A Cool Pioneer Tip for Naturally Insulating Your Home

by heather

According to Consumer Reports, heating costs are expected to go up this winter. Again.

Big surprise, right?

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that the average American household with spend $$986 this winter to heat their home. And, that’s the average. If you’re heating with fuel oil, you can expect to pay 11% more than you did last year (coming in at a winter cost of over $1,900) and if you heat with propane, you’re going to pay 7.5% more (at $1,830).

Electric users (like myself) actually going to get a bit of a breather. Our costs are down 1.9%.

These figures, however, are only an estimate. I don’t know who Consumer Reports sourced for their winter forecast, but they’re claiming that heating-degree days will be 3% warmer than last year. Because of that, these figures aren’t worse.

If you check the Farmer’s Almanac, however, you’ll see that they’re predicting a bitterly cold winter for much of the country. NOAA, on the other hand, disputes this.

So like always, it could go either way. Personally I’m rooting for the Consumer Reports forecast!

Whether we have a balmy winter or a mild one, it’s still going to be cold. And there are things we can be doing right now to make sure we spend less on our heating bill.

Saving Money on Heating Costs: Pioneer Way

Stop and think about this for a minute.

Do you ever wonder how people heated their homes before central heating was invented?

Sure, people had radiators and wood stoves. But they didn’t have insulation to keep all that heat from escaping. Or did they?

A few months ago I finished read “Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression“. And I have to say, this was one of the most enjoyable books I can remember reading in a long time. It was fascinating to read a memoir that detailed how people really lived so long ago. I’m talking, what they ate, what they grew, what they read, what they did for fun…it was amazing!

One of the details that struck me was how people insulated their homes back then. On the farm, right before winter set in, people would drive 6 foot posts into the ground, three feet away from the sides of the house. They would then pile straw between the house and the posts. Then, come the first big snow, they would pack snow over the straw, making almost a wall of ice.

And that’s how it stayed until the first Spring melt.

The author said this “makeshift insulation” did a wonderful job keeping the cold out and the heat in. So I started to wonder, could we do this now?

Well, we could if we lived in a smaller home. And if we didn’t have straw, we could use leaves. I even found a tutorial on DoItYourself.com on how to insulate your house with leaves. The cool thing about using leaves (once they’re bagged) is that you don’t have to pile them on the outside of your house. You can insulate your attic and basement with leaves!

I love this idea because if you can’t afford to go out and get insulation, or if you’re renting and don’t want to pay for improvements you might not benefit from long-term, using bagged leaves as insulation is the perfect solution. Now, I can’t attest to how effective this is. BUT, leaves are like down; they have plenty of open air space between them, which slows the transition of hot and cold air.

To me, this basic principal means that leaves would work just fine to insulate your home, especially in the attic.

Last Word…

What do you guys think about this? Would you use leaves to insulate your home if you had to (or if you wanted to)? Do you think it would work? And if you’re on a farm, would you ever consider using the straw-packing tip to insulate the outside of your home?

(Photo credit: Jan Tik)


me in millions October 15, 2010 at 9:23 am

I imagine that leaves in the attic is a GIGANTIC fire hazzard. Be careful!

meg October 15, 2010 at 10:45 am

Loved this post. Wondering about rodent issues with straw, since they seem to be attracted to my garden piles. I also considered the fire hazard of leaves (and straw), as the other commenter noted. The ice wall sounded pretty interesting, and if it’s used as you described to surround the natural material (hay or straw), then that would obviously negate any fire hazard.

I plan to read that intriguing-sounding book you mentioned. Thanks for the review!

Jennifer October 15, 2010 at 11:08 am

I too was worried about the fire hazard angle. Also, if you were to use them around the outside of your house, if they got wet it could create the perfect environment for mold. (Then again, I live in the South, and *everything* is the perfect environment for mold…)

I’ve just requested Little Heathens from the library–sounds like a fun read!

Sarah October 15, 2010 at 11:32 am

One thought – bugs!

