- Ken Ilgunas
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, a 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.
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: