Crafty fixes can help renters retain heat

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With nighttime temperatures now dipping below freezing, student renters will be turning up the heat. Though a Minneapolis ordinance requires landlords to heat dwellings to 68 degrees , no law requires them — or tenants — to be efficient about it.

However, rising heating costs and environmental concerns have prompted some students to make low and no-cost changes that can cut energy consumption and increase comfort this winter.

Information for renters: ways to save money and energy in rental units and how to talk to landlords about these issues

Wednesday, November 5, 6:30- 8 p.m.

Longfellow Park, 3435 36th Avenue South, Minneapolis


University of Minnesota, Morris student Jenna Sandoe is interning at the Southeast Como Improvement Association and taking classes on the Twin Cities campus this semester as part of the Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs environmental sustainability program.

After she learned about winterizing in a class, she worked with SECIA to help students learn how they can conserve energy this winter.

Students can stop by the SECIA office to get a list of tips and coupon for 10 percent off the cost of weatherizing materials at Oaks Hardware .

Electrical engineering senior Steve Peichel and his roommates rent an older duplex in the Prospect Park neighborhood where they pay the heating bill. They plan to seal their house against the cold air and keep themselves insulated with warm clothes and hats in order to keep their programmable thermostat dialed down.

Peichel said a poorly insulated or sealed attic is a top source of heat loss since warm air rises to the top of the house.

Warm air also sneaks out through the tiny cracks and holes in a house, which together can equal a two square foot hole.

Sealing those openings is like closing the windows, Neely Crane-Smith , community energy coordinator at the Center for Energy and the Environment , said.

Renters can accomplish this by covering windows with plastic, weather stripping to fill in gaps between doors, windows and their frames, using caulk to fill in cracks and putting gaskets behind switch plates.

Air leaks are common near windows, doors and other places found to be especially cold. Students can also hunt for leaks with a burning stick of incense by observing the direction of the wafting smoke.

However, there are some things tenants can’t change.

Peichel said the furnace in their house isn’t as efficient as it could be, and he thinks the insulation is poor.

Since students aren’t usually looking for housing at a time when heating bills are foremost on their minds, University Student Legal Service Attorney Bill Dane said they might not ask about heating efficiency.

Landlords don’t have as much incentive as homeowners to make these updates, Longfellow Community Council Community Organizer Joanna Solotaroff said, if they’re not paying the heating cost.

Though a Longfellow Community Council program recently offered $500 matching grants for landlords in the neighborhood to upgrade their properties, she said more incentives and education are needed to get landlords to invest in energy efficiency.

But it’s a two-way responsibility street — even if landlords update buildings, they can’t necessarily make tenants insulate their windows or take basic energy saving steps, Solotaroff added.

Julia Nerbonne , a University faculty member and HECUA environmental sustainability program director, is also a Longfellow neighborhood landlord.

She helps her tenants winterize by purchasing materials, but they pay for heat. She’s had tenants who’ve engaged in wasteful behavior despite her efforts, and she said it’s important that they get feedback about the impact of their behavior by paying the bill.

She’s also made a longer term investment by replacing an old furnace with a more efficient one, and she expects it to pay off as more tenants figure energy efficiency into their housing decisions.

Legally speaking, tenants have little leverage for getting landlords to make these changes — unless heating costs have been misrepresented.

Dane said if heating bills are “way out of line” from what landlords estimated they would be, tenants have a basis for getting the landlord to make improvements or compensate them for the difference between estimated and actual costs.

But Solotaroff wants students to remember efficiency isn’t all about the money.

“There is a lot at stake right now in terms of where we are with the environment,” she said.