a hot toddy or some scotch or nice red wine. All of you under duvets and looking at candles and the fireplace sounds awesome. Pseudo-camping -- could be kinda fun!
posted by barnone at 12:21 PM on November 29, 2009

Best answer: Ugh, I wrote a long list of suggestions, but then my computer died. I'll summarize:

Sweatshirt and sweatpants make good pajamas. Knit cap and wooly socks reduce a lot of heat radiation from the body. Cardigan sweaters, while perhaps not the height of fashion, have survived as an old standard for exactly the purpose of helping achieve comfort in cold, drafty rooms. Polar fleece vests may wll have eclipsed cardies, though.

Oil radiators are great for enclosed spaces but not so good for drafty areas. For drafty areas, a ceramic element, forced-fan electric heater helps put heat where you want it. I steer clear of kerosene/gas heaters due to the fire/asphyxiation risk and the need for ventilation.

A humidifier helps make it feel a few degrees warmer by reducing evaporative cooling from your body. Just so long as it's not freezing in your house, in which case the cold damp wouldn't be all that pleasant.

Open drapes/blinds on south and west side of the house while sun shines to get solar heating. Once heat goes down, close drapes/blinds to maximize insulation and retain heat.

Hot teas and tisanes are great to keep the core temp up. I microwave about 12 ounces of water, a spoonful of honey and a tablespoon of lemon juice. Makes a scrummy lemon tisane that will help keep you warm.

And a tip when showering in a cold bathroom: plug the drain to catch the hot, soapy water. It will help warm your feet and the air in the shower rather than pouring that heated water down the drain. As you're wrapping up your shower, let the soapy water drain out and rinse your feet off as the last thing before you exit the shower.
posted by darkstar at 3:06 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Fire places in general make your house colder.

Unless you have a fireplace specifically built to heat your house, you will end up sending more heat up the chimney than out into your house.
posted by GregorWill at 4:15 PM on November 29, 2009

An electric mattress pad.
posted by brujita at 11:21 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: GregorWill, I do understand that if I'm using a fireplace in conjunction with my primary heat source that it is inefficient at best. However, if I am using a fireplace as (essentially) the sole heatsource, I'm not sure I buy the argument that it will make my house colder.

Am I missing something?

I closed off two areas of the house, my bedroom and an office/bathroom suite. I'm sleeping on a couch in the area where I'm trying to keep the heat. Eventually we had the house up to 63-63F yesterday, and when I got up it had only gone down to 59F. That sounds promising. Oh, and the orange-cranberry bread I made is pretty darn tasty!

BTW, stupid furnace people can't come today, so I had to set it up for Friday when I'll be able to be there to let them in. Dammit.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:17 AM on November 30, 2009

Don't know. I think it depends on the ambient temperature of the air being pulled into the house, how air-tight your house is without the fireplace going full roar, and the size of the house; that is if the amount of excess cold air brought into the house is greater or less than the amount of heat radiated into the room. But it makes sense to me that it would make the majority of the house colder with the fireplace than without. However having a place to go and get warm while the rest of the house is cold might make sense as well.

Is the fireplace on an interior or exterior wall?

If you are going to be without heat til Friday you could experiment for us, and not put the fireplace on one evening!

And wear long-underwear!
posted by GregorWill at 12:15 PM on November 30, 2009

Best answer: When I ran out of heating oil in Maine in February, I ran the oven cleaning cycle every night. The oven actually vents into the kitchen, so the long, hot oven temp kept it warm enough so the pipes didn't freeze in my small house. If you have lots of firewood, a very hot fire, kept up for a while, probably provides more warmth than you'll lose up the chimney. If the water heater works, turn it up to high, and fill the bathtubs, which will act as radiators. I now have a wood stove, and recommend that you look into a fireplace insert for pleasant, efficient backup heat.
posted by theora55 at 2:35 PM on November 30, 2009

Stewriffic writes "However, if I am using a fireplace as (essentially) the sole heatsource, I'm not sure I buy the argument that it will make my house colder.

"Am I missing something? "

Essentially the problem with a lot of decorative fireplaces rather than sole source of heat fireplaces is they were designed to draw really well to prevent smoke and CO from back drafting into the living space. And they don't have an external source of make up air. The problem with using them as a source of heat is they suck so much air out of the house (which is replaced with the cold air from outside via leakage around penetrations) that they can actually cause a net loss of heat.
posted by Mitheral at 4:10 PM on November 30, 2009

Response by poster: 29ºF/-1.3ºC this morning. 54ºF/12ºC inside, down from 58ºF/14ºC when I went to bed.

No fire last night.

Interestingly, my stepfather just happened to caulk all the storm windows two days before the heat went. Woo hoo!
posted by Stewriffic at 3:53 AM on December 1, 2009

Response by poster: Fire last night. Warm (over 60F) in the room it was in while it was going, which held on pretty well overnight. Rest of house got cold, though. Down to 52F.

Bought a space heater.
posted by Stewriffic at 7:14 AM on December 2, 2009

So do you have the oven on? Any other source of heat? Do you have a basement? Thanks for the updates!
posted by GregorWill at 1:01 AM on December 3, 2009

Response by poster: No basement, just a very narrow crawlspace. Haven't baked anything, but I did boil a pot of water and then turn it off both nights. It was warm outside yesterday but was only 51 when I got home. Fired up the new (oil-filled radiator-type) space heater, and left it on overnight. Didn't have a fire. It got up to 57º WAY over by the thermostat, which is quite far from the room that has the fireplace and that I'm sleeping in now. Space heater ftw, but I do love the ambiance of the fire. Nice to have an excuse to try it out, anyway.

Came home and it had warmed up to 60. Getting REALLY cold tomorrow night, so we'll see.

Oh, and the fireplace is on an exterior wall.
posted by Stewriffic at 2:54 PM on December 3, 2009

Response by poster: WEEP. Just got the news that it won't be fixed until the end of this week. Fireplace plus space heater helps keep one room on the toastier side, but the rest of the house remains bitter. Plus, by morning it's down to 49-50 no matter what. Lows are near freezing for the rest of the week.

Next step: Nailing a blanket over the entryway to the room I can't close up.
posted by Stewriffic at 11:14 AM on December 7, 2009

Response by poster: 41ºF (5ºC) inside my house this morning. 22F/-6C outside.

My final decisions:
(Final because in theory the HVAC part is in and it will be fixed today.)

1. Closed off the room with the fireplace from the rest of the house and am sleeping on the couch.

2. Stapled a fuzzy blanket over the one doorway to that room that doesn't have a door on it. This helped immensely.

3. Used the fireplace most nights, but on the coldest one I determined that it wasn't worth it, because it pulled the cold air from the rest of the house into the warm room.

4. Small electric space heater in the bathroom, turned on for a good 20-30 minutes before a shower.

5. Last night it was suggested to me that since it was going to be so so cold that I needed to consider the possibility of pipes freezing. SO drip, drip drip go my taps.

6. The winner is the electric oil-filled radiator space heater. It has absolutely rocked. Once I got that blanket stapled up, I wasn't just surviving in the one room, I was mostly as warm as I needed to be. It's probably 60F/15C in that room.

I'm going out of town for the holidays. If my pipes burst because the HVAC goes out again I'm going to be super-duper pissed off.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:20 AM on December 12, 2009

Response by poster: Fuuuck. A new motor and it still has the same problem. And the problem is the motor.

Of course NOW they explain that I have a backup emergency heat system.
posted by Stewriffic at 6:40 AM on December 12, 2009

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