Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Keeping heat in and near your body in a cool residence

In the first post in this series, I focused on clothing that will help to keep you warm in a minimally-heated residence like ours. We typically heat our home to 60F / 16C from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., 63F / 17C from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and 50F / 10C overnight. The method of clothing I discussed was based on keeping myself acceptably warm under those conditions. Dressing properly has the advantage that it is equally accessible to renters and owners, and it is one of the cheapest solutions to staying warm if you can find well-constructed clothing in your price range.

Clothing isn’t the only way to keep warmth close to your body, however. In this post I’ll discuss some other ways to keep heat inside and near you that don’t involve any structural changes to the building you live in. All of these means with a minor exception will apply to both renters and owners. Some of them are free or nearly so; others can be cheap or expensive.

A much-overlooked way to stay warm is exercise. OK, stop groaning already; I heard you. You’re thinking, not another guilt trip for not exercising. No, not at all. I’m merely pointing out that moving your body around generates heat. Dressing properly or using some of the other strategies I’ll discuss below will help you keep some of that heat close to you after you finish exercising, allowing you to keep your residence cooler for the same comfort level.

When I say exercise, I don’t mean you have to use machines or buy any special clothing to do it. How about doing some housework? Yes, I see you glaring at me. You don’t like housework any better than I do. Nevertheless, sweeping the floors, vacuuming the carpet, dusting the furniture, or picking up the various loose items scattered around your residence and putting them where they belong gets you moving, and that effort warms you up. You might be surprised by how warm you can become with this modest amount of activity. I find myself peeling off a layer or two of clothing even in midwinter when I get into the housekeeping groove. Put on some music and move a little more while you work and you might find yourself sweating! For that matter, take this as an excuse to dance without the housework component whenever you need to warm up. Just put on your favorite music and shake your booty!

Taking a walk, if you can do so safely, is one of the best ways I’ve found to warm up icy-cold feet. It’s best to dress a little cooler than is comfortable when you first step outside, because the effort of walking generates heat. You’ll want to wear a hat, either gloves or mittens, and sturdy, warm shoes or boots along with whatever layers of sweaters, coats, pants, and so forth are needed for the conditions. If you become too warm while walking, removing a layer should help you adjust to conditions. Depending on how cold your feet are, it may take only a few minutes to warm them up through brisk walking, or it may take a half hour or more (sometimes more, for me). For those of you who own property, raking leaves or shoveling snow also get you moving and warmed up if you use human-powered leaf rakes and snow shovels for the task.

A good way to keep your body heat where you need it most, inside your body, is to choose the right kinds of food and drink for a cold residence. Ice-cold drinks and a cold house do not mix well. It so happens that water must suck up a lot of heat energy in order to raise its temperature, a property that scientists call a high heat capacity. This is good when your favorite lake is absorbing the heat of sunlight during the summer to make it warm enough to swim in, or the water in those 55 gallon drums on your glassed-in porch is absorbing the heat from sunlight and then releasing that stored heat at night in winter. It’s not good when the cold water is in your stomach, sucking up the heat from your core, which causes the arteries in your hands and feet to constrict, making them feel cold. I suggest making all the liquids you drink in the winter no colder than room temperature, and warmer than that whenever possible. Forget that your ice trays or icemaker exist when your residence is cold. A nice warm mug of your favorite drink will warm your hands as you hold the mug and keep the heat inside you from being diverted to warm up a cold stomach.

As for food, I realize you may have a medical need or other reasons that determine your choice of foods, and I honor those. In our case, neither of us have any food allergies and we do not follow any special diet. Around here we like to eat substantial foods during the winter such as chilis, stews, casseroles, and carbohydrate-rich roasted vegetables like carrots, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash, all served hot and sometimes containing some meat or served alongside a meat course. These foods are warm when they hit my stomach and my body can convert them into the energy needed to help keep me warm after the meal. Further, the vegetables are the same ones that store well for weeks in our root cellar or in the basement or living space. We don’t eat many salads or other raw foods in winter, except for the fruits or vegetables we have in storage that we typically eat raw, like radishes or apples, or a piece of fruit at breakfast that we’ve purchased because we have eaten all of what I grew. In winter my body wants heavy, spicy foods. If you have no medical or personal reason not to eat this way, try it and see if it helps keep you a little warmer than you would have been otherwise.

