Q: I rent a shared two-bedroom apartment in Boston that’s somewhat of an anomaly in this “heat and hot water included”-heavy town: My roommate and I are in control of, and pay for, our own gas heating. Last winter’s monthly heating bills were somewhat of a horror show (I guess that’s what we get for scoring a decent pad with relatively cheap rent) so we’ve decided to put our heads together to see how we can reduce the cost. Have any quick and easy ideas on how we should start?

A: I’m in the exact same boat, my friend. My rental is quite lovely and affordable (at least by downtown Brooklyn standards), but when I signed away on that initial lease several years ago, I had no idea as to how financially draining those winter heating bills could be. To make things worse, I live on the top floor of an older building that directly faces the water, so when those January winds pick up, there’s no way I’m not cranking up the thermostat. Still, I’ve managed to pick up a few tips and tidbits that have helped me stay cozy and save a few bucks each month without having to resort to drastic measures like building a bonfire in the middle of the living room.

Zone heating: Given that electricity is significantly cheaper than gas heat in my neck of the woods, I’ve become a dedicated zone heater when wintertime hits. When working from home, I close myself off in my bedroom/office during the day, turn the thermostat down to low, and plug in my electric space heater. However powerful and efficient the portable space heater that I own may be, it’s on the spendier side, so take a look around to see what works with your budget keeping in mind safety, size and function. Keep an eye out for thermostatically controlled models that automatically shut off when a room reaches the desired temperature to avoid overheating and wasting energy. And if your roommate is blessed with a trust fund, it doesn’t hurt to suggest investing in the Rolls-Royce of portable space heaters, the Dyson Hot. (Bonus: It makes for a great fan when summertime rolls around.) The Department of Energy’s EnergySavers website offers some solid advice on what to look for when shopping for portable heaters.

Down but not off: When I moved into my first I-control-the-heat apartment, I was in the not-so-wise habit of turning the heat off when I left for a few hours at a time. When I returned, I’d crank it back up to the highest temp. Not the best idea. Unless Boston experiences some kind of freakish weather pattern this winter where it’s more than 75 degrees for a couple of weeks straight, leave your heat on, setting the thermostat to a lower temp (60 degrees or so) when you’re away during the day and then adjust it when you return. Not turning the thermostat all the way to zero when you’re away may seem counterintuitive, but it requires more energy to turn the heat on and off than to simply increase the temperature when needed. Provided that you’re on good terms with your landlord or lady, I’d give them a buzz to discuss the possibility of installing a programmable thermostat that will adjust your apartment’s temperature according to your unique schedule so that you don’t have to continually fiddle around with it. You may have to foot the bill for this device yourself, but I think it’s well worth it.

Bundle up: Although this may seem obvious, I can’t stress enough how important it is to wear extra layers while inside. If you’re not dressing for Saint-Tropez outside, there’s no reason you should be wandering around in flip-flops and a halter top while inside. Break out those thick wool socks, knit caps and sweaters (a lightweight sweater can add around 2 degrees of warmth to your shivering bod). If you and your roommate are of the female persuasion, perhaps you could both invest in a matching pair of matronly flannel nightgowns to wear while you sit around watching “Top Chef” after work. This may not win any points with male suitors but, hey, at least you’ll be comfortable and saving money.

Minor home improvements: If you haven’t yet done it, get yourself to your local home improvement center and invest in some low-cost, DIY weatherization gear like foam outlet gaskets, weatherstripping, window shrink wrap and draft stoppers (you can also get crafty and make your own … draft stopper party!!!) that will help keep warm air in and cold air out of your pad. If you happen to have a radiator, heat-resistant radiator reflector panels are a fine idea. If it turns out that extensive repairs are needed (i.e.: there’s a hole in the ceiling or the windows are approximately 125 years old), don’t hesitate to contact your landlord, superintendent or building management company with your concerns. Remember, although you may control the heat in the unit, they control the building itself and should be responsive to any major repairs that need to be performed.

Ix-nay on the take-out food: Just like you might use the microwave more often in the summer to prevent your apartment from turning into a sweltering inferno, try your hand at preparing nutritious homemade meals in the oven or on the stovetop (this also helps to naturally humidify the air) during the colder months to add a bit of much-needed warmth to your apartment. That said, if you’re using the oven for shoe storage, it’s time to do some reorganizing. Bonus: by cooking at home during the winter, you’ll save a bundle on cash otherwise spent ordering-in Thai food and minimize your take-out related waste stream.

Hope these tips help! And if more come up in your quest to minimize your wintertime heating bills, please do share!

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Photo: jamelah/Flickr; MNN homepage photo of mittens: Shutterstock

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

How can a renter save on wintertime heating bills?
Cut back on your heating bills by using zone heating, dressing warmly, improving your house and cooking food at home.