Help me keep warm this winter
December 9, 2005 11:03 AM   Subscribe

Our (rented) house seems to have been built without insulation. Tips on keeping the house as warm as possible this winter?

We moved over the summer to a new place. We found it so charminng we of course didn't think about the consequences of aluminum frame windows and a 50 year old gravity furnace. We've replaced the thermostat with one that actually registers temperature but as soon as the heat goes off - the house starts cooling down again. We've also weather stripped every door we can.
We're in San Francisco - so we're not talking about freezing temperatures - but the last few weeks have been a lot colder than normal and without the heat on at night the inside temperature is getting down to about 50 degrees inside the house.
We're wondering a few things:
Will big heavy drapes over our rather large windows insulate us in any meaningful way?
Is running an electrical heater really cheaper / more efficient than running the furnace in a relatively small house?
Has anyone done this before - sealing the windows
Any other tips for efficient home heating an old house we don't own?
posted by Wolfie to Home & Garden (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I live in Buffalo, NY. Winters here aren't quite as bad as what you may hear on the news, but sealing windows is essential to keep my heating bill lower then my rent. It works amazingly well.

Before resorting to that though, check for drafts. You may need just to get some caulk in around the windows or add some weatherstripping to your doors.

What's the attic like? Do you have access to it? Is it finished or unfinished? You might have some luck getting your landlord to insulate it.
posted by voidcontext at 11:14 AM on December 9, 2005

Yes, sealing the windows really helps. I lived in a house just like yours, and it was brutal before we put plastic film over the windows and made sure that doors weren't drafty.
posted by cmonkey at 11:16 AM on December 9, 2005

I sealed my windows this winter (first in my new house - also appears to lack insulation). It was super easy - all you need is a hair dryer and an extension cord. I also installed these for ~$2 for 8 on the external wall outlets. I don't know if it helps, but it came up on a lot of the insulation searches I was doing.

This site has a quick list of stuff you can do.
posted by blackkar at 11:20 AM on December 9, 2005

Sealing the widows with plastic and drapes certainly wouldn't hurt but house will still lose heat pretty fast just through the walls if they're not insulated. I'm not sure about the price to heat a house electric vs. gas but using space heaters does have the advantage of only heating the room your in. If your place is really small, that may not be much of a difference.
I live in a cabin in the Santa Cruz hills, so I'm reasonably familiar with your situation. In general, I just wear a lot of warm, comfy clothes around the house and pile on the blankets at night. Warm slippers are a must.
Also, a space heater in the bathroom is a beautiful thing. Nothing makes getting up harder than know you're going to have to go freeze your ass off while you brush your teeth.
posted by doctor_negative at 11:23 AM on December 9, 2005

I live in an old house with a gravity furnace and 90 year old single-pane windows. We managed to get the house much warmer this year than last year. One of the biggest problems was cold air seeping in through the windows. We used plastic sheeting kits to cover the windows and block the air while still keeping the windows useful to let light inside. The kits only cost a few dollars. Heavy drapes can also help to serve this purpose, but there will be less light, of course.

Also, check to see if the attic is insulated. There is a recycled newspaper substance that is very usefull for filling in the gaps for very cheap. We put ours in with two people in one afternoon. Your landlord might give you a rent break if you offer to do this. Check with him/her first.

We also keep the furnace on at the minimum possible and have various ceramic heaters around the house. We save money by only heating the rooms we are in at the time. It saves us around a hundred dollars on the gas bill and is only and extra $40 on the electric bill.
posted by Alison at 11:23 AM on December 9, 2005

Window sealing works, but it isn't pretty. I have done it and it was easy to install and cut the drafts and chill off of the window nicely. It is best for windows hidden behind drapes most of the time.

Can you feel drafts around outlets, switches and the like or notice them on windy days when you blow out a match nearby and watch the smoke? Stuff to seal this can be had at Home Depot or wherever and it is absurdly easy to install. Drapes help, but drafts still blow around them unless they sit pretty flat against the surrounding wall. Insulating shades which fit into the window work, but are probably too expensive if you are only renting.

As for an electric space heater, remember that electricity costs many times more for an equivalent energy unit than gas or oil, and these heater are one of the most common sources of fire at this time of year.
posted by caddis at 11:24 AM on December 9, 2005

We seal the windows every winter and it's a good idea. If you add insulated curtains which you close at night and open in the morning when the sun is coming up, it really helps keep a house from getting chilly at night. Other things to look for are outlet and light switch leaks, leaks artound door and window frames [caulk caulk caulk!] and closing off rooms that you don't use much in really cold weather. Using rugs can make a floor a bit warmer and if you have typical sf high ceilings sometimes using a ceiling fan to recirculate the air down to where the people are can help. I don't know much about eectrical heaters but you might also consider investing in an electric mattress pad warmer so that you're not heating the whole house when all you really need to be heating is the bed.
posted by jessamyn at 11:26 AM on December 9, 2005

I spent about two years in an old (fraternity) house that had all sorts of insulation issues (like large holes in the windows, rotted frames, etc.) and to top that off, the radiator in my room didn't work. There were points that it was below freezing inside, which is not fun.

