How to improve our efforts to winterize our drafty, old apartment?
October 9, 2007 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Are there more affordable, non-permanent things we can do to winterize our apartment?

This will be our second winter in our ground floor apartment in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Last winter was mild compared to average winters, but we still froze. We try to keep the thermostat set no higher than 15C (for environmental and financial reasons), and we wear proper, Canadian winter clothing inside. Hats, fingerless gloves, long underwear, everything! And it was still too cold to manage.

The steps we took last year:
•caulking around all of the windows and sealing them with plastic
•draft dodgers at the bottoms of both doors
•weather-stripping around both doors
•uncovered the windows during the day to allow passive heating, then covered them at night for extra insulation
•used the oven and hot pots of water to warm up the kitchen

We have forced-air heat, and when we jack up the thermostat, it does warm the place up— for about an hour.

Our building was originally a dry goods store built sometime in the 1880s or '90s, so we know there's no insulation. One of our exterior doors is really a hollow-core interior door. Our storm doors and windows are ancient and warped, and we can't convince the landlord to replace them.

We do all the right things, but our oil bill was still astronomical, and as I said, we weren't warm. We don't want to suffer through another winter— what can we do?
posted by tempest in a teapot to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Put all your computers and electronic equipment and whatnot in one room, then hang out in that room. You generate heat, and so does almost anything that runs off electricity.
posted by box at 10:55 AM on October 9, 2007

Try using insulated curtains. They've got an extra thick lining to minimize heat loss.

Also, arrange your furniture so that bookshelves, dressers, and other thick pieces are on the outside walls, to help with insulation.
posted by stefanie at 10:57 AM on October 9, 2007

You're losing most of your heat through the ceiling. I would consider covering it with blankets or something. Short of actually installing proper insulation, you're going to lose a lot of heat.
posted by knave at 11:00 AM on October 9, 2007

As much as possible I try to just not BE in the apartment except when I'm either asleep or in the kitchen baking everything I can think of so as to have an excuse to run the oven.

I subscribe to the "heat yourself, not your space" ethos. If I get too cold I put in an exercise video and st. vitus around for 20 minutes or so until I'm sweltering. Also, right before bed I take a quick very hot shower and get dressed for bed in the bathroom while overheated from the shower. Then I run and leap into bed under my one expensive winter investment, which is a fat down comforter. This simple and obvious tactic of taking a hot shower before bed took me years to figure out and is now my favorite thing about winter. There is nothing worse than lying in bed with your feet frozen trying to fall asleep, and I can't believe I spent every winter for decades dealing with frozen feet.

If it were colder where I live, I'd might try to do as the Japanese do. You put a heavy quilt over a table and heat the space beneath. Then you sit with your legs and as much of the rest of you as possible in the warm space under the table. I think the Japanese have a lot of good warm apartment ideas.

You could try buying lots of books and lining the walls with them for insulation.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:09 AM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have a long, outdoor-facing wall in my room that is freezing to the touch in the winter. Last winter I decided to insulate it on the cheap by tacking over it with felt and fabric. The felt was extremely cheap -- less than $1 a yard -- and I tacked it up with pushpins. Then I covered up the felt with some cheap but nicely colored fabric that I found on sale.

It's not as good as actual insulation, but it did make a very noticeable difference -- my room was much warmer and my heating bill was perhaps as much as 20% lower. I'm pretty sure that if you look, you can probably find even better insulating materials to tack to your wall than felt. Perhaps some sort of quilted material?
posted by ourobouros at 11:10 AM on October 9, 2007

15C really doesn't sound so cold; except, you've got those cold-ass walls radiating coldness (actually, you're warming the walls up). I really don't think you're getting much by letting light in the windows during the day. You're probably, via radiation, letting a lot more heat *out* the windows than is coming in via sunlight.

