Hello and welcome to the Vernacular Life Podcast, where we talk about anything and everything that goes on in our turn of the century farmhouse. I am your host, Paige, as usual, and not going to lie, I’m pretty happy today. Seriously, we have had an unusually steamy summer around here. Very, very warm, very humid, lots of days in the mid nineties with lots of humidity. And quite frankly, I’m over it. But I woke up this morning and I needed a sweatshirt. I mean, I needed a sweatshirt for all of about 10 minutes and then I got hot, but the point was, I needed a sweatshirt, because the seasons are finally, finally changing.
With that, I want to talk to you today about winter in an old house, because that’s one of the first things you hear when people say they wouldn’t live in an old house is, oh, the electricity bill’s going to be so high, or oh, it’s going to be so expensive to heat and cool. I mean, there is some truth in that, honestly. Old houses are built differently than new houses, but still. We know, we live here. We manage perfectly fine. And so I have 10 tips today for how to keep warm in the winter in an old house. So here we go.
Tip number one, and this feels a little bit like a cop-out of an answer, but it really is true. The first tip is to just lower your expectations of how warm you think you will be. I’m not saying freeze yourself. I’m not saying keep it so cold that you have to stay in bed all the time and that’s it. But there are certain things in some old houses where to be at the temperature you would optimally like, it’s just not feasible.
For example, when we moved here, this house underwent a huge renovation around 1980. At that time, we think they drilled into the walls and installed urea formaldehyde foam insulation, or UFFI. That is not a product that is used anymore, because it is an open cell foam, which means it shrinks over time. In this entire house, the stud cavities were about half full of this shrunken, useless spray foam insulation, which incidentally is one of the reasons we had to take the plaster down, because there was no other way to get that stuff out of there. So that was what we were starting with.
And then on top of that, we had unsealed baseboards. I went on a tear and pulled up all the carpet and sub floor, so we just had the wood over top of the crawl space. We had very, very bad insulation in the walls that weren’t spray foamed. We had windows that were leaking. We had a whole house fan that was basically just a hole to the attic that hung out in our staircase. So when we moved here, the house was basically a pasta strainer. And when we fired up our furnace for the first time, we have an oil furnace, it’s from the eighties, it works pretty darn well, but when we fired it up for the first time, we found that if we tried to set the house at anything higher than 65 degrees, the furnace would never shut off. It would just run and run and run and run and run until we eventually were like, okay, we have that set too high, because the house was just losing heat so fast it couldn’t keep up.
We eventually found out that 65 degrees is not super warm, but that is enough to let the furnace be on and off a reasonable amount of time. We were coming from a new build, new construction house that we were able to keep pretty much as warm as we wanted in the winter, no issues, carpet floors, everything was nice and toasty. And so this was definitely a little bit of a shock. And honestly, when guests come over and they’re used to their 70 or 72 degree houses, they leave their coats on, but I can’t really help that.
I’m interested to see how it does this winter, because this will be the first winter where we have all but two rooms fully renovated and insulated. I’m very interested to see if the house stays any warmer or is any warmer or stays warmer longer this year because we have so much insulated. So that’s the first thing, is when you move to an old house, you’re not really telling the old house what to do. You are there as a steward of the old house and are doing your best to work with it to achieve the best outcome. Sometimes that means a couple years of very cold winters and 65 degree houses until you can get the house back up to what you would really like it to be.
Now, the second tip along with this, is if you’re keeping your temperatures that low, you’ve really got to layer. It’s like in the summer, if you want to be walking around in a sweatshirt and sweatpants inside, you’re going to end up with your air conditioning pretty low. If in the winter you want to be walking around in shorts and a tank top, you’re going to keep your house pretty darn hot, and your heating bill is going to reflect that. We have learned to just layer. Pretty much all winter long, I wear pants, I wear a shirt, I wear a sweatshirt, sometimes I wear a hat. And this isn’t necessarily because I’m actively cold. This is because in almost any situation, I find that I could be warmer.
I don’t get very, very hot all that often, which is why this summer was so terribly unpleasant, because I don’t like being hot. I can’t stand it. It saps my energy. But in the winter I can almost always be warmer. So most of the time I have the sweatshirt, sweatpants, socks, slippers or boots. I do find that a vest, just a torso-covering vest, does wonders for bringing up your body temperature. It’s a little bit less important for me to cover my arms again as it is to add another layer to my torso.
