On the coldest of cold days, we may hear the jest that a little global warming would be welcome right about now — anything to temper winter’s force and perhaps turn even frigid regions into sun-soaked vacation destinations.
The joke is on the joke-teller: The increase in those chilling polar vortexes we’ve experienced in recent years has been brought to us courtesy of climate change.
The polar vortex — a vast expanse of swirling cold air — hovers constantly around the North and South Poles. But scientists say global warming is making weather patterns unstable and invasions of this frigid Arctic air more common, not to mention more dangerous.
This happens because extra-warm periods and low-pressure zones in southern regions during winter months can suck the polar-icecap air south. The Arctic chill then moves eastward with the jet stream, bringing intense cold spells, even to sunny climes.
In January 2019, a polar vortex struck the middle and eastern portions of North America, and many cities witnessed record lows — temperatures even colder than Antarctica on that same day. Some 21 people died.
We can’t do much about the polar-vortex storms, beyond efforts to slow climate change. But understanding this weather phenomenon is important — and there are ways to winterproof our homes to save energy, help the environment, and chase away the chill.
Winterproofing pays. As much as 10 to 20 percent of your energy bill could be wasted, paying for air leaks around openings, drafts, and outdated heating and cooling systems, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (DOE).
Here are some ideas to safeguard your home, save money, and help protect the environment with these tried-and-true winterproofing tips.
1. Conduct an energy audit. Many utility companies offer free, detailed home inspections to identify personalized ways to help you conserve energy.
2. Replace your furnace air filter. Ideally, change it every 60 days during winter: A dirty filter will impede airflow, reduce efficiency, and even damage the furnace. If you have pets or struggle with allergies, consider a reusable electrostatic filter.
By combining good insulation, tight windows and doors, and timely furnace maintenance, you can cut your energy use for heating and cooling by 20 to 50 percent, according to the DOE.
3. Clean your furnace. Experts recommend that you clean and tune your furnace every one or two years — and do it in autumn, before winter kicks in.
4. Caulk cracks. Cold drafts can send a shiver down your back, especially in older homes. To keep them out, grab your caulking gun. Check for leaks around doors and window frames: While someone blows air from a hair dryer through suspicious gaps from outside the house, hold a candle or stick of burning incense inside. If the flame flickers or smoke is blown away, you’ve found a draft.
Caulk over the leaky portion to save on heating costs and stay warmer all winter. Seal gaps in your foundation and walls with expandable foam to block the icy air. Reducing leaks and drafts in your home could result in energy savings of 5 to 30 percent.
5. Cover windows. Inefficient windows are one of the usual suspects for heat loss. Shield them with plastic-sealing kits. If it’s a window you don’t use much, cover it with bubble wrap, which will insulate and trap cold air pockets, while still allowing light to shine through.
6. Hang window treatments. Even the tightest windows can feel frigid to the touch in winter. Mount cloth curtains, insulated blinds, or quilted drapes — and close them when possible, especially at nighttime.
7. Seal electrical outlets. Wall outlets — especially on outside walls — can channel a surprising current of cold air into cozy rooms. And because even small houses or apartments boast dozens of outlets, the heat loss adds up. Install insulated outlet gaskets behind the cover plates.
8. Replace weatherstripping. Inspect door edges and window frames to ensure that the sealing strips are not leaking. Peek under the door: If you see light, there’s a gap. Simply replace the faulty weatherstripping.
9. Invest in draft snakes. These long tubes filled with insulating material can be purchased or made at home: Sew fabric into a tube with one end closed and fill it with rice or sand, then seal it. Place the snake in front of door thresholds to block any gap.
10. Use a programmable thermostat. A digital thermostat can be set to raise the temperature when you wake in the morning and lower it at night. Most programmable thermostats also have weekend and vacation settings. You can save as much as 10 percent a year on heating bills by simply turning your thermostat down by 10 to 15 percent overnight.
11. Shift your ceiling fan into reverse. Think ceiling fans are handy only in summer? Think again. Many fans have a reverse switch to blow the warm air trapped at the ceiling back down to heat your room.
12. Add insulation. Increasing your home’s insulation is the fastest and most cost-effective way to reduce energy waste: Insulation reduces drafts, lowers heating costs, and even muffles sound. And heat rises, so be sure your attic is amply insulated to prevent warm air from escaping. Adding extra insulation in the walls of an attached garage or basement ceiling will also help retain heat.
13. Upgrade windows and doors. Much of the chill infiltrates our homes through windows, skylights, and doors. The DOE notes that quality storm windows alone can reduce heat loss by 25 to 50 percent. And double- and triple-pane windows will prove their insulation value year-round.
This article originally appeared as “Cold Enough for You?” in the January/February 2020 issue of Experience Life.