THat said, the biggest energy saver for me was to get an electronic thermostat. During the day, the house drops to 54. (the cat has one small space heater he sleeps near) I warm the place up to 66 for an hour in the morning for my girlfriend to wake up, and in the evening. By nine pm, I let the temp freefall back to 56 - to which the house cools down by the time I hit the sack at 10:30. This scheme - pretty much cutting all the fat out of the heating schedule - dropped my heating bills from $250-300 down to a much more manageable $160, in a drafty brick house. (granted, I'm in a much warmer climate, but still.)
posted by notsnot at 11:10 AM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, it's probably worth it to see if Nova Scotia's energy efficiency grants are applicable to your case. They might help defray the cost of blow-in insulation (see Insulating Old Homes), window repairs, or other measures. I have a feeling that your miserly landlord will respond well to the prospect of free money and tax write-offs.
posted by ourobouros at 11:32 AM on October 9, 2007

I'm sure you don't want to hear this but the only reasonable course of action is to move. If your apartment is truly uninsulated, then it seems like the environmentally responsible thing to do would be to move somewhere that does have insulation. Otherwise, you are burning a lot of oil that there is no good reason to burn. If you move out (and let your landlord know why you are doing so) then he may start to think about installing insulation.
posted by ssg at 11:46 AM on October 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

I lived in a warehouse that essentially was the same temperature inside as outside all year round (or a bit colder, due to concrete floors). I bought many yards of cheap canvas material and covered my entire ceiling by stapling the fabric to the beams, while leaving long, drooping pockets of air. It doesn't seem like much, but it made a noticeable difference in how much hot air escaped the room through the ceiling.
As far as windows go, only open up the South and East facing ones in the day, and only if you feel noticeable warmth in the sunlight.
I would also look for something to insulate that hollow-core door- like maybe a wool blanket from army surplus.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:53 AM on October 9, 2007

Make sure you're not heating any spaces that don't need heat: closets, bathrooms (use a space heater while you're showering; otherwise keep it cold), hallways, stairwells, even bedrooms (get a good down comforter-- you don't need warm air in a bedroom). Keep closet doors closed, hang curtains to seal off stairwells and hallways. If you don't have a closed-off foyer, create one by hanging a heavy curtain that fully covers all exterior doors right out past the molding. Second the idea of living in just one room.

Consider hanging quilts on exterior walls for extra insultation. This not only works, it looks nice. Resale shops often have very nice quilts that work for this purpose at a reasonable price.

I think 15C sounds insanely cold for interior temp. No wonder you're cold (or maybe you Canadians are just built of stronger stuff!) In Chicago, landlords can get busted if the temperature is not 62F 2 feet from the floor. We keep our thermostat (which is in the coldest room of the house) set to 65 and use the strategies above to keep costs down as much as possible.

Please don't use your oven and stove to provide heat. This is extremely hazardous.
posted by nax at 12:03 PM on October 9, 2007

One thing to check is whether the attic ventilation could be contributing to the problem. I did some work on an old house where a roofer had installed a ridge vent, but there were no working intake vents in the soffits or gable ends of the attic, so wind over the house created a vacuum in the attic that sucked heat out of the living areas. I installed half a dozen cheap soffit vents, and the homeowners noticed it get warmer immediately. The next day they turned off a supplementary heater they'd been using to make one room livable, and the house was still warmer than it had been.

Aside from some insight that leads to a quick and cheap fix, I'm with ssg: move. Fixing a major insulation problem will cost more than it's worth to you as a tenant.
posted by jon1270 at 12:41 PM on October 9, 2007

I have an electric throw that I use when it's very cold here. Then, at least, you're mostly paying to heat only yourself. When you're sitting, it really works to keep you warm.
posted by clarkstonian at 1:51 PM on October 9, 2007

I had a similar experience last winter. It was disheartening to pay astronomical bills and still feel cold wearing wool hat/socks, long underwear, sweater and even a fleece jacket!

