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50 Solutions for Staying Warm in a Cold House

Joy has lived the old-fashioned way since 2010, when she and her husband bought a 1928 farm house, without improvements. What a journey!

Always Winter, and Never Christmas

Brutal Winters

I watched the sand pile up on my living room windowsill as the curtain fluttered in the breeze. The window was shut and locked. In fact, it was painted shut.

I pressed both hands around the hot brick in my lap and put my workboots atop another on the floor under my desk. On a rare day home, I was trying to write. My fingers were too numb to recognize the keyboard.

My husband blew into the living room which opened off a dirt street, and struggled to get the door to shut over the ice clogging the carpet. His eyebrows were iced, and his stocking hat matted with snow.

This was the seventh winter for us in this house. The original half of the house (a 1925 single bedroom job with a lean-to kitchen) had no insulation whatsoever. The plaster walls were veined with draft-carrying cracks.

It was hard to carry on, especially since we both worked primarily outdoors.

1925 Shack, January

This was the house in which I used most of these ideas. The original section was built in 1925, during a sugar beet factory boom in northeastern Colorado. Killer blizzards are common in this region.

This was the house in which I used most of these ideas. The original section was built in 1925, during a sugar beet factory boom in northeastern Colorado. Killer blizzards are common in this region.

Blizzards for 8 Months

Having snow on the ground for 8 months is not unheard of in this region. Several consecutive months of below-freezing temperatures and blizzards is often reality.

My husband and I worked by day building polebarns, replacing roofs, and erecting grain bins. Our kids worked with us. We often came home to a 35° F. kitchen, and minimal fare for supper. After a meal cooked usually with wood heat, we fell into bed, exhausted by the cold and heavy manual labor. After cold lunches taken in the wind, huddled in a corral or shed or the work truck, something hot seemed necessary for supper. Afterward, at bedtime, sometimes we didn't bother to take off our insulated work coveralls, as they made sleep more possible.

We got up several times a night to feed the wood stoves (one on the main floor and one in the basement), and tried to get enough sleep to carry on.

Our house was only 1,100 square feet, including usable crawl spaces . . . yet seldom rose above 50° F. in the winter.

Poverty

It was impossible to make very many improvements, as even long hours and much effort never took us above poverty level in our small farming community.

Below are ideas we used to cope.

Though we are in a better place now, we still use some of these tactics on a regular basis, as we continue to live on the Great Plains in blizzard country.

Windows and Doors

  • Hang quilts over doorways (wool are best).
  • Install foam sheeting on the insides of the windows.
  • Tack on plastic sheeting on the outsides of windows (inside too, if desired).
  • Put up heavy curtains or drapes, or insulated drapes.
  • Keep doors shut between sections of house, and all unused rooms closed off--including bedrooms throughout most of the day.
  • Keep windows locked.
  • Line window sills or junctions between panes with towels or rags. (Old T-shirts wedge nicely between double hung windows.)
  • Use draft stoppers or towels against doors.
  • Hang blankets, hides, etc. on walls. (Medieval tapestries were hung partly as insulation.)

Actual Conditions

Notes From 2008

After a chilly, outdoors work day doing construction on the Colorado plains, my husband and I often come home to a house that is between 35° and 40° F. The first thing we do is light the wood and/or coal stoves. These are our main sources of heat, and we have one for each half of our bi-level, 1,100-square-foot house. Usually within an hour or two (depending on the severity of the winds), the temperature has risen 40°.

Meanwhile, we cook supper on the wood cookstove, wearing our insulated work coveralls, which we often do not bother removing until bedtime. Our children help what they can with the supper preparations, and otherwise play in the kitchen, as we shut the uninsulated front rooms off when possible.

I realize we do not live a normal, modern lifestyle, and due to the poor condition of our home, we expect to spend an average local amount on heating. This winter (2008), we expect our monthly heating bill to come to $200. This is what it will probably cost us to prepare enough wood (or barter for coal) for each month of a truly cold winter.

Small Improvements Add Up

We are improving our situation one window at a time, and hope to have the resources to blow in cellulose insulation in the living room by next winter (cold weather has already hit here, in mid-September). We also need to fix a multitude of cracks in the walls (an ongoing process, as the ground shifts frequently due to sink-holes and a high water table). After all these repairs, we anticipate our heating bills will drop by 50 percent. In the meanwhile, we'll live somewhat like our settler ancestors. We still feel fortunate as compared to six years ago (2002), before we installed wood stoves, and could not afford to turn the thermostat up above 55° F. Luckily, I had a baby due in November that year, and didn't notice the cold so much.

Can You Make Any Improvements?

How to Heat an Old House Without Losing Either Your Mind or Your Life Savings

So, what can an average family do to reduce heating bills, short of living like pioneers or depression-era dreamers? Supposing you have already done your homework on local utility companies, and are getting the best deal you can there, take stock of the condition of your home. Could your windows stand to be replaced, or, at the least, be covered with heavy plastic sheeting, on the outside, to reduce drafts? What kind of insulation do you have in your walls, floors, and ceilings? Improperly laid carpets and floors can wick heat out and cold in. Are there places around doors and windows, or in your walls (check inside and out), that need caulked or otherwise sealed? Drafts can really take a toll on your comfort and budget. Invest in heavy shades, drapes, or the like, over windows and possibly doorways. Where aesthetics don't matter, such as the entry to our sometimes-windy wood room in the unfinished basement, we use the same plastic we install over the outsides of our windows. Be sure to shut doors to rooms you don't often use.