Ronnie October 15, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Heather, I really enjoyed this post. Lots of food for thought. Whatever gets us closer to eliminating our dependency on foreign oil sounds like it’s worth exploring.

Mice, fire hazards, bugs…Yikes! But…we have some of those issue when we heat with wood too.

Taking more cues from the past to help us figure out the future may be the way to go. Thanks for bringing up ideas like this.

Jen R October 15, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I would definitely do this if I lived in a more rural area or if some apocalyptic event happened where my central heat no longer worked. As for mice: Get a pet. Fire: Get a rain barrel (plus all that mulch would probably stay pretty damp, I doubt it would be much of a fire hazard). Bugs: See mice.
I keep it pretty chilly in my house anyway. Thats what sweats and blankets are for!!! I don’t understand people that keep their house on 80 degrees and spend all summer running around inside with shorts on!

Adam October 15, 2010 at 3:57 pm

My mom told us that when she was young, her dad would actually just pile snow up high on the outside walls of the house. The snow itself acts as an insulator. It works, as long as the winter isn’t mild….if it’s mild, the snow would just keep melting and find it’s way to the foundation.

Jeremy October 16, 2010 at 6:36 am

There are reasons we don’t do things the way we used to. Leaves in the attic creates a myriad of potential hazards. It won’t meet code anywhere in the US, creates bug and vermin issues, they will decay over time creating mold, rot and other issues, etc.

In short, don’t do this because like so many things of yesteryear, we now know better and have better solutions.

Caitlin October 17, 2010 at 12:10 am

I love the idea of saving money on bills, but I too worried that putting leaves in the attic or basement might leave a mess as they start to decompose.

In Oklahoma we don’t get enough snow (thank God) to use it as an outdoor insulation. I do think it’s important to make sure your home is well-insulated and fix any “leaks” in doors or windows so you’re hot or cold air doesn’t escape the house. I’ve also read that it’s a good idea to prop boards against the house in front of crawl space vents in the winter, especially on the north side of the house. Just make sure you’re not completely blocking the vent, just shielding it from the harsher elements.

AJ in AZ October 17, 2010 at 10:54 am

Thats why straw bale construction is so energy -efficient. It insulates agains cold and heat both.

Brenda Pike October 21, 2010 at 8:30 pm

I don’t think we get enough snow now to use as insulation. I grew up in Maine, and my mom used to tell me about winters where snow stayed piled over the windows, but that doesn’t happen anymore.

Gayle P. October 23, 2010 at 1:22 am

Having just read the post about using bagged leaves as a source of heat, I would really be concerned that they would heat up too much in the walls and attic and be a fire hazard just because of the heat created from their decomposing.
That said, I have gathered bagged leaves and have placed the bags near the back of our house to create somewhat of a wind break/insulation, as the wind comes sweeping over an open field and our kitchen (at the back of the house) is uninsulated. Brrrr!
I think I am going to do the same again…and may incorporate the idea of stacked straw bales

Green guide tips November 4, 2010 at 8:15 pm

I’m not liking the idea of leaves, too many bugs and lots of people have allergies.
I would rather recycled newspaper or shredded newspaper sprayed in between the walls.

nick pitts December 13, 2010 at 12:55 pm

oh yeaahhhhhhhhhhh heat yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!i loved all the helpful tips and i went home and tryed it it caught my house fire

Johnny December 5, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Haven’t tried this yet, but love the idea of using leaves. May mixing it up with a ratio of lime would solve a lot of those troubles.

jc August 13, 2013 at 11:07 pm

check this out..
I believe this can be used for dry leaves,, exc..
not just hey..

I mean ya, they got it to flame a LIL BIT but comeon! they were spewing pure 95% likker on them!!!

the second bail is clay dipped..

jc August 13, 2013 at 11:09 pm
Kenna Monahan June 28, 2018 at 7:56 pm

I just wanted to pass on some information. I have a friend that works for the county I live in and there are free services available for having your house tested for insulation leaks. They test where the warm or cold air is leaking from your home and then they can get you set up for free weatherization. It might be an option for anyone that can’t afford to insulate your home. Just call your county office for information.

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