Thursday, November 25, 2010

Keeping Warm this Winter

 Alright, I'll freely admit that I'm not made of the same stuff as the hardy Eastern* Canadians (*Eastern meaning everything East of Kamloops...!). When the temperature drops to below -5 C and the windchill approaches -20 C, I'm not a happy camper.

I might just be a wussy, lotuslander used to the balmy winters and mild summers of coastal British Columbia, but I have a theory (or two) as to why we on the South Coast are so intolerant of the bitter cold. The first theory is weather-proofing of our buildings (or more accurately, the complete LACK of weather-proofing). When there's a wind storm, my curtains billow wildly despite a locked sliding patio door (the gap's so big you could slip things through it!). When there's a heat wave, any candles (and sometimes soap) will melt in my apartment. Can you see where this is leading?

 Whoever built this apartment building that I currently reside in clearly did not see any merit in 'insulation'. Right now, in this -8 C weather, my floors (above the car-park) are so cold that even rubber-soled boots provide little protection from the bite. If you'll recall from my previous post on energy-efficient housing, I have two cracked single-paned windows (one of which is actually a hole - I can fit a finger through it!).

The second theory on why Vancouverites whine in cold weather is that it's a wet cold and not a dry cold. There is a difference, let me tell you! You try living through weeks of 1 to 2 C sleet and tell me you feel warmer than you do in a dry -10 C!

Regardless, I'd like to think that after a year and a half of living here I've come up with some great tips on how to stay warm in a draughty, poorly-insulated slum-style apartment during the few cold weeks we have in Vancouver (though I hear that the forecast is for a very cold winter this year).

Crochet a blanket - it'll keep your lap warm while you work, too!
Hot Water Bottle and Lots of Blankets: This will make it more difficult to get out of bed in the morning, but it's a fantastic way to pre-warm a very cold bed, especially when you place it at the foot of the bed (under the covers). Polar fleece (can buy recycled-plastic polar fleece!) is an affordable fabric that comes in many colours and patterns - buy a little and sew yourself a simple hot water bottle cover. With hot tap water to fill and a polar fleece cover, that water bottle will stay warm right into the morning! The other bonus of the bottle cover is the ability to place it directly on or under your feet - that rubber can be uncomfortably hot! Unlike the architect/builders of my building, I do understand the importance of insulation. Add a few blankets (they don't have to be thick!) to trap in the warm air. In the morning, reuse the now slightly warmish water to water houseplants or to set out for the birds in a shallow dish (see last tip).

My Mom made this cover to match my bedding. Awwww.
Draught Dodgers/"Draft Stoppers": I mentioned these handy little inventions in the energy-efficient apartment posting as well, but in weather like this, these things really pull their weight! At the moment, I'm using a spare mattress to act as a giant draught stopper - it's wedged into the door frame of the aforementioned gappy sliding door. It's an eyesore, but it's helping! In the same way, there are products that work to help mediate the downsides of single-paned windows as well though these are definitely things you need to seek permission from the landlord before installing. In contrast, the stuffed-snakey wedged under the door doesn't require any approval.

'Well-loved' slippers with proper soles - a must for frigid apartment floors
Soup, tea and coffee: Never underestimate the psychological and physiological value of hot liquids this time of year! Holding a mug of anything hot will warm your hands (and through circulation, the blood returning to your heart). Now obviously the majority of these tips won't be overly energy-efficient (I'm not going to beat the energy conservation drum in this post - see my earlier one for that aspect!), and please remember that your electric stove-top with it's coiled metal resistors as elements are seriously energy inefficient! Use only the one element to cut down on energy wasted in the 'warming up' phase. If you're concerned about your energy bill, try using the microwave - they waste a lot less energy. Making soup from scratch on the stovetop is also a great thing to do - by standing beside the heated element, you'll be directly absorbing some of that lost heat! And break out the old fashioned thermos! It's the original "reusable coffee cup" after all! Another great example of how insulation is really the key to keeping warm!

Part of my extensive tea selection that's built up over the years.
Hot baths: Again, not energy-efficient (or water-consumption prudent!), but skipping the early morning shower in favour of an evening bath is my favourite cold weather cheat. Maybe I am back to thumping the energy-conservation method, because I'm about to point out that if you shower in the morning when it's sub-zero outside, you're very likely to blow-dry your hair before stepping outside (unless you dig that literal 'frosted' look). Also, if everyone else in your building is showering at the same time, that water heater is working overtime! So skip the morning shower (do the wash-cloth thing if you have to) and spend all day looking forward to that apres-dinner soak. Bring in a book and stay in until the water is tepid. Nothing will bring up your core temperature better (except maybe exercise.... see next point). Dry off quickly, jump into warm pyjamas, and slip into your hot-water-bottled bed!

