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Take the Home Heating Challenge

Vintage White-Rodgers wall thermostat
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Vintage thermostat

It may be little more than a symbolic gesture, but my wife and I are resisting cranking up the heat at our house as far into the fall as possible; while simultaneously patting ourselves on the back that we’re avoiding spewing planet -warming pollutants into the air. The action has the added benefit of lowering one’s energy costs at a time when they are, pun only partially intended, going through the roof.

Nature has cooperated thus far this season, temperatures in the Hudson Valley rarely straying below forty degrees at night and rising into the toasty seventies during the day. But the question, or questions, arise: how long can we resist dialing up the thermostat? How strong are we? What’s the minimum temperature it takes to prevent your teeth from chattering at the dinner table?

I realize we’re in a fortunate position. We can afford to heat our home. Many Americans struggle to pay their energy bills. For the sake of full disclosure, I should also admit that we’ve cheated a little. We’ve had a fire or two in our fireplace and wood-burning stove, though more for aesthetic than survivalistic reasons. I’ve queried friends and neighbors some of whom don’t count wood burning towards energy consumption. Of course, that’s not true. As one recent California climate refugee pointed out, her home state has banned fireplaces in new housing developments because of pollution worries and restricts their use elsewhere.

I haven’t been a big pajamas guy since childhood, finding them restricting. But pajamas are nothing compared to the way I dress for bed nowadays. My outfit includes sweatpants, sweatshirt and socks. And that’s in addition to pulling our down comforter as far over my head as it will go. I’d be amiss if I didn’t credit my wife for contributing to the bed’s warmth. But snuggling goes only so far.

I first became aware of the low, or rather off, thermostat movement – I don’t really know if it’s an actual movement, but if not I’m designating it as such here and now – from my friend Angela Miller. For years she and her husband Russell Glover have resisted sparking the furnace at their Vermont farm at least until November 1st. “Longer if we can layer our sweaters and feel comfy,” she reported. I attributed their impressive stoicism to the fact that Rust is British and the British are island inhabitants, better equipped, through nature and nurture, to endure such meteorological elements as dampness and fog.

Turns out that mindset is gaining a foothold in the United States, if the members of my wife’s yoga group are any indication. When she asked them after class one morning last week what their current home heating strategies are, on the condition their comments remained unattributed, she learned that they were employing various methods, some bordering on the chimerical, to lower their energy costs and carbon footprints.

“I have a knit hat in my bedside drawer for cold winter nights,” one revealed. I hadn’t thought of a cap. But, of course, the concept’s been around a long time. As in “And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap/ Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap…”

If a cap is considered essential winter outerwear whether hiking, skiing or just walking into Walmart, shouldn’t it work equally well, if not better, in bed? One source of friction between my wife and me is how wide the bedroom window, or windows, should be left open at night. My belief is that a crack is insufficient for circulating fresh air. But she’s not a hat person so that’s probably moot as a ploy to persuade her to throw open the sash. Credit where credit’s due, however. She did sew cashmere cozies for our hot water bottles; hot water bottles being another of those anachronistic, underappreciated solutions to the cold.

An updated version of the hot water bottle, popular with the members of her yoga group, are bed warmers, giant heating pads with temperature controls for each partner’s side of the bed. “Very useful when you keep your bedroom cold,” one of the ladies reported. I’m not sure how much that differs in concept from the old-fashioned electric blankets my grandparents employed before they installed baseboard heating.

This yoga devotee also uses a small, fake, tabletop electric fireplace. “It does a great job heating,” she claims, “and even without the heat on, its visual flame setting sends psychological heat waves.”

Another member of their group moves an electric radiator back and forth between her bedroom and office – though electricity creates greenhouse gases, too, depending on how it’s generated. She recently purchased a black box “Comfort Smart Fire Crackler Sound System.” “Yeah, I did that!” she said proudly.

To be clear, it produces no heat, only sound effects. But I can respect that. I still regret leaving behind my parents’ two fake fireplaces – basically dented tin cans rotating arthritically over an orange light bulb behind some artfully arranged birch branches. They installed them in their non-working fireplaces. At Christmas one year, an aunt, fanning herself, moved away from the novelty, claiming she was getting too hot. In other words, they sort of work.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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