As I noted in the previous post in this series, adding layers of clothing will help to keep heat closer to you for longer periods. You can also do the same thing by covering up with a blanket or throw whenever you are sitting down. These have advantages and disadvantages relative to clothing. If you have some blankets or throws in storage, for instance, it costs you nothing to haul them out and begin to use them if you aren’t already. However, blankets will not keep your arms warm if you are, for instance, typing away at your computer. For this purpose a plush, thick, long bath robe large enough to fit over your usual layers of clothes would work better. A blanket or throw might not do as good a job at keeping your legs warm as fleecy jeans or other warm leggings if you are sitting in a chair, because the blanket doesn’t surround your legs. But they are a good way to add an extra layer of warmth to your core, where you need it most.

I prefer blankets to throws because throws aren’t large enough to keep me as warm as a blanket does. But you could sew a couple of throws together to make a larger covering.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: wool blankets and throws are warmer than the more common cotton or acrylic versions. Of course the wool versions are also more expensive if you buy them new. But you may be able to find used wool blankets at thrift stores or yard sales, or you may know someone who has a wool blanket they aren’t using who would be happy to pass it on to you. We have wool blankets that belonged to Mike’s dad when he was in the military.

If you have a cedar chest or closet, that’s where to store your wool blankets when you are not using them. I keep ours in my cedar chest, washing them before I store them over the warm months. I keep wool clothing in between slabs of cedar that hang from the pole in my clothes closet. These are cheap and readily available, and so far they have prevented the insect attacks on my wool clothing that I had noticed occurring before I had the cedar slabs. They would probably also work to keep wool blankets folded to drape on hangers from insect damage in a clothes closet.

Mike bought a wool blanket that fits a single bed at a yard sale, which he modified to form a wrap for use when he is sitting in his recliner. The inspiration for this was an old comforter I had when we met, which had snaps along the edges to allow it to be snapped together into a large robe-like wrap when desired or unsnapped and used as a comforter. It was a clever design. However, after time the thin cotton cover separated from the snaps, allowing the batting to ooze out. Rather than use sewn-on snaps for his wool blanket, Mike used grommets and washers to create rows of holes along certain edges of the blanket. Then, by threading a long shoelace through the grommet holes, he created an opening through which he places his head at the top end of the blanket, and an opening for his feet at the bottom. I’ll show photos of the modified blanket first, then describe how he put in the grommets and washers.

This photo shows the modification at the top end of the blanket. Notice that the blanket is folded in half along its length. There are two rows of grommet holes which extend a short distance along the width of the blanket close to the edge.
This photo is a close-up of the grommet holes with a foot-long ruler laid alongside for the dimensions. The grommet holes begin about 1 inch / 2.5 cm from the long edge and are about the same distance from the short edge. The holes extend about 6 inches along the width on both sides and are laced together with a long shoelace, leaving an opening for Mike’s head to fit through.
This photo shows the modifications at the bottom of the blanket. It remains folded along its length. One row of grommets extends along the entire width, about 1 inch from the edge. The other rows of grommets extend up the length of the blanket on both sides.
This photo shows the rows of grommets along the length of the blanket and the shoelace that ties them together. These rows of grommets are about 10 inches / 25 cm long. In this configuration, Mike puts his feet through the bottom opening. The blanket forms a tube around his lower legs. He can change the configuration of the lacing to close off the bottom edge to form a pocket for his feet if he so desires.

Mike says that he could have bought a grommet setting kit to set the grommets in place, but he chose to use tools he already had instead. He used a sharp, sturdy metal point, such as on a metal skewer or a very heavy sewing needle, to open up a hole in the felted wool. He then inserted an aluminum grommet through the hole and placed a matching aluminum washer on the appropriate end. (It’s necessary to use the same metal for the grommet and washer to avoid corrosion.) Once the washer was in place, he put a center punch on it and tapped the punch with a hammer to set the washer against the grommet. I hope I’ve done justice to his description. He’ll read the post eventually and let me know if I need to change something.

This size of blanket works well because Mike is about 5 feet 6 inches tall. I suspect a taller person would prefer a double or queen size blanket for a similar wrap.

Finally, I’ll discuss bedding as a means of being as warm as you like for several hours each day. I find that after hours of being colder than I prefer, I especially appreciate the chance to be toasty warm while I’m sleeping and to begin and end my day in warmth. Having the right bedding makes that possible.

These days it’s easy to find electric blankets and mattress pads to keep you warm while sleeping. I have used both in the past but no longer use either. Besides the fact that they only work when electricity is available, they have other disadvantages. I found that the heat from electric blankets dried my skin to the point of redness. This wasn’t a problem with the electric mattress pad, but after several years of use the plastic-wrapped cords separated from the pad, breaking the wires and rendering the pad useless. Rather than replace the pad right away I tried not using it and found that it was no longer necessary. I think that’s because we no longer use a cotton comforter during the winter, so I no longer need any source of warmth beyond my own body heat to stay warm. Cotton does not hold in warmth in winter; you need wool or down for that.

