insulate first, then heat

Two-Step Toasty Winter: Insulate First, Then Heat


It finally happened!  After weeks (of months) wondering what the weather is up to and whining about the lack of a white christmas … winter has arrived. Be careful what you wish for!  Before you reach for your thermostat (if you have one) take a more strategic approach to making your home cozy.


Imagine standing on an “L” platform on a blustery Chicago night (we’ve all been there).  You’re shiveringly cold. You start to believe your train may NEVER come. What do you do?

  • Step 1: Get out of the wind. (That’s what those handy little glassed-in shelters are for.)
  • Step 2: Stand real close to the heater.

The order of these steps is key – standing under a heat lamp in a cold breeze will barely register. The same is true at home.  Don’t bother trying to warm a big, drafty area; it’s a doomed exercise.

l station


The conventional approach to winter – forced air heat – is a brute force method which tries to blow heated air to fill the entire house, floor to ceiling and every room.  It’s wasteful and it doesn’t work well – heat rises to the ceiling, drafts sneak in under doors and you’re sitting around feeling chilled while you pay (and use energy) to heat everywhere you’re not.

Thermal comfort in the winter is about having a warm area (and no draft) right where you are.

When the whole house is warm but you’re sitting in a draft … you feel cold.  But if the room temperature is cool but you’re tucked in and toasty … you feel warm.  QED.

So what is the key to FEEING warm? Heat the spot where you are.  Plug in an electric blanket at night, tuck your toes in with a hot water bottle or warm bean bag while you watch TV, aim a small space heater at your legs under the desk when you work.


Step one to feeling warm in the winter is to block all drafts.

Check your windows and doors for leaks and take steps to stop them.  New, insulated glass windows and solid doors are one way to go. But for a short term fix, you can simply get active with curtains, update your weather stripping, put up temporary layers of clear plastic, and block the bases of your doors with draft guard tubes.

Seek out sneaky drafts, like the holes drilled through exterior walls for retrofitted cable or internet wiring, and quash them.

Any air movement will create a feeling of coolness (remember standing in front of a fan this summer?) so stop them to keep your home feeling cosy.  You may want to use your ceiling fans (with the direction reversed) to circulate warm air from the ceiling down to the people area, but make sure to keep the air speed low and stay out of the moving air, or you’ll defeat the purpose.

If you’re going to go to the trouble of warming up your home you’ll get more bang for your BTU if you have minimized all your sources of heat loss first.


Once you have de-drafted your home, figure out where you want to be warm (bed, living room, kitchen) and warm up those spaces.

Better yet, warm just the area where you are sitting, standing, working or sleeping.  Here’s the short term solution: plug in a small space heater unit and aim it at your body, bundle up (especially your head, neck, and feet), use a hot water bottle or electric blanket at night.  During the day, play up any solar exposure you have – follow a cat’s example and curl up in a sunbeam.  Curl up around a mug of tea – holding it warms your hands, drinking it warms your insides.  For a longer term answer to the problem, consider zone-based radiant heat in your next home update.

(Don’t forget that you warm up your own body by hopping up out of the chair and having a little active interlude every once in a while.  It’s good for your health too.)

Think about your heat strategy by specific area: If you’re hanging out in the kitchen, making a nice hot dinner will warm up the space.  Let the winter affect your behavior a little – after you bake; eat in the warm kitchen rather than carrying food to a cooler dining area.  You might also rearrange your furniture for the winter season; pull the sofa away from the windows (out of the path of falling cold air) and sit next to the radiator for the winter.  Turn off the bathroom fan for the winter (you want to keep hot humid shower-air IN the house, not vent it out).  If there are rooms of your house or apartment you don’t regularly use, close them off for a couple of months to concentrate on heating your main spaces.

Bottom line: kill drafts and warm up a space to sit and … ta da, you’re set for a nice warm winter.