Straight Talk Articles

October, 2018

Dear Pat, Last year was our first winter in an older home we had just bought a few months earlier. It felt cold even when the heat was turned up. We’ve added insulation but are wondering what else we can do to be more comfortable. – Emily


Dear Emily,

When we talk about comfort in our home, we usually think about where the thermostat is set. But, as you’re finding, there’s more to the picture than just how warm the air is in the room.


An important piece of the comfort puzzle is radiant heat, which transfers from a warm surface to a colder one.  A person sitting in a seventy-degree room can still feel cold if there is a cold surface nearby, like a single pane window, a hardwood or cement slab floor, or an exterior wall.  Covering these cold surfaces can help—area rugs, pictures, wall quilts, book cases, and heavy curtains can block radiant heat loss and make you feel more comfortable. Keep in mind that sometimes radiant heat can work in your favor.  A dark colored tile floor that receives many hours of direct sun can store the heat during the day and radiate it into the room in the evening. 


Another possible cause of discomfort is air movement.   We recognize this when winter weather forecasts report chill factor, which is a calculation of air temperature and wind speed.  Air movement makes us feel colder, which is why we use fans in the summer. In the past, the common advice was to turn on ceiling fans in winter to circulate the warmest air that is near the ceiling. Energy experts now know that air movement from fans make the room feel colder.


A common source of air movement is infiltration of cold outside air.  A typical home loses, on average, about half of its air every hour and much more when outside temperatures are extremely cold or when the wind is blowing.  Comfort can be improved by reducing air leaks. The best way to find these leaks is with a blower door test, (1) which is conducted by an energy auditor.  Some likely air leaks include:

  • penetrations and cracks around windows and doors

  • outside cracks in brickwork and siding

  • plumbing and wiring penetrations from the outside into the house

  • mail slots or pet doors


A variety of products are used to seal up these leaks, such as caulk, weatherstripping, outlet cover gaskets and dryer vent covers (2).


A fireplace can be a major source of air leakage. If you don’t use the fireplace, you can seal the opening or install an inflatable chimney balloon (3).  Before using the fireplace, consider that unless you have a high-efficiency insert, your fireplace will suck heated air from the room out through the chimney and be replaced by cold air that will find its way into the rooms furthest from the fireplace.  Always close the fireplace flue when it is not in use.


Your pursuit of more comfort should include a careful look at your heating system.  Is it distributing heat evenly and efficiently?  Forced air systems distribute air through supply ducts and registers.  Small rooms may have just one register, but large rooms could have several.  You may find some supply registers blowing copious quantities of warm air and others little at all.  Ideally, every room should also have return air registers.  If you see possible shortcomings with your forced air system find a heating contractor that really knows how to improve ductwork. 


Make sure your furnace is running at peak efficiency by getting an annual inspection; check your filter monthly (4) and replace or clean it as necessary. If you have radiators, bleed them at the beginning of the season so they flow efficient (5). A small portable zone heater could make sense if you spend much of your time in a small portion of the house, especially if you can then lower the thermostat a bit.


Beyond that, you can warm yourself from the inside out by wearing warm clothing, doing some light exercise throughout the day, and snuggling with a pet or under a blanket.


By taking some of these little steps, I hope you will enjoy a more comfortable second winter in your new older home!

This column was co-written by Pat Keegan and Brad Thiessen of Collaborative Efficiency. For more information on staying comfortable in winter, please visit the October 2018 more information page.





Too many or too large skylights and windows can make a room too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Photo Credit: NREL/DOE.