It has been, to say the least, a singularly weird winter here in the Bay Area. Unusually low temperatures, even inland, have combined with powerful and persistent winds to make for an altogether miserable start to the year. While it might seem odd to complain, considering the East Coast is digging themselves out of nearly three feet of snow, it is different out here because we aren’t used to it. Winter blues slide on a relative scale, especially when it comes to preparedness. Many of our houses aren’t ready for such weather, and so staying warm becomes a greater challenge. This is even more difficult for an aging loved one, who needs more care so as not to get too cold.
Feeling colder and being more susceptible to lower temps as we age is a normal and mostly physiological condition. In the Bay Area, this usually isn’t a huge deal, but when we have colder winters, it can be a problem. This problem is combined with houses that are drafty and ill-prepared for high winds, as well as the need to save money on a fixed income. There is a limit to how many sweaters someone can put on, so the need to have inexpensive and effective ways to stay warm is incredibly important.
Winter Tips for Aging Bay Area Residents
There are a lot of ways to stay warm without breaking the bank. Some are preventative, while others are reactive, but combining these can help make a Bay Area winter bearable.
Make Sure Your Furnace Is Working Properly
The first thing you’ll want to do is check to make sure your furnace is working properly. This is the downside of living in a temperate area—the heating systems don’t always get much attention, and if something is wrong, you might not know until it is too late. Getting a tuneup and repair on your HVAC system before winter starts is an initial expense, but can save you money in the long run. Even in mid-winter, if you don’t feel like it is working properly, a tune-up can save you a lot of money. A clogged or malfunctioning system will suck up energy without delivering heat.
Set Temp at No More than 68
This is the first concession to economic reality. It may be tempting to crank the thermostat up to 75, but that begins to get very costly. Each degree over 68 uses 5% more energy, with a concurrent rise in costs. The problem is that, when the wind is whipping through the house and all the warm air seems to be escaping in terror out the windows, that 68 doesn’t seem warm enough. There are cheaper ways to get warmer without turning up the heat more.
Dodge the Drafts
In the Bay Area, especially inland, homes weren’t built with the idea that there would be a lot of wind or particularly cold winters. Letting houses breathe was more important, and frankly, making sure that every window and door was tightly sealed was often seen as unnecessary. You can replace the window panes for ones with higher emissivity ratings and make sure that they are perfectly sealed, but that can be very expensive. An energy-efficient double-pane window replacement can cost $450-800 for each window.
There are far less-expensive methods, though. Here are some of the best ones.
- Sealing foam/caulk: This is simple and easy. Putting sealing foam over drafty panes can plug up the cracks and keep wind from coming in. It is basically as easy as putting frosting on a cake. Some people think it is unsightly, but the nice thing about sealing foam is that it is easily removed come spring.
- Caulk: This is thinner and harder, offering a more permanent solution. This isn’t as good for windows, but it is excellent for smaller areas like where pipes come into the house, which may have little gaps that let in drafts. These are usually found under sinks or behind water heaters, so it is good for a younger relative or friend to help out here.
- Window film: This is easy and inexpensive. Window film is a thin sheet, much like plastic wrap, that goes over a window pane and sticks to the wood or vinyl. It keeps drafts from getting in and heat from getting out, and can be easily removed. This is generally the easiest and least-expensive option, but people who have great views tend to not like it, because the film blocks or distorts the scenery.
- Curtains. Thick curtains can help to block drafts and trap in the heat. Keeping them closed keeps out the cold. Of course, there are exceptions…
Keep South-Facing Curtains Open During the Day
If you have south-facing windows that are decently sealed, it can be good to keep the curtains open during the day for as long as possible. If you can get sun in the house, let it do the work of heating. Then, as the sun sets, close the curtains to trap the heat in. Anything that nature can do for free is a great bargain.
Smart Thermostats and Safe Space Heaters
A great new tool is a smart thermostat, the most famous of which is Nest. These devices learn patterns and habits, and know which rooms to heat up and when. They can go down automatically when they aren’t needed and turn on when they are. If someone leaves the house every Tuesday for lunch with their friends, the thermostat will turn down the temp while they are gone and remember that they usually come home by 3, so have the house warmed up again by that time. It decreases any extra costs by reducing human error. These very easy-to-use systems range from $150-$250, but can just replace normal thermostats. There is no need to overhaul your system.
One last thing you can do is to get a space heater. These can cost as low as $30 and new ones can inexpensively heat up a room. This is great if an aging loved one generally uses only one or two rooms, meaning there is no need to heat up the whole house. The downside is that these are traditionally unsafe, and people can trip over them or their cords, or get a burn. There are ways to keep safe, though. Placing the heater on tile, keeping it out of the footpath, getting ones that shut themselves off when they get too hot, and getting programmable space heaters all reduce the risk of an accident.
We may have short and generally pleasant winters in the Bay Area, but cold weather affects us more and more as we age, and as every season becomes increasingly uncertain, it is good to prepare. There are inexpensive ways to stay warm for aging Bay Area residents. Winter never has to be the big chill.
Staying warm and healthy in your home is a big part of being able to live independently. At the Institute on Aging, we work with families so that homes are safe for aging friends and family. Contact us today to learn more about our programs.