Generating 'heat' by turning down the thermostat

''Turn down the thermostat and save money,'' energy experts urge in unison. But if your house is in any way like mine, be ready for piercing shrieks in the early morning when cold feet hit the floor.

In contrast to most of the energy-conservation articles I have seen, all of them assuming that any changes in the quality of life will occur as if the couple were communicating in the lilting style of a Cary Grant-Loretta Young movie, the dialogue over saving energy in my house is like the script of a disaster flick.

The Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 and the second energy crunch a few years later awakened many Americans to the need to cut back on energy use - in the home, office, factory, and on the road. Save, save, save, we were told.

Frenetic sales pitches, guilt-inducing ads, and the mushrooming of energy-conservation stores not only stirred the nation as a whole, but prodded this conscientious energy consumer into action, too.

Insulation? That was no gut issue, but merely a question of how much we could afford each year.

Once decided upon, the insulation was simply installed. That's all there was to it. Caulking and taping were seemingly endless jobs, but no controversy erupted here. The virtues of many energy-saving devices were often greeted with indifference in some quarters of our home, but that could be dealt with, such as when an energy-saving water head, designed to restrict the water flow, was installed so tightly it would never come off.

The ''battle of the thermostat'' was something else again, however. It, plus the use of a wood stove, set off a discussion of no mean proportion.

Over the last three years our fuel-oil consumption fell from 2,000 gallons to 350 gallons a winter. Monthly kilowatt usage stayed about constant, but, with an increase in the cost of electricity, the monthly bills rose from $50 to $60. Adjusting for the increased cost of fuel oil, and adding the yearly cost of electricity, the energy bill in our house dropped from $2,100 to $1,150 - a 45 percent decrease over three years.

Not bad, right? But what were the human costs?

Foolishly, in retrospect, I thought that graphs plotting the rates of oil and electricity consumption, and charts comparing monthly fuel usage with degree-days, were as American as apple pie. Fun games could develop from these data.

Imagine the many ways of bragging about the results of our energy-conservation attempts at gatherings of friends and neighbors and around the water cooler in the office. I envisioned my spouse and me projecting a united front on the matter.

What a great feeling I had when turning down the thermostat - that surge of patriotic pride as the temperature dipped from the fuelish 70s to the sane 60s. We developed excuses to drop in on the neighbors - unexpectedly, that is - so that the thermostat could be cranked down even more.

Yet there was an occasional excess. Somehow, I developed a compulsion to reduce energy costs down to zero, if possible, which led to securing more and more of the house in winter. First this room and then another room were closed off as we moved steadily southward in our house.

These minor inconveniences seemed a small price to pay for the cause of energy conservation.

At least that is the way I saw it, until my wife responded to this unselfish dedication of mine. And her response was quite different from what I had anticipated.

When the thermostat was set on 60 degrees, the thermometer directly above it would register 65, meaning that the room temperature was 5 degrees warmer than the thermostat setting.

To my wife, however, a 60-degree thermostat reading meant the house temperature was also 60 degrees - and she refused to think otherwise no matter what I said.

To antagonize me further, and for no other reason, she dressed as if she didn't have a cent to her name, as if such a crass act would undermine, in any way, my courageous efforts at saving energy.

She even went to the length of bringing her relatives into the game. Anytime they came over in the winter (which is less and less, I admit), a chilled look gripped their faces the moment they stepped inside the door. One even mumbled something about ''icebox'' the last time we saw her.

The decision last winter to install a wood-burning stove met with the same response. To me, a wood stove, especially one with a powerful blower and sylvan scenes of deer and moose raised on the door, was the perfect final touch to my increasingly successful fight to reduce energy expenditures.

An educational campaign was launched, extolling the virtues of wood heat - even-flowing, radiant, and less dry - and applauding the economic savings as well as old-fashioned aesthetic qualities.

All of this fell on cold ears.

I was accused of waging a propaganda blitz. Visions of warm winter evenings by the stove were clouded by images of Siberian wastelands. Imagine staring at your wife who is hiding behind a classic Russian novel every night.

Except for a minor skirmish or two, the ''battle over the thermostat'' and wood stove has ended, at least temporarily.

The wood stove is an accepted fixture in the kitchen, although not unsurprisingly only one of us knows how to work it. With the coming winter, both of us look forward to even greater cooperation and accommodation as well as more sophisticated levels of debate.

By the way, a friend of mine has modified his thermostat so that when it reads 70 degrees on the thermometer, the temperature in the house is actually 58 .

Simply brrrrilliant!

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