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This Cold House

Katrina didn't flood my house, but although I'm half a continent away from New Orleans, it's causing me to contemplate closing up half of it -- at least for the winter months. Joyce, my wife, who's a professor of early keyboard studies at Temple University, and I, a freelance writer, live with our 12-year-old son, Jed, just outside of Philadelphia, in an uninsulated, 265-year-old stone farmhouse.

Last winter, we burned up some 2,200 gallons of oil keeping the old place warm. At a cost of about $1.60 per gallon, that set us back $3,500 for the heating season last year -- which, I might add, wasn't particularly cold as winters go.

Now, thanks to Katrina, the price of home heating oil has gone up to about $2.50 a gallon. If it stops there and holds, I could be sending an additional $2,000 up the flue this winter -- more if we have a cold one as some folks are predicting. (The wooly-bear caterpillars were looking pretty fuzzy this summer, and some say that's a sure sign.)

PUMP SHOCK. I know we could do a lot of expensive things to cut those bills. We could install high-quality thermal windows and seal up leaks. We could close off our two walk-in fireplaces. We could put more insulation between the attic rafters. But we've come up with a much cheaper idea: closing off over half the house and just not heating it.

Looking over our living quarters last week, after the big price spike sent gasoline at our local stations in Maple Glen rocketing from $2.69 on the Monday after the New Orleans floodgates broke to $3.49 two days later, we realized that with a little help from our furnace guy, we could shut down much of the house.

Our home layout makes such a project relatively simple. Like many of the old stone farmhouses in Pennsylvania, our house is arranged in a line, laid out perpendicular to the street. Nearest the street is a large living room, with the master bedroom above it. In the middle of the house is a room we use as a den/playroom. Above this is Jed's bedroom.

HALVING THE SPACE. To the rear of the house is a newer wood-frame addition, which has Joyce's harpsichord studio and a large eat-in kitchen on the ground floor, with our grown daughter's unused bedroom above. Finally, the part of the old house farthest from the street has a large dining room and a laundry room, with a guest room and my office up above them. Both bathrooms are upstairs, on either side of our son's room.

Our plan is to close off the heat to the living room and master bedroom, which represent about a third of the total space in the house. Then, we will turn the heat in the dining room down to 40 degrees. That would also mean keeping the upstairs guest room, laundry room, and my office at about that temperature -- enough to keep the pipes in the laundry room from freezing and to keep the washing machine useable. That's another third of the house.

We'll move all our operations into the five remaining rooms, down from 10. According to Hans Stitzinger, the owner of Willow Grove Oil, a father-and-son heating company, we could expect to cut our oil usage anywhere from 25% to 50% through this downsizing strategy. We can't expect to cut our heating-oil consumption by a full two-thirds, he explains, because the internal walls between the heated and unheated portions of the house aren't insulated. And we'll be opening doors to the heated area to enter from outdoors and also using Joyce's studio.

COST RECOUP. We'll have to reroute the hot water lines from the furnace, so that we can close valves to shut off the living room and master bedroom while keeping the bathroom heated. We'll also have to switch the other bathroom from the dining-room zone, which will be set at 40 degrees, to the kitchen zone, which will remain at a comfortable 65 to 70 degrees. The total bill for these operations will run about $500, Stitzinger predicts.

Even if we save only 25% on oil consumption, that would still represent $1,375 at $2.50 a gallon -- and double that if we manage to cut our consumption by 50%. So we'll definitely recover the cost of the work in one year, even if oil falls substantially from its current highs.

Stitzinger says a lot of homeowners could achieve significant savings by simply going back to the ways of an earlier day. "People should turn down the heat in their first floor living space and not heat their upstairs bedrooms," he says. "You get enough heat rising from the lower rooms to sleep comfortably." Sounding more like former President Jimmy Carter than a man who makes his living peddling oil, he also recommends that people go back to wearing sweaters in the house in wintertime and to keeping the thermostat set down in the low 60s instead of insisting on 70 degrees or higher.

HUDDLING TOGETHER. But Stitzinger offers a cautionary word of advice to those who might try to emulate our radical efforts at conservation and home economy: "Don't try to do this yourself without consulting a professional." Leave the wrong room unheated, he warns, and you could end up with a burst water pipe that could end up doing thousands of dollars in damage -- a loss that your insurance company might not cover, since it would have been your fault.

Heating pipes in unheated areas must be either drained or filled with special heating system antifreeze. Homeowners with forced-air heat can easily close off rooms simply by covering up the vents, but Stitzinger warns against closing off too many, as this could lead to an overheated system.

I'm not sure whether we'll adopt all of the strategies that our heating contractor is recommending for our new downsized winter quarters, but even if we don't, we will definitely be a closer-knit family. I plan on shifting my office into my daughter's bedroom, which will also become the master bedroom for the duration of the heating season -- the one major shift we'll have to make. That means I'll be just a door away from Jed's room when he's home from school and doing his homework or his other favored activities -- using the computer or drawing.

We'll also probably be spending more family time in the family room, with the living room out of commission. You know, we're thinking this could work.

By David Lindorff in Maple Glen, Penn.

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