Monday, November 17, 2014

The Art of Keeping Warm

I wondered: What is the lowest indoor temperature I could comfortably live with on a permanent basis? 

I wondered this because, for the first time in 31 years, I’m living in a home in which I control the thermostat. Because I’ve either been living in a van or someone else’s home, I never had to deal with the responsibility of paying for utilities or the guilt of relying on fossil fuels, which are, in my current situation, natural gas and coal-powered electricity.

Since July, I’ve been living in a vacant home on a friend’s property in Nebraska. The house is quite large (three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a massive living room), and because it isn’t the most energy-efficient house, keeping the temperature at a toasty 70˚F (21˚C), especially for just one person, is unthinkable. Not only would that cost a ton of money, but I couldn’t stomach the idea of wastefully using fossil fuels when I thought a simple hat and sweater might suffice. 

I’ve often wondered: If we all set our thermostats to our own “comfortable low,” how many West Virginian mountains could we save, how many fewer communities would we frack, how much less greenhouse gas would we emit?

That’s tough to calculate, but we do know that we use a lot of (arguably unneeded) energy. In the U.S. and Great Britain, the average bedroom and living room temperatures are set between 65˚F and 70˚F (18-21˚C). When you think of the size of U.S. homes in particular, the amount of energy it must take to maintain that level of warmth throughout a house is flabbergasting. All in all, residential thermostats, UC Davis study reports, are responsible for an astounding 9 percent of all energy consumption in the U.S.

Winter finally hit a little over a week ago, bringing with it temperatures as low as 6˚F (-14˚C). My house’s minimum temperature had been pre-set to 55˚F (13˚C), so I just let it remain that way for a couple of days, figuring I should acclimate to this manageable temperature before I begin testing cooler temps. 

Before I share the results of my experiment, I should elaborate on what I mean by my “comfortable low” temperature. I would consider this low temperature “comfortable” so long as the temperature does not negatively affect my health or productivity.

I know from experience how temperature can affect productivity. In a North Carolina summer, on a 90˚F (32˚C) and unbearably muggy afternoon, I found that my mind would slow down and all I wanted to do was take a naked nap atop my sheets. It seriously affected productivity, and, before long, I'd be hankering for a cool gust of air conditioning. 

On the other hand, I know from living in a van and my tent that it’s extremely uncomfortable to type or do anything with my hands when it's, say, 10˚F (-12˚C) inside. So what's an acceptable indoor low that won't cause any reduction in productivity? 

When it was 55˚F (13˚C), I put on more warm clothes than I'd usually wear indoors: a tee shirt, sweat shirt, sweat pants, and a light coat. For the most part, I was reasonably comfortable when I was lying in bed under the covers or when I was up and moving: cooking, cleaning, exercising. It was only when I was at my computer typing (and I'm on my computer a lot) when it became uncomfortable, especially when my hands were more than half numb. 

I did the obvious thing and put on more clothes, and in due time I was ready to lower the house's temperature even more. 

The lowest the thermostat would go was 45˚F (7˚C), which I figured was a good low to stop at because I had to ensure that none of the pipes in the house would freeze.  

The first day at 
45˚F (7˚C) was fairly unpleasant. My fingers were frozen and they were moving slower than usual, so much that it was affecting my ability to type. My feet were constantly cold, too. For pretty much twenty-four hours straight, my hands and feet were cold to the touch. 

I decided it was time to go all-in on my winter wear, so I dug through my bags and pulled out and put on two pairs of underwear, a pair of wool socks, and then a set of thermal underwear. 

After that, I put on a pair of sweats, though sometimes I wear a thin pair of pants and a long-sleeve tee beneath my sweats. 

Then I put on my light red coat and then a heavy poofy purple coat. 

Here I am in my house-wear. 

Don't forget your hat!

And your second hat!

Still, when you're living in 45˚F (7˚C) for twenty-four hours a day, for days on end, and you're doing a lot of sitting, the cold will eventually set in, no matter how many articles of clothes you're wearing. 

Again, I was having trouble typing because of my frozen hands (even though the rest of me was comfortable), so I pulled out my -20˚F (-29˚C) rated down sleeping bag, and decided to wear it whenever I was sitting. 