Then I also have an absolutely enormous blanket. Seriously, this thing is like 10 feet by 10 feet, and I absolutely bury myself in it in the chair in the study all winter long. And I have my laptop, and I usually have a cat with me who wants to keep warm. And it’s just an adaptation. You just kind of figure out how many layers you need to wear in order to be warm at night and during the day. Usually when I’m the only one here during the day, I will turn the temperature down to 60 or 62, and that’s pretty cold. I’m not going to lie. But if I’m the only one here, I don’t see the sense in pumping heat into the entire house.
Okay, I do have to take a funny sidebar here and talk to you about our heating system, because when we moved here, the first thing that we did was foundation work. In order to get to the foundation, we actually had to dig up a buried oil tank that was buried right outside the dining room window. We’re pretty sure that that oil tank was part of the reason why the foundation was collapsing so bad over there. We dug that up probably in October, no, it was about August or something, and we pulled it out, and we just hadn’t replaced it yet.
The day we went to replace it, we bought an oil tank off Craigslist and we brought it home. That night it was going to get down to like 45 degrees or something. It was going to be really cold. So we basically were in a do-or-die moment of like, we have to get this oil tank installed, and we have to make sure that it works with the furnace or we’re going to be really cold tonight. But of course, Brandon is magical, and we have an oil furnace and those are pretty easy to work on. They’re not pressurized, it’s all just copper lines and copper fittings, so he managed to get it all running and it works fine. But of course we would leave it to the absolute last second until we installed the oil tank.
But anyway, the layering is a big thing. I wear fingerless gloves a lot, and on some level it seems like, oh my gosh, that’s so cold. But on the other level, I find it really cozy. I drink a lot of tea. It’s really warm. It’s nice and snugly to hold a cup of tea when it’s really chilly, and I love it. So layering up in addition to setting your expectations kind of low, that’s pretty much how you survive the first winter in an old house before you really start to insulate and do all of that.
The next thing, and that’s what just internally what you’re doing, but what you can start doing to the house is tip number three, which is to stop air flow. You will lose heat all over the place in your house. You lose some through the windows, some through the wall, some through the attic, some through doors, but air flow, especially in old houses, is a huge contributor to how cold something is. If you have air just pouring in around a door or around a window, it doesn’t matter how well insulated your walls are, cold air is going to come in there, and so warm air is going to go out there.
Sometimes until you renovate a specific room or finish whatever you’re doing, the methods to block airflow are not particularly glamorous. When we moved here, the carpet was absolutely disgusting. My task before we moved in is I was supposed to give all the carpets a really good vacuum, and they were so gross I just couldn’t even bring myself to do it. So I just ripped them all up instead, which created a whole host of other problems, but that’s part of my charm. When I ripped up the carpet and then ripped up the sub floor, that dropped the level of the floor by about an inch, and there were no baseboards. So the bottom of the wall was just open to the stud cavity and the crawl space all throughout the house. And I was like, oh shoot, it’s really cold. What do we do with that now?
What we ended up doing, we cut about a six-inch strip of vapor barrier, very thick vapor barrier, and we duct taped it to the wall and to the floor all the way around the room. It looked extremely bad, but you know what? It stopped the air flow. It stopped that cold air from racing along the floor. And as terrible as it looked, it worked for that first winter that we had in this master bedroom. I’ve also seen people who will put tape and thin plastic or vapor barrier over their windows all winter. Until they restore them with storm windows, that is a way to keep the air out.
But if you can figure out where cold air is coming in and just block it, even if it’s only temporarily, that is going to do absolute wonders for keeping that room and that area of the house slightly warmer. So we’re still kind of in survival mode. We’re not really into fixing mode. We’re just surviving our first winter in an old house. It’s very cold. I don’t like it, and I’m trying to stay warm.
Getting electric implements that supplement your heat really does help. For example, last winter, we had the bedroom done, bathroom, and the study. I don’t think the kitchen was done. The kitchen might’ve been done too, but either way, we didn’t have the whole first floor done. And so at night, instead of keeping the house at a higher temperature and forcing the furnace to work overtime and pump all of that heat out, we got an electric space heater that sits on the floor in the bedroom. Specifically, we got one of those that kind of looks like a radiator. It’s filled with oil, and it just kind of sits there and gets hot.
