For many of us in the United States, winter came early and abruptly. I’ve been on the road out West for most of the last 4 weeks and when I left the weather was P-E-R-F-E-C-T. Cool evenings, brisk mornings, but warm during the day. The humidity was gone and no artificial climate control was needed in the house to stay comfortable (read: HUGE energy savings). I got back to my home in Tennessee earlier this week and was greeted by low 20F degree temperatures and our backyard pond completely frozen over! Dear Mr. Polar Vortex, give me my autumn back! (I know, I know, many of you readers from up north are snickering as you’re shoveling out your driveways.)

Being thrust unceremoniously into the midst of winter, my cold weather survival instincts that have been dormant the past few months fired back up, but how do those instincts work together with my crumb-saving instincts?  How to stay warm and save crumbs at the same time?

Heat = Energy

Let’s try to keep things simple. Heat generation requires energy. So the less energy it takes to stay warm, the more efficient it is, thereby keeping more crumbs in our pockets. The central heating system is the largest energy hog in most homes (it definitely is in mine), and so the objective is to employ strategies to stay warm while using central heat as little as possible.

In our home last winter, we never needed the heat to be set higher than 62F (unless we had guests, at which point we turned it up to a sweltering 70 F) and our highest bill was for $81.68 in February 2014, during which we had snow plus a string of days in teens and single digits.  There were similarly-sized homes in our area spending nearly FOUR TIMES that!

Here are a few things we did to stay warm last winter.

1.  Allow Our Bodies to Adapt

Lest you think that we were coughing and hacking our way all through winter last year, we actually had one of the most cold/flu-free winter seasons in our lives. I believe one reason was that we actually allowed our bodies to adapt to the lower temperatures, instead of being jarred between artificially created extreme temperatures every time we came and left the house. Besides, the dryness caused by the central heating often gives me cranky upper respiratory issues. To aid this winter-adaptation process, go for walks, spend time outdoors, it’ll make you more cold hardy and it’ll make your home feel warmer at lower temperatures.

2. Heat Ourselves

We all know to bundle up when the mercury drops, but I think sometimes we allow fashion rather than common sense to dictate how we dress in cold weather. I can’t help but scratch my head when I see ladies shivering out in the cold, wearing big coats or jackets with maybe a thick scarf all while wearing nothing but leggings and a mini-skirt on their bottom half! Just remember this when you dress yourself for winter: Keep your extremities warm!

Here’s my simplistic way of thinking about this. The majority of our body mass is in our torso and that’s where most of our body heat is generated. As our blood leaves our heart to make the long trek out to distant capillaries in our fingers, ears, and toes, it gets cooled down in our exposed limbs. When it returns to the torso, all that blood lowers our core temperature and needs to be heated up again. The way to maintain body temperature therefore, is to insulate the limbs so the blood doesn’t lose as much heat as it travels to and from the heart. Practical fashion advice: Wear things like long thermal underwear, wool socks, gloves, earmuffs, hats, balaclavas, etc. rather than giant poofy sleeveless vests even if they perfectly match your holiday-patterned stockings.

Oh, and whoever said our homes must be at tropical temperatures so we can walk around in shorts and a t-shirt during winter? Keep the long johns, wool socks, and sweaters on even when you’re at home—and invest in a pair of warm house shoes. This’ll also save you time in not having to peel so many layers off when you come and go.

3. Cook and Eat Hot Food

The stove and oven puts off heat when it’s used, and we need to cook anyway, so choose to cook things that can add heat to the house at the same time. Wintertime is great for baking and perfect for piping hot soups and drinks. Being Asian, I would be remiss not to mention hot pot, curries, and soup noodles.  You’ll get the double benefit of warming the house in the preparation and warming your insides in the partaking.

4. Use the Sun

Guess what?  You don’t have to have solar panels to take advantage of solar energy! If the windows in your house have good sun exposure, open up your shades on sunny days to let the rays naturally warm your place. (Particularly the southern windows for those in the northern hemisphere and the northern windows for those in the south.) We don’t have any windows facing the south in our home so we take advantage of the sun as it sets in the west, and it can sometimes increase the internal temperature of our home by as much as 5 degrees.

5. Increase Attic Insulation

One of the first things we did when we moved into our house was blow in a ton more attic insulation. Because we were under-insulated already, we qualified for a $250 rebate from our local utility for the upgrade. Getting paid money to save money, nice! If you are in a position to make an investment to improve your heating efficiency, insulating your attic should be high on the list. (Our home was well weather-sealed already; otherwise this would also have been another investment.)

6. Use Space Heaters Sparingly

Our last line of defense in heating our home are space heaters. I emphasize “last line” of defense because space heaters are INEFFICIENT ways to heat your home. They need to be used with discretion or else they can cost you more than simply using central heat. As an example, let’s look at a 1500-watt space heater, which is adequate to heat a small room. If electricity costs $0.10/kWh and you run that heater 24 hours a day, that space heater costs $108/month to operate. Notice, that our HIGHEST electric bill last winter (which included electricity use for the entire house like hot water, stove, lights, appliances, etc.) was $26 less than the cost to run ONE space heater to heat ONE room.

Central heating systems like heat pumps (what we have) and geothermal are more efficient in the heat produced per unit of energy input (and natural gas is cheaper even though their furnaces aren’t as efficient).  HOWEVER space heaters can be cheaper if used to heat only targeted areas. We have a space heater on a timer in our bedroom that turns on low about a half hour before we get up in the mornings. This takes the chill out of the room before we step out of bed, and enables us to keep a lower temperature in the house at night and to not have to warm the entire house in the morning. However, if we have kids or more people staying with us, it would more efficient to run our central heat pump to warm the house than to have space heaters in every room.

Other Thoughts

Here are a few additional random thoughts on this subject.

  • Since last winter, we’ve installed solar panels that not only covers all our electricity usage but also pays us back a surplus, so that will be a major help this year in covering our heating costs.
  • We’ve also considered a wood stove of some kind to be an alternative source of heat if the power goes out, but our house layout simply does not permit the installation of a free-standing wood stove or fireplace insert without a major remodel.
  • Heat pumps have been hailed for their efficiency (300% efficient or something like that), but the problem is that because they operate by exchanging heat from outside to inside the house, they cease to work very well once the temperature outside gets close to freezing. At that point the electric heating strips fire on, and it becomes just one giant space heater, making my electric meter spin into orbit. I guess you can say I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with my central heating system.
  • My dream is to have a radiant floor heating system someday where nice soft even heat emanates from the floor. Cold feet equals the worst kind of misery in my book!
  • Deb has every so often talked about electric blankets and wondered whether that would be a good tool to add to our winter arsenal. Our down comforter has served us well so we haven’t felt a huge need, but we’re curious to know your thoughts if you’ve ever used electric blankets.

Has winter arrived in your neck of the woods? What do YOU do to stay warm? Share your tips with us in the comments below!