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How not to freeze inside your Victorian apartment

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New Year’s resolution: Stay warm

Rows of Victorian facades with bay windows. Photo via Shutterstock

While I am lucky enough to call a Victorian apartment home—a top-floor corner unit that gets a good amount of sunlight, a rarity for this type of home due to the narrow architecture and asymmetry—it turns into a glacial dungeon come nightfall during the winter months.

Due to its pre-quake date (hello, scant insulation), lack of recent renovation (e.g., leaky windows), and soaring ceilings, keeping my Victorian apartment heated becomes a costly, rigorous, and sometimes dangerous chore.

I asked a handful of other Victorian renters how they make it through the night sans frostbite. Their responses ranged from the clever to the worrisome. Here now, what to do—and what not to do—for staying warm inside your regal yet perma-chilly San Francisco staple.

The safe

Oil-filled radiators. These are the ideal portable heaters. Unlike space heaters that blow hot air around (which can also cause fine lines around the eyes), oil-filled radiators feature metal columns with cavities inside where a heat transfer oil flows freely and emits warmth. Although more expensive to operate than gas heaters, they’re much safer. Note: Keep portable space heater at least three feet from anything flammable.

Extra blankets. This may sound obvious, but it’s a good reminder as early onset hypothermia can erode common sense: Use additional blankets and comforters. I like to wrap my body in one, like an over-the-shoulder gown, and wear around the apartment as I work at my desk, cook in the kitchen, or gaze into my iPad on the couch.

Wear a hoodie, sweater, or winter coat. Although many of us prefer to walk around the apartment with little to no clothing, it’s not always possible, especially if you have roommates. “I always just wear sweaters,” says one Victorian renter, “nothing else works for me.” Used clothing stores (like Crossroads or Buffalo Exchange) have lots of great bulky sweaters that you can buy strictly for house use.

Velvet curtains. Stave off the cold while adding a Norma Desmond vibe to your decor with sumptuous velvet curtains. One Victorian renter says that “velvet curtains for giant windows take some of the edge off.”

Door snakes. These draft stoppers, though arguably unattractive, can help keep warmth inside a room and the chill out. Etsy has a slew of cute ones you can buy on the cheap.

Keep curtains open on south-facing windows. “Try some passive solar warming by leaving the shades up on south-facing windows” suggests a Vic renter.

Restrict yourself to one room. If you’re lucky enough to have several rooms to yourself, shut off and close the other rooms so as to keep the precious warmth to just one space.

Gently boiling a pot of water. Good for keeping the kitchen warm.

Install a central heating system. Lucky you, Mr. or Mrs. Rockefeller.

Safe with reservations

Space heaters. These smaller portable space heaters use ceramic heating elements to warm a room. They’re not ideal for large rooms, like Victorians with their characteristically tall ceilings, but can work in a pinch. Should never be used in bathrooms or other high humidity spaces.

Electric blankets. While much safer these days, electric blankets, heated via a series of wires sewed into the fabric, can still put people off. But fear not: According to Susan McKelvey, Communications Manager of the National Fire Protection Association, “Electric-heated blankets don’t statistically reflect a significant home fire hazard. Considering that there is an average of nearly 360,000 home fires each year, fires started by electric blankets represented just .04 percent of those fires.”

Use a gas fireplace. Far safer than wood-burning fireplaces, but both wood- and gas-burning fireplaces can be fire and smoke hazards. Sadly, many Victorian homes’ fireplaces, like mine, have been sealed for safety reasons.

The bad

The oven. Many of us (including me) do the following act of inane desperation, even though it’s dangerous and should never be done: “I’m not proud of this but leaving the oven on and open and eating breakfast while standing over it,” admitted one Vic dweller.

Any open flame. The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management warns, “Turning on the stove or lighting candles for heat isn’t safe.”