We insulated everything in this house. Our house is balloon framed, which is very common for this age of house, and that means that the studs go from the foundation all the way up to the roof, which they don’t really do anymore. They do platform framing for a variety of reasons where there’s breaks between the first and second and third floors. But that means that the crawl space is connected all the way up to the attic on pretty much every wall. So we decided to insulate the interior walls of the whole house, purely to stop that air flow. We wanted to stop that cold air from racing between the attic and the crawl space on the interior walls of the house.
It’s not common to insulate the interior walls. You don’t usually need to, and I’ve heard from some people that it can actually make regulating the temperature inside the house a little bit harder. You end up with hot spots and cold spots. But we did it because of that balloon framing. Balloon framing is also a little bit more of a fire risk, and that’s why they don’t do it anymore, because if you get fire in the stud cavity it can travel the whole house, so we put in Rockwool insulation, which is somewhat fire resistant. That was another reason we did it, is we wanted that fire resistance in the interior walls. That means that this bedroom is completely insulated, walls and ceiling. If you put a heat source in here, it cooks up pretty darn well. It gets pretty toasty in this room after you have that heat source in here.
What we’ll usually do is at night, we’ll turn the heat in the rest of the house down to 58 or 60, and then we put that space heater on in our room, and it keeps the temperature of our room just enough that the house isn’t freezing. Now, I am, of course, scared of fire. I’m terrified of fire. I won’t do candles. I won’t do any of that stuff, because I don’t want a fire in the house. And then I turn around and recommend an electric heater. I know.
But this one’s new. We inspect the wiring. We make sure that nothing’s chewed on it. We make sure it’s working properly, it’s not sparking or doing anything weird. And we’ve been extremely happy with it. It’s also sitting on a portion of our bedroom that is tiled. We have the tiled hearth, so it sits over there and it’s a little bit safer. So we use that in the bedroom.
When I’m working at my computer, I have a tiny little space heater that I blow across my hands, that keeps my hands warm when I’m working at the computer or typing or anything like that. Last year, Brandon was home for a little bit working, and we ended up clipping a chicken heat lamp over top of his computer that shone down directly on his hands. He was the happiest camper with that, because it made his hands so warm.
And then I do have an electric blanket. Every time I mention this, people are like, “Paige, how could you do that? There’s fires. They’re so dangerous.” I know, I know. But have you ever crawled into a warm bed? Have you ever crawled into a bed that is actively warm, that you don’t have to expend any energy to warm up? It’s transformative.
It is an absolutely transformative experience. So I love my heated blanket. It’s a little bit small. I think I’m going to see if I can talk Brandon into getting a bigger one this year. But those little supplements that will just take the edge off while you’re working on your plan to make your house warmer really make a huge difference in your quality of life.
Number five, now that we’ve moved on from just simply surviving the cold, now we’re trying to actually make the house better. Let’s make this better for the next winter. You need to come up with a plan of attack for fixing the house, for making the house retain more heat.
I’ll leave something to it in the show notes. There are all sorts of charts out there that show you, 30% of your heat is lost through the attic and 20% through your windows and 10% through this or whatever. If you look at that, you can start to figure out where in the house you need to put your efforts first to get the most heat retention.
Obviously, the first thing we wanted to do was to insulate, because the insulation was so bad in this house, we knew that just adding better, newer insulation was going to make a huge difference. We chose to go with Rockwool as opposed to the standard fiberglass insulation. If you’re going to splurge somewhere in your house, I would highly recommend the Rockwool.
It costs about double what the normal pink insulation would, so for us, it costs about $600 a room to insulate with Rockwool. But we like it for a variety of reasons. First, it actually has a higher R-value per stud cavity size than the pink insulation. R-value is just the measure of how well it insulates. A higher R-value, better insulation.
Rockwool is actually a mineral wool. It is a spun rock, basically, into a bat, this wool. And then you use that and you fill your stud cavities. But probably the best thing about it is that it is not packaged the same way that the pink insulation is, because the pink insulation, you have to fluff it up before you put it in, the fiberglass insulation. And if it’s not fluffed up, then it doesn’t work. You can’t just keep shoving it in there and it’ll still work. Rockwool, you can do that.