Heat Sources and Hints

  • Use bricks/rocks warmed on a rack on top of a wood burning stove or in a low oven--put under feet or hold in your lap, and tuck into coat pockets.
  • Add strategic vents paired with wood heat--from basement to main floor, main floor to upstairs.
  • Wash dishes by hand.
  • Vent electric clothes dryer into your home. (Clean up lint periodically.)
  • Light several (scentless) candles close to where you are.
  • Make a candle/clay pot heater.
  • Engage in physical work.
  • Keep a hot pot or tea kettle handy (place in bedroom an hour before bed, or set where everyone gathers).
  • Cover split-style toilet seat with a pair of tube socks.

Making the Most of Heat Sources

If you rely on, or are considering using, wood heat or another similar alternative, calculate where you may need to install grates or vents to allow for maximum air flow.

Also, experiment with fans to direct warm air to specific areas.

Space heaters can save the day, providing warmth just where you need it. Strategically placed in bedrooms, offices, and bathrooms, they can thaw frozen tootsies, prevent pipes from giving out, or keep your children from growing icicles in their hair after a bath.

Candles, too, can be helpful. Large ones, with three or more wicks, can provide enough extra heat on a desk or counter to keep from having to turn the thermostat up. Besides, they are good for the soul.

Clay Pot Heater, 4-Hour Test, by Gem Webb

Colors Can Create a Sense of Warmth

Don't underestimate the effects of color on warmth. A cold mind can translate quickly to a cold body. There are too many angles to consider in the subject of decorating to give any hard and fast rules here, but try to analyze the effects of wall colors, decorating schemes, and furniture arrangements, and alter as seems prudent.

Making Use of Fabrics

Keep a comfortable, warm pair of shoes or slippers for indoor use. Also, use area or throw rugs as appropriate--against doors beneath which drafts creep, and in front of sinks or other places in which both leg comfort and extra warmth are desirable. Remember, too, that walls retain warmth and cold a long time, and that decorative hangings, such as tapestries or quilts, can make a home more comfortable both physically and psychologically.

Clothes, Hands and Feet

  • Use bricks/rocks warmed on a rack on top of a wood burning stove, or in a low oven--put under feet or hold in your lap, and tuck into coat pockets.
  • Wear boots or closed shoes indoors. (Mesh shoes are fine if you can get close to a heat source after being in the cold, but not otherwise.)
  • Wear too-large shoes or boots with wool socks, or layered socks. (This may not help if socks are synthetic.)
  • Make insoles cut from well-washed foam meat trays.
  • Sprinkle cayenne pepper into boots or shoes to increase bloodflow in feet.
  • Wear 3 layers (long sleeved T-shirt or thermal, flannel/sweat shirt, winter coat).
  • Wear wool or thick cotton stockings under jeans, or long johns under clothes.
  • Wear insulated work or hunting coveralls.
  • Use a duster or trench coat.
  • Keep available hand-warmer chemical packets, or rechargable USB-capable hand warmers.
  • Make half-gloves cut from repurposed socks (these can help calm arthritis, too).
  • Wear a stocking hat or other cold-weather hat, even indoors.
  • Avoid loosely-woven fabrics.
  • Never shower at night and then go to bed with wet hair.
  • Set clothes for the next day in a warm location.
  • Wash hands in a bowl of warmed water to avoid icy water out of the tap.

Insulating Your Body

Be sure you and your family understand proper layering of clothing. Teach children early why you dress them the way you do, even if they insist on trying to ice skate in the yard in sandals. Give wool shirts and sweaters a try, too. You may be pleasantly surprised at how they compare to acrylics and other fabrics in comfort, and hygienic properties.

Poor blood circulation can make the best heating systems ineffective. Regularly eating cayenne, either on food or in capsules, can improve circulation, and overall health. If you must work in the cold, sprinkle a little in the bottoms of your boots, and it will almost certainly help warm you. Be warned, though, that it does stain socks.

Decorated Fingerless Glove Tutorial--Repurposed Socks, by Jade Wong1

Bedtime

There are several things you may be able to change in your family's daily practices.

Wool blankets and traditional quilts are still good stand-bys. Flannel sheets can mean the difference between a frigid bed and bad dreams, and a pleasant night.

Consider sleeping more than one child to a bed, and don't otherwise underestimate the effects of body heat. Cuddle your toddler (or pet) on your lap while you attend to paperwork or some other sit-down task.

Hides as Traditional Covers

This is a deer hide I fleshed during mid-winter. From this and a partial tanning process, I discovered that even a soaking wet hide, when placed on your lap, can help you retain body heat.

This is a deer hide I fleshed during mid-winter. From this and a partial tanning process, I discovered that even a soaking wet hide, when placed on your lap, can help you retain body heat.

