By Debra
Sparrow Lake, Ontario

Our cottage is old and uninsulated but we still manage to keep nice and warm when we stay up there for a week of winter wonderland skiing and snowshoeing.

We have a modest cottage in Eastern Ontario that is not that well insulated. It used to cost us a fortune to keep our cottage warm when we’re there. We just go up for one or two weeks a winter, Christmas and March Break, to ski and snowshoe. If that week turned out to be a cold one (below -10C, which is pretty common – one year we hit -40C) our electric bill for the next month would be anywhere from $300 to $400. We have baseboard heaters in the living room, dining room, kitchen, and both bedrooms, so keeping all that space warm can use a fair bit of juice.

Our cottage has a partial basement (it’s built on a hill). One of the first things we did was cut cold air coming in from the basement. I cut out Styrofoam rectangles the size of each window and shoved them into place to reduce heat escaping there. The basement is unheated but I think this still helps keep our cottage warm by stopping cold from seeping up through the floorboards. One day I’d like to frame and insulate the cinder block walls there too.

Another thing we did that certainly cuts costs was be more careful about how we dressed and how we slept. We wear thermal undershirts and sweaters indoors, along with felt slippers that keep your feet from freezing on the cold floors. Doing that allowed us to turn down the heat a fair bit during the daytime, and at night we have down comforters on both beds. Flannel pajamas help too. I actually love sleeping in a warm bed in a cold room, I find I sleep much better. On really cold nights I take a hot water bottle to bed.

The builder we hired to shore up our collapsing boathouse also gave us a tip to keep our cottage warm in winter. He told us to take a shovel and pack snow against the side of the building. Since there’s often two or three feet of snow outside, the basement is already almost half surrounded by snow; by adding more snow, we are adding insulation to the outside of the walls. On the uphill side we pile the snow up as high as the windows. Also, he checked in our attic to see what kind of framing the roof was made of, and told us we could have up to two feet of snow on the roof, which is like free insulation. We used to shovel it off on our first day up there, because if you leave it and you get another two feet the roof could collapse. But now we wait until the day we’re leaving, since it’s free insulation.

We kind of started doing the things above one by one and watching the cost of a week up there go down a little some years, up in others, but the big difference came when we put a tin can woodstove into the fireplace. We paid under $100 for it from Canadian Tire and we just shove a stovepipe partway up the chimney, shove the woodstove into the fireplace, and fire it up. It puts off a huge amount of heat, and since we were cutting the firewood anyway to burn directly in the fireplace, burning it now in the woodstove gives us a lot more heat essentially for free. We can now keep our cottage warm with the woodstove and just a little help from the baseboard heaters now; I expect we’re probably paying under $100 in heating costs for a week up there. That’s still a lot but for a basically uninsulated, unwinterized cottage that’s not so bad!

Another thing we did that sounds kind of backwards is we bought new incandescent bulbs to replace burnt out ones, whereas at home we have pretty much replaced them with fluorescent spiral bulbs. I know incandescent bulbs use more electricity, but that’s because most of the electricity they burn gets turned into heat. So if you’re going to have to heat with electricity anyway, you might as well use an incandescent bulb, and get both the heat and the light. I’m not saying it’s more efficient than fluorescent but if it gives us light and keeps our cottage warm to boot, why not.

It also helps to shut the doors to the bedrooms and turn off the heat in there during the day. (We don’t shut the doors at night because the woodstove still throws off lots of heat – we just have to fill it once or twice a night.) Having some of the heaters off for 12 hours or more a day makes a big difference. If we’re going skiing or snowshoeing for a couple of hours we turn the temperature down in the living room and dining room too – usually when you get back from an outdoor workout you’re pretty hot, so a cool cottage feels just fine.

We’ve just kept trying to make changes every year. One day I expect we’ll tear this charming but dilapidated little place down and put up something fully winterized that uses half the electricity and has a foot of insulation in the walls and a proper fireplace insert. But for the time being we’ll keep doing little things to keep our cottage warm and to enjoy a week or two up there each winter, unless of course we win the lottery.

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