The climate is changing and I’m getting cold feet

Written by erin


This time of year, we play a strange game of “chicken” at my house, watching each other to see who will break down and turn on the heat. We have radiant heat, which means a boiler circulates hot water through pipes in the cement foundation, warming it; the warm foundation in turn warms the floors which in turn radiate heat inside the house. I love radiant heat generally, but you can’t turn it on for just a few minutes to take off a chill. You’ve got to decide whether you’re going to warm the whole cement slab, or not; and you’ve got to decide the night before because it takes a couple hours for the system to get everything up to temperature.

In shoulder seasons, it can be either quite warm or quite cool, or go both ways throughout the week. Since we’d rather be too cool than waste gas, we keep the heat off until it gets consistently cold. As a result, our house is chilly on chilly fall days. This is a problem when I’m working from home because I’m likely to be sitting at my computer for hours on end and my extremities get cold.

I’ve recently learned that lots of people play this game in one form or another, and I picked up a bunch of helpful tips for others similarly inclined. Note, I am not trying to re-raise a Jimmy Carter In A Sweater ruckus, nor am I saying that climate change mitigation means we have to be cold in our houses. I’m just saying that if you want to keep your overall house heat down, here are some tips:

**Wear a sweater.** Yeah, I know what I just said, but still, dressing warmly is the simplest way to maintain comfort. A hat (even a baseball cap) is another good idea because so much body heat is lost through the head.

**Eat breakfast.** I don’t know if this is physiological or psychological, but I know I feel colder if I am hungry.

**Populate your home with throw-blankets.** Or those sleeved things. At our house, we use grandmother’s afghans.

**Use the microwave to warm things you can keep with you.** Ideas include Nalgene bottles filled with water to tuck under the covers; beenie-filled items you microwave then wear around (neck, wrists, booties… there are lots of these on the market).

**Use a mug warmer** (it’s like a very small, low-power hot plate). This is a product I thought totally ridiculous until someone gave one to me. The great part isn’t that it keeps the tea warm (an insulated mug will do that); the great part is that it keeps the mug warm. This way, I can hold the warm mug for a few minutes whenever my hands get cold.

**Heat your bed with an electric mattress pad cover.** Again, never thought I would use something like this. It’s designed to be turned on a few minutes before bed, and it heats up all the blankets because it’s on the bottom. You can turn it off immediately upon getting into bed. It is just nirvana to get into a warm bed in a cool house.

**Get a dog or a cat** small and cooperative enough to sit on your lap or your feet.

**Stand up and move around.**

**Space heaters.** I have mixed feelings about space heaters, and I have given up on them in our house. I don’t like the way the fan-type ones smell, and the dish-shaped radiant ones provide great heat but use a surprising amount of energy. Still, heating a small space with a portable heater may be preferable to heating an entire house – the specifics will depend on where your energy comes from and how much heat you need. For what it’s worth, my dogs prefer the space heater to sitting on my feet.

Your tips?

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  1. Lynn C

    I don’t think electric blankets are a good idea. I don’t want electrical currents running close to my body. Flannel sheets or velour sheets which are warm as soon as you get into bed are a better idea (with plenty of blankets). Sleeping in a cool room is always best.
    We try to keep the furnace off as long as possible into the heating season (in Minnesota). For those cool times before firing up the furnace, a space heater in the morning in the room where needed works well for us.

  2. JayZee

    This goes for all year round but especially now. I throw the curtains open in the south and east facing rooms as soon as I get up, then close them before dark. That heat from the sun really helps, and the curtains help keep the warmth in at night.

  3. Sorina

    I also bake a lot during fall and winter. It makes for easy cooking (casseroles, sweet and savory pies, cakes, pizza) and for warm kitchen and dining room.

