Being a renter in Portland doesn't have to mean being cold

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PORTLAND — The days are growing shorter, the thermometer is dipping lower, and area residents are preparing for a winter that the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts will be unusually cold and snowy.

In Portland, residents may find it especially tough to stay warm.

“I love our apartment, because we’re in a beautiful old building, but it’s drafty and chilly and pretty uncomfortable in the winter. It seems like I always have to wear a thick sweater,” said Susan McGovern, who lives on Munjoy Hill. “I guess that’s the price we have to pay to be here.”

McGovern’s predicament isn’t unique. Old buildings are usually difficult or expensive to heat, and the city is home to some of Maine’s oldest housing stock. In fact, 50 percent of the residences in Portland were built before 1939, according to a city report, double the percentage in Cumberland County.

The problem is compounded by the fact more than half of the housing units in Portland are occupied by tenants, a higher proportion than in any other Maine city or town. (On the peninsula, the ratio is nearly 4-1.)

Landlords – especially those of older, smaller buildings – often require tenants to pay their own heating costs, and so have little incentive to make the buildings energy efficient. But tenants rarely are willing to invest in building improvements that may not “pay back” heat savings for several years.

“There’s a natural disconnect. … That’s a really hard problem to crack in Portland, where you’re dealing with so many multi-unit buildings,” said Josh Wojcik, a Munjoy Hill resident and founder of Upright Frameworks, a weatherization and construction company based in Wilton and Portland.

Aid such as the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is available to help some people struggling with heating costs. But LIHEAP checks have been delayed by the recent government shutdown. And such programs still leave many city residents in the cold.

However, everyone can take simple steps to stay warm and lower their heating bills, according to Wojcik.

“No matter what the budget, there are cost-effective solutions,” he said. “There are little things, do-it-yourself things, that will have some impact.”

Wojcik recommends that apartment dwellers start by insulating their windows with shrink-wrap plastic. The clear plastic, which is sold in do-it-yourself kits at a cost of about $4 per window, creates a barrier of “dead” air that helps keep outdoor cold where it belongs – outdoors.

Most kits instruct consumers to blow-dry the plastic until it shrinks enough to create a taut seal. But Wojcik urges people to leave the plastic “a little baggy.” A drum-tight covering of plastic will eventually contract further over the winter and pull at its taped seal until it cracks open.

“Then, it’s pointless,” he said.

Wojcik also recommends insulating doors with weather-stripping, which usually includes foam strips for the top and sides of the door and a flexible “sweep” that seals the space between its bottom edge and the threshold.

But while weather-stripping is also sold in DIY kits, installing it is a bit more complicated than shrink-wrapping. Wojcik suggests that apartment-dwellers ask their landlords for help. In fact, he feels tenants should discuss many cold-weather fixes with their building owners.

The best solution for a drafty, cold apartment may involve structural changes, such as sealing off attic hatches or the gaps between framing and chimneys. Insulation may need to be added or replaced. These improvements help reduce the “stack effect” – the rise of warm air to the top of a building, which creates a vacuum below, pulling in cold outside air.

Such a “top and bottom” project typically costs around $8,000, depending on the work involved. While landlords may be reluctant to take on that cost, Wojcik believes they can be persuaded if tenants band together and pick up some of the expense in their rent.

“If you, as a group, have a candid discussion with your landlord, and are willing to chip in, it won’t take much to cover the cost of a loan payment that probably buys the retrofit, which will change the way the entire building feels,” he said.

Meanwhile, Wojcik believes apartment residents should focus on keeping themselves warm, not the apartment. For example, unused rooms should be kept closed and their heaters turned down. Residents can use appliances such as space heaters and electric blankets to deliver heat only where they need it.

“Electric heat got a really bad rap a few decades ago, but some of the newer space heaters are decent and make sense, efficiency-wise,” he said. “But none of them is a magic bullet. … The biggest thing you can do is think about the way you use heat on a room-by-room basis.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.