I found the two best investments to be a programmable electronic thermostat and an electric blanket. This let us turn the heat almost off at night, and use that oil burning time during the day. By sandwiching the electric blanket between a sheet and comforter, I could sleep comfortably at temperatures of 40-45 degrees. I thought of trying to sleep in the kitchen with the electric blanket as an experiment (below freezing even when thermostat was set to 50 degrees!) but ultimately I decided not to setup bedding in a shared kitchen. The electric blanket used about 220 watts on its highest setting. Contrast that to an electric space heater that uses 1500 watts, or our furnace that burned through $3.20 of oil in an hour of heating. Program the oil heat to start a short while before you will need it.

Another thing you could use is an infrared spot thermometer (sometimes called non-contact thermometer). You can use it to instantly read the temperature of any surface in your house. This raises questions like, "how is it possibly this cold with the heat on?" and concerns such as, "your room is 8.4 degrees warmer than mine; that's not fair."
posted by reeddavid at 3:17 PM on October 9, 2007

In some thread, someone said they basically built a tent within their living space and kept only that area really warm, which I think is what oneirodynia is describing. Sounds like you have a large space, so that might work, and could be reasonable for the winter months which are dark anyway. Or close off some rooms and don't heat them & hang out in one room which you keep warmer. Electronic thermostat that changes the heat setting on a clock is great - set the heat to go up before you get out of bed.

Walk around with a stick of incense to identify the worst air leaks - the smoke will let you know. I once made window coverings out of layers of flattened cardboard boxes, which I used at night, rather like shutters. Cardboard is often free, and insulates well, but is not firesafe. Thrift shops often have wool blankets cheap, which are excellent wall coverings. Cover the thin door with a blanket, too. Stop and think seriously about how all of your choices affect fire safety - make sure doors and windows are still marked, and still accessible and don't neglect the smoke alarm.

Get an electric blanket and use it to preheat the bed, and make sure you have either a down or down-substitute quilt. Having 1 place you know you can be warm really helps.
posted by theora55 at 3:25 PM on October 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, This has been really helpful.

We do essentially live in the electronics room, our office (which happens to be the smallest room, as well. I'd already considered hanging up a quilt in front of the hollow-core door, but the ideas of hanging felt and fabric and insulating with our furniture are new. I'm blocking drafts with bookcases as I type.

I'm also interested in getting the home evaluation offered by Conserve Nova Scotia. I'd feel pretty vindicated if our place came back with a score of 4/100. Unfortunately most of the programs are for homeowners, so I'd have some serious sucking up to do to get blown-in insulation.

I had no idea electric blankets were so useful— we'll be picking one up ASAP.

posted by tempest in a teapot at 3:41 PM on October 9, 2007

i don't know what common clothing (like long underwear) is in canada, but i recommend you consider the principal of layering. i like a cotton under-layer, then wool-blend long-underwear, then polyester fleece atop that; this is typically warm enough for 30F or so for me.

the electric blanket thing you've noted is also great, for your bed and also perhaps one in your living space to drape with if you're cold.

i have found that cold hands/feet/neck/head will make me feel cold even if the rest of me is quite 'warm'; pay special attention to making sure your extremities stay warm. get yourself a neck gaiter and/or a balaclava. this is pricey but you could consider an electric jacket.

also, when you feel really cold try going outside for a few minutes; coming inside will make you feel very warm (at least for a while), and may gradually acclimate you to the chill.

to keep your living space warm you could try hanging wool or polyester blankets as 'curtains' around your living space so that any exits are blocked off, thus heating only the area you're in.
posted by jjsonp at 4:16 PM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Styrofoam is your friend. you could attach some to the flat surfaces in your living spaces. the northern minnesota home that I grew up in had thick sheets of styro glued on to the cinderblock walls in the basement, and some thick fiberglass in the ceiling. also in the basement was a wood stove. it got pretty toasty down there.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 4:17 PM on October 9, 2007

i have the exact same problem- a completely uninsulated room, and a canadian winter, ugh. when i even THINK of winter in my apartment i start to shiver.