Beds and Bedrooms

  • Encourage or allow stuffed animals--cuddle them, or line them up between child and wall. For adults, add a rolled blanket between sleeper and wall.
  • Use fleeces or hides to cover up with--especially good are hides with the hair still on. (Even soaking wet, a deer hide will help shield you from intense cold.)
  • Use wool quilts.
  • Use flannel sheets.
  • Add comforters (down is still the most comfortable and warm material).
  • Use anything filled with down, including coats.
  • Use Afghan blankets tucked in well around you, under your regular blankets and sheets.
  • Try a space blanket.
  • Sleep in your clothes, plus coat or insulated coveralls.
  • Use extra pillows, clothes, or a rolled blanket between sleepers and cold walls.

Reversible Quilt

This queen-size quilt has two sides to display. The original top was sewn of wool squares, probably cut from old coats. I replaced the much-worn bottom with upcycled jean material and a fresh cotton print. This makes the quilt heavy, but warm.

This queen-size quilt has two sides to display. The original top was sewn of wool squares, probably cut from old coats. I replaced the much-worn bottom with upcycled jean material and a fresh cotton print. This makes the quilt heavy, but warm.

Food and Kitchen

  • Wash dishes by hand.
  • Sip hot beverages, or use boiling water poured into insulated cups (to hold).
  • Use warming spices such as ginger and cayenne in beverages or foods.
  • Eat raw frozen meat as-is (this produces tremendous digestive heat).
  • Take niacin (a B vitamin) NOT labeled non-flushing. (The flush will warm you intensely.)
  • Knead bread, or prep other warm foods.
  • Use a single-burner cooking appliance (hot plate), or indoor grill or griddle close to wherever you spend the most time. (A grease guard may be cut out of cardboard, such as a beverage cans box.)

Cold Weather Foods

Serve hearty foods, with satisfying ingredients. Follow your gut (not necessarily your habits) when choosing ingredients and recipes, and don't underestimate the value of animal-based fats (including butter), and appropriate, whole grains and legumes fixed in traditional tribal ways.

As always, choose drinks that sustain health without hijacking your system with sugar.

Cambric tea (milk tea) has never quite gone out of style in chilly households, but in exceptionally chilly moments, well-made hot cocoa also has its place. And of course coffee, tea, or your favorite hot beverage.

If you just can't seem to warm your hands, try doing a load of dishes by hand.

Raw vs. Cooked/Frozen Food, by sv3rige

Your Yard Matters

Your landscaping and terrain can have a huge bearing on how well your home maintains heat.

Trees and shrubs create both shelter, and stability. This means that your home may take longer for the cold to settle into it, but it also means that, come spring, the ground will thaw more slowly.

Still, having hills or a windbreak to take the brunt of the breeze is a good choice.

Creating a careful, southern exposure with a greenhouse or bay window can make your main living space comfortable even on a frigid day, supposing the sun is shining.

There are many simple ideas online for building a winter garden, sunroom, or greenhouse out of upcycled materials.

My Terrain

Ash trees and Belle honeysuckle bushes surround the house and several outbuildings, insulating the farmstead against not only wind, but sudden changes in temperature.

Ash trees and Belle honeysuckle bushes surround the house and several outbuildings, insulating the farmstead against not only wind, but sudden changes in temperature.

This is how open the surrounding farmland is. Trees scarcely grow here without help.

This is how open the surrounding farmland is. Trees scarcely grow here without help.

The snow tends to fall thick amongst the trees, as the wind loses momentum over the farmstead.

The snow tends to fall thick amongst the trees, as the wind loses momentum over the farmstead.

My main door is in a cozy setting, but is still hinged to open against the prevailing winds. (Improvements have been made to the house since this photo taken in October 2009).

My main door is in a cozy setting, but is still hinged to open against the prevailing winds. (Improvements have been made to the house since this photo taken in October 2009).

Our house's southern exposure includes a bay window, which helps warm the dining room even on cold days. However, the snow melts slowly amongst the trees, come spring.

Our house's southern exposure includes a bay window, which helps warm the dining room even on cold days. However, the snow melts slowly amongst the trees, come spring.

Hubby's 2 Cents Worth

And finally, a couple of thoughts from my husband:

1) Get an extremely obese husband or wife. A 600 pounder can emit more radiant heat than a small propane furnace.
2) Build your home on top of an active volcano.
3) Play with fire.

(He feels he can say these things as, at a muscular 5'7", he has never topped 135 lbs.)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Joilene Rasmussen

Comments

Joilene Rasmussen (author) from United States on September 02, 2020:

Lorna, you are so welcome, and thank you for stopping by! For sure, a sense of humor is vital! I adore my "new" place (a 1928 Craftsman), but it keeps us on our toes!

Lorna Lamon on September 02, 2020:

I have always lived in old homes and although they have character they are also draughty. Your article is full of great tips and ideas which I will be sure to implement. Your hubby's 2 cents worth made me laugh. I've found throughout the years of leaking roofs etc that it's good to keep a sense of humour. Thank you for sharing this invaluable information Joilene.