Heating a cold old house
Old houses are drafty, but I am determined to be warm. After years of frigid rentals with ineffective wall heaters and drafty windows, I was determined to invest in heating. For the first time in years, I'm warm at night! Here's what we did to heat up our house, starting with the changes that had the biggest impact on our warmth (and happiness).
Our biggest improvement came from fixing the windows. Our house has lots of large, beautiful single-pane windows that let sunlight in and warmth out.
- Weatherizing. Our contractor repaired our windows by adjusting the sash stops, sanding & painting, and putting on new glazing. You can also add weatherstripping if you live in a colder climate. This guide explains all the steps for weatherizing old windows. We paid a few hundred dollars per window for the repairs, but it was the #1 improvement.
- Draft stoppers. I made simple white draft stoppers: long tubes of white fabric filled with rice that sit on the window sill. For only a few dollars each, they make a huge difference for the windows that we didn't repair. This was the best cost-to-value improvement. If you don't have a sewing machine, you can order them for a few bucks on Etsy.
- New glass. Unfortunately, our contractor damaged the beautiful old glass while repairing the windows. We replaced 14 (!!!) pieces of glass that had been scratched by the sander. This had no impact on the warmth, and it detracted from the beauty of the windows. I miss the bubbles and imperfections in old glass. I now wish we'd kept some of the glass that was only moderately scratched.
In the past, I've also used thick, lined curtains on windows to help with the draft. Thick curtains are pricey but make a big difference if you haven't repaired the windows. My favorites were from Martha & Ash -- much thicker and higher-quality than curtains from Pottery Barn or West Elm. A key feature to look for is an extra little hook on the side. You use that hook to keep the edge of the curtains flush against the wall, so that there isn't a gap around the sides.
Insulation keeps precious heat from escaping. At one point during the remodel, we had no insulation at all and the house didn't hold any heat -- it was like being outside!
- Roof insulation is the most important type of insulation. Heat rises. We hauled away a ton of old, disgusting blown insulation from the fifties and replaced it with rolled insulation. Effectiveness and cost increase with the R-value, and we used a mid-range R-value because we live in a moderate climate. As a bonus, we can now use our full-height attic for storage space. However, I don't know if the upgrade made a big difference relative to the cost (a few thousand dollars). The main reason we had to do it was to give our contractor access to the joists.
- Ground insulation. Our house is raised, with a cellar under the kitchen. There was no insulation beneath the house. We added rolled insulation for $1000 and it made the floors noticeably warmer. This was the #2 improvement.
- Wall insulation. Unlike a new house, our walls are completely uninsulated. We could have blown in insulation, but everyone advised against it. Houses don't lose a lot of heat through the walls. However, we added rolled insulation whenever we opened up the exterior walls...they were already open, so we might as well do it.
We replaced our 40s-era heater with a highly efficient heater and new ductwork, bring our house beyond California's stringent energy efficiency guidelines. This was very expensive ($12k total!) and I'm not sure it was worth it. I don't think our house is any warmer as a result. The modern heater is much less expensive on a monthly basis, but the huge up-front cost negated that benefit. The upsides are that (1) we get to feel good about using less energy, (2) we now have air conditioning, and (3) the new heater is less likely to burn our house down. If I'd realized how much this would cost in advanced, I would have skipped the repair; with that being said, I'm happy now that we have modern heating. The heat is very even throughout the house.
We also installed a Nest thermostat, which was a gift from our realtors. I love gadgets so I was excited to install it. Pre-baby, a smart thermostat would have been very useful. I loved the idea of turning the heat up right as I leave the office, returning to a warm home. In practice, though... we keep the house at 70*, day or night. We're home all day with the baby, and we often get up in the middle of the night. All of the features of the thermostat are wasted on us.
A hot bathroom
After years of freezing my arse off in cold bathrooms, I went a liiiittle overboard with heating in the bathroom. Our tiny bathroom has three heat sources: a central air vent, a heated floor, and a heated towel rack.
- Heated tile floor. For a few hundred dollars, I could NEVER HAVE COLD FEET AGAIN! Worth it. We had them set the new bathroom tile over an electric heated floor pad. It warms the floor and keeps the whole room toasty. It's a wonderful little luxury. For a few weeks I went nuts and kept the floor at 88* at all times. This made up for years of being cold but added $75/mo to our electric bill. (After the initial excitement wore off, I'm being more reasonable now.)
- Heated towel rack. I have considered running away to the English countryside on several occasions because English bed & breakfasts always have heated towel racks. Instead of abandoning my family, I bought my own for a few hundred dollars and had it mounted during the bathroom remodel. It takes a while to heat up, so it's on a timer. To be honest, it's completely unnecessary now that our bathroom is otherwise warm... but it's given me months of delight. Every single time I get out of the shower I marvel at how my towel is magically warm.
Our house stays warm now, making us pretty happy -- especially our dog, whose life mission is to be uncomfortably warm at all times.