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When Is It Time to Turn the Heat On? And What’s the Best Thermostat Setting?

Woman cozy while drinking tea and reading in her robe with her thermostat set for winter
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Find out when to turn on the heat, how to make sure your home stays cozy, and resolve the age-old debate about the best thermostat setting.

Every September, we settle into a familiar sequence of events. Back to school… Start raking leaves… Wonder when it’s time to turn the heat on — and what temperature to set the thermostat to.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), turning your thermostat back 7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit from its normal setting for eight hours per day can save you as much as 10 percent per year on your heating bill — even more if you live in a mild climate where winter temperatures are less extreme. But is there an ideal temperature? And is there a best time to fire up the furnace?

Unfortunately, there is no one right answer that will guarantee you total comfort and lower your winter heating bill — or resolve your family disputes over the perfect thermostat setting. However, there are clear guidelines (and science) you can use to find the optimal timing and temperature for your thermostat. This way you can keep your home cozy and energy efficient — and possibly put The Great Thermostat Debate to rest.

When to turn the heat on.

The World Health Organization recommends keeping indoor temperatures above 18 degrees Celsius (64.4 degrees Fahrenheit). When the temperature inside is consistently dipping below that mark, it’s probably time to turn on the heat. If you have young children or seniors in the home, your threshold temperature might be a few degrees higher, and you might not want to wait longer than a couple of days. In the end, this is a personal decision and spending a little extra for heat is well worth the comfort and well-being of family members, especially those whose health may be impacted by the cold.

Keepin’ it great at 68.

About that ideal thermostat setting: The magic number, according to the Department of Energy, is 68 degrees. The DOE also recommends setting the thermostat a little lower than 68 at night and when no one is home . A programmable thermostat with a timer is a convenient way to plan your heating schedule. Many models provide separate settings for each day of the week, so you can set it and forget it.

Other ways to conserve energy.

No matter how diligent you are about keeping that dial set to 68, your home may still feel cold to you (or others in it — more on that below), and you may still be losing energy efficiency if your home’s heating and insulation are functioning under par. Before winter sets in, check these items off your to-do list:

  • Make sure the roof, flooring, and walls are well insulated with up-to-date materials. As the saying goes: Heat rises. It also escapes — through the walls and into the atmosphere outside. No matter how hard you make your furnace work, if you don’t have great insulation, you’re virtually throwing money out the window. The Department of Energy recommends checking your type of insulation (such as blanket, concrete block, or foam board ), its R-value (that’s a thermal rating that appears on all insulation) and thickness, and whether it’s installed properly throughout your home. This could be part of a professional home energy audit, or you can do it yourself. Even if you have insulation everywhere, it’s usually possible to add more. The DOE has more information about insulation and how it affects energy efficiency. Insulation is a bit like wrapping your home in a cozy blanket: The warmer the blanket, the lower the thermostat setting you can tolerate.
  • Look for drafty windows and doors, and insulate or replace them. Heat escaping from your home through the windows is responsible for 25-30 percent of your heating system’s output . Check windows, doors, and skylights for air leaks. If you feel a draft and your fenestrations (that’s the technical term all those openings) don’t have the highest available energy ratings, it could be time to replace them. Alternatively, you can add caulking or weather strips to help keep cold air out and warm air in. Without cold air getting in or warm air getting out, you can maintain a steady temperature in the house and keep heating bills down.
  • Get your boiler or furnace a check-up. Make sure it receives any needed repairs, as a suboptimal appliance can affect energy efficiency. If it’s getting old and there are more energy-efficient models available, consider replacing it sooner rather than later — so when it’s time to turn the heat on, you know it’s running efficiently. The investment can save you a bundle in the long run.

The Great Thermostat Battle.

Is 68 degrees a hard-and-fast rule? Not exactly — more like a rule of thumb. Essentially, the advice is to keep the thermostat set to the lowest temperature you can comfortably live with.

Which brings up an important question: Just how low a temperature can you stand? And in a household of two, three, five, or more people, how do you decide?

It’s an age-old household debate: Person A (stereotypically “she”) wants it warmer; Person B (stereotypically “he”) wants it cooler. There’s actually some science about why What temperature should the thermostat be set to? is one of those perennial arguments, right up there with Whose in-laws do we have to spend the holidays with this year?

  • Women tend to have a higher core body temperature than men. Researchers have noticed a variance between males and females, Harvard Health Publishing reports. As a result, women may perceive ambient temperatures as being cooler than men do.
  • But on average, men’s internal fire burns hotter than women’s. This comes down to metabolic rate — basically, how many calories your body burns during a given period of time to do what it has to do. A harder-working metabolism means a hotter-burning metabolism — which means it’s not uncommon for men to generally feel warmer.
  • Speaking of men feeling warmer, the “thermostat problem” isn’t unique to residences. As any woman who has to keep an extra sweatshirt at her desk will tell you, office buildings are also a little chilly. Their temps are set according to a formula based on the metabolic rates of the average office worker of the 1960s : a 40-year-old, 154-pound man. That temperature typically hovers around 70 degrees. (Brrrr!)
  • On average, women’s skin temperatures are cooler than men’s. A study published in The Lancet found that, in the same environment, the skin temperature on women’s hands ran about 5 degrees cooler than men’s . So again, women may be more likely to experience air temperature as a bit cooler. Which is why some women might want the thermostat set higher.
  • Other recent studies have found that body temperature changes throughout the day and tends to be higher in younger people. So at any given time at your house, there could be little ones bundled up in sweaters and blankets, teenage boys lounging in shorts, grandparents noticing that “it seems cold in here; does it feel cold to you?” and Mom and Dad sneakily taking turns moving the thermostat up and down, respectively.

Interestingly, people seem to be getting colder in general. While 98.6 has long been considered the average normal adult temperature, researchers looking at data over decades have noticed that body temperatures of healthy adults in the U.S. have dropped. Today’s average is closer to 97.9 degrees.

Which means we can all handle a slightly lower thermostat setting.

Don’t wait to fill up for winter. Contact us to schedule your first fill — a technician will also make sure your tank is ready for the cold months.

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Heating Tips for the Winter Put Safety First
Guidelines for a Worry-Free Winter
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