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Low-cost ways to stay warm at home

Are your curtains coming up short? Hung right, they’re a low-cost way to drive out winter’s chill.

Nelson Lebo reckons that for just $32 he has the best-insulated French doors in New Zealand.

He achieved this by making a “window blanket” using a cheap duvet inner and cover that he attached along one edge to a wooden batten. On winter nights he wedges the batten into the top of the door frame so the duvet completely covers the glass in the doors. He then hides the re-purposed bedding with lined, floor-length curtains.

Lebo says old woollen blankets work just as well, and all windows can get the blanket treatment, not just French doors. “In our last house we had them on every single window.”

Although window blankets may not be to everybody’s taste, the Palmerston North City Council eco design adviser says they are as effective as having triple glazing. They’re also cheap, easy to use and surprisingly unobtrusive – just take them down in the morning, roll them up and store them behind your pulled-back curtains.

“You never see them because they’re always behind your curtains.”

Lebo has lots of low-cost tips to help make your house warmer, drier and healthier. They include reducing moisture levels by taking shorter showers, using pot lids when you cook and always drying washing outside. “Human lungs don’t like damp air,” he says.

Or you could go a step further and stop moisture coming through the floor of your house by laying heavy-duty builders’ polythene on the ground underneath it.

“Dollar for dollar, laying polythene is probably the best thing you can do for a home with a raised floor – the materials cost just over $1/sq m.

With winter fast approaching, thousands in badly insulated houses face the prospect of increased health risks from cold, damp and mould.

Otago University’s He Kainga Oranga Housing and Health Research Programme has found that poor housing is linked with an 18% increase in winter mortality from seasonal respiratory and circulatory problems – 1600 deaths a year – one of the developed world’s ­highest rates of winter-related deaths. Children are particularly vulnerable through respiratory illness, skin conditions and rheumatic fever.

Among the hardest hit are those living on low incomes in private rental accommodation. Landlords are often reluctant to invest in the insulation and fixed heating – heat pumps, wood burners or flued gas heaters – that would allow tenants to stay warm and healthy without racking up big power bills. “The majority of private landlords are not motivated to do anything,” says Miranda Struthers, healthy homes manager for the Wellington-based Sustainability Trust, which runs a programme called Warm Fuzzies for people suffering poor health caused by cold, damp, mouldy houses.

Changes to the Residential Tenancies Act mean all private rental properties must have ceiling and floor insulation installed by July 2019, although landlords will not be required to install fixed heating. In the meantime, Struthers says there are low-cost steps even renters can take to stay warmer and drier during the winter. The first is to follow Lebo’s moisture-beating tips.

“Moist air is a breeding ground for mould, and moist air is also much harder to heat then dry air.”

It also helps to keep dwellings well ventilated by opening windows on opposite sides for at least 15 minutes a day. Filling gaps around windows and outside doors with draught strips can help reduce heat loss. “If you added up all the places where draughts can get in, you’d have a hole the size of a basketball in your house,” says Struthers.

Curtains – preferably lined – are essential to prevent heat loss. A pelmet along the top – or even a piece of wood or a rolled up towel – can further increase curtain efficiency by helping to stop what is known as the “reverse chimney effect”. This happens when warm air is pulled through the gap at the top of the curtains then comes out the bottom as cooler air.

But according to Lebo, even better than a pelmet is having curtains that touch the floor, which prevents cold air from escaping – something he says few people realise.

“Of all the curtains I have seen, I’d say 98% have not been installed for good thermal performance.”

Originally published by the Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.