Fleece is our friend

Oct 27, 2008 at 12:00 a.m. ET

Each year, I challenge myself and the family not to turn on the heat in the house until November 1. This is almost strictly a budget move. With the rising costs of utilities, the heating bill is the bill I most dread opening each month. Some years we make it November 1 just fine and some years we shiver and curse our ways through those last few days. And occasionally we just can't take it anymore and the heat goes on when the calendar still says October. Much as my children might like to argue otherwise, I don't believe in being cruel about this.


As a kid, it annoyed me when my mom wouldn't allow the thermostat to go to my preferred setting. I didn't understand the bigger picture. Then just after college I lived with a group of people in a rambling, poorly insulated old house and when a house mate turned up the thermostat to 78 in mid-February (in New England) so he could wear shorts comfortably - and after we'd had a shocking December heating bill - I understood. Boy, did I understand.

Preparing the house

For our family to make this November 1 goal there are actually a series of smaller efforts that help us become more energy-aware and energy efficient each year.

Earlier in October, when the first of the cooler weather settles upon us, we go through the whole house putting down storm windows, cleaning the sills, locking up the inner windows. We identify which windows need repair or replacement insulation and we take care of those maintenance tasks right away. Likewise with screen doors and doors - we swap the glass panel for the mesh panel and replace weather stripping.

We have the boiler inspected to be sure it is running at it's most efficient level, perform any needed maintenance, check the venting, and inspect the insulation on the pipes. We ask ourselves, Is there anything more we can do? Last year that was adding a special type of fan to the heating equipment in the basement. I don't remember the exact cost, but as our yearly heating bill went down by 5% last winter (not much, I know, but I will take what I can get - and this was while everyone else's bill was going up), I'd say it was a worthwhile move. It paid for itself.

This year we also have a stash of hardwood for burning in the fireplace. We've made sure the chimney is appropriately clean and safe (a professional inspector), so that will help boost the warmth factor this winter - not to mention the cozy factor. We spent part of one October Saturday that the wood was properly stacked in an accessible location.

Preparing the family

Almost as important as preparing the house for winter, we prepare the family both emotionally and physically.

By preparing emotionally, I mean we talk about what we are doing to be energy efficient and what that will mean to us - both for October and the winter ahead. We don't present it as a negative; it's a positive thing, really! It's a challenge, as I said, and we can even make it a bit of a game. "Think we can do it?" I'll ask at the dinner table. Of course, it helps to ask after a warm meal when we are all generally warm.

As for physical preparation, that's mostly making sure the kids (and parents) have two or three good fleece sweatshirts and other sweaters for wearing around the house - and fuzzy socks and slippers for those who like them (me!). I get out the flannel sheets and down comforters for the beds and make sure everyone had good pajamas. I make sure we have plenty of hot cocoa mix and tea for warming up.

I also find that we all start to cuddle closer in the last days of October. Not a bad thing in my book.

When we do turn on the heat

By late October it's regularly in the low 60s in the house - but a fair bit colder outside. Yes, chilly. I'm not mean though, and if the indoor temperature drops into the 50s, then it's time to flip the switch for the heat.

When I do turn the heat on, I take time to make sure our programmable thermostat is working correctly and programmed in a way that makes sense for our family - higher temperatures in the morning while we are all getting out the door for the day and in the late afternoon and evening when we are all home, but cooler during the day when the house is otherwise empty and overnight when we have layers of bedding to keep us warm. The thermostat is perhaps the most important part of the energy-saving, money-saving winter heating strategy - and if you don't already have a programmable thermostat, get one!

The preparations we go through to make our November 1 goal really are preparations for the whole winter ahead. The early date give us a goal not only for what we don't do, but for what we do. It ensures we get all the basic maintenance done in time. If we did not make these efforts, I am certain that our winter heating bill would be much, much more painful.

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