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I live in a 70-something year old home that has temperature control issues. It has baseboard heating powered by natural gas through most of the house, but on a day like today with external temperatures around 34F/1C I am lucky if I can get it up to 60F indoors, which is too chilly to be comfortable (and some parts of the home are closer to 50F).

The current indoor temperature includes all of the space heaters I can plug in without throwing a circuit breaker. In fact, if the temperature drops or if some smart device turns itself on then the circuit breakers turn themselves off (5-6 times per day, usually).

Is there anything I can do further without spending much money or accidentally burning down my house? I used to use the oven for extra heat but it broke and it was also very cost inefficient. I am pretty close to trying some propane powered indoor space heater, but I do worry about safety with anything like that.

Is there anyway to make it were the circuits can handle an extra space heater or 2? Is there any alternative I'm overlooking?

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    Do you nave ceiling insulation? You're burning money by adding heat when your efforts should be to stop-loosing heat.
    – Criggie
    Nov 21, 2022 at 22:53
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    What are you doing to keep yourself warm in the way of wearing more clothing like sweaters and jackets? 60F should be fine when wearing sweaters and drinking hot tea every hour. Nov 22, 2022 at 2:31
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    Here in the UK I set our thermostat to 18 degrees C (64.4 F) and that is totally fine with a tee or polo shirt and sweater. I would find 16 C (60 F) a little cool, but I guess I could get used to it. Nov 22, 2022 at 9:29
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    "Is there any alternative I'm overlooking?" Put on a sweater or two. Get a decent sleeping bag.
    – Nobody
    Nov 22, 2022 at 19:47
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    @MichaelHarvey I used to work in a high school, and there were some areas where the temp was set at 25-26 degrees C all winter long. Some staff might be described as dinosaurs for their desire to be warm. Nothing less was acceptable, so different people have different tolerances.
    – Criggie
    Nov 23, 2022 at 2:26

7 Answers 7

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Insulation and air-sealing

If you heat less of the outdoors, more of the heat stays indoors.

Caulking or foaming cracks & gaps, putting window film over windows you won't open until spring or never open, repairing or replacing weatherstripping around doors, etc.

Adding insulation to the attic (easiest) and walls.

These things are boring basic steps that make a huge difference in heat load, which then makes a huge difference in comfort and cost of heating. They offer the fastest payback of any energy-improvement option you can try.

Depending on details unknown, sometimes closing off parts of the house for the winter is also a sensible option, depending on your needs and the size of the house.

It may also be the case that your boiler and/or hot-water baseboards require maintenance or adjustments. Baseboards become inefficient if airflow is blocked by dust bunnies. Opening them up and vacuuming the accumulated crud (carefully - don't bend the fins) can make a huge difference. Ensure that nothing is blocking the airflow through them when reassembling the covers.

Heat delivery from the boiler is affected by water temperature, and the performance of the circulating pump or pumps. Rather than "add more electric space heating" I would address the boiler/baseboard performance (by hiring a trained & licensed professional, other than the baseboard cleaning part) to reduce or eliminate the need for electric space heating - but the boring stuff above still comes first.

Given the "on a budget" part, switching from electric resistance supplemental heat to electric heat pumps that may be cheaper than gas is only likely to be a "budget" option if your area has large incentives for heat pump retrofits. But in the long run it definitely helps the budget.

