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Electronic Design

What's All This Space Heater Stuff, Anyhow?

I keep hearing people say that the cost of energy is forcing them to choose between paying for gas to get to work, or buying food, or heating the house, or paying the mortgage... So they scrimp as much as they can and then lose their house to foreclosure. That’s very unfortunate. I can’t tell you how to save money on groceries, but other people will tell you how to do that.

I can’t tell you all the ways to burn less gas in your car, but it is possible to slow down and get better gas mileage. By slowing down from 68 mph to about 60, I have improved my gas mileage from 29.6 mpg to about 33.2. That saves me about $7 a week at present prices. Note: I do not recommend over-inflating your tires, as that can be very dangerous.

But I do slow down and turn off my engine when approaching a red light and coast up slowly. When the light turns green, I can pop my clutch and start up without even having to use the starter. Turning off the engine may be illegal and can get you a ticket, but going broke can be more expensive. If you drive very carefully, turning off the engine at traffic lights, as the hybrids do, can be very helpful. Take advantage of downhills. Shift into neutral if you can do that without any harm to the car.

But there are some principles of engineering that can help you save money heating your house. Ideally, it would be nice if we could keep our entire house at a nice warm temperature. But this gets expensive in cold weather, as we have noticed. My first few suggestions are pretty obvious and well documented.

Close off rooms you don’t use. If there’s a room that isn’t easy to close off, add clear plastic as a drape at its entrance to keep the heat where you want it. Turn your thermostat down to 64°F or cooler. Put on a sweater—or two. Wear long underwear and even gloves or mittens. Finally, get an extra blanket or a sleeping bag so you can turn the thermostat way down at night.

Now, no matter what you do to save energy, don’t let your pipes freeze. In some parts of the country, that’s a serious problem. Sometimes in the coldest weather, letting a remote faucet drip can prevent frozen pipes. The dripping faucet can be somebody else’s problem.

When I was a starving student, I didn’t have all the choices listed above. But if I tried to keep my apartment warm in the winter, I would not have enough money for beer. We considered that a serious problem. So we figured out how to keep the minimum amount of space warm.

I had a nice 4-by-8 plywood table or desk. When the fuel bills got too high, I draped some fabric around the edge of the table, almost like a tent, and I sat at the table a lot when reading, doing homework, etc. Then at one end of the table, I set up a plywood partition, with a hole cut in it for a 1000-W space heater (no fabric near there).

When I got home and fired up that space heater, the area under the desk warmed up very quickly. I set my chair under the draped fabric, so the heat could escape only past my elbows (see the figure). This was quite cozy. Even the bottom of the chair got blocked by more fabric. My ankles and legs and tummy were quite toasty, even as the rest of the house was allowed to run cold. I wore a sweater and a bathrobe.

Our pet lab rat “Baby” was very agreeable. When he came by, he was so impressed, he would climb inside the bathrobe and peek out the sleeves by my wrist. He seemed to agree it was a very cozy, warm area.

This might not work for everybody, but shrinking the area and volume you try to heat is a really good way to conserve money and energy. I didn’t try to put my lamp under the desk and shine its light up by mirrors. I didn’t try to recover the heat from the coils in the back of the refrigerator. (With the kitchen running so cool, the refrigerator didn’t run very much.) I didn’t rig a really good thermostat.

Yet this arrangement did help a lot. Further, rigging a small space heater is much easier than rigging an air conditioner to blow on your knees because it doesn’t have to have a vent to the outside, as an air conditioner would.

When I moved into my house in Wilmington, Mass., in 1963, I burned about $600 of heating oil per season. It was about 18 cents per gallon. When I moved out in 1976, I still burned about $600 of oil—at about 90 cents per gallon.

Of course, I had gotten a wood stove and burned lots of nearby firewood and newspapers and junk mail. I never really bought any firewood. I just chopped up unwanted logs, boards, etc. If a wood stove would fit into my house in San Francisco, I could just burn my 60 lb per week of junk mail and cut my heating costs a lot.

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