Rockwool is designed to be shoved as tightly and as compactly into a space as you possibly can get it. It also comes in these bats that are about four feet by 16 or 24 inches, and they are fairly stiff. I would say that they’re probably about the stiffness of like, if you take French bread and take the crust off, like the inside of a dense French bread, that’s about how stiff this stuff is.
What that means is that you can cut it to width and then literally just shove it in a stud cavity and it stays. It’s miraculous. But we also picked it because it’s water resistant naturally as part of the manufacturing process. There’s oils left in it, so water just kind of runs off of it. It doesn’t saturate it, which for us was really good, because we’re doing our best to fix all of the water issues that we’re finding.
But of course, it’s an old house, so water’s going to get somewhere, and we would rather that if it gets on the insulation, it doesn’t hurt anything. Because if you get water on fiberglass, it just collapses. But also, it burns at a higher temperature than fiberglass, so it actually acts as a little bit of a flame retardant if, God forbid, a fire were to ever happen.
We started looking at the pros and cons of fiberglass versus Rockwool, and we found that for the money, we love it. I sing its praises to absolutely anyone who is looking for insulation. So that was the first thing we wanted to do, insulation in the whole house. And then of course, the attic. Heat rises, so if your attic is not insulated, all of the heat, it doesn’t matter how much you’re pumping into the house, it’s all going up and out. Insulating the attic would be a very, very good first step.
Upgrading your windows. Windows are such a huge topic around old houses, because you really should save your old windows. I did the full-blown calculations once of the energy loss through properly restored old windows versus new vinyl windows. For the cost of new windows, it takes years, actual years to pay off and break even from the cost of those vinyl windows. And by the time you have paid off and you’ve broken even, you need new windows anyway.
So upgrading your windows, restoring your windows, that is a good way to help with energy savings, but just do your research and don’t be fooled into thinking that you need these new double-paned energy-efficient vinyl, blah, blah, blah, blah. You don’t need all of those. Properly restored historic windows with a storm window are about 97% as efficient as new windows, 97%. And it costs a fraction of the money to restore a window as it does to replace it, so it is a good place to look for savings. Don’t think you need to spend $30,000 replacing all the windows in your house in order to get the benefit of better windows.
And then of course, things like new furnaces, door seals, anything like that. Just start to come up with your plan of attack of, okay, we’re surviving the winter right now, but what are we going to do in terms of upgrading insulation and fixing windows and creating better seals in order to properly, so that this house is actually warm in the future?
Now we’re getting into the silly little things, and tip number six is specifically how I deal with our crawl space, because we have a crawl space. The modern way to deal with a crawl space is to encapsulate it, which basically involves treating it like a tiny basement. You insulate the walls, you put something down on the floor, and you heat it and cool it like a little basement.
And then that makes your house warmer, which is perfectly fine and dandy and wonderful, except that our crawl space is so shallow that there is no way to encapsulate it. And by shallow, I mean that there are places where the distance between the floor joists and the dirt is less than six inches. We can’t even get under there.
We did try to insulate the floor in the front hall. We came up with a system using some insulation and some radiant insulation barrier and all this stuff. It did nothing. It was a horrible project. It took us like two weeks to do with a tiny hall, and it did not work. So since then, we have tried to look for alternative ways to deal with the cold floor and the cold crawlspace. The biggest way that I deal with that is I buy wool rugs. All of the rugs in this house are wool. They all came from eBay or from antique fairs. They’re not terribly expensive, but a wool rug with a big thick wool rug pad gives us a place that is warm and snugly, because the floors do get cold.
And we also in the winter are very rarely without some kind of shoes. We wear slippers, we wear boots, we wear something in the house. I know everybody has their own opinions on whether or not you wear shoes in the house or don’t wear shoes in the house. We wear shoes in the house. We go in and out so much, it just doesn’t make sense. I will just clean the floors a little bit more. It’s not that big of a deal.
So our feet don’t necessarily get cold from walking on the floor, because we do wear shoes, but I do also use the rugs to just add that little bit of extra warmth. I have one in the bedroom, I have one in the dining room, and I have one in the study and in the front hall. All of them have big, thick, delicious, squishy rug pads underneath them, because that makes everything so much better. So adding wool rugs, if your floors are particularly cold and you don’t have a good way to insulate them, it helps. I’m just saying.