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    Electric resistance heat is cheap to install, expensive to run and 100% efficient. Given typical electric and gas prices, not competitive. Electric heat pumps are expensive to install and cheap to run. They take heat from outside air (good ones will do so from very cold air - what you need depends on your climate, mine work to -15°F) or ground/lake water and move it to heat your house at typical (electric) efficiencies of 300% or so, which makes them competitive with gas in most areas.
    – Ecnerwal
    Nov 21, 2022 at 15:18
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    Much safer and more economical to insulate and stop drafts & get your boiler properly adjusted than to screw around with adding an unvented fuel burner to the house. Fixing the heat leaks is still the very best and most budget-friendly "alternative" heat. Maximizing the efficacy of the boiler you already have is WAY better than "I'll buy a propane heater and add that to everything else here."
    – Ecnerwal
    Nov 21, 2022 at 15:40
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    On a 70 year old house improving insulation and air sealing would probably save 50 to 75% of yearly heating costs, if no improvements have been done.
    – crip659
    Nov 21, 2022 at 17:07
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    If OP has badly insulated windows or frames which leak air, simply having good, thick curtains and keeping them closed will go some way to keeping heat in. Also keeping internal doors closed to prevent draughts will help. Simple adjustments which cost little but if the house is as bad as is presented, could make a good difference
    – ThaRobster
    Nov 22, 2022 at 10:28
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    In Edinburgh you see bubble wrap tapped to the inside of lots of windows. It makes excellent insulation without blocking light. Cheap and you don't need to get permission to put in on the window, it's basically the student version of double glazing.
    – Clumsy cat
    Nov 22, 2022 at 15:17
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The #1 thing you need is insulation and leak sealing as Ecnerwal discusses at length.

You should also review the performance of your heating system. I had a gas boiler growing up. It needs to refill itself with water from time to time. It's also important not to block baseboards - they need air circulation if you want them to work.

But I mainly want to talk about tripping circuit breakers

Tripping circuit breakers is SUPER BAD. It means you are already overloading your electrical system and you need to stop Right Now. My winter cottage has 30A/120V service with only two 20A circuits for the whole house. Yet we have had three breaker trips in 15 years because we know where our circuits are, how much power they have, and how much power our stuff takes.

the circuit breakers turn themselves off (5-6 times per day, usually).

And you resetting them over and over is you actively trying to burn your house down. When a breaker trips a second time in a year, you stop using the circuit until the problem is identified and permanently resolved.

I am pretty close to trying some propane powered indoor space heater, but I do worry about safety with anything like that.

No, trust me... you do not worry about safety. Why start now? LOL

Figure out your circuits, then figure out your loads.

So that's what you do. Take a few hours and shut off breakers one at a time, and see which lights and outlets die. The lights aren't consequential but you should know every socket and hard-wired heat making appliance (so microwave etc.). This outlet is on circuit 3, this one is on circuit 7 - or you can name them like Thor, Hulk, Ironman etc. Your call.

Then, look at your appliance' name plates and see how much power they take in amps.

  • Newer refrigerators are too little to matter.
  • Cell phone chargers, cable box and TV are too little to matter.
  • The clock on a gas range is too little to matter.
  • Anything that just doesn't make much heat is too little to matter.
  • Inkjet printers don't matter. Lasers do.
  • PCs vary a lot.
  • Microwaves and hair dryers can be 1800 watts (15 amps).
  • Space heaters are all 1500 watts (12.5 amps).
  • Other heat making appliances vary between 5 and 12.5 amps.

If you can't be bothered looking at nameplates, you can get a "Kill-A-Watt" home energy monitor for $30 and it will tell you what the appliance is taking right now (which doesn't necessarily mean what it always takes). Put a Kill-a-Watt on a PC and note the amps. Now start up a graphics-heavy game and note the amps again. Surprise!

or if some smart device turns itself on

If a high load device is under automatic control, you need to figure like it's on all the time.

Then think about amps when you use your loads.

The circuit breaker handle states the amps the circuit can safely handle - it is 15 or 20. Hopefully no fool enlarged the breakers improperly.

Think about every load active on the circuit before you switch on anything else. That space heater is 12.5 amps which pretty much dominates a 15A circuit. It can share a 20A circuit with a few small things but not another space heater.

If you want to make toast and there's a space heater on that circuit, well, the nameplate or the Kill-a-Watt has told you the toaster is 7 and the heater is 7 or 12.5. So 7+7 works so set it to low.

