Your home has the airtight integrity of a submarine with a screen door. All that expensive heating you pay for during fall and winter mingles with the cold air continuously spilling in through windows, doors, floors, and electrical sockets. Buildings—even new ones—are a lot draftier than one would expect, and the volume of cold winter air that can seep through the tiniest crack of pinhole is mind-bogglingly significant.
There are ways to mitigate it with a few quick fixes. You could buy a thermal leak detector to find the cold spots in your home, but before buying anything, take a cursory look. You can get an idea if there are gaps in your door frames and baseboards and if you can feel the cold air rushing in through the weatherstripping around your windows.
We've outlined several things you can do to insulate your home and keep the hot air in this winter. These are all approachable projects anyone can tackle, and none of it costs much money. With the savings to your electricity bill, they might even pay for themselves.
Updated November 2021: We've swapped out the DAP caulk for GE caulk, added electrical socket plugs and another jacket to keep warm, and updated retailer availability and pricing.
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More likely than not if you live in an apartment or an older home, you've got gaps in that 90-degree angle where your walls' baseboards meet your floor. These gaps may not look big, but the amount of cold air rushing through them and into your home is significant. Check around the window frames' molding for gaps too.
If you're a homeowner, you can install quarter-round (quarter-inch-wide) wooden molding, but most of us either don't want to take on the expense or get kicked out of our apartments for making unauthorized modifications. If so, caulk is the way to go. Caulking is an acquired skill, but the risks of screwing it up are very low. Experience frosting cakes is a bonus here. Get a bunch of paper towels and get at it.
- Newborn 960-GTR Caulking Gun for $16: Always go for a smooth-rod caulking gun. You can get a good, steady bead of caulk out of them and when you stop squeezing the handle, the caulk immediately stops flowing. You don't have to rush to release a dribbling caulking gun like with a ratcheting model. There's a hole in the handle of the Newborn that, when you squeeze the handle, cuts the tip off a new tube of caulk. Cut it at a 45-degree angle or so, and only cut a small piece.
- GE Paintable Silicone Supreme Caulk for $10: Acrylic latex/silicone hybrids are the best of both worlds of the two traditional types of caulk. Like straight silicone, it flexes with the floor and baseboards it bonds to, which both expand and contract during the year, so it's less likely to crack as the weather changes. And, like acrylic latex, you can paint over it. Use straight silicone in bathrooms, but Alex Flex is ideal everywhere else. Buy the round-bottomed tubes of caulk made for a caulking gun, rather than the pinched-end tubes that are made for squeezing by hand. DAP has a lot of similarly named caulks, including Alex and Alex Plus. I've had good results with the Alex Flex.
- DAP Cap for $4: Don't bother using the finishing edge tool. I'm going to recommend something better in a second. But the cap will keep opened caulk fresh for far longer than an uncapped tube. For the small price, it's worth it.
- Allway 3-In-1 Caulk Applicator for $6: If you just slather caulk, it'll look sloppy and uneven. This applicator gives the cleanest bead of any caulk tool I've used, and I'll never go back to using a cheap, rigid plastic applicator or my fingertip. Just run the silicone triangular end over the line of caulk you laid and it'll scoop away the excess while also keeping the surrounding edges clean (unlike a plastic tool). The triangular end has three different sizes for gaps of varying width. Pop the triangle off, turn it to the width you want, and pop it back on. There's also a plastic scraper for gently removing errant pieces of dried caulk without damaging painted surfaces or floors and a dual-sided metal caulk removal tool for digging into gaps to pull out old caulk.
You lose a lot of heat through your windows. Double and triple-paned glass, which trap insulating air between glass layers, are much better than single-paned glass, but cold outdoor air can still seep in around the edges. Winterizing your windows means you won't be opening them for the foreseeable future. But if you're freezing inside, that's probably the last thing you want to do anyway.
- 3M Interior Transparent Weather Sealing Tape for $8: If you own your home, you can replace all the window weatherstripping with new rubber, but for most of us it's easier to tape up the seams. Weather sealing tape won't turn brittle and peel off when exposed to cold for several months. Measure the dimensions of all your windows and add them together to see how much tape you need to buy. There are 10 yards on a roll, but people tend to underestimate how much they'll need. I like this 3M, but I don't recommend the Frost King brand of tape. It was less flexible and the adhesive was weaker.
- Duck Window Insulation Film Kit for $13: It's not just about stopping air leakages. It's also about building up an insulating layer. That's what this kit enables. Don't install this so that the film is touching the glass. Give it a little space. And don't bother shrinking it with a hairdryer as the instructions say. If you make it too taut, the plastic will contract as outside temperatures drop and it could break free of the adhesive strips. Save this step for last and make sure you clean your windows first. You won't get another chance to wash them until you take the one-time-use film down in the spring.
And Doors and Electrical Outlets
Any door that leads outside or to an apartment hallway is an automatic suspect for heat loss. You should close those gaps all the way around your doors. As a bonus, you'll also muffle hallway noise and cut down on the amount of cooking smells that waft into your place from your neighbors. Electrical outlets are another area of heat loss, too. If you can feel cold air flowing out of them then you need to seal 'em up. You can keep these modifications in place year-round.
