If you live in a temperate climate, winter is an inevitability. But shivering your way through the season in a poorly insulated apartment or tiny house doesn’t have to be. Even if you are a renter, there are some simple, eco-friendly hacks that can warm up your space without breaking the bank. Read on to find out how to keep the heat inside, and get ready to check your chills at the door.
Did you know you can set the direction your ceiling fan’s blades turn by flipping a simple switch? (Depending on the model, you may have to remove the fan’s cover to see the switch.) Doing so reverses the direction of the fan blades, turning them clockwise. This direction will sometimes be marked “reverse” because in the summer, the blades, which are angled, turn counter-clockwise, pushing air downward. Clockwise blades will push warm air coming out of your heater downward, counteracting heat’s tendency to rise to the ceiling. Set the fan to its lowest level to get this effect without feeling air moving in the room.
If you are a renter, you don’t have control over how—or whether—your building is insulated. But you do have control over the walls in your unit. Quilts hung on exterior-facing walls have the same effect they have draped over a bed; they keep heat in. Choose quilts or other wall hangings that match your décor, and decorate as you winterize! Tuck your windows in for the winter with thick panel drapes or cellular or honeycomb blinds. Then turn to your floors, which can be covered with eco-friendly recycled rubber mats or—for a warmer feeling on your stocking feet—used area rugs whose previous lives were in smoke-free homes. If you’re able, cloth hangings tacked onto the ceiling will also help keep heat in, preventing warm air from rising, chimney-like, into the apartment upstairs or the great outdoors.
Use a principle called “passive solar heating” to put the sun’s rays to use without any equipment or gadgets. All you have to do is take inventory of how sunlight moves across your home during the day, and leave blinds that get a solid block of sun exposure open. You will get the most sun from south-facing windows. Even on a very cold day, the power of the sun will noticeably warm your indoor air.
The Environmental Protection Agency lists electrical outlets on exterior walls as one of the most common sources of air infiltration that let warm air escape in the winter. After all, the outlet boxes are essentially holes in your drywall, leaving only the siding between you and the elements. Much like poking a small hole in a water balloon would slowly empty it of its water, even a minor gap in your outlet boxes results in a loss of air you’ve paid to heat. And remember—whatever warm air is leaking out, that same volume of cold air is flowing in! The good news is that armed with only a flathead screwdriver and an inexpensive package of precut, fireproof insulation rectangles, you can insulate these openings and keep more of the cozy stuff inside where it belongs. You can buy the insulation at any hardware store—this is one instance where you need a fireproof material because it is inside the electric box.
Turn off the power to the outlet by flipping the proper switch on your fuse panel (you may need to consult your landlord or building manager for access to the panel). Use a screwdriver to remove the cover plate on the outlet or light switch. If your cover plate is cracked or broken, replace it, making sure to purchase new ones that line up with the screw placement pattern in the wall. Lay the foam insulation cut-out over the plugs or switches, making sure the openings are completely covered. Replace the cover plate. Plug plastic outlet covers into any outlets that aren’t being used, to prevent air from slipping through the prong-holes. Turn the power back on, and repeat with other exterior wall switches and outlets.
Keeping a clean home has many virtues, one of which is to allow for maximum heating efficiency in the winter. Radiators, hot air vents, and baseboards collect an alarming amount of dust which, over time, settles and cakes on the very mechanisms you’re asking to warm up your winter. A bristle brush is a great tool for swirling in the nooks and crannies of a radiator, baseboard, or vent, followed by a thorough vacuum job using the bristle attachment or small flat attachment to suck up every dusty bit. The more dust-free your radiators, baseboards, and air vents, the less energy your heating system will need to use to keep the room at the desired temperature. As a bonus, being mindful of dust in your heater will cut down on mites, dander, and other indoor allergens.
There are probably areas in your home—basements and closets come to mind—where you are not keen to spend your heating budget. Enter the draft stopper, a long cloth tube stuffed with dried beans or rice, natural items that will block heat’s movement under the door. You can buy one or design your own; they’re inexpensive and require minimal investment. Measure your doorway or windowsill and get a length of sturdy fabric that is slightly longer than the opening, and between 6 and 10 inches wide, depending on how thick you want your finished stopper to be. You will want a sturdy fabric that can withstand the occasional (or frequent) foot traffic or movement when doors open and close. Fold the fabric in half lengthwise, matching the right sides of the fabric together. Sew along the long edge of the fabric as well as one of the short ends. Turn the stopper right-side out (a yard stick is a handy helper for this job) and stuff it, either entirely with your beans or rice, or with old scrap cloth (worn-out wool sweaters are great for this) combined with the beans or rice. You can even add some dried lavender or other organic sachet ingredients if you want a hint of fragrance in the room. Sew the other end closed, and place the stopper in its new door or window home.
If you have an electric hot water heater, and if you have access to it in your apartment building, lay your hand on it. If it feels warm, that means it’s leaking heat. For $20-30, you can buy a fiberglass insulation blanket, and wrap the blanket around the heater. For an eco-alternative to fiberglass, use duct tape to wrap thick wool blankets around the heater, being sure to keep the heating elements exposed. Note, though, that you will need several blankets to fully cover the tank, and the insulation might not be as effective. If you have a gas-powered hot water heater, it’s probably best to speak to a plumber (and you should always talk to your building manager or landlord before insulating), to make sure any insulation or wrapping is at least 8 inches from the flu, and in an arch that doesn’t come too close to the tank’s valve and burner.
Whether you rent or own, adopting some winterized lifestyle practices will help you stay warm and turn down the thermostat to save energy. Start with your bed, where sheets made from organic cotton flannel (buy or make your own) will make for a cozy nest on chilly nights.
Related: Make Your Own Organic Bedding
Tuck a hot water bottle under the sheets with you for an old fashioned warm up. Stock your sock drawer with wool socks, and wear them around the house at all times to keep your body heat in. Dress in layers—wear more than you need and then peel them off as you warm up. Come out from under the covers and do some warming yoga movements to stoke your inner fire. You can eat for warmth, too. Use your oven and slow cooker as much as possible—not only will your house smell delicious, but the oven or cooker will throw some extra heat into the air. Drinking hot tea (look for cinnamon and ginger blends for a warming, circulation-promoting effect), coffee, cocoa, or even hot water with lemon is also warming, and your dry skin will thank you for the hydration as well.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Massachusetts.