I stuck a thermometer in the sleeping bag and when I pulled it out, it read 85˚F (29˚C). I noticed that neither my feet nor my hands were cold anymore, and I was so warm I had to fling off both of my hats. I've been living like this for over a week, and I've grown comfortable enough with the cold and my adaptations that I don't think I'll feel compelled to put an end to my experiment. 

Picture taken just after I pulled thermometer out of my sleeping bag.
While one person experiencing just ten days of a colder-than-normal house is a pretty small experiment, and one from which I ought not draw strong conclusions, I can't help but believe that, if times got hard, or if a hefty carbon tax was instituted, most Americans (let's not include the old and sick) are more than capable of lowering their thermostat by 20˚F (11˚C) without doing any serious harm to their health and efficiency.

There's no great secret to keeping warm. The more clothes, the better. But I think that there is a subtle art to it. A few things to keep in mind:

1. Our extremities (fingers and toes) get cold not just because of exposure, but because our "core" is stealing that heat (forgive my non-technical terms). The body's number one priority is to keep the core warm, so keep the core extra warm and our extremities will have a better chance of staying warm, too. 

2. There are a lot of factors that contribute to hypothermia, and one of them is food and water consumption. A well-fed and well-hydrated person will fend off the cold much more easily than someone who's not.  

3. As I understand it, we don't get colds because of exposure to cold weather. We get colds because the cold weakens our immune system, making us more susceptible to succumbing to viruses spread by human contact. Luckily my hermit lifestyle severely limits my exposure to unpleasant illnesses. 

While I'm at it, here's a quick tour of my new home:


Living room, which I don't keep heated. Notice walls are carpeted, and there's a couch hanging from the ceiling.

Carpeted doors and walls.

The man who built this house was a senior league racquetball superstar.


Kitchen. There are three thermostats in the house. One that covers the kitchen, which is set at the minimal temp of 50. The living room thermostat is turned off and therefore unheated. My room and bathroom is set for 45. 

Kitchen booth. View of corn field, harvested a few weeks back. 
My room. 

Yellow Pad story board for my book.

Boning up on travel literature and all things Great Plains. 

I live next to a corn field, a soybean field, and a cattle feedlot. 

Here we are herding them from the field to the lot a couple of weeks back. 

Pool in backyard.

My backyard, a harvested soybean field.


Silvia said...

That is so interesting. I am not sure about keeping my place down to 45 degrees but you did get me thinking on how I can be more energy efficient, keeping money in my pockets and etc. Warmer clothes and smarter ways to go around things are optional for sure with education.

By the way, I always did wonder how much a difference it would be during the winter to include undergarments that are meant to keep us extra warm. It really isnt just for the people in Alaska. FYI, there is a show called slednecks where it is about these youngins living in Alaska. I am always amazed to see the some of them wear shorts or very little extra clothings in the 40s and etc. The body does seem to adjust to the environment after awhile. Even I living in Queens, NY that when the weather starts to get colder in the autumn months I will noticed the weather temperature in the 40's and 50's as too cold. But then come in January and Feb, that when have a good day in the 40s and 50s (vs 30s and below) feels almost like a summer day. lol Talk about a mind fart. Adjustments for sure

Silvia L

Rita said...

That carpet on the wall gives new meaning to wall to wall carpeting.

Trish said...

I am sure many people will gasp and shake their heads at your willingness to endure a cold indoor temp - but once upon a time everyone lived like this! I always think about Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose family endured one of the hardest winters ever recorded in an uninsulated house in South Dakota, without adequate food. And many older homes in Great Britain don't have central heat, even one of the castles the Queen and her family stay in has inadequate heat, and evidently the Queen often walks around hugging a hot water bottle. Yes we could endure more difficult conditions than we have become accustomed to.

Good to hear from you Ken!!!

FrugalProfessor said...

Awesome post! I've long had those same thoughts! I'm as frugal as they come. I just can't stand heating 30,000 cubic feet in a home when all that matters is the heat of the 3 mm next to my skin. I'm always wearing a hoodie / beanie indoors.

I have a wife and kids, though, so I would be unsuccessful in convincing them to drop down to 45° (shortkut = alt + 0176...perhaps this will come in handy with your new book).

