This post will be in two parts, and it might get a bit long. The first part will be on what you should do to prepare your home (or apartment) for winter. The second part will be how to survive winter if you cannot afford to heat your home. Some of the lessons in the second section were learned the hard way. Even if you're in a southern state, there will be some necessary things to do in here.
So winter is on the way, and by all indication it's going to come a month early this year. I start on the roof, then the rest of the outside, then move inside.
Start with your chimney, if it doesn't have a cap, then go buy one. Preventing birds from nesting, stopping stray tennis balls from rolling into your furnace (don't ask), or water mixing with the ash to rot out the liner of your chimney. It's short money for the headaches it stops. Next is to check the flashing and the mortar itself to be sure everything is in good shape.
Next clean your gutters and downspouts. Ice dams will permanently damage your roof. No excuse not to do this, even if you shell out some $ to a local kid to do it for you. Check the roof to make sure no summer storm puled off a shingle, better to find it now, then when it's below freezing!
Now follow your powerlines to the street, and verify that there are no trees or tree limbs that look sketchy hanging over your power lines. Although we all should have a generator, or solar, etc. blah blah blah. No need to make it hard on ourselves when we can prevent it with a simple tree haircut. You also might want to follow the lines on the streets and see if there are any power lines in danger of diseased trees and such and complain to the power company. Needless to say do not win a Darwin Award by doing something dumb near a power line. Be careful!
Now go around the outside of the house, and make sure your soffit vents are clear, and the siding of the house is in good shape. If it's moldy then get a power washer to clean it up. Now pull all your window AC units and close and lock the windows.
Check each window and door to be sure 1) It locks tight 2) The weather seal is nice and tight and 3) the storm window/door works properly and seals well. Don't have storm windows or doors and you live north of the mason-dixon line? Well I will advise you to find the nearest flat surface and smack your head onto it as hard as possible. Then repeat until you have storm doors and windows installed.
Now into the shed or garage. Find your ice scraper for the car and toss it into the trunk now, don't wait until the first snowstorm when your already late for work! Then find the snowshovels and put them by the door. If you own a snowblower, then fire it up and make sure it works now. If you have a plow for your lawn tractor then get all the parts together now and install it just after the last time you mow your lawn.
Now head for the basement. Check out the furnace, and crank up the heat so it turns on for 10 min or so. Easier to schedule the repair guy now rather than on the first cold snap. If you have forced hot air replace your air filters, and also visually check all the ducting for tears, or unhooked ducting. If you have forced hot water, then make sure the automatic water thingy is working. In either case if you have the $ then have the chimney and furnace inspected. Wraping your hot water heater is a good idea most of the time to save on the energy costs.
Now go replace all the batteries in the smoke alarms and test them. Also check your fire extinguishers. Close the damper in the chimney, but don't forget to open it before you use it.
There you go! a weekends worth of work and your ready for the next few months. Now on for some energy saving tips.
* If you have a fireplace, then use something to cover the giant gaping hole! It will blow the heat your paying for outside, so slow it down.
* Add socket insulation things to every electrical outlet and switch in an exterior wall. These are little foam pads that stop the cold air in the wall from drafting through the outlets into the home. Do not discount the savings from this simple activity. Pop off the plastic cover, pop out the pre-cut holes for the outlets, then place the foam, and replace the plastic cover.
* Check your attic's insulation, you should have R-30. Adding a second layer is not that much money, but be sure your soffit vents have unobstructed airflow to the attic.
* If you have replaced the sashes in old windows, the ones that used to have the weights inside, then open them up and stuff the cavity with insulation.
Well now it's mid-winter, and you can't afford to heat your house anymore. Now it's time to tighten up the house further to save energy. The level you take this, is up to you, and as your circumstanced require.
The first thing I'd do is lower the thermostat. If you have a newborn in the house it might be a problem, but we didn't have central heating until recently, so... have the kid suck it up. I keep my house at 50-55 degrees, but I live alone and don't have a woman bitching that it's too cold. Then again with one income I don't have a choice. Those programmable thermostats are awesome. I installed one last year and had the luxury of having a warm house when I got home, and having it automatically cool down when I hit the rack. Cost me $80, and was well worth it.
