2012-02-15 / Opinions & Letters

Midwest Memo

Guarding the thermostat
by Alan Shultz

My friend Jacco is originally from the Netherlands. Jacco and family are frugal when it comes to energy. The annual heating bill on their enormous Victorian home in Chicago is under $1,000. It is so low that most people don’t believe it is possible.

When Jacco remodeled his house he put in the most efficient furnace that money could buy. The furnace is made in Germany. When people in the know see the brand on Jacco’s furnace they act like they are in the presence of greatness.

There are seven different heating zones in Jacco’s house. He controls the heating from touch pads on the walls, from his computer and from his I-phone. While I was house sitting this past winter I got confused on Jacco’s heating sequence. For a day or so the house was warm and comfy all over. Jacco put a stop to that from the Netherlands with heat commands sent from his laptop.

In Jacco’s house rooms that get used in the winter get heated, the others don’t. Unless overnight guests are visiting, the third floor rooms are closed off with a padded, insulated door. Sacrifices are made, savings are accomplished.

Jacco doesn’t like to pay for energy so he’s invested in an efficient furnace and smart house technology that allows him to manage and minimize his heat usage. At Jacco’s home you wear a sweater and move quickly through unused and unheated rooms.

I would not live like Jacco and his family does, but I could if I had to. It is not cruel and unusual - just a little cold for my taste.

Jacco’s friend Mark is from Amsterdam but for the last five years has also called our Midwest home. Mark’s house is not as large as Jacco’s and he has not invested in the technology, the insulation and the high tech furnace which Jacco has. But Mark pays remarkably low energy bills also.

I was over at Mark’s last Saturday about 10 a.m. It was freezing outside. Where I was seated in the living room, the house felt nice and warm. I remarked so. Mark pointed out that his thermostat was actually set for a chilly 65 degrees. He said that I had my feet on a rug that had a large electric heat pad underneath. Because my feet felt toasty, the rest of me seemed perfectly fine at 65.

Mark said that one of the secrets of his remarkably low heating bills is the nighttime thermostat setting.

“When we go to sleep I turn the heat off altogether,” he said. He also shared the chilling fact that upon waking that Saturday morning the house interior temperature was hovering just below 50 degrees.

“Brrrrr,” I remarked.

“My mother says sleeping in the cold is good for you,” Mark said, adding that his children are never sick.

“Brrrr,” I repeated.

Some reading this column will not be impressed by the tales of Jacco and Mark’s frugality. Folks raised in houses heated by fireplaces or wood stoves, or single grate oil burners, they know first hand what fighting off the cold is like. Old drafty houses with no heat upstairs, where you took a heated brick to bed to warm the damp feeling sheets and covers, there are some chilly stories to be mined from that material. Little did you realize at the time, that according to Mark’s mother, one’s health was being enhanced by those cold, cold winter nights!

Buried in this chilly tale is the conundrum posed when government interferes in decisions that should be left to individuals. If Uncle Sam pays for the heat can he require folks to wear a sweater or sleep in the cold? And if Uncle Sam pays, why would Jacco innovate and invest and what incentive would Mark have to push the envelope?

Uncle Sam at the thermostat, that’s possibly the most chilling tale of all.

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