If you're putting 2 space heaters on 1 circuit you are pulling 25A on a 15A or 20A circuit, which rhymes with "I WANT to burn my house down".

It's like this except a modern fridge and freezer are only 1's. And you have 15 or 20 per circuit instead of 7.

How are you paying for all this stuff, anyway?

Let's face it, Mr. Moneybags. You obviously have GIGANTIC electric bills from all this electric toaster heat. And you're spending money on gas. And now you want to be buying 2-3 of those propane bottles per day per heater at $5 a pop?

See, that doesn't make any sense. Plenty of $ for gas and electric but not a penny for insulation or sealing or fixing your furnace or better yet, get a modern heat pump?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7J52mDjZzto

Because they're really quite good now.

And I bet you have months with nearly $1000 heating bills. Heck, a DIY mini-split is less than that, you could install one a month. Now you need a little bit of A/C skills and you're not allowed to play with Freon directly, but they have that figured out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kd092alkeaE

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  • The thing about all those sinks for wasted power is that it turns into heat in the house anyway. So all that will do is tell you which circuit you can run a space heater on.
    – Chris H
    Nov 22, 2022 at 10:52
  • Appreciate the answer(s) and I agree on the long term cost tradeoff. Of course, the limitation has always been due to more immediate budget constraints. The gas + electric bill has been averaging about $500/mo which I consider high (to your point, of course). I have been trying to pull off a mini split for years, and almost bought a unit once but I couldn't afford the installation. In fact, I think that was one of my first questions here years ago (asking if I could install it myself, with a resounding "no" for the answer).
    – Hack-R
    Nov 26, 2022 at 2:21
  • @Hack-R that has changed. Watch any Youtube video on heat pumps and you'll get mauled by ads from MrCool, which pre-charges the lines and they just snap together. I'm not a fan, I prefer the other setup where the compressor comes pre-charged with enough coolant for the whole system, and you custom-fit the lines "dry" and then test them with nitrogen before charging the system from the unit. Nov 26, 2022 at 5:52
  • @ChrisH yes, but it converts only at 100% efficiency which is terrible by modern standards. Nov 26, 2022 at 6:13
  • @Harper-ReinstateMonica compared to heat pumps that usually need professional installation with a waiting list and massive upfront cost of course. That's not going to help the OP in the next few days or weeks.
    – Chris H
    Nov 26, 2022 at 18:52
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The first thing is to optimise your gas heating. It should be sufficient. Here are some steps in the order that you should try them, and in increasing order of difficulty/cost.

Air

My radiators (taller than baseboard ones but similar in that they contain hot water which they use to heat the air) need bleeding a couple of times at the start of the heating season, otherwise the house doesn't heat as effectively. Bleeding means opening a little valve at the top of each water-filled heater to let out trapped air. Air causes two problems: it reduces flow through the system (so the boiler can't deliver as much heat into the water), and it reduces the surface area that's properly up to temperature in each radiator. With tall radiators you can feel the top is cooler than the bottom if a lot of bleeding is needed. Some water will come out so use an old towel to catch it - it's dirty. This is a DIY task.

Sludge

A chemical flush (also DIY-able but not as easy; you can also get someone in to do it) is probably a good idea if it hasn't had one in a long time. Basically you introduce a system cleaning agent (what and how will vary between systems), let it circulate for a while (hours to days normally) then drain, rinse, and refill, normally adding a corrosion inhibitor. This is good if the bottom of each heater is cooler than higher up, because there's sludge in there. I do mine every couple of years and it's a few hours' work spread over 2 days. My system also has a magnetic filter near the circulation pump that should be cleaned annually, following its instruction manual. If you live in a hard water area, limescale can build up in the heat exchanger. Descalers are available as are combined cleaner/descalers. Note that really bad scale isn't easy to remove, and can mask a cracked heat exchanger by filling the crack, so if it's a neglected system in a hard water area it might be worth getting a pro to look at it.