If you can obtain a down comforter and have no allergy issues to prevent you from using it, it is the best choice for winter sleeping comfort. It’s because we now use a down comforter in winter that we no longer need the electric mattress pad. I find that one thin blanket under the down comforter keeps me as warm as I like even though the bedroom drops below 55 F/ 13 C during the winter. If you can only obtain a cotton comforter, then I suggest putting wool blankets under or over it, as many as necessary to keep you warm enough. Failing that, use multiple acrylic blankets in the same way. Again, check thrift stores if you are looking for bedding at a price you can afford, as well as yard and estate sales if you have time for them. If cold feet keep you from falling asleep, hot water bottles are available from specialty retailers.

The next post in the series will widen our viewpoint to keeping heat longer in a room-sized space.


  1. Hi, Claire!

    Such a timely post! With the old doggies now all gone on to their well-earned rewards (see you again someday old ones!) we don't have to worry so much about keeping the house as warm, so now the experimentation has begun. We have all agreed (4 of us here right now: myself, husband, and 2 grown sons) that we don't need any heat in the bedrooms at night. That was the rule last winter as well, except that I was sleeping downstairs with the last 2 dogs with a heater and wood stove. So far, it has been very pleasant with just a bunch of covers (haven't even gotten out my heavy old second-hand wool blanket yet). Got down to freezing one night.

    We have a log house which, from my experience and what I have read, is the worst insulated house of all. It has about an R-6 insulating value. The same logs that are outside are the inside walls. We need to do some much better insulating in the attic and basement. The basement is a pretty good place for storing root vegetables, though. Not so good when working in the workshop down there. One thing I have done is started lining the curtains with really heavy fabric, something that I read on the ADR (and is undoubtedly at the Green Wizards Forum) years ago. I think it helps quite a bit.

    For many years I have owned 2 types of garments from L.L. Bean. I can't normally afford Bean, but these are so exceptional and last so long that every 12-15 years (yes!) I reorder them. One is cotton/wool long underwear The other is a pair of fleece (not flannel) lined jeans

    You are so right about being colder just sitting around and not moving. Pretty good incentive to do some housework! And that is a beautiful, and functional, wool wrap that Mike has made; very clever. I believe we have a grommet setting kit around somewhere.

    Yay - soup! Anything can go in a soup! I've been making a lot of apple pies lately . . . .

    Here's to not shivering,


    1. Hi Pam! I'm sorry it took me so long to get to the comments. I'll make a point to check for them between posts.

      Our frame walls had no insulation in them and the attic had only a minimal layer of vermiculite when we bought the house almost 14 years ago. The house was built in 1928 and heated with a coal furnace. Those furnaces put out lots of heat - no need for insulation, I understand. But that was then, this is now. Ten years ago Mike and I used an inheritance to have insulation added to the attic and blown into the walls. It was worth doing. Even if all you did was insulate the roof, it would help a lot. It wouldn't be cheap, but it would be much cheaper than adding another layer to your walls. I think it'll be the fourth installment in the series, the whole-house installment, where I'll discuss insulation.

      I haven't tried anything on the windows yet, but it's on my list, once I get the sewing machine running well. Right now we have blinds, which don't do much to keep out the chill.

  2. Claire:

    Oops. I hadn't finished reading your first post in this keeping warm series and hadn't realized that you had already covered long undies and fleece-lined jeans. Shame on me.


    1. No problem at all! I think someday I'll get one pair of wool long underwear and find out how it compares to the synthetic stuff.

  3. I've found that wearing socks at night also helps manage a cooler room temperature. Even thin, otherwise worn out socks make a big difference, just have to stick to the ones that don't have a tight hold. This is where some of my socks last days get used when they won't stay up while standing, which makes them cozy in bed.

    1. Thanks for the tip! I too wear socks to bed and it helps a lot. If I'd remembered I would have put that in the post.

  4. Hi Claire,

    Very amusing about shaking your booty! Firewood heats you up multiple times too without even burning the stuff. You are absolutely 100% correct about wool versus synthetics and I have discarded any and all synthetic clothes over the past five years or so.

    Apologies though, because I have no experience with your winter cold temperatures. If I don't heat the house at all here, it will move down to about 11'C on the very coldest of days - which is about 0'C outside. Excessive heat during summer is more of a problem here.

    Nothing beats wool blankets though to keep toasty warm during winter.



    1. Mike is finding out about firewood heating him up before he burns it. Good thing he likes playing with wood, at least so far.

      It gets hot here too in the summer. Some people here claim they find the heat in summer worse than the cold in winter. In my case, the month or so that it's uncomfortably hot is much easier to take than the nearly five months when I feel too cold.