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What Happens to Your House if You Don't Turn the Heating On?

Newsweek 12/6/2022 Leonie Helm
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Americans are facing an energy crisis, and according to the Energy Information Administration and their Winter Fuels Outlook report, households that heat with oil or gas will experience a cost increase of 27 percent and 28 percent respectively compared to 2021/2022.

With energy demands significantly increasing due to COVID, the invasion of Ukraine, and embargoes on Russian energy products, the global market has become unstable, and price fluctuations are now extreme enough to be passed down directly to the consumer.

Statista estimates that those who heat with electricity, arguably the least cost-effective option, will experience prices rising by as much as 10 percent, as electricity is generated from numerous sources including oil and gas.

The report shows regional breakdowns for gas and electricity heating and reveals that gas-heating households in the Midwest and Northeast are predicted to pay up to $1,100 for the season, while those in the West and Southwest will have to pay between $700 and $800. For electric heating, costs are predicted to reach to hit $1,400-$1,700 in all regions but the South, where they will come in at around $1,250.

Rising energy prices combined with a cost of living crisis due to inflation have led many Americans to make difficult decisions, cutting back on heating, groceries, and luxuries. Last month, CNN reported that Americans are turning their heating off entirely in an attempt to save money, but does this action come with its own hidden costs?

Newsweek spoke to Iain Walker, a member of The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and John Cataneo, a member of the teaching staff at NYC's Mechanics Institute as a fellow Steam And Hydronics course instructor, about the potential damage turning off your heating entirely could do to both your house and your health.

Benefits of a Heated House on Your Health

Even without a cost of living crisis, as the winter months draw in many people prefer to put on another jumper than turn the heating on, but not turning it on at all can have a damaging, and potentially more expensive effect on your home.

"If you choose not to heat your house, and before doing so please exercise extreme caution if you live in a cold environment, you risk letting interior surfaces drop below the dewpoint of the indoor air temperature," Walker told Newsweek. "This would likely result in condensation or an increase in the homes' relative to 80 percent or more, which would be conducive to mold growth."

Molds have the potential to cause health problems when their spores land on a wet or damp spot and begin growing. Asthma attacks, and irritation in the eyes, nose and throat, are the most common side effects of living with mold.

"Mold is unsightly" says Walker, "and as well as the health implications, if very high moisture levels persist for extended periods of time there is also an increased risk of structural degradation for building materials, such as window frames, walls, floors and ceilings."

Walker also pointed out that in cold weather with extended periods below freezing, it is possible for water pipes to freeze and burst, but he advises that this is only likely in homes that are so cold they become uninhabitable—something to bear in mind if you are going away for extended periods of time in the winter and leave the heating off.

How to Prevent Your Pipes From Freezing This Winter

A single burst pipe can cause thousands of dollars worth of damage to a house. Areas of the house can swell, crack or burst when the frozen water inside the pipe bursts, causing leaking or even flooding.

What's the best way to protect your pipes? "Heat the home," Walker says.

"It is possible to use heat tape wrapped around pipes to keep them warm using electric resistance heat, but you might as well heat the home with that electric energy rather than just the pipes so it's not the best solution," he said. "The other option is to keep water moving through the pipes, even a trick through a tap can help prevent freezing."

How Can the Cold Affect the Rest of My House?

As well as affecting your health and the heating pipes, maintaining cold temperatures can also affect other parts of your house that could cost you money down the line. Most aspects of our homes will be damaged if the temperature in our homes regularly drops below what has become known as "room temperature."

"Cold temperatures submit the various finishes and materials in your home to shrinking and the drying effects of the lower relative humidity levels usually not found in a climate-controlled home," Cataneo told Newsweek.

"It is most often natural materials like wood flooring, wallpaper, and furniture that these effects are most noticeable at the surface level, but pipes freezing and splitting, boilers and radiators cracking, and refrigerant-driven appliances breaking down are all the next round of much deeper trouble you want to avoid at all costs," he said.

Cataneo added that homeware and belongings can also be affected, "My guitar goes out of tune instantly when the temperature in my apartment changes from a comfortable 72°F/22°C. The effects are immediate."

An older couple worried about the heating bills. Stock image. Cold houses attract mold, which can cause asthma attacks, and eyes, nose, and mouth irritation. monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images © monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images An older couple worried about the heating bills. Stock image. Cold houses attract mold, which can cause asthma attacks, and eyes, nose, and mouth irritation. monkeybusinessimages/Getty Images

Does Insulation Really Help With the Cost of Energy Bills?

Equipping your home to be the most efficient can be expensive, but it will save you money in the long run and will mean you suffer less through those hot summers and cold winters.

"Efficiency is best gained by sealing the building or home. It doesn't matter how efficient your heating system is if all the heat it creates seeps out the windows and walls," Cataneo said.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that with proper insulation in attics, crawl spaces, and basements the average American could save 15 percent on their heating and cooling costs per year—roughly $200. In cooler parts of the country, savings could be more like 20 percent.

"To save on bills you can either use very little heating and deal with the lack of comfort and moisture issues or invest in improving the home with better windows, better insulation, air sealing and ventilation with heat recovery."

A myth that often does the rounds at this time of year is that there is an "optimum" temperature to keep your thermostat.

"There is no 'efficient' temperature. You could set the thermostat to 60/62 degrees instead of 70 to reduce energy use, as well as moisture and mold risks and use extra clothing to stay warm. Since the 1970s energy crisis, we have used variable temperatures during the day (usually cooler at night) to save energy without substantially reducing comfort."

Cataneo agrees: "The most efficient indoor temperature is different for all homes and buildings. The goal in creating an efficient heating system is to match the ability of the building envelope to retain that heat. In other words, one definition of good efficiency is that the home is being heated at the same rate it is losing heat to the atmosphere."

Can Not Turning the Heating on Damage My Health?

Walker argues that a cold house can not only damage your health due to the issues of moisture but also from "cold stress."

"In the worst cases of unheated homes in very cold weather, there are acute issues of exposure—particularly for more sensitive members of the population such as older people or those with pre-existing health conditions," he said.

He urges everyone "before making any cost-saving decisions about your home heating, please put your health and the health of others first".

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