  4. Ken H

    We use oil-filled electric heaters in the shoulder seasons which can sometimes be quite long here in Nova Scotia.
    They work on a principle similar to your radiant in-floor heating; a coil heats oil inside a device that looks like a small old- fashioned radiator.
    Some have wattage selectors and have a thermostat designed to keep storage spaces and the like just above freezing (7C, I think) , so they may be useful right through the winter.
    I’ve got one of these on a meter right now to check out the actual usage, but from past experience, their electrical consumption seems reasonable.

  5. lee

    I have the same problem as we have oil heat.We use wood 90% of the time but you waste a lot of wood this time of the year .we use the oil in the am&pm then turn it off while sleeping.We also have a place to heat the living room.OUR TOTAL COST IS UNDER $200per month DURING HEATING SEASON(20 below zero is not unusual here)

  6. Mary Florence

    It might not work for a retrofit, but could you design a radiant wall system that heated specific zoned spaces (like under a desk or in a frequently used seating area, or a bathroom) and didn’t have the lag time because it didn’t try to heat a large mass like a concrete floor? It could be tied into the regular system, but be zoned, and only used in the shoulder seasons when you needed to take the chill off temporarily.

  7. lee

    the electricity is too expensive to be considered in northern N.Y..I have family that was convinced by the power co. to use electric for all there needs they soon changed to lpg.&wood for as many of their needs as possible……..lee

  8. chris nowell

    i like the article and love the pic, but that is one of the most selfish reasons to get a pet i’ve ever heard. i hope you wrote it with tongue in cheek.
    on a separate point, instead or recommending that people buy more crap (that also most likely happens to be made in China), just suggest toughening up. my mom keeps the thermostat between 61 and 63F in winter, and we’re used to it just fine. you adjust.

  9. Eric J

    The electric mattress pad idea is wonderful! The EMF of newer ones is 90+% lower than the older versions, but we still use ours as Erin describes — just to take the chill off the bed before you get in (and use lots of covers). Allows us to be happy with the house at 60-62F at night. We have one on a king-size bed that uses 140 watts on high, so at 15 minutes a day that’s 1 kWh per month.

  10. lee

    We are going to buy a pad this year(our temp drops to 55deg 6 am.)

  11. Kathy Ritscher

    Dress warm is the best info. I use slippers and throw blankets a lot and I have achy muscles when it gets too cold. Oh and baking. I do tend to shift the food types to oven meals when it gets cold.

  12. dave

    everyone on these comments seems to be focused on the energy production side of the equation. How about learning from the “passive house” construction philosophy that has taken hold in Germany… I think we could all add more insulation to our outer envelope of the home and drastically decrease the amount of energy required for heating. That’s what I’m focusing on right now at my place.
    During the shoulder season we are resisting the urge to make it toasty every second because we know the weather forecast will change. For example today we will open the windows again since it’s going to reach the low 70s (before dipping back to temps that are cooler than the indoor “comfort zone” range). We are using oil filled radiator heaters in my young son’s bedroom to take off the chill for an hour at bedtime and dawn, on the coldest nights. This costs us about 12 cents an hour according to our Home Energy PowerCost Monitor. We are also using our ventless natural gas “log” heater which is 100 percent efficient transferring heat to the indoor space.

  13. Erin Craig

    Irony and humor do tend to get lost in the written word, don’t they? For the record, I do not advocate that anyone acquire a pet unless they are willing to provide all the care, affection, space, time, and material necessities required by the pet. The pet pictured is one of my two mixed-breed pound-dogs, both of whom make great lap warmers.

  14. Erin Craig

    You are quite right to remind us of the importance of reducing energy needs. Insulation can be very cost-effective (though it is unfortunately a rather “big ticket” expense). Here is a TP blog post from a few years back on home insulation: Also, if you use the search box to find blog posts on “passive homes” you will find a small collection of them from this past December – January.

  15. Eve Segal

    I turn old winter socks into wrist and ankle warmers. Cut off the toes, roll them up, and put them on ankles and wrists. They don’t have to match. Mismatching gloves work, too. You can cut off the fingers so you can still type etc.

