Column: As price of heat goes up, home temperature goes down

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 10, 2001

While my family and I lived in the tiny burg of Rothsay the last two winters, we found ourselves cursing the house’s fuel-oil heating system.

Saturday, February 10, 2001

While my family and I lived in the tiny burg of Rothsay the last two winters, we found ourselves cursing the house’s fuel-oil heating system. I mean, what a pain for a couple of city folks like us – having to call someone to fill up your tank every few weeks; having to pay for that big old tank all in one lump sum (and on a reporter’s salary, no less); and the stuff was not cheap.

Email newsletter signup

We found ourselves wishing for a good old natural-gas hookup. That would surely be better, we thought.

Well, we should have known. Our big blue house in Albert Lea came with a natural-gas furnace. And just our luck, we’re longing for the good ol’ days of winters past.

As most everybody has noticed, the Alliant Energy bills have been ballooning steadily since November. Once only an afterthought among the bills for the mortgage, credit cards and student loans, that little red-and-white slip has commanded our trembling attention. We’ve watched in horror as that bill’s AMOUNT DUE line has surpassed just about every other one in the drawer.

It’s amazing how much that little piece of paper has influenced our behavior. Here’s a diary of the humble ideas we have employed to fight this menace of a heating bill:

n When the October bill came, we had our first case of sticker shock (although we would have laughed at the total if we had known what was to come). It was enough to propel us to Wal-Mart for a couple big old rolls of plastic film to cover some of the windows.

In the old house, we had used that stuff you blow-dry until it tightens. In our grand old house here, though, the big bay windows were too wide for such things. I tried to cover as many of the windows as I could, as well as the wall air conditioner and a side door, with the stuff, and that seemed to help.

We also decided that 70 degrees was a luxury we couldn’t afford. The thermostat was knocked down to 68 degrees. That was pretty manageable.

n With November’s bill, things were starting to get scary. It was a pretty cold November, but I didn’t plan on it costing hundreds of dollars to heat the house. This bill was enough to prompt a weatherization overhaul of our doors and windows.

We loaded up a shopping cart with frothy caulk in a can, rubber strips for under the doors, foam strips for along the doorways and a roll of rope caulk. I went about the clumsy task of trying to make our front and back doors airtight, and tried spraying the canned foam into a few crevices in the basement where cold air seemed to be seeping in.

Having to write that big fat check also convinced us that we could stand to live at 66 degrees for the rest of the winter.

n Then, the real killer: December’s bill was almost as much as our mortgage payment. Granted, it’s a relatively inexpensive house, but it seems like the heating bill should not approach your mortgage payment.

We found ourselves skimping on energy in whatever way possible. When we left the house for a day or more on a weekend, we turned the heat down to 55 degrees. It’s a little chilly when we get back, but we break out the sweaters or blankets.

It didn’t directly relate to our heat bill, but we stepped up our efforts to save money on electricity, too. These days, when I leave a light on in a room I’m not using, I get taken to task. We’ve started using the smaller toaster oven instead of the big electric one to cook smaller things. And, aware that turning on lights takes up as much energy as leaving them on a few minutes, I’ve tried to keep myself from turning lights on unless they’ll be used for a while. We’re rationing energy whatever way we can think of.

Oh, and we’ve got the thermostat set on 64 degrees.

I suspect others are in the same boat; everyone’s energy bill bill has been outlandish. Maybe all this conservation is good for us, though; I guess it takes a crisis for people to really adjust the way they use energy. I can bet people in California will never take their electricity for granted again.

And I won’t take our heat for granted. How could I? January’s bill should be arriving any day.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.