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How Can I, a Regular Guy in a Crappy Old Apartment, Not Be Cold All the Time?

I asked a nuclear engineer and HVAC expert why my apartment is so goddamn cold

Every winter I trot out giant sheets of plastic and tape them over my windows in a futile attempt to insulate myself from the frozen hellscape outside. And every winter, the absolute misery of this project feels less and less worth it. Working from home in a rickety old Chicago three-flat with single-pane windows, warmth has become a fading, distant memory as this dying planet spins further and further from the sun. 

But there must be other ways I, someone with little-to-no handyman skills, can insulate my apartment just a bit more, right? For answers, I reached for the big guns: nuclear engineer Jim Mumford, and civil engineer and HVAC specialist Craig Anderson. Here’s their advice on how to keep the wrong kind of chill from overtaking me.

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Definitely Still Wrap Those Windows

I’d been under the impression that plastic over my windows kept cold air from blowing in, but it turns out, that’s only the half of it. According to Mumford, the plastic also slows the hot air in my apartment from being cooled by the window. “The plastic acts like a pseudo-Thermos,” he says. “Heavy curtains would work just the same, but the more sunlight you can let in, the more free warmth you get. So weigh your options there.” 

Expose the Leaks

I’m well past the point of carrying a lighter around my apartment, frantically looking for the flame to flicker and reveal a new draft. But both Mumford and Anderson recommend I keep it up a little longer. Drafts are the real heat-killers, and they can come from places less obvious than the windows, such as power outlets, stove venting systems and access panels. Once you find them, Anderson suggests, buy some sealant: “It can be intimidating to someone who’s not done it before, but after a few YouTube tutorials, you really can’t go wrong with a sealant; it only takes a few minutes at minimal cost.” 

Smother the Floorboards

Every crevice and hole is plugged in my apartment, and yet I’m still cold. So what can I do to better insulate my floors? Rugs, of course! “Rugs are wildly important,” Mumford says. “Carpets are like floor sweaters, and rugs are like blankets. Much like plastic on the windows, they can help retain heat and keep the entire room warm, especially if you live on a lower floor.”

But, Anderson adds, don’t feel like you need to cover every square inch of your floor. “Just having extra insulation beneath where you sit can help,” he explains. “And keeping in mind how much our feet dictate our body’s overall temperature, pair the rugs with some warm socks. The warmer your feet feel, the warmer you’ll feel overall.”  

Become a Hermit

Or at the very least, become very familiar with a certain area of your place. “Try to focus your activity to one area of your home,” Anderson says. “You want to separate your one spot as much as you can, so turn off the vents elsewhere and focus on heating only your chosen area.” 

Sure, this means not leaving your room all day, but Mumford says it could save on heating bills, too. “More of the heat from whatever heat source you have will enter the rooms you use, saving energy and warming your place quicker. The savings in energy could potentially offset raising the thermostat by a few degrees.” 

Reverse the Fans?

There’s also a fun fact that ceiling fans have a “winter mode,” in which they rotate in the reverse direction. Will this change my life? Per Mumford, because I live in an apartment, probably not. “Since warm air rises and sits on the ceiling, so to speak, the idea is that the fan rotates that hot air back down,” he says. “In a house with high ceilings, sure, this could help force the hot air downward instead of hanging idle on the ceiling.” But in an apartment, presumably with lower ceilings, “the advantage isn’t quite there.” 

Not to mention, he adds, “This doesn’t keep the room warmer, per se. It just slightly saves energy, mixing the warmer air from above. Your thermostat will still do what it does and try and control around its setting.”  

The Real Desperate Measures

But what of the unconventional, however? For instance: Does plugging the drain to my tub during hot showers, and then letting the hot water sit in the tub help at all? 

“Eh, not really,” Mumford says. Every little bit helps when you’re freezing, but it’s not going to add a ton of heat or humidity to the apartment overall. “Because the HVAC in your apartment turns the air over pretty frequently, you couldn’t really impact the humidity in your place by very much,” he continues. “It may help keep the bathroom a touch warmer, but the grossness of letting a used tub linger all day outweighs any benefit I’d see.” (Moreover, he adds unsolicited: “Be wary of your bathroom fan. If the fan sucks air up and out of the apartment, certainly keep it off.”)

Okay, let’s move to the kitchen. Does keeping the oven door open after baking something work? Sure! “Not letting the oven exhaust take that hot air elsewhere and keeping it for yourself is making the most out of it,” Anderson says. 

Still, as Mumford points out, “Every bit helps, but eventually the apartment and the oven equalize, like ice in a hot drink.”

To close, he sums up his strategy with maybe the most unconventional tip yet: “Make sure your vents are clean and unobstructed. Maximize sunlight. And when all else fails, tequila.”