Putting plastic over all the windows helped a lot dealing with cold air coming in with the wind. It should probably work better when the plastic isn't being pounded with wind, so it might be a good solution.
Running a space heater also helps (more so if you're not getting as much cold air in anymore), and if nothing else, you can generally move it closer to where you are (desk, table, etc.) to keep that particular area warmer.
posted by Godbert at 11:26 AM on December 9, 2005

Actually, we did the same thing as in your window sealing link. It has made a huge difference in the comfort level and heating bills.
posted by Alison at 11:31 AM on December 9, 2005

As others have noted, windows should be your first line of assault. In addition, if your walls are thin and uninsulated, you can do a lot to take the chill off of a room by hanging fabric (drapes, tapestries, etc) on the walls themselves.
posted by alms at 11:34 AM on December 9, 2005

You can buy a nice wool sweater with the money you save wearing it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:41 AM on December 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

AYou might want to try closing off rooms you don't use. Turn off the registers and block interior door gaps.

Also, you can't even tell I have the film on my windows (from the inside or out). I was worried my cats would try to play with the edges or scratch holes into the film, but they don't seem to even notice it.
posted by blackkar at 11:42 AM on December 9, 2005

50! Heck, I 'member one winter when I was but knee high an' my bed froze to the wall! I woulda kilt for 50!
Anyhow, the sealing of the windows has been an annual event in my parent's house for as long as I can remember. However, you may want to leave one or two unsealed to thwart stuffiness.
I have no numbers to back this up, but running a space heater may not be more financially advantageous than relying on the furnace. A lot of folks forget about them and leave them running when it isn't necessary, and it benefits only one part of the house.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:42 AM on December 9, 2005

If you spend a lot of time in one room, consider blocking off the entrance way with a heavy drape. It helps immensely, especially if the drape goes all the way to the floor(no gaps, pooling is ok).

Also, keep all the doors to rooms you don't use closed(and possibly weather sealed if it's really cold).
We do this in our house. The guest room is a balmy 51 degrees while the rest of the house is 65.
posted by madajb at 11:42 AM on December 9, 2005

"Is running an electrical heater really cheaper / more efficient than running the furnace in a relatively small house?"

Yes. PG&E's gas rates are obscene. I don't know where caddis lives, but his notion of utility rates does not apply here.
posted by majick at 11:43 AM on December 9, 2005

Thanks for all the great advice - looks like I have some window sealing in my future.
posted by Wolfie at 11:45 AM on December 9, 2005

I have the same no-insulation issue PLUS the fact that my stove-top exhaust fan when "off" is basically an open window - cold air GUSTS thru it and I haven't a clue what to do to stop it besides leave the fan running all day to push air up. Shiver. I feel your pain.
posted by tristeza at 11:49 AM on December 9, 2005

I've sealed my windows before -- as someone noted above, it ain't pretty but it does definitely help. Be sure your windows have a proper frame in order for the sealing kits to work, though -- I've found here in L.A., at least, that a lot of windows (French windows, louvers, etc.) in vintage apartments don't actually allow you to place the plastic/sealant the way you're supposed to. For more unconventional windows like those, I've had to resort to plastic sheeting and duct tape -- incredibly unattractive (unless you can hide the mess behind curtains), and prone to take paint off the wall when you bring them down if you're not careful.
posted by scody at 12:16 PM on December 9, 2005

Yes. Use the plastic and then hang heavy curtains.

The first year in my Albuquerque home we did nothing. Huge heating bills.

Second year we did the plastic. Greatly reduced, but still felt cold.

Third year we hung curtains over those windows. Reduced bills and felt much better inside.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:23 PM on December 9, 2005

I lived in a similar place. It had a crawlspace and the exterior wind would whip through it and come up through the wood slat floor.

The landlord put in plywood sheeting, which stopped the wind, but the floor was still whatever temperature it was outside.

Best solution is to move, at least that is what I did. I believe if the place is uninhabitable you have some recourse? Dunno, I was luckily month to month.
posted by jester69 at 12:43 PM on December 9, 2005

Here in central Iowa it's been below 0 at night for nearly a week. I know about insulation. First thing is to stop any air leaks. Second is to get some insulation over the living space. Around here, we usually do that by blowing in about 16" of cellulose giving something like R-35 and up. The last place to insulate is walls. They lose the least amount of heat. (Not that we don't insulate there R-13 to R20 is about right.)
posted by kc0dxh at 12:44 PM on December 9, 2005

If you have storm windows make sure they pulled down.

I used the rope caulk around the entire frame of each window + plan to add plastic as an additional protective layer.

I rolled out a large area rug to cover the cold kitchen floor.

We wear long underwear + hats in the house during the winter as well as using blankets when lounging in front of the TV....but this is in New England.
posted by sugarwater at 12:56 PM on December 9, 2005

You might want to try closing off rooms you don't use. Turn off the registers and block interior door gaps.

