Sweatering it out

Earlier today, as I was reading a Freshly Pressed blog post, I was taken aback a bit by this:

Ours was a frugal household, where finances dictated a thermostat set at a bone-chilling 58 degrees through even the worst of the South Dakota winter nights.

and this

These days, we set the thermostat at a balmy 62 at night

and I am having trouble wrapping my head around it. Frugal? In whose world is that frugal? I did the maths: 58°F is 14.44°C –  a not unusual outside day-time temperature here. In the summer. I would be freaking out and throwing off the bedclothes if my bedroom was that warm. 62°F is 16.66°C – the mind boggles.

Why. WHY would anybody normally heat their house at night, when they are tucked up in bed? Why would they maintain a night-time temperature higher than the one that we maintain during the day? No wonder this planet is running out of resources. That’s sheer madness. But to complain about it as though that were a hardship? Well all I can say is, fuel must be cheap where they live. Damned cheap.

(CAVEAT: OK. I don’t know their circumstances. I accept that such things might be necessary when chronic illness is involved. Let us just for now accept that I am talking about normally active and healthy people.)

Of course, for much of my childhood there was no central heating and temperature control was not possible. In the depths of winter the fire would be banked up at bed-time with the damper closed down to keep the fire in all night. Thinking back, that seems quite a luxury now, with the chimney heat being carried upstairs to  the bedroom, plus the possibility of scampering downstairs to dress in front of a fire newly riddled and woken to a blaze. Once we had central heating though, the system was only ever set on a frost-free setting… allowing the boiler to come on only in sub-zero (-32°F) temperatures and heat the house to 5°C (41°F) to avoid the pipes freezing. This is  a habit that I have maintained as an adult in my own homes, when a heating boiler has been available.

Frozen pipes were  a feature of my childhood. I remember keeping a paraffin lamp going in the outside toilet to “keep the chill off” and many times my father taking the risk of applying a blow lamp to a pipe in order to run water for a morning cuppa. Black tea of course, the milk having frozen in its bottle on the doorstep and wearing a little foil mushroom cap… remember that?


As late as the 1980s, I was living in a stone-built cottage without central heating. The water froze in the toilet pan. that winter, but the bedroom remained unheated.

In 2005/06, the external temperature dropped to below -20°C (-4°F) where I was living then, in The Highlands. Thank heaven for the frost setting on the CH boiler! All the same, there was no heat piped to the bedroom overnight, where the iron-framed skylights were coated in frost in a manner I had not seen since I was a child in the 1950s. There was a night or two when we felt the need to turn on the electric blanket to pre-warm the bed, though. Yes, I finally gave in to middle age and bought one. I felt at the time that it was defensible.  🙂

Frost on the skylights Nov 2005
Frost on the skylights Nov 2005

The electric blanket is relegated to the cupboard once more, now that we live in Orkney. The maritime climate and the Gulf Stream contribute to keeping a very even and moderate temperature year-round. We see frost on only a few days a year in a normal winter, but daytime temperatures rarely rise above 20°C (68°F) in the summer either. The wind chill factor is something else though, and temperatures rarely feel as warm as they are.

I find myself fully acclimatised after seven years here and am no longer surprised to find myself in t-shirt complaining about the excessive heat when the temperature reaches a tropical14°C.

The central heating is never set to run automatically – we fire it up for an hour at a time, two or three times a day if things are feeling chilly, but there is no chance of it ever kicking in at night. The down side to this is that the house is not pre-warmed for us getting up in the morning, so it is a race sometimes to get under a nice warm shower.

I am doing my bit to save the planet and I am used to wearing jumper and scarf as I sit at my computer. Sometimes I wonder why I bother though, when there are people out there over-heating their homes both day and night. Then I remember; Domestic Heating oil is currently 68.27p/litre plus VAT at 5% (that’s over $4 a US gallon) Enough to stiffen anybody’s resolve!

I’ll tell you what, though – I still miss days like these, and all those bracing walks:

It was still -17° when we set off for our walk that morning
It was still -17°C when we set off for our walk that morning

The Rams of Abernethy Forest were outside all that minus 20 night, with just a woolly jumper to help them cope. We can learn from them – get your sweater on (make sure it’s a proper pure woollen one) and turn that thermostat DOWN. One day, you will be glad that you did.

One Comment

  1. March 3, 2013

    We use our fireplace to warm our main living space; living room and computer room. I have a gas stove in the kitchen that keeps the kitchen, dining room and hall fairly warm. Our bedroom is unheated, like you, I cannot sleep when it is warm. The bathroom is unheated too, but I have a little space heater that I use when it is really cold. 🙂

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