Stay Warm in the Winter | How to Heat Your Home

You can’t always rely on the power grid to help you stay warm. In case of an outage, you need to know how to heat your home even without electrical power.

(Based on the book Power Out! How to Prepare for and Survive a Grid Collapse.)

How to Stay Warm in Winter

When you want to stay warm, or at least maintain a comfortable temperature in your home, there are a number of things you can do to stay warm without power from the grid.

They essentially fall into three categories:

  • Initial design and layout of the home
  • Immediate actions when power goes out
  • Survival actions when power outage drags on

Initial Design and Layout

Homes can be designed and built from the ground up to be optimized for heating and cooling in any weather. These include:

  • home site selection
  • shading and sun exposure
  • home construction materials
  • insulation and weather-stripping
  • placement of glass windows (glazing)
  • climate-control – windows, doors, vents, and fans
  • interior design
  • fireplace/fireplace inserts
  • heat distribution
  • smart use of fans and interior air flow
  • dedicated sunspaces

Homes designed for warmth have the majority of windows facing south. Some home builders back up the north side of the house in a slope to prevent heat loss and increase connection with the earth. I have a brother that did this. His berm home is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It’s also very quiet inside, and his monthly heating bill is low.

Conduct some research on how people live in colder climates. How do they stay warm? Study old photos or paintings of Northern Europe during the Renaissance Period. Notice how they dressed, how their buildings were furnished including the heavy fabric murals, and how thick the doors and walls were.

I found an interesting A&E video called “Frontier Homes” that shows how early pioneers constructed shelter out of naturally-occurring material such as wood logs, strips of thick sod, and adobe bricks. You can use almost anything to create a warm dwelling – even ice. The homes of the early settlers were usually comfortable in both summer and winter. They knew how to construct and use their dwellings to enhance human comfort. So can you.

Stay Warm With Wood Stoves and Fireplaces

In Upper Canada, or the rural areas of the U.S. north, most people use a fireplace or wood stove to heat their homes and stay warm. Eighty years ago our parents and grandparents burned coal in furnaces. Today many people use electric furnaces—risky if power is prone to be lost. Just ask the thousands of people in North Carolina who suffered greatly when their electrical power went out for weeks last winter.

My brother installs and maintains fireplaces and wood stoves in Michigan. During the polar vortex ice storm in February of this year, power was out in his area for several days. I called him to see how he was doing. He told me he and his wife were “as snug as a bug in a rug.” There was three feet of snow on the ground outside his living room window. They were active from sun-up to sun-down, and the temperature outside was a bitter 11 degrees, but he said that inside his home, it was so hot, he had to crack open a window, just to cool the space down a little. Like him, you can stay warm in any weather. He and his neighbors do this every winter. Learn from those who actually walk the walk.

wood burning stove, how to stay warm, stay warm in winter, emergency heating
Wood burning stoves are a great way to stay warm in the winter.

Fireplace inserts are the rage in the Upper Midwest. Wood is still plentiful in many areas and the use of FP inserts is worth investigating. A few logs in one of these stoves can keep a room quite comfortable and let you stay warm all night. Intelligent use of slow-speed fans can move warm air into areas that are still too cool (or cold) for comfort.

You can install a wood burning stove to back up your furnace. If you use a natural gas or kerosene stove, remember that these must be vented properly to prevent carbon monoxide buildup.

If you use a wood-burning stove, know that wood stoves can dry out a home rather quickly when the weather outside turns cold and nasty. This is why many early homeowners boiled water in metal kettles set on the top of their stoves. The hot mist wafting up out of a kettle’s spout added moisture to the ambient air and kept the skin from drying out. When I was a kid, we sometimes went for days snowed in with schools closed. If was fun playing on the floor all day, lovingly cared for by our homemaker mom.

Stay Warm with the Power of the Environment

The key is to use the environment around you – including daylight. Use the sun wherever and whenever you can. It’s a great resource. Use sunlight shining in windows and doors to warm rooms and patios. If you can, use the sun to generate solar power that can operate electric heaters. And don’t forget the smart use of emergency portable generators – gas, propane, or solar.

Passive solar heating works. Check this out, too. I recall a blog poster describing framed boxes with black tar paper (black asphalt roofing paper) inside and plexiglass on the face being mounted on the south walls of cottages on the East Coast. Vents were cut through the top and bottom of the cottage walls to allow air flow from the thermal box into the cottage.

Solar Heaters

Warm heat can also be generated using water heated by the sun. Solar heaters work. Allowing the sun to heat water in dark piping can heat the liquid to bath temperatures or hotter. The water from this solar collector can then be pumped through convection radiators that emit heat out into rooms and into hot water tanks for showers and baths.

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Some people close off rooms in their home every winter reducing their living space to less cubic feet of air to heat. I met an Amish family that did just this every winter. They used quilts to cover doors to rooms they wouldn’t be using during the cold weather. This worked quite well.

Other homeowners install storm windows and storm doors to keep the cold out. And they upgrade the insulation in their attics and walls. I don’t think you can ever over-insulate.

How Effective is Your Insulation?

There is a thermal standard for how effective an insulation material is in resisting the loss of heat or cold. This is the “R-value” or “R-factor.” A low R-value means this material is a poor insulator—a poor resistance to temperature change. Depending on your location, the insulation in an attic could be rated between R-19 and R-60. Walls are typically insulated between R-13 and R-24. The higher the R-value, the better the material is for retaining the temperature setting inside your home. You can use batten, roll, or blown insulation material. A high R-value also helps insulate the home from exterior sound or noise. When you think you have insulated enough, add more. And check and upgrade weather-stripping around doors and windows. You can even install insulation around and behind electrical sockets in exterior walls.

Stay Warm in a Nighttime Power Outage

If power goes out and your furnace shuts down on a cold night, act quickly to retain as much heat as you can. Insulate and isolate. These actions could include:

  • Close all window coverings. (drapes, blinds, shades, etc.)
  • Shut doors to all rooms that are not being used or needed.
  • Create zone within a zone. Cover your sleeping area with insulated fabric.
  • Place draft stoppers at the base of all exterior doors.
  • Start a backup heat source (fireplace, kerosene or propane heater, etc.).
  • Layer up to keep your body warm as the house cools.
  • Staple emergency solar blankets to drafty doors and windows (shiny side in)
  • Activate a solar heater.

Stay Warm in a Daytime Power Outage

If power goes out during the day isolate and insulate as above, but open drapes covering windows bathed in sunlight so you can capture the solar heat. I read about a blog poster who placed black plastic on the floor below a window and let the sun heat the plastic to add warm air to the room. I tried this and used an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature difference after 5 minutes of sun exposure on the plastic. Here’s what I got:

Starting Wall Temp Temp at Window Temp on black plastic Difference

72.4° F 89.9° F 91.4° F 1.5° F

72.0° F 90.0° F 92.0° F 2.0° F

Had I left the black plastic longer in the sunshine, I suspect the temperature difference would be much greater.

Some rooms have dark tile or cement floors that absorb heat, then releasing it after the sun goes down. Sunlight on this dark surface causes the material to absorb energy and heat up. Once the sun goes down, the stored heat radiates up off the floor. You can also close insulated drapes to keep this heat inside.

Post-Power Outage Actions

Once you go through a power and heat loss event you will strive to never repeat the experience. For maximum comfort, there is an ideal temperature for each of us (68 to 76 degrees F). And an ideal relative humidity (20% to 60%) with an ideal dew point (24 to 60 degrees F). We can brag about toughing it out, but isn’t it more enjoyable to tough it in while being warm and comfortable?

Do you have any methods of keeping warm in the winter that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments.

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