I'm no expert, but in the case of my house (with central heating), we learned that turning off registers was bad. It creates more work for a heat pump and raises your heating bill, since your heat pump is (ostensibly) sized for the square footage of your home. Now we keep our spare bedroom's door open and the register open.

To find where cold air is getting in, walk around your house with a candle on a breezy day, holding the candle around potential cracks in the wall. When we did this, we found that power outlets on outside walls were a major culprit.

We installed a felt insulation layer in each outlet, using on a cheap little kit we bought at the hardware store, and that helped. With the addition of foam insulation strips around the edges of the outside doors, homemade (and lovely) insulating curtains for our huge picture windows, and the insertion of cheap foam insulation into the areas of the walls into which we could gain access (don't ask), our house was warmed considerably.
posted by waldo at 1:11 PM on December 9, 2005

We use our house heater to keep the whole house at a decent temperature (60 degrees F or so), then we use ceramic disk type space heaters to heat the room that we happen to be in. This was a comprimise between paying an outrageous amount to heat a whole house vs freezing our hineys off.

The window plastic and heavy curtains will make a huge
difference. This may be all you have to do if your temperatures don't get down tremendously cold.

You can check for drafts by walking around with a lit stick of incense and watching the smoke. If you have a lot of drafts you should look into sealing them, usually with caulk. I live in Central PA, and I've been doing a lot of research, because I also live in a rented house with no insulation. And it gets pretty cold around here.
posted by jefeweiss at 2:06 PM on December 9, 2005

Sounds like my house! One thing Hubby and I really love is an electric mattress heater pad (not an electric blanket). If you turn it on about half an hour before you're ready for bed, it warms up the mattress so that it's blissful to climb into a cozy bed. It doesn't matter how cold the bedroom is after that! We got ours at Sears; it was made by Sunbeam. Bonus: queen size and larger have independent heating controls for each side.

Also, bring out your recipes for long-baking casseroles and stews that simmer for hours. Might as well let your oven do its part.

I know neither of these are actually insulation hints, but they'll help you stay a little warmer.
posted by Quietgal at 3:58 PM on December 9, 2005

Electric blanket or mattress pad to preheat the bed helps a lot. You could even get another one for the couch. Get a hot water bottle; very effective for spot heat if you get cold reading or watching teevee. Get in the habit of wearing a sweater and warm slippers or wool socks.
posted by theora55 at 6:27 PM on December 9, 2005

Definitely seal the windows with plastic. It works and it's cheap. Do you have ceiling fans? Keep them running on low even during the winter. Heat rises, and the fans on low will keep the heated air from rising so fast. Also, I suggest getting a small Kerosene heater. It's cheaper in the long run than an electric coil space heater and believe it or not, safer. (They're usually too heavy to fall over.) You pay more for the heater at the actual outset, but the kerosene is fairly cheap and your electric bill will thank you. My parents have one and it heats their bedroom nicely. Just be smart about it. Keep it about 3 feet away from anything flammable (upholstered furniture, clothing). Works wonders. They work so well in fact, you may be able to turn your thermostat down and save some money.
posted by katyggls at 7:43 PM on December 9, 2005

Get 6 or 7 sealed-oil lectric heaters, and swap out your elec meter a day before and back a day after your meter is read.

works for me...
posted by stevejensen at 6:30 AM on December 10, 2005

My husband works nights so I have to go to bed alone in a very drafty old house. While we do live in the South, night time temps have been in the twenties so here is how I cope:

The living room is too open and has too many windows and doors so I vacate that early and go into the bedroom. After turning the wall heater down to the lowest setting, I close the bedroom doors. I have my space heater aimed towards the head of the bed and my heating pad under the covers warming the foot of the bed. Cashmere sweater over nightgown, socks if I need them, and a whiskey all help me stay cosy as I read in bed. Also a good pile of blankets and comforters. And two cats.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:28 AM on December 10, 2005

I meant to note that our bedroom is especially cosy because we took a leaf out of the British Castle Owner's Manuel and invested heavily in velvet and tapestries. There are Brown Velvet drapes on doors and windows as well as dividing the room in half. This plus the brown ragged paint on the walls gives our bedroom a cool cave feeling in the summer for day time sleeping and a snuggly cave feeling for the winter monthes.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:22 AM on December 10, 2005

I have no heat at all here in my apt. right now in NYC. It's 41 right now. At night, I put foam insulation covered blocks in my windows. They're made from 3M super77 spray glue, aluminum foil and bubble wrap. A layer of foil is glued to the foam, bubble wrap over that, and finally more aluminum foil. You can buy insulation sheets made the same way, but I had the stuff around, so I just made them from scraps. The foam really just holds it firmly in place and cuts down on the draft. The commercial variety is supposed to have a ridiculous R-factor. I haven't tried the plastic seals.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 11:45 PM on December 15, 2005

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