Having the whole system serviced

If the idea of chemical flushing is daunting, paying someone to flush (chemical, power, or both) the system is a good idea. You should make sure they're qualified and get the boiler serviced at the same time. This will spot any issues around the burners, and in many places can only be done by suitably qualified people. Valves can be checked at the same time. Unfortunately these people are busy at this time of year.

These all make your system more efficient, as well as more effective, so you can have a warmer home, save on your bills, or possibly even both.

Heat the human

Something a little different. Infra-red (indoor) heaters, or a small (just a few hundred W) convection space heater under your desk while you work can be used to heat only where heat is needed - on you. This obviously works better for one or two people in one or two places, than for a whole family moving from room to room. Taking this to extremes, electric blankets really just heat the user.

Also

To reinforce a point others have made: insulate. This can be as simple as closing curtains after dark (I don't even always open all of mine, as I'm sometimes out for all the daylight hours). It can also mean adding insulation material, hanging (ideally lined) curtains, and sealing up draughts.

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    +1 for heat the human. Nov 23, 2022 at 12:03
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Before anything else: STOP USING YOUR CURRENT SOLUTION.

If your breaker is tripping, that means a circuit is overloaded. End of story. Overloaded circuits are the number one cause of electrical fires in homes, and in many cases a fire caused by such a circuit can smoulder for quite a while before you notice anything is amiss.

The fact that you are overloading your circuits enough to have things trip this frequently is seriously dangerous, so stop using whatever you’re using that’s causing this.

Harper’s answer on this question already covers how to deal with this very well, so I will not repeat it here, but this should be the absolute first thing you deal with.


Second on the list, do not use fuel-burning heaters indoors.

They are potentially very dangerous, even if you know what you’re doing, and they are actually pretty expensive to run. Most are designed for buildings that have both no electricity and decent ventilation but for some reason lack a fireplace. Your house almost certainly does not fit that description.


Now we get to the more concrete advice...

The first practical remediation is to ensure that your house is properly insulated and has no large holes for air to leak out (especially check around doors, windows, and anywhere where wires or pipes enter or exit the building). This should include insulation in the walls and the attic, as well as ceiling insulation if you have multiple floors, and in an ideal situation insulation in the internal walls as well. Double-check your windows here too, newer ones actually do provide better insulation than older ones. This on it’s own is the single most cost-effective solution, and it will also reduce the energy needed to keep the house cool in the summer.

Then, look at insulating and heating yourself better. Wear layers, drink hot beverages, etc. This is dirt cheap compared to everything else, and helps a lot more than most people seem to think.

From there, the next thing to look at is servicing the existing heating system. Clean out any dust in the baseboard heaters (it’s free and removes a potential fire hazard), and then look at getting someone in to properly service things (usually this means cleaning out the pipes and furnace).

Assuming that’s still not enough, look into getting some mini-split AC units to replace any electric heaters you may be using. These can pretty much always be run in reverse as heaters, and they are much more energy efficient (in excess of 100% energy efficiency in many cases) than the resistive heating elements in typical electric heaters. The up-front cost will not be cheap, but the energy efficiency means that they will not be as hard on your wiring or your wallet in the long-run.

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    Insulating between occupied floors and internal walls has essentially no effect on heat use - it's purely acoustic in function - For heating, insulation matters at the boundary of the occupied space, only. The only way it would matter for heat use would be if part of the house was closed off and unheated, or heated to a much lower temperature (just enough to prevent freezing.)
    – Ecnerwal
    Nov 23, 2022 at 0:49
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    @Ecnerwal That assumes that the heating system is sized correctly for the house as a whole. If that is not the case (and it sounds like it may not be here) and additional heating is needed for individual rooms, then you effectively end up with a per-room zoned setup, and that does benefit from interior insulation. Nov 23, 2022 at 2:50
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    Far more likely that the heating system is in desperate need of long-overdue maintenance than that it was installed from new as inadequate.
    – Ecnerwal
    Nov 23, 2022 at 3:20
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Unless something has been really wrong for a long time, presumably your heating system used to work sufficiently. That leaves two main possibilities:

