Q: Like a lot of families, our budget is extremely tight this year. My wife lost her job, and we’re really struggling to get by each month. Winter will be here soon, so we’ve been thinking about ways to lower our heating bills. I’ve seen ads for room heaters claiming they can reduce my heating bill up to 50 percent. Are these true?
A: You’re between a rock and a hard place– you can’t afford high heating bills, but living in an igloo is not an option either. Some of the best ways to improve the efficiency of your home are things like sealing your ducts, sealing between the attic and the living space and replacing your HVAC system with a more efficient one. These efficiency improvements reduce the amount of energy you use, but allow you to maintain the same level of comfort you are used to. In the long run, these measures are usually the best investments.
Unfortunately, efficiency improvements cost money and are just not an option for many families right now. Instead, you may need to consider a conservation strategy where you reduce your energy use even if you can’t maintain the same level of comfort. A simple example of a conservation strategy is turning off the lights in rooms when there are no people in them. Conserving energy on heating is a little more complicated, but millions of families do it every winter.
For example, the “warm-room” strategy, where only one or two rooms in a home are heated, has helped families stay warm without spending a lot of resources since before electricity was invented. Huddling around the kitchen fireplace meant people could keep reasonably warm without spending all of their time gathering and cutting firewood. Keeping every room a comfortable temperature all the time, just in case somebody needs to walk through a room on the way to restock the Lazy Boy with beer, is something most Americans grow up thinking is the norm. As it turns out, this concept is still pretty rare in the rest of the world.
Sure, we all have the right to keep our entire home warm and toasty all the time, but whether we can afford that privilege is a whole other question. As people are tightening their belts, they’re re-evaluating their priorities. And maybe keeping food on the table is more important than walking around your home in shorts in January after all.
So, the answer to your question is yes– buying a space heater and keeping only one room in your home a comfortable temperature can reduce your heating bills considerably.
Regardless of whether it’s made by NASA or Amish craftsmen, there is nothing magical about any specific heater. The savings result from letting the temperature in most of your rooms drop. If you think you want to give the warm-room strategy a try this winter, here are a few things to consider:
- Don’t let the temperature drop so much you get condensation and mold growth on the walls. Make sure you use the bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans whenever moisture is generated like during showers, cooking, etc.
- Never use an unvented combustion heater. No matter what it says on the box, burning fuels like kerosene, natural gas or cow dung in your home without a proper venting system can cause health and moisture problems.
- Some heaters are safer than others. Units that get really hot on the surface are not ideal if you are clumsy or have small children or pets.
- Read and follow all of the safety information that comes with the heater!
Now, let’s take a closer look at the economics. Say your annual utility bills add up to $2,000 for gas and electricity. Typically, about half of that is for heating and cooling. In North Carolina, heating and cooling costs are approximately equal in most areas, so you’re paying about $500 a year for heat. If you could reduce that by 50 percent, you’d save $250 a year!
How much you save depends on how much you invest. Considering our scenario above, purchasing a heater for $50 could save you $200 a year, but a $300 heater would cost you more money than you are saving.
The widely-advertised, high-priced heaters may have some useful features but if your goal is to maximize your savings this winter, they may not be your ideal choice. Instead, you might want to consider a less costly heater that has the basic safety features , will keep you warm and help you see your savings sooner.
This article was originally featured in Carolina Country magazine.