Winters in New England can be brutal. They dominate over the other seasons and seem to last forever. Sometimes we get lucky with short stretches of mild temperatures, but there is no way to get through the winter without some sort of heat source. Electric, solar, gas, oil, or wood are all options, but once your home is outfitted for one system, it can be expensive to change. However, changing your heating system is possible and can be worth the high initial investment, especially if you rely primarily on oil.
Although change is possible for some, many fail to realize the limited options of those who live in apartment buildings. Tenants have some say in how they want to live, but really it is up to the landlord to make the major decisions, including the type of heating system set up. For thousands in the northeast, that means having to purchase fuel oil even if they can’t afford it or want to use it. It becomes a necessary evil. Are there any options for tenants who need to watch their budget and may want to reduce their environmental impact? Yes. Welcome to the winter of 2007-2008 in my old, energy inefficient Vermont apartment.
Tenants live in apartments for many reasons, but typically it’s because it is not financially possible or make economic sense. For me, it is because at this stage in my life, I cannot afford to purchase a home. Of course I would like to, but I cannot, so I have to make do with what I have. All too often I have read articles or been in discussions where others are telling you how great it is for your economic situation and for the environment to consider changing heating systems or to make repairs and changes to your home to conserve energy. But to my dismay, do these articles ever mention the problem that renters face? No. And when I bring up the renter situation in discussions, even the greatest of speakers begins to trip and fall over their flawed pieces of advice. There just didn’t seem to be any help for people like me.
Let me briefly describe my apartment. It is a two bedroom second floor unit. My observations of thin walls, age of the house, general upkeep, and the uncanny ability for me to hear outside and downstairs, indicated limited insulation. The windows are ancient and rattle in the slightest of breezes. Only a few have outer storm windows, dare I say at least 10 years old? I can see outside around my door frame, and unless locked properly, can year round feel a steady stream of air around it. Two of the main rooms, the spare room which is used as my husband’s art studio, and the large room connected to our living room which has become a study/computer room, have no heat sources. I suspect that the bedroom heat outlet “thing” only works half the time. And once the heat is on, the warmest place in the whole unit is the bathroom. Little good that does. Don’t get me wrong, we love this place and wouldn’t imagine moving, but when it comes to heating it, energy efficient it is NOT. As for a fuel source, we need to supply our own oil. Luckily, our hot water heater is electric, which saves us a ton.
But despite all the inefficiencies, one of the snowiest winters on record, and a limited budget, we made it through the winter on less than 100 gallons of oil. We didn’t become human Popsicles, but we also didn’t feel as though we were in the tropics. We knew how much of a cost that minimum delivery of 100 gallons was, and we were going to do everything in our power to prevent a second delivery. How? It was a mix of actually thinking before we turned on the heat, making a game out of the whole thing, and finding warmth elsewhere. Figuring out how to achieve our goal was a challenge this year, but now that we know how, next year will be easier. I believe anyone who really wants to achieve the same or similar goal can do so while still remaining comfortable. Below I’ve listed the five most important, and easy, steps I followed to get through the winter.
Five Easy Changes to Get Through a Winter on 100 Gallons of Oil or Less
1.) Make a game out of it. It sounds childish, but it’s extremely helpful! Make up a set of rules as to when you can put the heat on and for how long. If you forget and leave it on, how will you make up for that? If you make it so long without turning it on, what’s your reward? Figure out some way that you can present the challenge to yourself (and roommates) that sounds somewhat appealing. For us, the one “wild card” was when we had company over. That was our number one excuse for turning on the heat. And we also had rules that kept changing, such as when we could turn it on for the first time. For us, once November hit, the thermostat was free game.
2.) Prepare your apartment for winter. We couldn’t rip down walls and reinsulate, nor could we replace old windows, but there are still some cheap and effective ways to save you some loss of heat. One of the biggest ways is to prevent the loss of heat through old loose windows by covering them with plastic. Hit up your local hardware store and you’ll see all kinds of kits available to do so. You can go extreme and buy the more expensive heavy duty stuff that may require a nail gun and a little more time, or you can buy the kits that come with double sided tape and only need a hair dryer to tighten and “fix” the plastic. It’s super easy to do and worth every penny. Other suggestions include making sure you have blankets out and available for grabbing and cuddling under, throwing some flannel sheets and a couple extra blankets on your bed, and making sure you can close off rooms with doors or hanging blankets if they lack a heating source and will not be in use.
3.) Find other heat sources. Now, I know I said above that alternative heat systems are not feasible, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I am talking about are sweatshirts, blankets, your oven, shower, and an electric portable space heater. I’m sure most of us grew up in homes where touching the thermostat was a sin, even a punishable offense. For that reason I’m sure you heard your mother tell you to go put on a sweater or a sweatshirt. And you know what? She was right. A pair of slippers and a warm sweatshirt was never and inconvenience, but always a pleasure. Blankets are just as nice. If you’re sitting on your couch, watching the news, a movie, or anything, there’s no reason not to be cuddling under a blanket. The only problem we found was that you never wanted to get up because you were so comfortable and warm. As for your oven and shower, I don’t mean to use them as a heat source directly. Even notice that after baking supper in the oven, it takes time for the oven to cool off? And notice how that if you open the door just a little, there’s a point in which it stays cracked open? Hmmm… guess what, another free heat source! Kid you not, your kitchen will stay toasty up to an hour after you’re done cooking. Same with a nice hot shower warming up your bathroom. And as for an electric space heater, a great investment. Although they can be inefficient if used as your only heat source for long periods of time, used as a short jumpstart or the occasional period of indulgence, they can save you quite a bit! But these are only a few easy and creative ways to find warmth without the use of your oil heater.
4.) Figure out what temperature works best for you. Challenge yourself, yes, but don’t force yourself to be miserable or cold. Find out what works best for you and go with it. For us, we never put the thermostat above 65, unless we needed the place to warm up fast for company. But we also supplemented our heat with everything read above in #3. If you’re happy at 70 degrees, that’s fine. Once in awhile try to push yourself to 69 degrees, or even 68, but never compromise your comfort and happiness.
5.) Think before turning the heat on. This step will prove to be the most saving. Don’t ever turn up your thermostat without thinking first. If you are not going to be home all day, why do you need it on? In our case, we never had to worry about pipes freezing or having absolutely no warmth because we have other tenants. But if you do have to worry about that, why not set the thermostat to go on if the temperature reaches 50 degrees? No need to heat the place if no one is there. And when you come home at night, do you really need to turn it on? How long will you be up? Could you make due with a sweater and a space heater on? Stopping to think before you act really helps you out in this case. I even just came up with a silly little rhyme about turning up the thermostat; “Before you turn the dial, think a little while.”
That’s it. No magic, no suffering, no large extra expenses. Just a few cheap initial investments (couple bucks per window kit which covers at least two windows, a twenty for a small space heater, maybe a little more for extra blankets or flannel sheets, but most people already have some of these) and a little thought and creativity, and you have a reduced oil dependence winter. Not only will your wallet be happier, but you will also feel extra “green” because you reduced your environmental impact!