Heating a Drafty San Francisco Apartment with Electric
January 10, 2014 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Please help me figure out how to heat my drafty San Francisco 1-bedroom apartment without breaking the bank. Details inside!

I've been in this apartment for about a year - I'm renting, so I'm not able to make major modifications such as better insulating or replacing the windows. It came with two noisy electric forced-air heaters, which did a fair (but not great) job of heating it. Cost: $75/month.

Unfortunately, although I got used to the noise that they made, they were so loud that the upstairs neighbor complained that they were waking her up in the middle of the night, which I took as the last straw. She gave me an older version of this electric radiator and I purchased this slightly more stylish model. I've been using the latter most of the time to maintain a comfortable but by no means toasty temperature, and the former situationally as needed to supplement. Cost last month: $206.

I'd really rather not pay $200+/month to keep my apartment warm, and I'd also like to keep the sound level from my heating source below "waking up the neighbors." I purchased a Kill-A-Watt this morning, but I believe both heaters have similar energy consumption profiles. I also purchased a programmable plug-in thermostat to run the heaters through, but I'm afraid that won't make much of a dent. Hive-mind: what's my best solution to stay warm, thrifty, and quiet?

Thank you!

Additional electric bill details: PG&E gives me allotments at different prices in four tiers based on my dwelling type and heating source - basically, the more I use, the more my electricity costs, from $0.13 cents/kWh up to $0.36 cents/kWh.
posted by Amplify to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you were satisfied with the results of the forced air electric that ran you $75/month, then you should get some quieter forced air electric heaters.

All electric heaters are equally efficient, but they aren't equally effective, as evidenced by the radiator style requiring almost 3x the power.
posted by Good Brain at 10:20 AM on January 10, 2014

You can't replace the windows, but you can cut down on the drafts coming in around them. I use Mortite to seal the edges of my windows (which are double-paned but badly fitted -- the priority for me is to get the edges only). It's fully removable and cuts down on drafts. If you have older windows, window film might work better for you. (I haven't used this so there may be better brands.)

Draft snake(s) for the door(s). Also, if you can see light around the edges of the door, you could add weather stripping around the door.

If you have a ceiling fan, check that it's in winter mode, and use it.

Is the difference between the $75 and the $206 over multiple months, or just one month? Has it been extra-cold over the past month? If so, the cost differential might be because of that rather than because of any efficiency differences in the heaters.

How cold are you willing to be at night? In your situation, I think I'd put the forced hot air heaters on a timer and switch them off at night, assuming that the neighbor isn't bothered by them during the day. Run them only when you're up and about. And get a heavier comforter for nighttime. (However, this may not be feasible for your lifestyle and/or climate. I guess you could supplement with the radiator heater at night only.)
posted by pie ninja at 10:28 AM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Unfortunately, the forced-air heaters are in the wall, so I can't replace them. Unless you're suggesting stand-alone forced air heaters. Perhaps the current space heaters in concert with a fan to circulate the air?
posted by Amplify at 10:29 AM on January 10, 2014

This is the landlords problem and not yours. I would tell the neighbour sorry, but I'm a renter you'll have to take it up with the landlord. Then tell the landlord that you're not freezing and/or paying an extra $125/month for heat. They have to provide heat, even in San Francisco where a lot of them think they don't. And It's not like this problem just started when you moved in.
posted by fshgrl at 10:32 AM on January 10, 2014 [12 favorites]

If the forced air heaters are too loud for the neighboring tenant, it sounds like an issue for your landlord to deal with. You shouldn't have to pay over twice as much in utility bills because the heaters that are in the apartment are loud. Your neighbor can also take up the issue with the landlord.
posted by quince at 10:34 AM on January 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

2nding the advice to seal your windows. My brother did this for our apartment and it was kind of stunning the difference it made.

Also, consider adding curtains not just for the windows, but also possibly for door frames. Door draft stoppers can be helpful, and cute too.
posted by tinymegalo at 10:48 AM on January 10, 2014

I should add that I agree that this is the landlord's responsibility and the objectively "right" answer would be getting him to fix things.

However, while I don't live in a rental market as tight as SF, I do live in a high-demand, low-turnover rental area, and I know this is the kind of thing I might not bring to my landlord, because he has an apparently infinite number of people he could rent this apartment to, and I don't have an infinite number of rental options open to me. So my answers are assuming that you can't or won't go to the landlord, but are looking to make the best of the situation short of doing so.

Other things that have helped: Warm slippers. Electric throw blanket. Warm mattress pad. Also, I agree with the curtains suggestion. At one point my cousin lived in a drafty Victorian and hung quilts on all the walls -- not my style, but she said it worked well.

If you get stand-alone forced hot air heaters, make sure they're rated to be used without supervision -- some of them aren't.
posted by pie ninja at 10:51 AM on January 10, 2014

I agree that the noise is the landlord's problem, but if it's your windows that are super drafty and/or just sucking the heat out of the room, those window seal kits are really impressive. You can get decent results from tacking heavy blankets over the windows, but then you start to feel like a mushroom from the constant darkness.

You can make draft stoppers with socks (old tights or leggings for extra-long ones, and if you can sew your options are practically endless) and a large quantity of the cheapest rice or beans you can drag home. But even a rolled-up towel will help.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:51 AM on January 10, 2014

I live in SF and I've been in my apartment for 18 years and I hate bringing up ANY issue to my landlord because my rent is so low compared to market. But this is something that I definitely would bring up with him. You might phrase it as a safety issue -- if the heater is that loud, it may be faulty, and faulty heaters are fire hazards.
posted by janey47 at 11:05 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

While I'd agree that this is really your landlords problem, not yours, I've had a few cold winters in normally warm places in crappy rentals.

