One of the fun (yeah, for the moment, let's call it fun) things about moving into a new (and by new, I mean different) home is learning its quirks.
That's what we're doing now during our latest cold snap.
Yes, winter returned to Central Texas this weekend. It's supposed to be a brief visit; they forecasters are calling for temps near 80 by the middle of next week. But for the last two days, we've been dealing with mercury in the low to mid-30s and patches of freezing rain and drizzle.
For all the hearty folks in the northern half of the country, I know that doesn't sound like much of an ordeal. But for a couple that spent the six previous winters in South Florida, it's a literal cold slap in the face.
I wanted winter again. I got it. And I'm enjoying finally wearing the sweaters and jackets that were sealed in a Space Bag under the guest room bed in our Florida abode.
I must admit, however, that six years of no winter, combined with six added years to my increasingly creaky bones, makes me glad that this is about as cold as we're going to get and that by Wednesday I'll be complaining that it's too damn hot for February. (Well, if the weathermen are right, it will be!)
Until then, we are mapping the cold and warm spots in our house.
Trying to be energy conscious, both in an effort to conserve natural resources and our bank balance, we've set the thermostats at 69 degrees. I know, they (whoever they are) say 68, but that one extra degree does seem to make a lot of difference.
We're also thankful that we spend a large portion of each day upstairs in our home offices. Yes, our science teachers were right: Heat does indeed rise. So for the most part we're very toasty.
We would be even toastier, though, if we could figure out a way to spend 24 hours in the three-square-foot landing at the top of our stairway, the second-warmest place in our house right now. This is one of those quirky areas I mentioned.
For some reason, it's a heat trap and we can't quite figure out how. The stairway itself is open, facing our predominantly-glass front door and three surrounding glass panels. These are, as you can imagine, very icy to the touch, keeping the foyer just a few degrees warmer than the inside of our refrigerator. (The reverse, naturally, is true in the summer, when the panels act as magnifying glasses and we are the ants who get fried.)
But energy effectiveness be damned! They are so pretty, with beveled panels and decorative Lone Stars embedded in several panes! So we deal with the cold in the foyer and the nearby stairway.
In fact, about three steps from the top of the stairs, a spot roughly even with the foyer's top horizontal glass panel, you walk right through an Arctic zone. Take just three more steps, however, and voila! Welcome to our local tropical retreat.
All the warm air rising hits the upstairs ceiling and bounces into the three-by-three landing area. And there it stays.
The warmth refuses to budge. It won't go into the adjacent guest bedroom. And it definitely won't flow a few more feet into what we call our game room, which actually is simply the large open room above our two-car garage -- our unheated, unairconditioned and basically uninsulated garage. So the room above it stays colder and hotter that the rest of the home each winter and summer, respectively.
When we first discovered the landing hot spot, we tried various ways to push the heat elsewhere: open only doors to the rooms we wanted it to flow, wave towels at the area as we passed by it in order to push the heat into the nearby colder areas. Nothing works.
Heck, we can't even get the heat to move one more foot to warm up the wall where our upstairs thermostat is located. If we could accomplish that, we could keep the second-floor heating unit from coming on so much. But the temperature gauge remains just out of the hot zone.
So we're stuck with an unlikely warm spot during the winter. At least we know where to go when we're upstairs and feel the need to warm up a bit more.
Oh yeah, I said this was the second warmest spot in the house. The warmest is our first-floor half bathroom.
Since the door to that small, windowless room usually remains closed, the heat pumped in there from the vent stays in there, making it the most comfortable, if not the most aesthetically pleasing, spot to escape winter's chill.
Tax rewards for energy-efficient homes: My husband contends that the absolute warmest place is the bed, hunkered down in the covers. He's got a point.
Unfortunately, we all have to eventually crawl out and face the cold cruel winter world.
We, and you, might be able to make the daily rising a bit more palatable via some home improvements. And it might even pay off at tax time.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 now offers homeowners a tax credit of up to $500 for specific energy-saving products installed in homes between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2007. Eligible improvements include energy-efficient windows, insulation, doors, roofs and heating and cooling systems.
A couple of downsides here. One, the various credits are all over the board, both for types of improvements and tax savings. Some of them, such as relatively simple ones like installing more energy-efficient windows, are capped at $500 and what you spend in both 2006 and 2007 counts toward that total. So you can't put in some triple-paned, weather-resistant windows this year, take your $500 credit and then do the same in 2007 and get the credit again. Use up the $500 now or December 2007, it's all the same; you only get one $500 credit.
The new energy law also provides a credit for "qualified photovoltaic property," that is, those panels that use the sun to help heat your home. This is not subject to the $500 cap, but there are some limitations here, too.
You can't use the credit for a solar swimming pool or hot tub heating system. And the maximum credit amount is the lesser of 30 percent of your expenses or $2,000. Since a whole-house solar heating system usually runs around 10 times that amount, the federal credit is probably not enough to convince you to convert to a solar heating system. But it might be worth replacing your old electric or gas water heater with a solar-powered one. The Solar Energy Industries Association has more information.
And since you can use one $2,000 credit for a solar panel to heat your house and another $2,000 credit for investing in a solar water heating system, you get a bit more bang for your tax-saving buck.
EnergyStar.gov offers a chart with specifics on tax-credit eligible home improvements.
And don't forget to check with your state energy and tax offices, as well as your local energy provider. Some offer incentives if you go the extra mile to help conserve natural resources.
But until we get any of these energy upgrades made, with or without tax assistance, it's off to the landing (or bathroom) for a heat fix!