From the Polar Vortex to the Lake Effect: Safe and Effective Heating Tips

A house completely covered with icicles.

It’s cold, colder than anyone can remember. That means the whole country has the heat turned on. All that extra heat is expensive, and there are other risks to balance with our comfort level. To find out some simple tips for safe and effective heating, I talked to Bob Cameron, Hometalk Indoor Living Expert and Owner of Woodbridge Environmental.

Dramatic winter temperatures are covering the map, and a lot of people are a lot colder than usual. If you’re snowed in how should you adjust your thermostat to keep you as comfortable as possible, using as little energy as possible?

With any cold snap such as the Polar Vortex or extended cold spell you have two things to consider: 1. Your comfort and 2. Your energy costs. Turning up your thermostat for one or two days will help of course, but an extended time such as we are experiencing now, we need to consider the power grid. Much like heat waves, all heating systems run on electrical power. With people running furnaces and boilers all that have motors, plus those using space heaters, the power companies tend to have very high energy demands. The result can be black outs, and at a time when you don’t need them. My suggestion is that you try not to use major appliances as often, and have your heating system serviced by a professional to assure that its running properly.

Your best bet is to keep your thermostat on a setting as low as possible, that is still a comfortable temperature for you. Make sure your doors and windows are properly sealed tight and simply wear warmer clothes, such as that sweater your mom got you for the holiday that you still haven’t worn! More tips on this topic can be found on the “Heating & Cooling” topic page at

Are there different levels of carbon monoxide risk with different types of heaters? For instance space heaters vs. furnaces, oil fired vs. gas?

Any fuel burning appliance can create CO. However, the risk is more so for gas furnaces, gas hot water heaters and stoves. Oil furnaces and appliances can create CO but when that happens a lot of soot is created and you will see that filling the air long before it becomes an issue with CO levels.

When observing the operation of any gas appliance if you see a lot of yellow flames when appliance is running, that is a sign of incorrect combustion and that the appliance needs to be checked by a professional. You can do this through your utility company where they offer special deals on service packages, or your local heating and cooling contractor that offers services.

What are some signs that this could be a problem?

CO poisoning can be very hard to detect as it normally does not happen fast. Lightheadedness and feeling sick to your stomach are a few of the signs. Also pay attention to if you are really tired when in the house, but begin to feel better once out of the environment, such as work.

As a professional, we look for abnormal signs of elevated levels in the winter by looking at the windows in the home. When natural gas burns it creates water vapor. If a plugged chimney or faulty appliance is running long enough a lot of moisture is released into the air, much like a humidifier. With elevated levels of moisture we find excessive moisture or ice in really cold weather forming on the inside of the window panes. This can become more pronounced as the outside temperatures drop and we spend more time inside running the heater.

So, what can you do to reduce carbon monoxide risks?

First off, purchase a CO detector. If you have one, check the batteries. If it’s older, get a new one as they are relatively inexpensive. Get your heating appliances checked on an annual basis. Not only will you save money on operation, but it will help assure that the appliances are running safely. Also, get a chimney cap installed. Birds tend to sit on chimney tops in the winter taking advantage of the warm air leaving the chimney space. They can pass out from the CO and fall into the chimney blocking the vents from working. A simple cap will prevent this. Do not put a screen on the top, use a professionally manufactured cap. Not only will that prevent the critters from entering, but it will help preserve the interior of the chimney liner. And lastly, trust your instincts, if you feel something is not right with the heating call someone who knows. Or get advice from those who know—a great place is to log onto and click the “ask” button where hundreds of professionals will respond and answer your questions or concerns.

My dad once had to chop through ice with an axe to get to a shutoff valve after pipes froze and burst. Any tips to help keep that from happening?

To prevent frozen pipes be sure to protect them from the cold. In really cold weather if possible find the shut off valve if it is an outdoor faucet and turn it off on the inside. Open the outside valve to assure that it is not leaking and to drain the water out as well. If the pipes need to be kept running, purchase a heat tape that plugs into an outlet and wrap it tightly following the directions that come on the package. Then, using pipe insulation put that over the pipe.

For frozen pipes, carefully use a hair dryer and be prepared for water to spray out if the pipe broke. Try to prevent air from blowing on the pipes again by installing pipe insulation because as the air blows by, it drops the temperature quickly and can freeze a pipe much faster.