First is sealing up the place as much as you can. Curtains can help, as can more involved window sealing things. Get a warm blanket for the bed, and turn down the heat when you get in. You don't need the heat running as much when you're under heavy blankets.

So, you've gone from a heating method that relied on moving hot air to heat your place. This is a great combo. Your heat source doesn't need to be as hot for you to feel as warm, if it's getting help circulating with a fan.

Your new method is relying on only natural convection. For you standing 10 or 20 feet away, you need the radiative source to be much hotter for you to feel as warm because it is less efficient at moving that hot air to you.

So yes, combining the radiators and fans would help. If you have a celling fan you can switch into winter mode and push the hot air from the ceiling down to the level where you are, and generally circulate/convect the heat and air around the room.

If you're interested in buying yet another space heater, get one with a fan built in. They won't be as quiet but theres a payoff to everything.
posted by fontophilic at 11:09 AM on January 10, 2014

I'm going to offer a radical suggestion, based on the assumption that your landlord is uncaring/unresponsive and you wish to continue to placate your neighbor:

Heat your *body* and not the air in your apartment.

I'm not specifically recommending that particular vest, but more the idea in general of heating yourself instead of your apartment.

Use the vest when you're up and about, an electric blanket if needed when you sleep. Crank up the space heaters only when you have company.
posted by de void at 11:12 AM on January 10, 2014

For starters, seal your windows. My Sacramento apartment is super drafty, and it made a huge difference. I used this. It took maybe an hour, and it really isn't noticeable at all.
posted by zug at 11:52 AM on January 10, 2014

Yeah, this is tough to answer without understanding whether you're not approaching the landlord because you think you can't, or because the landlord is unresponsive, or because you don't want trouble in a place you otherwise like, or what. Because otherwise, how the apartment is heated seems like a landlord issue, unless I guess you have some weirdo thing in your lease making it your issue.

I mean, it's very nice and considerate of you not to want to wake up the neighbors, but the neighbor's right to life without noise isn't necessarily any greater than your right to life with heat.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 12:44 PM on January 10, 2014

Response by poster: I'll say that I initially approached the landlord about the noise to little response when I moved in, but have a very good relationship with him and am willing to bring it up again. I think the big question that he had was what WOULD be a good heating solution - I think he legitimately thought it was the best solution to heat the room, so if you have cheap, in-wall heaters that you think would work, I'm all ears.

These are all good ideas and I'm going to try them out. Thank you all - I'll come back and mark best answers when I've tried them (but keep 'em coming!).
posted by Amplify at 1:25 PM on January 10, 2014

Electric mattress pad / electric blanket is a good way to keep warm at night in SF with basically no heat on for all but a couple extra-cold nights a year.
posted by zachlipton at 1:26 PM on January 10, 2014

I would also leave it up to the landlord, but I wouldn't bring the issue to him myself (unless you are personally bothered by the noise). Just turn your regular heat back on. If neighbor complains* to you again, say "yeah, sorry, I tried the other heater but it doesn't provide sufficient heat." Any further complaining to turn off the heat can just be met with the classic "That's just not possible." If they have that big of an issue with it, then they can go to the landlord. The landlord can't tell you not to use your heat; he just can't. So he can (a) fix the noise issue; or (b) ignore weird sensitive-to-noise-wants-you-to-freeze tenant. He'll probably choose option (b), and it's extremely unlikely that the police or any other organization will get involved for a noise complaint. If they do, it will be against the landlord and not against you as, again, they can't tell you not to use the heat in your apartment. So, yeah, you have my permission to ignore this lady and continue heating your apartment economically.

*As a long-time renter, I'm honestly shocked and appalled that someone would even bring this up. If the heat really was causing excessive noise, I would tell the landlord. I'd never go tell the tenant to turn off their heat in the winter. I mean what??! That's crazy talk.
posted by melissasaurus at 1:34 PM on January 10, 2014

Response by poster: Just want to clarify two things:

1) The noise is fucking annoying, so it's my preference not to have it in my life as well. I'd learned to live with it, but now that it's gone I don't want it back.
2) My neighbor didn't tell me to turn the heat off - she politely suggested a less noisy option, and even gave me two space heaters.

Everyone involved here is friendly and honestly being kind to the best of their abilities!
posted by Amplify at 1:51 PM on January 10, 2014

Just to make sure, is it possible that the $200 month was the month that we had crazy low, below freezing temperatures? If so, that is likely at least part of the reason for your crazy high heating bill. I know our bill for that month was higher than normal, and we did not change our heating source. It very, very rarely happens in the Bay Area, so I would not worry about heating for those temperatures as a long term issue.

Maybe this is not the issue, but just wanted to point it out in case you're new to the area and thinking every winter month is like that!
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:55 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This radiator (or something just like it) plus this fan. Put the fan on low to blow the warm air from the radiator wherever it needs to go. Very nearly silent.
posted by overleaf at 7:40 PM on January 10, 2014

Landlord issues aside, if you're trying to provide your own heat, you might want to try one of the whole-room models made by Vornado. Instead of operating like a common space heater, they are meant to recirculate all the air in the room, raising it a degree or so on each cycle and then maintaining a constant target temp. This means it takes a while to warm up a a room, but the lower temperature heating element is less dangerous and inexpensive to operate. (Caveat - if the constant low hum of an electric fan would drive you nuts or prevent sleep, then nevermind.)

And +1 on an electric 'heated throw' type blanket under you - between the mattress and bottom sheet -for toasty bedtimes, even in the coldest room.
posted by bartleby at 9:47 PM on January 11, 2014

I use an oil-filled radiator exactly like the one Overleaf linked to. I think that in terms of electricity consumption it's much cheaper than the other kinds of electric heaters (especially ones that blow air), though it only heats the room it's in.
posted by amaire at 11:26 AM on January 13, 2014

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