Last week, on the coldest night of the new year, my son decided to climb Old Rag Mountain to catch the Shenandoah sunrise. We sent him off with hand warmers and granola bars. Then my husband and I went to bed after edging down the thermostat, pulling up a down comforter and cursing the cold air leaking through our non-replacement windows.
Winter in Washington had arrived.
As January settles into its frosty routine, Washingtonians enter the cycle of chill in their homes. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heating and cooling accounts for about 56 percent of the energy use in a typical house.
Most people think they must lower the thermostat to an uncomfortable level and suffer to save energy and money. Others blow their utility budget to stay warm. We have some ideas on another approach: Take action to make daily life in your home more enjoyable while the wind blows, using an army of caulks, space heaters and electric mattress pads.
There are lots of choices. Yes, you could zip on a fleece vest or surround yourself in, gulp, a Snuggie. Or you could stick with natural fibers. When Karl Spilhaus feels a draft in his 1890s house, he puts on a camel hair sweater. “Wools, whether sheep’s wool, cashmere or camel, are the warmest fabrics around,” Spilhaus says. The president of the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute, Spilhaus is a nationally known textile expert. He says clothing made from the hair of animals that survive on cold mountains traps air and creates an insulating effect. That’s a good thing to remember, whether you’re shivering atop Old Rag or shivering in your uninsulated sunroom.
Plenty has been written about the merits of replacement windows and attic insulation, but there may not be a budget for those this year. Here are other ideas to survive winter weather.
1. Get a smarter thermostat
Most consumers don’t know how to use their programmable thermostat, say the developers of Nest. Nest is the new thermostat that programs itself by learning your preferred temperatures, detecting when you are away and turning the heat to a level you specify. It senses when you return and turns on heating or cooling. Designed by a team led by Tony Fadell, a former Apple senior vice president, the Nest gives thermostats a design upgrade: The elegant round shape and clean lines finally look appropriate for a product that usually hangs on a prominent wall. “If something is ugly,” Fadell says, “it won’t be treated with respect.” $249. www.nest.com.
2. Warm up your robe
Imagine stepping out of a shower on a freezing-cold morning and wrapping yourself in a warm robe. The Brookstone Towel Warmer looks like a tall trash can but acts like a toaster: You can pop in bath sheets, blankets, hats or mittens for a 10-minute toast. “This product evokes a lot of emotion from our customers. Just read the reviews on the Web site,” says David M. Figler, a Brookstone merchandise manager. “I warmed up my wife’s bathrobe this morning; it feels like you just pulled out a towel from the dryer.” $79.95. www.brookstone.com.
3. Heat from the bottom up
The Soft Heat Removable-Top Mattress Pad is a washable warming pad that keeps sheets from feeling cold as ice while protecting your mattress. The poly-cotton pad can be preheated before bed. The queen, king and California king sizes have heat controls for either side of the bed, so both sleepers can set different temperatures. It fits mattresses up to 18 inches deep, and when summer arrives, you can remove the warming pad. Prices range from $128 for twin to $248 for California king. www.garnethill.com.
4. Upgrade your space heater
Over the years, the space heater, a popular alternative heating source, has morphed into a safer, smarter and more stylish home appliance. A new model from Vornado has technology that senses the heat around it and communicates with the heater to maintain a desired temperature. The unit has a digital touch-screen control and a cool-touch outer case that never heats up, according to Brian Cartwright, a Vornado spokesman. A hand-held remote senses the temperature of the room, then tells the unit to heat up or cool down to maintain the perfect comfort level. But be careful: When you buy any space heater, it is important to read the manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Always keep portable heaters away from furniture, bedding and curtains. Vornado model TVH 600 is $209.99. www.vornado.com.
5. Wrap yourself in a luxurious throw
Mia Worrell, co-owner of Timothy Paul Bedding + Home at 1529A 14th St. NW, says the advent of freezing temperatures always brings customers looking for beautiful and cozy blankets. “People come in and say, ‘I need something to keep me warm while I’m reading a book or taking a nap,’ ” Worrell says. Her recommendation this season is a colorful hand-woven throw, which would add style and warmth to a living room, bedroom or family room. The one-of-a-kind wool and silk throws are designed by Neeru Kumar, a well-known Indian weaver. $250. www.timothypaulbedding.com.
6. Study these draft-dodging tips
Pascale Maslin, founder of Energy Efficiency Experts in Washington, spends her days doing house audits that help people reduce utility bills and carbon footprints. We asked her for five DIY tips for making houses more comfortable.
●Buy a can of Great Stuff Gaps & Cracks foam sealant spray and go around the house looking for gaps around ducts and pipes in attics, crawl spaces, basements and garages.
●Install thermal blinds on your bedroom windows.
● To reduce heat loss on the top floor, seal around the housing of bathroom exhaust fans and recessed lights. Take the trim off and put spray foam around the housing where the fan or light meets the plasterboard. Then replace the trim.
● If you have a fireplace and don’t use it, consider getting a chimney balloon to block cold air from leaking in.
● For increased insulation, add a ceramic paint additive to your paint or roofing compound when painting a flat roof .
7. Pay attention to your leaky windows and doors, even if you can’t replace them in 2012
Matt Dirksen, a project designer at Case Design/Remodeling in Bethesda, has these suggestions for plugging up leaks that bring in cold air:
●If your front door has a mail slot, seal it up for the winter. “Those slots leak like a sieve,” Dirksen says. You can cover it with a piece of rigid foam insulation cut to size and some removable caulk. Then set up a mailbox outside.
●Treat attic doors like outside doors and put weather stripping on the edges to seal them up.
● Check that your windows are shut completely and locked to keep drafts from leaking in.
● If you think those hair dryer shrink-wrapped window films are unattractive, get over it. They really do the job of keeping out drafts and are worth installing for the coldest months in the house, especially in bedrooms. Hint: Clean the windows before you apply the wrap, because you will be looking out of them all winter.
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