  16. Robert Houser

    You mentioned you are sitting at home for hours in front of a computer. If it’s a tower – make sure to put it under your desk by your feet. I’m always surprised how two computer towers and a couple hard drives can heat up my studio enough to stay warm on a cold day. You’re already using them, might as well take advantage of the heat they produce.
    If you’re working on a laptop, put it on your lap – your thighs will be hot in no time.

  17. Linda Castillo

    My daughter gave me a large electric lap pad several years ago that really makes a difference on very cold night. I also open my drapes on sunny days and close them when the sun starts to go down, and lap robes when I am sitting in the evening, the time I usually read my newspaper and watch the news or my favorite TV show. I also have thermal liners on my drapes to provide extra protection from the weather. I had a step up fuel efficient furnace and AC installed several years ago that really has held down the cost and keeps my house very comfortable. And I have the furnace maintained twice a year and change the filters as recommended by the installer.

  18. Barbara Lamb

    I live in a house heated only by a wood stove. I never fire it up until after the first good rain as we live in an area where forest fires are a real danger. Often there are many days that are downright cold. I break out the silk long johns and silk turtlenecks when it’s chilly and I wear them all winter long. I have light weights, medium weights and heavy weights for really cold days. The silk undergarments and a long sleeved teeshirt and a pair of sweatspants and a sweatshirt will keep me comfortable when it’s in the 50’s or 60’s in the house. When it’s really cold, I add a scarf of silk or wool around my neck and a beret for my head. Then, if I’m still cold, I’ll bake something for dinner. At night, I sleep under a down comforter and flannel sheets. I also have two cats who sleeo on my lap and feet.

  19. Bob Rottenberg

    Our old house in southern Vermont has a propane circulating hot water heat system. We now have a wood stove at one end of the house, with a small heat circulating fan that moves heat from the living room to the dining room. To heat the bathroom, at the other end of the house, we normally would have to fire up the whole heating system, which is crazy during the shoulder seasons, and especially with the wood stove providing sufficient heat for the living spaces. So we put a small electric heater in the bathroom, which heats it up in no time at all, and then we turn it off.

  20. kib

    Most of the things I do have already been mentioned. A. Keep the heat that is generated from leaving. B. My overall strategy is to work from the inside out. 1. Warm the innards. Put things like hot tea into my body, or jump around a little bit – get the inner workings warmed up some! 2. Warm the skin and keep the body heat in: Put on more clothes. Right now it’s 55 degrees in my house. I’m wearing a knit cap, I have some snuggy warm boots on, and a sweater. 3. Warm the clothes: blankets, electric throws etc. 4. Warm the house – the floor, the walls, the air. This can be: passive solar energy, active solar collection, or any manner of burning oil, gas, electricity, wood, pellets or other fuel.
    5. Make a perception of warmth. We have lots of candles around the house and on an especially chilly day I like to keep one burning on my desk. I can warm my hands on the jar, but mostly I just see the heat, and perhaps smell something good that makes me think of warmth, like cinnamon. I don’t perceive myself as being so cold when I can look at fire.

  21. kib

    Edit: I really should have said 4. warm the air, and 5. warm the house. I’m very discerning about how much of the house has to be warm at any one time. If at all possible, don’t warm any air that’s not an envelope around a body.

  22. Louise

    I wondered how long it would take someone to mention warm socks and slippers or soft boots. If I sit too long (age 72 and arthritic), I get terribly stiff if its cold. So, sweaters, warm footwear, and warm throws are a great comfort.
    For the working from home types, what about spending part of your mid-day break (assuming you take one) on a brisk walk outdoors when weather permits. It’ll feel great when you get back inside and you’ll have revved up your metabolism so you’ll feel warmer for a good while.
    Happy winter to all from Cincinnati, OH, where you sometimes have to be careful not to blink or you may miss winter.

  23. John Beu

    Thanks for simple recipe on how to make pizza’s. I will try to make them during vacation. I am just worried about the mess the pizza dough will create.