But, Baby, it’s cold … inside

November 22, 2013

(Allie Ghaman/Express)

Unless you, say, live above a roaring brick-oven pizzeria, as temperatures drop and fall gives summer the cold shoulder, it’s time to crank up the heat.

Of course, high utility prices and lack of thermostat control can leave renters feeling a little burnt out.

Whether you live in a group house, high-rise or English basement, we’ve got some cost-saving tips to lower heating bills, plus green ideas for renters looking to save the environment — and maybe a few bucks.

Watch the Thermostat

In their three-story group house in Mount Pleasant, Claiborne Deming, 29, and his roommates face “wild swings” in the utility bills come winter and

summer. “In July and January, it spikes,” he says. Their gas bill hovers above $200 in the coldest months, about double what they pay in the spring.

Many variables affect heating costs, but as an average, it can cost about $300 a month to heat a house and up to $100 a month to heat an apartment in the coldest months (though heat is often included in the rent), according to Kevin Reed of D.C.-based Reed Heating and Air Conditioning.

If you control your thermostat, set it around 68 degrees when at home, and even lower when you’re asleep or out for the day, says Chris Thompson, marketing manager at Alexandria-based heating and plumbing company Michael & Son.

“Each degree you lower the thermostat could save 3 percent on your total cost,” he says. For example, on a $275 heating bill, you would save more than $8 a month per degree.

And the savings multiply: You’d keep about $25 in your pocket if you lower it three degrees.

Renters can even ask their landlords about installing a programmable thermostat, on which the temperature can be set to drop in the middle of the night and heat up before you wake up.

Dodge the Drafts

Thompson says people can also save money by paying attention to drafty windows and doors.

In Deming’s older group house, he and his housemates covered their drafty windows with plastic to keep the heat in and the cold out.

“Some rooms leak a lot,” he says. Window insulation kits run about $20 in a hardware store.

Other renter-friendly solutions are “draft stoppers” (about $10), which slide up against the bottom of doors to keep cold air out, or removable weatherstrip caulk ($5 at Home Depot), which can be applied to window and door frames and vents, then peeled away without chipping paint.

Green Living

For renters concerned with their carbon footprint and costs, some newer apartments are offering green options for heating apartments more efficiently.

When D.C.-based real estate firm Roadside Development was planning the new CityMarket at O in Shaw — a 600-plus unit residential and retail space set to open in early 2014 — being environmentally friendly was a big priority, says Armond Spikell, a partner in Roadside Development. Geothermal heat pumps — which draw heat from the earth — proved impossible, he says. The firm went with a central heat pump system that supplies conditioned water (hot in the winter, cold in the summer) to individual heat pumps to regulate air temperatures in the building and keep the sunnier or shadier sides of the building from getting too hot or cold.

“In the fall or spring, this’ll allow the system to take heat out of the hot apartment and put it in the cold apartment,” Spikell says. “That makes the system much more efficient.”

With this system, you can have heat or air-conditioning year-round, Spikell says.

Roadside Development is exploring other green ideas, including geothermal heat, for future projects, aiming to appeal to younger and more environmentally friendly renters.

“This is an advantage to them and the environment,” Spikell says.

The demand, or at least interest, is growing. Take Caroline Pomenya, 35, for example. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Spring with a traditional electric heating system. “I’d consider going off the grid, to go more green, be more friendly,” she says. “I don’t have that option.”

Rampant Radiators

With radiators, sometimes things can get a little too heated, forcing renters to leave windows open on cold nights — a big waste of energy. Ask your landlord about installing a thermostatic radiator valve to allow heat control in every room, says Dan Holohan, who runs the website heatinghelp.com. “It prevents the room from overheating, which is a big problem with steam heating,” he says.

The Right to Remain Toasty

In the District, heating isn’t a luxury — it’s a right, according to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

D.C. law requires all landlords in the city to turn on the heat Oct. 15 (and switch back to cooled air by May 15), though apartment buildings might switch over sooner if temperatures drop earlier.

If tenants don’t have control of heat in their unit, landlords are required to keep apartments at a minimum of 68 degrees during the day and at least 65 degrees at night. Tenants can report violations to the city, and landlords could be fined up to $1,000 and other penalties for violating the heating laws.

Though no law requires it, experts recommend landlords perform maintenance on heating units, including changing air filters, at least annually.

“You want to get proper maintenance each year before the heating season starts,” says Chris Thompson of heating and plumbing company Michael & Son.

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