Next is the plastic sheeting you put over your windows. The kind that uses a hair dryer to pull it tight. Regardless of what the packages say, it will damage the finish on the windows. We used to have a ritual on that first day of spring where we run around the house and ripped off the plastic on all the windows. That was fun. If you use wood or coal to help heat the house, I'd leave one of the newer southern facing windows without the plastic, just so there is some air transfer. Don't want to die of CO (Carbon Monoxide) poisoning!
I'd seal all but the most frequently used doors as well. For those doors left unsealed, supplemental weatherstripping can be added, but at a minimum get one of those draft snakes to hold as many drafts at bay. A draft snakes is just a tube of cloth filled with sand or kitty litter that you push against the bottom of the door to keep cold air from coming in. Instructions to make one here.
Now after doing all that if your still in trouble, then I'd consider sealing up part of the house. It's no small undertaking, and believe me it sucks. We had to do it one year when I was a kid, and sleeping in the family room when Mum was in the living room sucked. It was easy for us as the upstairs was unheated, and there was no plumbing up there either. So we just had to slap a door at the top of the stairs and put up insulation. If you do seal up part of the house with plumbing, then be sure to shut off the water to that part, seal it off well and drain the water out.
You also can supplement the heating system in your house with another heating source. The most popular these days is wood pellets, but there is also geothermal, conventional wood, and coal. Kerosene heaters are pretty much out of the question with the price of fuel. Electric heaters are good for spot heating, but I wouldn't rely on them for a secondary heating source.
I don't have to space to go into the how's and whys on secondary heating, but I can give the pro's and con's of each with the exception of geothermal. I don't have it, nor does anyone I know. The few people I know that looked into it were looking at $18k for it. It basically pre-heated the air so the furnace wouldn't have to work as hard. If you don't have forced hot air, then you're screwed. Enough about that.
Coal is dirty, messy and a bitch to start if your home late from school and it went out. (trust me) We used coal to heat the kitchen for 5 years or so, with the added benefit of it reducing our heating bills for the rest of the house. Coal stoves are more expensive, and storing the coal takes a lot of space. Coal dust gets everywhere, and you need to shake the stove down at least 3 times a day, and empty the ashes 2 times a day. But boy did it crank out the heat.
The new pellet stoves require electricity. On the other hand, they are super -efficient. A ton of pellets goes for $300 or so right now, and most of my friends use 2-4 tons a year, which cuts their oil bills in half, total savings for them is about $500 or so a year, YMMV. The pellets come in bags, and need to be kept dry. Any water and they grow 5-10x in size and become a big, useless mess. Ashes need to be emptied once a day, but it's only a few cups. They fill the bin with pellets at the same time, and then don't have to do squat until the next day.
Conventional wood stoves have gotten a lot better than they used to. My mum still uses wood to keep the chill off, but it's a lot of work (mostly done by me). She uses about 4-6 cords a year of wood, and right now it's about $300 a cord delivered. Thankfully, I keep finding downed trees or cutting trees down in her yard so she gets some wood for free.
When I was a kid we had 2 wood stoves in the house because the furnace shit the bed on us and died. It was 1977, and we went through 11 cords of wood, all split by yours truly. I remember riding with my dad looking for downed trees, and cut them up and haul them to the truck to be split and seasoned as best we could before burning it. That was a cold year, nothing like hauling in 200-300 lbs of wood every morning while my dad scratched his ass and watched... At least I learned how to use a chainsaw, cut trees down, split wood, and drive at the tender age of 7. Anything that would burn went into one of the stoves. This includes raiding dumpsters at job sites for scrap 2x's, or collecting driftwood after a storm. Most of the ashes we pulled out were nails from the scrap wood, but it kept us warm. We passed on the plywood and beaverboard as the glue was quite toxic back then.
If you're using a conventional wood stove do not burn any softwood. We did it in a survival situation, but it was pretty dangerous. Softwood makes creosote, which can catch fire when it builds up. Every year a bunch of hoses are burned down in chimney fires. Be careful!
Whew! that took longer than I thought it would. I hope this information is useful in keeping everyone toasty this winter on the cheap.