Alternative Heating Ideas for Price Hikes and Power Outages
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Photos By Shelley Dedauw
Growing up, I got in big trouble for turning on the heat. And we walked to school uphill both ways and then came home to milk the pigs, right? Actually, we did have a house rule prohibiting electric heat. Firewood was much cheaper.
After 22 years in the Navy, Dad retired his family to Salmon, Idaho. But living in a rural paradise came at a cost. Dad worked constantly. In order to stay home to raise five kids, mom also raised the food. Money didn’t stretch far. A few dollars a day added up when the power bill came in.
The mountains around Salmon are heavily forested. And sometimes pine beetles or mistletoe infestations devoured entire slopes. The trees had to be removed. So, after clear-cutting the infestation, the local Forest Service opened up free-use areas. Individuals could cut and remove all the wood they wanted as long as it came from the debris. After all the usable wood was gone, the Forest Service then burned away contamination and planted new trees.
We drove pickup trucks and wood trailers, several times a year, into the free-use area. And, though we despised every minute of work and sawdust, our parents called it “family time”. We really were learning valuable lessons. Everything comes at a cost, and a power bill can be more painful than elbow grease.
I now live near downtown Reno, but winter still causes a crisis. My historical old house uses heating oil. Our first year, we only spent $900 for four months of heat. (Only?) Gas prices rose in year two, and after spending $600 in one month just for heat, we looked for alternatives. Sadly, this little house has no fireplace so we have to get innovative.
But we now only pay $100 a month for heat, and $200 if it gets below 0 degrees.
The Big Alternatives
Energy studies say that the average U.S. household spends either $700 a year on natural gas or $1,700 a year on heating oil. To supplement their heat, they often use space heaters to supplement an inadequate or expensive heating system. Some of these heaters work when the power goes out while others don’t.
Once known for sucking a lot of power, newer models now save money instead of spending it. Purchasing one for each major room of the house can avoid furnace use in moderate climates. They can blow directly onto pipes to keep them from freezing. But if the power goes out, so does your heat.
Wood Stoves Or Pellet Stoves
Both have pros and cons. Wood stoves can burn fallen trees or untreated pallet splinters. But it can be difficult to get a wood stove approved in a home that hasn’t had one, especially a mobile home. Though a pellet stove may require more investment, it is safer, has lower emissions, and doesn’t require you to wake up several times a night to feed a fire. Pellet stoves can also run on more sustainable fuels like corn or cherry pits. While wood stoves don’t need electricity, pellet stoves do.
Benjamin Franklin noticed that too much fireplace heat went up the chimney, which sparked his invention of the Franklin Stove. But you can make traditional fireplaces more efficient. The Wood Heat Organization advises placing a ceiling fan in the room. It’ll distribute heat from the fireplace, no matter where in the room the fan is. Set the fan to spin clockwise, which pushes warm air back down. If you don’t have a ceiling fan, place a floor model in front of the hearth, far enough away that the heat doesn’t damage it, to propel air into the room. And always use the driest wood you can.
Stay Safe While Staying Warm
Your chances of freezing to death inside your house are actually pretty small. But if you’re not careful, you could succumb to fire or asphyxiation.
Never burn heaters without ventilation. Run pipes through windows and close gaps with noncombustible material such as metal sheeting. If you have to use an unvented heater, open windows on opposite sides of the room for a cross-breeze.
Always use the right fuel. Outdoor barbeque materials, such as treated briquettes, need to stay outside. Don’t use bottled gas in appliances made for natural gas.
Keep flammable materials, including curtains and clothing, away from all types of heaters.
Keep fire extinguishers on hand and ready. Be sure everyone in the house knows how to use them.
Assign someone to stay awake on “fire watch.” This person will ensure nothing catches flame that isn’t supposed to and will be sure there is enough ventilation.
Know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning: Fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, headache, confusion, vertigo, and lightheadedness. Carbon monoxide is colorless, tasteless, and odorless so you often won’t know there’s a problem until you get sick. If you experience these symptoms, immediately open windows to bring in fresh air.
Keep Heat Where It Belongs
You don’t necessarily have to create more heat. Often you just need to keep the heat you have created. If you have the funds to upgrade your house, install programmable thermostats so furnaces don’t work as hard when you’re out of the house or covered in blankets. Insulate walls and attics. Air-seal those small cracks and holes through which heat might escape. These may be in crawl spaces, where pipes enter the house, or beside doors and windows.
But if you only have a little money each year, or you don’t have permission to upgrade a rental, you can still increase energy efficiency.
Open them during the day so direct sunlight can warm the room. But when the sun moves, close the curtains. Tacking fabric to the walls around the windows keeps even more heat in.
If you can’t afford storm windows, purchase clear plastic sheeting. Tape the plastic to molding on all four sides of the windows, making sure there is a gap between the plastic and the window glass. Using window-insulator kits allows you to tighten the slack in crystal-clear plastic with a hair dryer but purchasing cheaper 6ml plastic means light can shine through but neighbors can’t see in. Translucent shower curtains can be even cheaper than purchasing 25 feet of sheeting. This is especially desirable because insulating the windows means you can no longer raise and lower blinds.
Close The Gaps
Weather-stripping seals the little gaps around windows and doors. Draft-stoppers lie on the floor to stop wind from blowing under the door. And closing doors to the rooms you aren’t using keeps heat within the area you’re using most. Use towels and discarded clothing if you don’t want to splurge at the hardware store.
Use Appliances Wisely
Make your machines work double duty. Bake dinners and desserts during the hours in which you need the most heat. Don’t wait to dry clothes until you’re tucked beneath warm covers. Even a forced air food dehydrator can run at night, preserving your harvest while adding a few degrees of warmth.
Stay In One Room
It’s easier to warm a single room than the entire house, especially if part of that warmth is body heat. Spend your evenings together before retiring to bed so a single space heater can take care of everyone.
Rugs And Carpets
Heat can escape through the floor as well. And it’s never fun to step out of bed and onto cold tile. Build a couple layers between you and the floor.
Don’t be afraid to put on extra layers. That’s the safest and most cost-efficient way to stay warm, whether it’s an emergency or you just need to save on energy costs. Loose layers are warmer than tight ones. Wool is warmer than cotton. And remember how someone once told you that you lose most of your heat through your head? That’s an old wives’ tale. You lose it through any exposed skin, so cover yourself top to bottom.
The kids will love this one. Not all loose layers have to be worn on your body. Set up tents within your warmest room and let kids sleep in them for some added insulation.
Marissa Ames writes from Reno, Nevada, where she maintains Ames Family Farm on 1/8 of an urban acre.