We did look into foam insulating the crawl space. With as horrible of a time as we had with the foam insulation in the walls, and then you start to read about things like off-gassing when the foam is applied incorrectly and there’s really no way to get it out other than to literally just scrape it. So once we started reading into all of that, I was just like, you know what? I’ll deal with my cold floors. It’s fine. Heat tends to rise, not go down, so it’s fine.
Now, tip number seven is actually a fun one, and that is to get the oven going. Bake, can, cook, make candy, do whatever in the kitchen to get the oven running and heat up the house that way. And really, any kind of unconventional heating like that will do. Some people have wood stoves. Some people have pellet stoves. My fear of fire won’t let me do that, and then we also don’t really have a good place for one. Our chimneys are non-functional. They would need to be rebuilt or seriously worked on in order to be functional, so I don’t feel comfortable putting any kind of exhaust or flame up them.
But if you can find a little place to add a nice wood stove or a pellet stove, or you have a fireplace, or if you can get the oven going, if you can just find ways to put heat into your house through other activities that maybe are fun, it’s a nice way to warm up the kitchen, especially when you’re canning, and then you go into the kitchen and it’s all warm, because you’ve been canning and it feels very wintry. And of course, I’m extremely biased here, because fall and winter are my absolute favorite seasons. I don’t mind being cold, because I love the fall and the winter so much, so I am a little bit skewed here in my perception.
We’ve got three more tips here. Let’s get through these. Number eight is to plan for the power to go out. This is more of a rural thing, but I do think it applies to pretty much everyone. If you have heat that requires electricity to run, you need to have a plan for that if the electricity goes out. That is one of the benefits of an oil furnace, is that the furnace itself doesn’t take much energy to run. All you’re really doing is providing enough energy to run the pump and to spark near the atomized oil, to turn it into a flame, which really isn’t that much energy. So you can run that oil furnace off of a generator.
If you have something that requires more energy than that, like if you imagine trying to run your air conditioner off a generator, that’s a little bit different. That’s harder, because that just requires so much more energy. That’s one of the reasons my parents have an oil furnace, we have an oil furnace, we’ll probably stick with an oil furnace, just because it’s really nice to be able to heat the house on a generator if necessary.
Of course, if you have a gas furnace, again, I don’t really know anything about how those work, so hopefully you can run the blower and everything you need off of a generator, but you just want to be thinking about what happens in this house if we don’t have power. How can we stay warm?
Tip number nine, and I feel like most people do this, but you just set the temperature lower when you’re not around. If you’re sleeping or you’re away at work for the day, keep the temperature in the house a little bit lower. It’s not going to hurt anything, as long as your pipes aren’t freezing, as long as nothing’s bursting, for us, as long as we have places where the animals can snuggle down, which we have blankets and couches and everything and they can burrow and stay warm.
But by turning the temperature down when you’re not around, you’re just not going to be fighting the house as often. You’re really only fighting the house when you need to be, which is when you’re actually there.
And then the last tip, which is easier for some than others, depending on how you’re using your house and how many people are living with you, but we straight up close off rooms that we are not using. We close the vents, we close the doors, and we don’t even heat them. We have two bedrooms upstairs right now that are the last two to be renovated, and one of them, we literally close it all winter. We don’t go over there. There’s no pipes over there. There’s no water over there. There’s nothing that’s going to burst or freeze. It’s no problem if that room is 20 degrees colder than the rest of the house.
Some houses actually had this built in. I have a family friend who lives in this big old Victorian house, and there’s a third floor that actually with one door, you can close off the entire third floor and not heat it at all, for this exact reason. If you don’t need to heat it, why would you? If there are rooms that you’re not using or hallways that you are not using, figure out a way to close them off, even if you’re just hanging a thermal curtain over the door, so that there’s a little bit of a heat barrier. Working with the old house, it’s a lot of compromise, so if you don’t need that room right now, and you’re not going to get to renovating it for a while, don’t bother heating it. There’s no reason to.
So those are the 10 tips that I have for surviving your first winter or your second winter or your third winter in an old house without completely blowing all of your money on heating and without absolutely freezing your pants off. I hope that helps. We are staring down to cold season. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited, because I am tremendously excited. I love the cold. I’m so tired of being hot. I love the fall, I love snow, I love it all, so I’m very, very excited for the holiday season this year. I hope that was helpful. I hope there were some good tips in there. Thank you so much for hanging out and listening with me, and I will see you next time. Bye.