- Duck Heavy-Duty Weatherstrip Seal for $5: You've got to do a little guesswork to figure out a size to buy, but in my experience apartment buildings tend to require one of the two wider sizes.
- DeeTool Door Draft Stopper for $18: Also known as door sweeps, these block drafts and seal up big gaps where typical weatherstripping would not last long. Measure it, cut it to fit, and install it along the lower edge of your door. Make sure the rigid plastic strip, which presses the foam tightly against the door gap, is on the side away from the door and not flat against it. The instructions leave that important clarification out.
- Duck Socket Sealers 24 Pack for $12: Outlet gaskets or socket sealers are foam plates that fit behind outlets' cover panels. Most often, it's the sockets on the inside of exterior walls that lose air. Go to your home's fuse box and turn off the electrical power to the room you're working in before you begin on outlets. There are also gaskets for light switch panels.
- GE Electrical Socket Plugs for $6: Outside air doesn't just come in through the outlet cut-outs, though. It can blow through the pin holes, too, when nothing is plugged into them. Once you finish installing the foam socket sealer plates, use these plastic socket plugs on outlets located on exterior walls.
Add a Rug
Wood and tile floors are excellent conductors, and that's why you can be in a warm room with your feet still freezing. Those floors will conduct the heat out of them, so cover them up with area rugs. For affordable rugs, I've been impressed with Safavieh. Rugs are made up of a lot of air trapped in the fibers, which is why they feel warmer than bare floors. Air is an excellent insulator.
Don't just toss them on the ground, though. Put a rug pad underneath for cushioning and to keep them from sliding around. Mohawk makes a thick, excellent-quality rug pad. Buy the size closest to the area rug that'll go on top of it, and trim the rug pad two inches shorter in length and width. Buy a pair of Wiss 10-Inch Tradesman Shears. The Mohawk, because of its thick felt, is hard to trim without a strong cutting tool. Regular scissors will struggle, if not outright break, and utility knives will dull quickly as they do a crap job that frays the cut felt. These titanium-blade shears are ultra-strong and didn't choke on the cut fibers.
Turn Down Your Heat
Heat is expensive. Once you've done the work to keep your warm air inside your home, you can quit pumping so much of it out of your heaters. Here are some things I use to keep myself extra warm instead.
- Uniqlo Pile-Lined Hoodie for $40: This is my wearable blanket. I used to go on coffee runs to the corner shop in nothing but this unbelievably soft, ludicrously warm hoodie and an undershirt last winter. Now I'm a hermit due to social distancing and I make my coffee at home, but this turned out to be the perfect indoor hermit garment, too. This is the women's version. The Fluffy Yarn Fleece Jacket ($30) is another wearable toaster, if you don't need a hood.
- Glerups Slip-On Slippers for $95: Cold feet suck, and down on the floor where a room's coldest air settles, your feet are always the first things to freeze. Consider slippers. Glerups are the best I've used, but they're expensive. Unlike synthetic fleece department store slippers, the unlined wool doesn't make your feet clammy. I'm not a slipper person, but I bought into wearing them quickly. If you need help rationalizing, they're as comfortable as a Merino wool cloud, warmer than hell, and durable enough to last for years. WIRED Senior Reviews Editor Julian Chokkattu likes these Acorn Moc II ($50) slippers if you want a cheaper option.
- The Company Store LaCrosse Down Comforter for $143 (Queen): You can turn the heat way down low or off completely if you bunk under a goose down comforter. The Company Store's LoftAIRE synthetic insulation comforter ($114) is a more affordable (but still not cheap) option at $191. Just don't wash either one (or any puffy jackets, sleeping bags, or comforters, for that matter) in a top-loading washing machine. It'll tear them up. You've got to use a front-loader.
Space heaters are notoriously inefficient, but you may save money by only heating the room you're occupying. It depends on your home and heating needs, so if you go this route pay attention to your energy bill to see if you're really saving money. The Vornado VH200 ($70) is relatively energy-efficient and my top pick for a space heater. When I unboxed it, it was half the size I expected. Would it be able to heat a whole room in the dead of winter? Yep. Once I fired it up, it had no problem quickly heating up the combined kitchen and living room space in my apartment while it snowed outside. It's a powerful little monster, and its fan disperses heat throughout the room better than most space heaters, which typically squirt a narrow jet of heat directionally like a fire breather blowing through a straw.
It has a thermostat, simple controls, and safety features, such as a very effective kill switch that'll immediately turn the heater off if it tips or begins to overheat. Note: Don't ever plug a space heater into a power strip, extension cord, or surge protector. They need to plug straight into a wall outlet, otherwise, they can malfunction and catch fire. Don't use them near flammable things or up against objects, including walls, and make sure nothing covers them up. When you leave your home, make sure you always, always, always turn it off. There are a lot of caveats to using a space heater safely.
A few final tips: If you have a ceiling fan, don't forget to reverse them so they gently blow warm air, which congregates at the ceiling, down into the room. And if you've got central HVAC or in-wall units, make sure the filters are clean. If you need help caulking or installing some of the other items in this guide, try YouTube. There are a ton of how-tos that can help.