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How to save money on heating costs

There are six main strategies for saving money on heat:

  1. Heat only the parts of your home that you're using.  Heating your whole house is more expensive than heating just part of it.  If you're not using your whole house, don't pay to heat the whole thing!  Instead, use space heaters or heating panels in the rooms that you actually use.  This works only if you're not using your whole house; if you are using your whole house, then heating it with space heaters will cost more than central air.  Note: Don't close registers in unused rooms, because you can damage you ducts or even the furnace itself.

  2. Adjust your living environment so that you're comfortable at lower temperatures. This includes using ceiling fans (yes, fans, even in winter; I'll explain below), putting rugs on bare floors, and keeping yourself warm with things like heating pads and warming blocks.  Warming yourself is a lot cheaper than trying to warm your whole house.  Warm yourself, and then turn your thermostat down to 67°F or lower.

  3. Insulate your home well to keep heat from escaping out of the house.  You want to pay to heat only your home, not Wisconsin. This includes things like weather stripping doors and windows and putting plastic sheets over windows.

  4. Turn it off when you don't need it.  Turn your heat off (or way down) at night, and when you're away from home.  Contrary to popular myth, it does not cost more to re-heat the home than it does to constantly heat it.

  5. If using Central Heat (aka Forced Air), then choose one that's cheap to operate.  This is a big topic so we'll cover in detail below, but here's a summary:
    • Remember that heating your whole house with Central Heat is usually more expensive than using space heaters or radiant heaters to heat only specific rooms or areas.  I use one electric space heater in whatever room I'm in, rather than trying to heat my whole house.
    • Geothermal systems are the cheapest central systems to operate, but they're the most expensive to install. They're also safer and healthier than oil/gas systems, which are more likely to burn your house down and which can poison you with the byproducts of combustion. (EPA)  We'll cover air- & ground-based heat pumps in more detail below.
    • Gas or oil-based central systems are the cheapest to install, and are also the most common type, but they're more dangerous and potentially unhealthy.
    • Electric-based central systems are cheap to install but crazy expensive to operate.  If you really like electric, use radiant electric panels or space heaters rather than trying to run a forced-air furnace with electricity.

  6. When installing a new heating system, don't oversize it.  Most HVAC installers install a bigger system than you need.  This doesn't warm your home any better, and you just wind up spending a lot more for the installation.  Get a heating system no larger than what your house requires.

Let's look at each of these individually.


(1) Heat only the parts of your home that you're using

aka, Room-by-Room Heating (Radiant Heat) instead of Whole-House Heating (Forced-Air)
"I love your site, I have cut my oil bill in half by using space heaters which has really saved me money as a direct result of your advice." - -Andrew G.

Heating the whole house is more expensive than heating just the room(s) you're using.  If you can heat just the areas you're using, you should, because you'll save energy and money.  This is what I use in my own home.  If you already have a whole-house system (forced-air), this means pretending you don't have such a system and not using it at all.  You can't just use the central heat and close the registers in unused rooms because that can damage your ducts and your furnace. (Lawrence Berkeley Labs)

Heating individual areas means using a form of Radiant Heat, such as space heaters, radiators, or electric heating panels.  Space heaters can be gas or electricity.  Electricity is more expensive, but safer and healthier.  (You're less likely to accidentally burn your house down, and you'll never be breathing the toxic byproducts of combustion.)

An advantage of radiant heat over forced air is that the temperature is more uniform throughout the living area.  With forced air systems the ceiling winds up retaining most of the warmth and the floors are pretty cold.  More information about the benefits of radiant heat is available at WarmZone and Anderson Radiant Heating, although it's a little biased since it's published by companies who install radiant heating systems.

There are many kinds of room-only radiant heat:
A electric-element space heater you plug into the wall.  These usually have a round face and oscillate (move from side to side like a fan).  Most electric space heaters are around 1500 watts on the highest setting, such as this one from Sears, which I own myself.  (All electric space heaters are equally efficient, by the way, so don't obsess too much about which one to get.  Just make sure you get one rated as 1500 watts, so you can heat your room quickly.)

An oil-filled space heater you plug into the wall. These use electricity to heat the oil inside, so there's no actual combustion. They use about the same amount of electricity as electric-element units.

 Space heater safety

  • Electric heaters are safer than gas heaters. They're more expensive to run, but they're safer.  You're less likely to accidentally blow up your house, and you also won't have to breathe the byproducts of combustion with electric heat.
  • Oil-filled radiators are safer than the red, glowing heaters with a fan inside. That's because the oil-filled heaters distribute their heat throughout the whole unit, and not any one part gets hot enough to start a fire easily.  The downside of the radiators is that they take a while to put out any amount of heat that you can feel.  If you're cold right now you'll prefer the fan-blow heaters, even though they're not quite as safe.
  • Electric heaters are safer than they used to be.  Almost all of them now will automatically shut off if they get tipped over.  Check the specs on the model you're looking at.
  • Make sure your circuit has enough capacity.  A 1500-watt heater alone will eat up 12.5 of a 15-amp circuit.  If you overload a circuit then the household wiring can heat up in the walls and start a fire.  If possible, put each heater on a dedicated circuit.
  • Use only super-thick extension cords for heaters.  If you're putting a space heater on an extension cord, make sure the cord is 12-gauge.  (The smaller the number, the thicker the cable, so 14 is worse than 12, not better.)

Gas space heater. These are more powerful than their electric counterparts, and often cheaper to operate, but they're usually more dangerous (more likely to accidentally burn your house down), and you'll have to breathe the byproducts of combustion, which isn't healthy.