Exercise: Well, why not, right?! You need it anyway! What's preferrable: waiting at the bus stop for 20 minutes, trying to jump up and down to stay warm while remaining inconspicuous, losing the feeling in your toes, having your runny nose begin to freeze, or walking briskly home for 30 to 40 minutes? I choose the walk every time! I can usually get past the halfway mark before a bus passes me (immense psychological value in that!) and I'm certainly warm by that point, too. When I walk into my frigid apartment, I actually feel a little on the hot side and often enjoy (very temporarily!) the coolness of the parquet floor! My heart's pumping well, my blood is warm as are my muscles. I've also helped to burn off the Christmas-season cookies and treats that sneak their way inperceptibly into my diet this time of year! Another added bonus: the sidewalks are a little less crowded (though I might note that the bike lanes and the pedestrian traffic doesn't dip nearly as much as the car-junkies proclaim as they try to argue against the implementation of bike lanes. You can't see much zipping past in a single-occupant vehicle, you fat oafs!). Get a little exercise and enjoy the crisp air - so long as you're dressed appropriately (gloves and scarves!), you might consider making it a regular occurrence! Now is also a great time to sign up for an indoor fitness class (think: holiday foods!), and there's no shortage of options: hot yoga (or regular yoga, which is what I prefer! Link here to my friend Sarah Jamieson's yoga page), pilates, kickboxing, aerobics and step-classes, indoor bootcamps, weight training, even something like a circuit class at CURVES - all of these things will keep you warm, fit and trim throughout the holiday season! For $5.10 (adult) you can attend a public skate at the Kitsilano Community Centre ice rink (12th & Larch), or go on Wednesday afternoon and attend the Loonie/Toonie skate! Skating is wonderful exercise and a quintessential Canadian winter activity. Or for free, you can go out and play in the snow just like the under 12 year olds...! I'm sure throwing a snowball or two on top of shovelling the drive will leave you huffing and puffing in no time.

Watching children (and dogs!) play in the snow is a great way to enjoy the 'inclement' weather
Space heaters: Alright, this could be an entire post of it's own! Some are dangerous (carbon monoxide from oil-filled electric radiators, fire-risk for virtually ALL models of heaters!), and all carry some risk and require special care (keep them well away from furniture! Polyester couch covers burst into flames really, really easily! Remember the 'over-heating laptop fires' - they were left unvented on these sofas and beds!). I'm sure there are energy-efficient ones out there, but not any I could afford. We bought a small, cheap heater with safety features (very important! Automatic safety shut-off, for example) and which isn't left running overnight and importantly doesn't run from an extension cord. Always read the instructions for these things! Use the heater to heat the room you're in and be sure to unplug it when not in use. In fact, unplug EVERYTHING that isn't in use - you'll save a lot on your energy bills! Space heaters need to be used sparingly and cautiously. Don't leave them unattended - it's better to have a cool room when you come home than a burnt out shell of an apartment!

A note re: your feathered friends.... Imagine trying to stay warm when you live outdoors! The caloric needs of the wildlife just to stay warm are immense! Birdseed can be a total rip-off (I buy mine in bulk from Kitsilano Natural Foods when I get out that way - avoid specialty bird and wildlife stores to avoid the sky-high prices!), and I have discovered that half the things on my kitchen floor that get swept up are edible! So I always throw my sweepings onto the balcony, I shake out the toaster crumb tray outside, and all those unpopped popcorn kernels, rolled oat flakes and the stale Cheerios in the bottom of the box get regifted to the little guys huddling on the railing trying to stay warm. Dried out stir-fry noodles on the stove-top, unwanted crusts, crumbs in the bottom of the cracker box, stale nuts and seeds, petrified raisins you forgot you owned - don't trash these! I've even chucked out expired pork chops that the crows went nuts for (note that as a pescetarian I would have little use for pork chops to begin with!). Another good thing to do is fill a small container (shallow - like a hummous container or those shallow cottage cheese or sour cream ones) with warm water - the availability of water is pretty scarce when it hasn't come above freezing in days and days. It'll be frozen by the time you get home, so make sure you melt it or provide another container the next day.

Homemade birdfood: crumbs and stale stuff!
Homemade birdfood (snowed on) and the recent addition of cheese muffin pieces - big hit!
And finally, a related thought that is a little more important than the sweet little songbirds - the homeless and the impoverished. Knowing that birds require an enormous amount of food to stay warm in this weather, you can imagine the caloric needs of a young man at this temperature! Give generously to food banks and outreach kitchens, and remember the needy always (not just at Christmas or during the winter, but all year round). As miserable as you are walking to a car or bus, imagine being outside all day and night. While we're at it, let's get back to demanding more social housing! Everyone deserves a warm place to sleep at night.


  1. The only worry I have about leaving food out for the birds like that is rats and mice! In our old place we had problems "stemming" from our squash and other veggies growing in the garden. Open compost can also be a problem.
    In an apartment it's probably not as much of a worry, but a basement suite, as I've had first-hand experience...*shudder*

  2. Good point, Eva! Yes, I've had the same experience - I've even had evidence of rats on my balcony here! However, the little birds have become so used to me feeding them that they tend to clean up the food almost immediately.
    To avoid attracting rodents or other creatures, don't put the food out overnight. First thing in the morning will get the attention of local birds, and even then it takes awhile for them to become conditioned to feed in your human habitat. :)
    Every once in awhile a rat would take a trial bite out of the gourds I grew in my parent's backyard, but they didn't do it too often (and there were lots and lots of rats in the yard!). Sounds like you guys had more than the usual rat population! :( Open compost is always a problem for rats, I think. Raccoons, too.