The energy crisis has a way of sneaking up on you after it's too late. In our case, it came in the form of a fuel oil bill for the month of January. We'd been extravagant and we hadn't even known it. Known it? We hadn't even enjoyed it.
Despite dialing the thermostate down to 65 degrees during the day, 55 at night, we'd bought $161.35 worth of heating oil in January.
I simply couldn't believe it. I'd been reading about the energy crisis. I'd been writing about the energy crisis (I'm editor of a publication for fuel oil and gasoline marketers). Yet here I was, living the damn thing, and helpless to do anything about it.
Or so I thought.
A little background. Carol and I live in one of those brick bungalows that were cut from the same cookie cutter and scattered throughout Washington's neighorhoods in the 1920s. It's a serviceable house in a nice Northwest neighborhood, occupied by two persons who don't think of themselves as wastrels. In the three years we've lived there, we've put aluminum storm windows on most of the windows, weather-stripped, built up the insulation, had the furnace cleaned and checked every year and generally tried to keep the temperature down without letting things get uncomfortable.
But this January's fuel bill made me realize things were going to have to change. Last January, with the house a toasty 71 day and night, I paid only $68.94.
We spent several hours Sunday morning reading the paper and shivering, and then a grumpy conversation commenced. It concerned the money we were spending on fuel and what we could do about it.
Carol suggested building an insulated wall on the rear bedroom. It's a porch that a previous owner enclosed, not evey skillfully, and it's always been the chilliest part of the house.
Oh boy, I thought.She's starting up.
"We blew insulation in there right after we moved in."
"Just in the ceiling. The old porch windows were in the way and they couldn't get the insulation between the walls."
"Look, the thing to do is just rebuild the whole wall, put in proper window frames to replace those porch windows, and insulate it right. But we don't have any money."
"Yes, but there are a lot of things we could do that won't cost much. We could dump insulation between the walls ourselves, where they didn't do it before."
I lost what little cool I had remaining and started snarling. Now, this is in the nature of a confession, because I was wrong. Thing was, I felt trapped. Here was this gargantuan fuel bill, and me, the energy expert, fully aware of all the things I could do to make the house more energy-efficient and too broke to do any of them.
Carol, who can take care of herself, snarled back. We both ran upstairs to the back bedroom, she to prove her point that it could be better insulated for little money. I to prove her a fool and win a masculine triumph.
Well, she was right about the insulation. The house wasn't constructed quite the way I remembered it, even though I still didn't have enough money to go out and buy bag one of insulation. Sensing blood, she thrust again.
"I read in the paper that it helps to clean the dust off the radiators."
"Oh, come on. Sure, the dust may act as an insulator and trap some heat, but that's not going to save us any money."
But you can't stop this woman from cleaning something when she wants it clean. She was down on her hands and knees with Spic & Span and a swab, cleaning away. Now we were barely talking.
I'll fix her, I though, "Wonder if it'll do any good to bleed the radiators?"
This is something was do once a year, in fall, when the heat comes on. You get this little key - it looks like a skate key for a midget, you can buy them at any hardware store - and unscrew a teeny valve at the end of the radiator. Some air hisses out; then, if everything's jake,water follows and you close her back up in a hurry.
Everything was not joke.
The air hissed out for a good 30 seconds. Then the hissing died away and nothing happened. This was not how the book says things should work I was jubilant.
"Hey," I said to Carol, "looks like the radiators need bleeding! We're gonna save a little money on our heating bill after all."
Now, here's something else they don't tell you in the book. Lots of old hot-water heating systems, like ours, never will gush water up on the second floor if you just wait for it to happen. There isn't enough water pressure in the system. You've got to give it a kick in the pants. This is done by opening a valve near the basement ceiling on a water pipe that leads into the furnace. The handle is like the handle on the garden-hose tap. I ran down to the basement and turned it on, waiting for Carol to yell that water was flowing.
I waited and waited. This system was dry.
Finally she called. I ran upstairs to find water spurting out of the radiator onto the floor. I tried to jam the bleed valve back into its hole and scalded my fingers. I tried again; same result. She stuck the bucket under the leak - thank God she was cleaning that radiator! - and hollered at me until I ran down to the kitchen for a rubber glove. Finally we got the valve back in place.
Every other radiator on the second floor needed bleeding. I had to return to the basement to flood more water into the system. When we finally bled them all, the second floor was noticeably warmer.
"It says in the paper that aluminum foil behind the radiators makes them reflect heat into the room better," Carol said.
This time I thought a bit before snapping back. Well, what the heck? A 200 foot roll of aluminium foil costs $2.19 at the grocery. If this doesn't do any good, we can wash it off and wrap brownies in it.
I tore off a long strip and slipped it behind Carol's clean radiator. A pleasingly warm breeze fluttered past my face.
"Go-lly!" I said. "We might be discovering something here."
Then I got what seemed like a brilliant idea. Wood is an insulator, right? And we've got wood-topped radiator covers all over this stupid old house that was put together when Saudi oil cost a dime a barrel. In fact, this very radiator we'd cleansed and aluminium-foiled had a wood board sitting atop it, and atop that was sitting a television set.
"Get that slat off the radiator. Let's put the TV set on something else. Heat rises!" I exlaimed, as if I were Sir Isaac Newton and an apple had just hit me on the head.
We took off the board, and it seemed to help. I dashed back downstairs, where tow very long covers enclosed radiators in the two coldest first-floor rooms. Plants surmounted these radiator covers, but I didn't care. I was seized with inspiration.
I slid the radiator covers forward, just far enough to uncover the radiators. The plants rocked back and forth. If Carol had seen that, she would have stopped speaking to me for real. But she was upstairs, cleaning radiators.
Well, I hate to tell you how well it worked. The warm air trapped in those old-fashioned things just wafted up into my face. And the beautiful part is that Carol's plants didn't have to be moved. They'll stay right where they are on top of the radiator covers, but the radiators for the rest of the heating season. In spring, we'll slide them back over the radiators.
The time had come for something really daring.
We have this fireplace. It's the joy of our lives. There's nothing like a roaring blaze in the middle of your living room to make you feel warm on a winter night. Trouble is, that's all it does - make you feel warm.An ordinary fireplace probably sucks more furnace heated air out of the house than it replaces with firewood-heated air, according to the Federal Energy Administration and everyone else who knows a darn thing about home heating. And with that $161.35 fuel oil bill weighing on my mind, I was now looking for more than psychological pleasure from my fireplace.
I grabbed a rool of reezing foil, the heavyweight kind. If the ordinary stuff works on a lousy radiator, this freezer foil is going to make my fireplace into a roaring hell, I reasoned.
There was a fire burning. I didn't care. Disregarding danger, I measured the sides and back wall of the fireplace. Then I tore off a long strip of the freezer foil and folded it to sit inside the fireplace, covering the back and sides about two-thirds of the way to the chimney hole!
Now, I don't know whether this is an invention I should patent, or what. Maybe some other genius already has thought of doing this. And maybe it isn't as good an idea as I think.I don't know how long that foil will hold up in the heat of the fireplace. And I've noticed that if the logs are burning too close to it, it gets covered with black soot. That probably destroys its reflective properties, and its usefulness.
But I do know this. The amount of heat that gushed out of that fireplace, while I was setting my homemade reflector in place, was so intense I almost had to back away. And shortly after it was installed, the furnace (set at 65) kicked off and a room thermometer registered 68. And the sight of flames dancing against a mirror of aluminum foil is, if anything, nicer than the sight of flames merely dancing.
So there you have my cheap energy-saving tips. My body says they work, though the proof won't come until my next fuel bill.