Home heating is probably our single biggest energy expense. Nearly all of us rely on fossil fuels. How can we accomplish more sustainable winter heating?
1. Find and eliminate drafts
On a windy day, take a piece of string and move your hand around every window sill, door jam, vent, pet door, or anywhere else there might be a draft.
If the string continues to hang straight down, all is well. If it starts to blow around, you have found a leak.
Use silicone caulk or a foam sealant for window frames or other sources that don’t move. You can get draft gaskets for outlets or light switches on outside walls.
For leaks around doors or windows, add weather stripping. Single pane windows will probably be drafty and will conduct heat in the wrong direction even if they’re not.
If you’re handy, you can make pelmets, which are decorations something like wooden valences. They also prevent heat loss through convection currents, so you’ll recoup the cost of the plywood. You can also buy pelmets, but they can be expensive.
If you don’t have storm windows, you can get a plastic film to cover the window and then shrink it with a hair dryer. Of course, then you have plastic waste in the spring. If you don’t need light through the window hang heavy curtains or blankets over it.
2. Check your insulation
Do you have enough insulation? Department of Energy’s ZIP-Code Insulation Program will estimate how much insulation your house needs. Just enter your ZIP-code and select the kind of fuel you use from a menu.
If you need more insulation, adding it to the attic is easiest. Adding it to the walls is more complicated. It’s also more effective at reducing costs.
What kind of insulation should you use? For sustainable winter heating, go green! Recycled paper, old jeans, and other materials make good insulation. So look for a local company that offers recycled insulation.
3. Use a programmable thermostat
It used to be that the most efficient way to heat or cool a home was to set the thermostat at one desired temperature and leave it there. Nowadays, get a programmable thermostat instead.
You can program it for five degrees lower during the day when everyone is at work or school, and at night while you sleep. And then it will raise the heat before you get up and in time for the first person to come home.
A programmable thermostat knows what day it is, too, so you can set a different schedule for every day of the week.
Some people set their furnaces to a higher temperature in the winter than they set their air conditioners in the summer.
That makes no sense!
Plan to wear thick socks, sweaters, and other suitable winter clothing and turn the thermostat as low as you can without having to wear a hat and gloves in the house.
4. Use a fireplace, or not, depending on what you have
A gas fireplace looks pretty. It doesn’t heat the room very well. It’s actually cheaper to turn up the thermostat and let your central heating warm the room—and the rest of the house. A better idea? If you’re feeling a little chilly, put on warmer clothes or wrap yourself in a blanket.
A wood-burning fireplace, on the other hand, gives off much more heat. It will make the room toasty warm without heating the rest of the house. If you burn scrap wood or wood pellets made from sawdust instead of logs, your fireplace will provide very cost-effective heat.
Just make sure that you watch it carefully and keep it serviced. Careless use of a fireplace can burn your house down.
5. Reverse your ceiling fan
The circulation of the air doesn’t cool the room, but it makes it feel cooler.
Most ceiling fans have a switch to let them rotate clockwise in the winter.
With that setting, the fan will draw down the heat that has risen to the ceiling. It promotes sustainable winter heating by keeping the heat in the room rather than letting it dissipate through the roof.
6. Use a space heater
If you spend a lot of time in one of the smaller rooms of your home, consider a space heater. It takes less fuel to use it than increase the temperature the entire home with your furnace. Newer ones are safer and more energy efficient than older ones. Put your heater close to where you’ll be sitting or otherwise spending most of your time. But avoid using an extension cord.
7. Take advantage of sunlight
Use passive solar heat. In the summer, you can put solar shades on south or west facing windows, or close curtains, to keep the sun from heating your home.
In the winter, remove the solar shades and keep the curtains open during the day time; heat coming in through the windows is a good thing in winter. Be sure to close the curtains at night to keep heat from escaping through the glass.
8. Your oven and sustainable winter heating
It’s a bad idea to use the oven to heat a room, but if you’re going to use it for cooking, you might as well leave the oven door open when you turn it off. You’ve already paid for the energy it’s used. Get double duty from it
9. Skip the exhaust fan
You probably have exhaust fans in your bathrooms and above the stove. In the winter time, think of them as drafts you can turn on and off. Don’t turn them on except at extreme need. They’ll suck hot air out of the house, and your furnace will have to work harder.
10. Keep the humidity high enough
In bitterly cold weather, the air inside your home can get as dry as a desert. Or maybe drier. Indoor humidity ought to be at least 20 percent, up to 40 percent.
Among other dangers of excessive dryness, you’ll feel colder. Turning up the heat will just dry the air more.
A humidifier can help with sustainable winter heating, especially one designed to sit under the air intake and humidify the entire house. Lots of houseplants or an aquarium can help, too.
Don’t overdo it. If ice forms on the inside of your windows, the indoor air is too humid. Like too-dry air, too-humid air can do structural damage to your home and furnishings.
I have mentioned air loss through windows, especially old single pane windows. At some point, you’ll have to replace old windows. And an old furnace. That will be expensive. In the mean time, experiment with these less expensive—or free—ways to reduce energy consumption. Sustainable winter heating is good your finances and the environment.