Sunday, January 7, 2018

Household Hacks: How we're keeping (somewhat) warm

Here on the East Coast—and in many other parts of the country as well—we are now about two weeks into a deep and prolonged cold snap. Ever since Christmas, we have not seen outdoor temperatures over 20 degrees, either here in Jersey or back at my in-laws' place in Indiana. Every day the news reports new record low temperatures somewhere in the country. Meteorologists are amusing themselves by making up new and terrifying terms, like "bomb cyclone," to describe the brutal weather conditions.

In the face of the bitter cold outside, our little boiler is struggling to keep up. Ever since we got home, the thermostat has been set to 68 degrees 24/7 (rather than our usual regimen of 67 by day and 56 by night), and we're still lucky if the indoor temperature ever creeps above 65. So we've been using a variety of tricks to keep ourselves warm. If you're also stuck shivering at home, perhaps some of them will help you as well.

Winter Warmer #1: Layers—lots of layers.

As I type this, I am wearing a total of four layers of clothing: a turtleneck, a pullover, a fleece zip-up that I picked up at Goodwill over Christmas vacation, and my wearable blanket over that. I also have fleece-lined leggings on under my trousers, two pairs of socks under my fuzzy slippers, and a hat. The only part of me I don't have under wraps is my hands, since I can't manage to type with gloves on. (Look, I['ll show you. See what; I[ mean>?")

Winter Warmer #2: Baking.

In the summertime, we tend to choose meals that we can prepare without heating up the kitchen too much. We grill, eat cold salads, or use the Crock-Pot and the pressure cooker, and avoid running the oven as much as possible. During this cold snap, we've switched to the opposite strategy, running the oven as much as possible. In the past week, Brian has baked bread, apple crisp, cookies, and lasagna, and after each recipe he leaves the oven door open to spill as much of that heat into the kitchen as possible.

Winter Warmer #3: The pressure space-heater.

An old trick for warming up the house is to heat up a pot of water on the stove. As it slowly cools, its stored heat will transfer to the air (along with moisture, which will make it feel warmer). The problem is, if the pot stays on the stove, only the kitchen will get noticeably warmer. Brian had the thought that if he could heat a pot and then move it into whichever room we happened to be using, it would serve as a little space heater, radiating warmth in our immediate surroundings. However, he was reluctant to try this with our big stock pot for fear of spilling the water.

The solution he hit on was to use the pressure cooker instead. Every day this week, he has put the pressure cooker on to boil with nothing in it but water. Once it comes up to full pressure, he lets it vent, then moves it to a hot pad atop my desk, where it gently radiates heat as I work. I have to be careful not to touch the hot pot early in the day, but by evening it's completely cool to the touch (although even then, we've found the water inside is still slightly warm). He's also tried setting the hot pot on the coffee table as we watch TV in the evenings, where we can put up our feet next to it.

Winter Warmer #4: Hot tea.

While the pressure-cooker heater is helping to heat my outside, I also warm myself from the inside out by sipping hot tea throughout the day. This may sound confusing if you've heard that sipping hot drinks in hot weather is actually cooling, but as this article from the Guardian explains, that's because their heat stimulates increased sweating (which is why this trick doesn't really work in humid climates). On a day like this, there's no way a cup of tea will be enough to cause sweating, so its warmth will instead stay in your tummy and help you keep your core temperature up. Plus, holding the hot cup helps keep my exposed hands warm.

Winter Warmer #5: Heavy-duty bedding.

Even with all these warm-up tricks, it's a struggle to keep warm during the day. But at night, we have no problems at all. We stay toasty warm with a combination of fleece sheets and a lightweight comforter from IKEA. When we bought this comforter, we hesitated between two different weights; this one, which was labeled as a "cooler" comforter suitable for warm weather, and a mid-weight one that was slightly pricier. We settled on the cheaper one, figuring that we could keep it on the bed year-round without overheating, and in the winter we could always add another blanket to keep warm.

To our surprise, this "cooler" comforter turned out to be very warm indeed—so warm that we have to remove it entirely in summertime, leaving only the empty duvet cover. Maybe in Sweden it would be comfortable all summer long, but definitely not in New Jersey. And even in winter, it's so warm that we haven't needed to put a blanket on the bed since we bought it. If this is IKEA's idea of a warm-weather comforter, I can hardly imagine how warm their cold-weather ones must be.

We'd probably stay warm enough under this comforter even with plain cotton sheets, but there would still be those few minutes of unpleasant chill upon first sliding between them. Even flannel ones have a fairly smooth surface that feels cold to the touch at first. By contrast, our fleece sheets, with their high, fluffy loft, feel as warm as blankets against our skin. Tucked in between these, with our warm sweat pants on and our plush comforter over top, we stay snug as the proverbial bug all night long. The only difficult part is getting out of bed when the alarm goes off.

Fortunately, the cold spell is scheduled to break at last on Tuesday, with temperatures soaring up to a balmy 40 degrees. At that point, we'll be able to venture outside again during the daytime and finally give our boiler a break at night. But I'll be filing away these frugal winter-warmth tricks for future reference, since both extreme lows and extreme highs seem to be part of the new normal.
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