light lots of candles
switch to 100watt incandesant bulbs (sorry environment! electricity is better than oil, though- at least electricity can be partly hydro or wind!)
use the stovetop, not the microwave or kettle- it heats the room as you cook
leave hot water from showers, baths & dishwashing in the sink/tub til it releases all its heat into the room
wear knee socks under your jeans (more comfortable than long johns)

flannel or jersey sheets below you
above you, use a polarfleece blanket AGAINST YOUR SKIN- it must be against skin to work well. don't put pyjamas or a sheet between you and it.
over the polarfleece, a down duvet.
buy a small electric heating pad for your bed, or your feet while you're sitting around.

good luck!
posted by twistofrhyme at 4:34 PM on October 9, 2007

If you can sew or know somebody that can you may be interested in Warm Windows.

Discussion on Warm Windows.

There are also places on the internet that you can custom order warm window coverings.
posted by LoriFLA at 5:15 PM on October 9, 2007

•caulking around all of the windows and sealing them with plastic

I lived for five years in a drafty cabin with just wood heat during some pretty cold winters; the only thing I'd add is to use *two* layers of plastic around the inside of the entire window, sill and all; the trapped air between the layers helps dramatically to retain heat. Probably the single best thing I did to the place. Put a layer on the outside of the window if you can as well, covering everything, including the outside frame/sill.
posted by mediareport at 9:29 PM on October 9, 2007

By accident I discovered a better hot water bottle than I thought existed: an old (1976) half gallon stainless steel thermos that had lost most of its vacuum. I fill it with boiling water and put it in an old cotton sock; it never gets too hot to put against your skin, and still warms my partner's feet eight hours later (the next morning).
posted by jamjam at 11:20 PM on October 9, 2007

Can you drill a smallish hole in the hollow door and fill it with that ultra-light expanding foam (then caulk over the hole and repaint the door if needed) ?
posted by mikepop at 5:43 AM on October 10, 2007

Response by poster: Drilling a hole in the door is a very interesting idea. I'm definitely looking into that. And I've never heard of two layers of plastic before; sounds intriguing. I'm surprised to read it made that much difference.

Our place isn't very big (maybe 750 sqft) but there's just one thermostat, so I can't control which rooms are heated, unfortunately. The vents don't even have shutters to allow me to redirect it through the day.

Thanks for all the tips on bedding. There's always part of me that's excited to dig out the big duvet again, but then another part reminds me exactly why we need it. Happily, the bed is one of our few warm places. My favorite method of warming it up is still heating a Portland Paver brick on a woodstove for a few hours before bed, but I'm happy to settle for a modified solution. Normal hot water bottles and microwaved rice bags just don't stand up to the cold in this place.

We're already layering our clothes here, since winter decided to start on Monday. Thanks to all this advice, though, we've got some new strategies to try.
posted by tempest in a teapot at 9:44 AM on October 10, 2007

In addition to electric blankets, you could try other heated clothing such as electric socks or microwaveable slippers (I've had experience with the latter and they really work).
posted by underwater at 10:25 AM on October 10, 2007

If the windows are single glazed press cling film (saran wrap) to the top of the frame and attach with blue 3M masking tape (easier to remove in spring than Sellotape or standard tan masking tape) stretch cling film down, cut, press and tape at bottom and side, repeat overlapping cling film by an inch or two and press together overlap after sticking down each section at top and bottom. Cover any visible cracks or gaps in window surround with masking tape.
posted by Dr.Pill at 12:26 PM on October 10, 2007

If you do decide to drill the hole and use expandable foam insulation, make sure to spring a little extra for the kind that is designed to go in the gaps between walls and windowsills. Basically, there's two kinds of foam. One is going to spread out to a fixed size and put pressure against whatever is containing it. This is okay for gaps in concrete maybe but not your hollow door. The other kind will expand but not exert too much pressure against whatever is containing it. I would hope that type of foam wouldn't damage your door, but what do I know, I'm just some yahoo on the internet. YMMV.

[I'd be also concerned about only drilling one hole in that door -- the foam might expand too much before it hits the bottom. Again, YMMV.]
posted by the_W at 9:05 PM on October 10, 2007

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