Radiant Heat Panel. The flat panel secures to a ceiling or wall and plugs into an electrical outlet (or it can be hard-wired in to the house's electrical system). Electricity heats metal elements inside the panel. The panels range in size from 1'x2' to 4'x8', and energy consumption ranges from 100 watts to 3000 watts. Manufacturers include Thermal Inc. and SSHC. A related option is radiant ceiling film.

Hydronic Radiator. These circulate warm water, whose heat is then radiated into the room.

Hydronic Floor System. Water is heated by gas, oil, or electricity, and then circulated through plastic tubing which runs under the floor or along the walls or ceiling. If on the walls or ceiling, the tubing may be concealed by plastic or metal panels. These are most efficient if they're in the floor, because warmth rises, and because keeping your feet warm makes you feel warmer overall. An electric-fueled system can easily use 1000-3000 watts to heat a small efficiency apartment.

Electric Floor System. Same as above, but the warmth comes from low-voltage electrical wires, not piped water.


(2) Adjust your living environment so you feel warmer at cooler temperatures

Tips to help you dial down the thermostat

All of the tips below are designed to make you comfortable enough to lower our thermostat setting.  Wearing heavy socks (for example) by itself doesn't save any energy.  It's wearing the heavy socks and then dialing down your thermostat that saves the energy.  So don't forget the crucial step of actually changing your thermostat setting.

How to change the ceiling fan direction

For 90% of fans, when you're standing under the fan looking up, counter-clockwise blows down and clockwise blows up.  To check your fan, just stand under it with the fan at its highest setting.  If you can feel the wind hitting you hard, then it's blowing down.  To verify, stop the fan, change the direction, then turn the fan on full-blast again and compare the difference.

Here's how you change the direction: Most fans have an up/down or left/right switch on the side of the fan (between the light and the fan blades), and it's usually unlabeled. Make sure the fan is off (not spinning) before you flip the switch or you can damage the motor. (Once you've turned the fan off, it's fine to physically stop the blades with your hand, just be gentle so you don't bend the blades, otherwise the fan will wobble when you turn it back on.) After turning the fan off, flip the direction (summer/winter) switch, then turn the fan back on.

Use ceiling fans

Yes, ceiling fans can actually make you warmer. Let's see why.

In the summer, when the fan is on a high speed, the fan blows air past you, removing the hot air that surrounds your body, making you feel cooler.  It's the wind-chill effect.  In the winter, you simply put the fan on the lowest speed.  That way the fan isn't fast enough for the wind chill effect to kick in, but it's fast enough to push down the warm air that collects near the ceiling. (Remember, hot air rises.)  So the key is: fast speed for summer, slow speed for winter.

If the fan gives you a wind-chill effect even on the slow speed, then just change the direction of the fan by using the switch on the side.  You'll have the fan blow UP in the winter, which will push the warm air off the ceiling and bounce it back towards the floor along the walls, without rushing it past you to make you feel cooler.  (See the sidebar for how to change the direction.)

If you don't have ceiling fans (and don't care to install them), you have a couple of other options.  First, you can just get a regular box fan, put it on the highest shelf you have, and aim it at the ceiling at an angle.  Fans of any type use very little electricity.  Or, you can turn on the fan on your central heating system, without turning on the heat.  (The fan-only in circulation mode typically uses about 325-475 watts on PSC/AC models, and 25 watts for variable-speed DC. (BC Hydro, plus my own measurement for the 475-watt figure)

Using ceiling fans is one of the most important things you can do. They use very little electricity and make a BIG difference in your comfort level. All ceiling fans come with instructions on installation, but if you're not comfortable doing it yourself and you can't afford to hire someone, just get a regular box fan, put it on the highest shelf you have, and aim it at the ceiling.  Fans of any type use very little electricity.

Keep your feet warm

If your feet are cold, your whole body will be cold.  Keep your feet warm and you'll be more comfortable at lower temperatures.  If you have bare floors, put down some rugs.  Wear thick socks at a minimum, and preferably good slippers.  You can even go with heated slippers like those shown below.  My girlfriend swears by hers.

Wear more clothes

This may be obvious, but we all know people who keep their homes heated to the 70's and walk around with short-sleeve shirts and no socks.  Dress warmly inside.

Personal Heaters!

Personal heaters are things like electric heating pads and slippers.  Personal heaters are fantastic because they use just a small amount of electricity but make you feel much warmer, so you can dial your thermostat down and spend less money heating your whole house.  Think about it:  You're heating your whole home just to make you feel warmer.  So cut out the middleman and heat yourself directly!

Heating pads are popular in Japan, where energy is a lot more expensive than it is here.  The Japanese don't stop with just little pads, either.  They also sell "hot carpet" which can cover up to an entire room.  My friend in Osaka I'm staying with now has been using one for ten years.  (Incidentally, last month the four of us here in the Osaka apartment used only 220 kWh/mo., compared to the U.S. average of 920.  This was before winter, but we still expect to use less than average in winter.)  At right is a collection of heating pads from Amazon.

Amazon also has an interesting product, USB-powered slippers.  Below is a picture of one such brand.  Now, you might not like the electric products because they generate EMF fields which some sources say are bad for your health.  If you use a cell phone then you probably don't care about this, since cell phones generate huge EMF fields.  But if you'd rather not get EMF too close to you, you've got other options. 

First up are microwavable slippers, which are exactly what they sound like, and keep your feet nice and toasty after being heated up.  One of my other favorites is a $10 clay warming brick.  I just pop it in the toaster oven for a couple of minutes, and then put it on the seat of my chair.  It's amazing.

Now go to Part 2 of Saving Energy on Heat
or my Questions & Answers about Heating Costs

Last update: January 2014

©1998-2018 Michael Bluejay, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized reprinting is prohibited.
All advice is given in good faith. We're not responsible for any errors or omissions. Electricity can kill you; if you're not competent to work on your electrical wiring then hire a professional to do it.
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