Anyway, love the blog my friend.

I think you should read the book "The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change". The adventurous attitude of that dude reminds me a bit of you.

Unknown said...

Great post! Nice to hear about you and things you are doing. I love your story board on the wall.

More insulation is the key to slow heat loss. I put extra insulation in my attic and spend most of the day in my well-insulated basement when it gets really cold in Cheyenne. I find the basement stays much warmer than the upper part of the house.

I fight with my wife about keeping the thermostat at 64 degrees. She just puts on more clothing to stay warm while I am fine. I don't know if I am ready to go down to 45 degrees at this time. My cats start getting colds and crave warmth when it gets that low.

I noticed that if I can see my breath in a cold room, it is too cold to be productive.
I have been to Laura Ingalls Wilder's family home in De Smet, SD in The Long Winter book. They huddled around a stove in one room of a poorly insulated "surveyor's house" to stay warm.

Molly! said...

I'm in love with that library you have there. Looks like a great place you're set up in for writing. I am looking forward to your next book. What is the estimated release date? 2015? 2016?

pizzadad said...

Reminds me of the overlook Jack.

Nely said...

Great post Ken! :) Take care.

Jack M said...

Two posts in two weeks! Nice!

I love the cold but am forced to compromise due to roommates who are unwilling to lower the temperature. Although, last year I trained my roommate to adapt to lower temperatures by slowly lowering the thermostat until it was between 58-60*. He didn't even notice.

I also had the place to myself for a couple weeks and had the temp at 53 degrees. Socks, a hoody and long pants with an occasional blanket seemed to do the trick. I also found my need for more clothing went away with time as my body adapted to the cold.

If you're willing, cold showers help big time with adapting to cold. I've been doing them for almost 2 years now. After the initial shock and adaptability period (~3 weeks) its just a normal shower.


Johnston said...

Ken, you just shamed me. Walked over and lowered the thermostat from 64 to 60 :)

Anonymous said...

Maybe use one of those reptile heating light above your keyboard to keep your fingers warm while you are writing on the computer....

Ann said...

This post literally brought a smile as I kept reading further and saw that you decided to get out your sleeping bag to use at your workstation. I'm a grad student and live with housemates--we never turn on the heater or AC... in part to save money and also mainly because we're in Cali. But the house does get cold enough (in the 50s) that this past week I just couldn't study at my desk anymore. I literally would wear three jackets and be under two things of blankets on my bed, trying to study and type, which wasn't great because it often led to me falling asleep. I was even considering a space heater, but it uses too much energy. As I was putting stuff away in the closet, I noticed my sleeping bag. =) I got it out, and draped it over my chair. It really does warm you up--toes and all that I can now study productively and warmly at my desk without fear of falling asleep. And as I was taking a break today, I saw your post and couldn't help but smile(one, to see that you've started blogging again; and, two, that you also used a sleeping bag to fend off the cold and stay productive). Hope to see more posts! They're always a great read.

Unknown said...

I guess my question to you is what damage is there being done to the house. Homes need to be heated to stop damage to pipes and frost building up on the inner and outer walls. You are not heating the living room area, that's not good.

Josh Lepird said...

Ken where in Nebraska are you? I just started vandwelling yesterday!

Summer said...

Would love to hang out in that library for a few hours...days....weeks.....
The design is especially intriguing.

wood said...

Ken Ilgunas you never cease to inspire me! Where are you? Edie and I are driving up to Topeka for Christmas tomorrow!
Marry Christmas buddy!

Bekah said...

Great post! :)

Kevin from Trailsnet said...

Excellent post, Ken & good information.

Anonymous said...

I kept my apartment at 65 degrees. Teh only difficult part was using the toilet in the morning....always a great big gasp.

Anonymous said...

Great to see an experiment looking for a lower limit of permanent living. I think 50-55 degrees is a temperature that should be considered for widespread permanent living. With a ground source heat pump, that temperature is obtainable easily and extremely efficiently when compared to traditional heating. Because the ground maintains a constant temperature of 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit below the frost line, a simple heat exchanger and pump can change cause enormous temperature changes for comparatively little input in energy.