  • The house is letting heat out/cold in. That is quite possible and has been detailed in another answer quite well. That is likely part of the problem, but unless you have huge holes in the walls, most reasonable heating systems should be able to keep up on a 30F day. Maybe not on a 0F day, depending on design, but to heat from 30F to 70F and then maintain at 70F should be reasonable for any appropriately sized and functioning system.
  • The heating system isn't working properly. You say you have:

baseboard heating powered by natural gas through most of the house

That sounds a little unusual. I am mostly familiar with natural gas used with forced air systems. Baseboards can be electric (electric resistance heat, as described in another answer, is cheap to install and expensive to run), but that isn't what you have. Which makes me think you have a natural gas powered boiler that is pumping hot water through baseboard heaters. If that's what you have, you need to find out if it is working correctly or not, and if it is not working correctly then fix it unless the cost will be very high (thousands of $) in which case you would be better off putting that money towards a modern heat pump.

What can go wrong? Many things:

  • Thermostat (that's easy and cheap, usually, to replace)
  • Boiler may not be heating to the proper temperature
  • System may have water leaks.
  • Pipes/valves/etc. may be clogged - this could prevent hot water from getting to some or all of the baseboard units and/or slow the movement of hot water (and if it sits, it gets cold).
  • Valves may be broken or simply turned the wrong way, preventing proper hot water flow.

and probably a dozen other things I haven't thought of because I am not very familiar with these systems.

In additional to all these problems, with any combustion appliance a carbon monoxide is a must for safety. Incomplete combustion can cause carbon monoxide which can kill everyone in the house, and if the heating system isn't working well in the first place then you might not notice if it is heating a little less.

There may be some troubleshooting to suggest if you supply model numbers, pictures, etc. But a professional consultation with an HVAC company that works on these systems (and not all of them do) may be well worth the money.

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    Natural gas boilers are not unusual, where there's natural gas available.
    – Ecnerwal
    Nov 21, 2022 at 23:28
  • @Ecnerwal I think it is a regional thing. Nov 21, 2022 at 23:29
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    One major source of blockages in hydronic (hot water) heating systems is trapped air Nov 22, 2022 at 3:56
  • @ThreePhaseEel I was going to encourage you to turn that into an answer, but then I added a bit more about optimising the system performance and wrote it myself.
    – Chris H
    Nov 22, 2022 at 10:57
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There are already plenty of good answers that tell you everything you're doing wrong and good approaches to fixing it. But to directly answer the specific question of how you get further heating when you're already at electrical capacity: a heat pump.

Electrical resistance heating is 100% efficient (by definition). A heat pump is easily 300-400% efficient and possibly up to 600% efficient because it's not producing all the heat it delivers - it's just moving it from one place (outdoor air, ground, or some other source) to another (indoors). This means you can get 3x or more the heating capacity on the same amperage electrical service (and likewise, for the same price).

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If you've maxed out your outlets then the only solution is to add some outlets. Don't adjust your whole house's HVAC system because you can't do what you should, which is bring the space heater with you into whatever room you're in, and no matter what room that is the outlets should have the capacity to run a space heater.

Any house I show up to, to flip, especially one that hasn't been touched in 50y, the first thing I do is install a surface mount quad outlet that's split on two or more 20 amp circuit breakers, directly adjacent to the load center.

It's a less than one hour job, with less than $100 in stuff. That's step one for (everything ever....) a house with insufficient power, so that I can (dogging on a right angle drill, boring holes into studs) do step two, which is adding outlets as per current code. Which iirc is one, on any wall 2' or longer, every 12', and 6' from both sides of a door.

All the other answers get into asking questions about all the things relevant to heating your home. Which are probably all parts of the equation you're not looking to spend money on. If you're just looking to be able to plug and play, then you need, well... plugs.

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