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When Is It Okay to Turn on the Heat in New England?

I’ve never known a New Englander who hasn’t had a fixed date in their mind of when it’s okay to turn on the heat. And that date, more often than not, is completely ludicrous.

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It happens every year. As the fall nights get increasingly crisp, one by one the chimneys on the street start puffing away just at sunset and the neighborhood fills with the earthy smell of wood smoke. And while that winter aroma may be one of the most comforting you’ll ever know, depending on the date it can also reek of shame. Perhaps it’s our inherent frugality or maybe just our damn-fool pride, but I’ve never known a New Englander who hasn’t had a fixed date in their mind of when it’s okay to turn on the heat. And that date, more often than not, is completely ludicrous.

I had a neighbor once who each year would audaciously strive to hold out until Christmas. He’d huddle in his home in hoodie and knit cap, enduring the cold like it was some kind of Lenten penance, until finally he just couldn’t take it anymore. With heavy heart, he’d slouch out into his yard and begin the sad, slow chore of dismantling his pristine woodpile.

While my neighbor may have been more ambitious than most, I believe that no matter the date when we light our first log or click the switch on the thermostat from “off” to “heat,” we do so with a bit of defeat in our hearts.

In honor of this yearly battle, I dug this photo out of the archives at the Jones Library in Amherst, MA. Judging from the light coat the boy is wearing and the lack of snow, we can assume this photo was shot sometime early in the season and can take comfort in knowing that our ancestors don’t roll over in their graves when we turn the heat on before Thanksgiving.

Shot around 1894 in Chesterfield, MA, the photo is the work of Clifton Johnson, a documentary photographer and illustrator born and raised in Hadley, MA. According to the Jones Library, which holds his collection, Johnson was especially interested in capturing scenes of country life. He wrote and illustrated hundreds of articles and books during his career, including a series of American and European travelogues. The photo above was included in his book, The Farmer’s Boy.

So fess up, readers. Have you broken down and lit the stove or are you still holding out? Do you have a magic date? If so, how often do you actually reach it? And most importantly, when you do finally start using the wood stove, do you make your kids haul in the logs?

This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.

Comments
  • I like to see how long I can hold off every fall before turning on the heat. But the older you get the colder you feel and those achy joints don’t like it! Never gets below 66 in our house

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  • I turnd the heat on when I feel cold no set date if I am cold September I turnum on Life is to short Live life to the fullest .

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  • Usually on Christmas Eve I would gather up the family for the lighting of the stove.It doesn’t get that cold in Massachusetts.

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  • I am visiting New England from Texas. This article reminds me of Texans who swear not to turn on their air conditioner until a set date. I believe this is ludicrous. I turn on the air conditioner when I am hot and the heater when I am cold. Shocking, huh? No set date. Life is short, and I believe in comfort.

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  • Margaret

    We live in Connecticut and always go to the Cape for Columbus day weekend. When we return is when the heat is turned on. It is set at 68 day and night. It usually just comes on a few times in early morning. The house warms up enough most days that it doesn’t come on. We hate being cold!!

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  • I try to wait until Nov 1, but for some reason my furnace automatically kicks on when the house gets below 59, so most years it’s before that. We wear lots of warm clothes and fleece sheets on the bed. We live in an instant gratification society- we need to be tougher.

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  • An explanation of New England weather
    60 above zero: Floridians turn on the heat. People in New England plant gardens.

    50 above zero: Californians shiver uncontrollably. People in New England sunbathe.

    40 above zero: Italian and English cars won’t start. People in New England drive with their windows down.

    32 above zero: Distilled water freezes. Moosehead Lake’s water gets thicker.

    20 above zero: NYers don coats, thermal underwear, gloves, wool hats. People in New England throw on a flannel shirt.

    15 above zero: New York landlords finally turn up the heat. People in New England have the last cookout before it gets cold.

    Zero: People in Miami all die. New Englanders close the window.

    10 below zero: Californians fly away to Mexico. People in New England get out their winter coats.

    25 below zero: Hollywood disintegrates. The Girl Scouts in New England are selling cookies door to door.

    40 below zero: Washington DC runs out of hot air. People in New England let the dogs sleep indoors.

    100 below zero: Santa Claus abandons the North Pole. New Englanders get frustrated because they can’t start the “kah.”

    460 below zero: All atomic motion stops (absolute zero on the Kelvin scale). People in New England say, “Cold ‘nuf for ya?”
    500 below zero: Hell freezes over. Red Sox win World Series.

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    • Beth, I loved your informative explanation of how Americans in different states handle the winter cold. I grew up in Canada, have lived in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida (30 years for my sins) and am now back in New York again and so am not sure just where I fall in the list. I do know the dogs would come in much before 40 below! 😉

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  • I don’t care what the date is, when it’s cooler than 69 in the house, on goes the heat – set at 72 and that’s where it stays until Spring. Good God there is no reason to be cold!!

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  • richardd9

    When the cooler weather settles in i start baking more bread which helps take the chill out of the house. Usually by mid/late October, the furnace is fired up for the season though.

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  • Rough date Nov. 1 BUT…. more importantly to me is when the inside temps of our house drop below 68 by morning without any heat source other than sun coming in our many south facing windows. Currently the afternoon temp will raise the inside house temp to 73-76 degrees and we lose a couple degrees overnight. I also run the house fan on the heat system to circulate that warm air throughout the house…especially the basement rec rooms. That passive solar does make a big difference though it’s less and less at this time of year. We will once again notice a big difference in gathering free heat by late Jan or early Feb the latest. Inside temps will rise by 3 – 6 degrees without additional heat source.

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  • 55 is fine most of the time, dress accordingly, but do turn up heat when guest arrive, many do not dress as we do and want them to be comfortable. Camden ME does not get as cold as inland and the county, so heat does not work as hard as there. Cool keeps one feeling “alive” and more active ! Before a storm we may jack up heat just in case juice goes out and have more residual heat in home.

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  • I’m a snowbird now (6 year old grandson lives in Austin TX). It was in the 60s during the day when I left Massachusetts in the begging of October. Now that I am in Austin TX it is in the high 80s and low 90s. If you’re cold you can put on more clothes but if it is in the 90s you need the AC.

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  • Chtistine

    So happy to know I am not alone in this desire to hold out as long as possible. I am on the East End of Long Island, NY and I strive to wait until Thanksgiving, disappointed if I cave in early. Sweaters and blankets will do their job.

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    • Christine

      Hello Christine from Christine in Cleveland, OH, by the shores of the Great Lakes! My brothers laugh at me for my “arbitrary” date to turn the heat on, so I, too, am glad that I am not the only one. I found this article totally delightful. I try to hold out until November 1, like you do. However, now that my 99 year old mother moved in with me (coincidentally she was born in Maine and lived there until about age 2 … a true, tough New Englander), I turned it up a few nights ago when the overnight temps were in the 40’s. But the past few days have gotten pretty warm during the day, so I turn it down in the a.m. when I leave for work. I guess people everywhere want to tough it out as long as they can. Just put on a few sweaters and extra blankets on the bed! (That’s something my mother would say but now I don’t want to take a risk with her health at age 99.) Enjoy the Fall, wherever you are from!!!!

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    • I agree–I wait as long as possible! We put on sweaters, use extra blankets at night, bake something for breakfast each day, etc. It is currently 61 deg outside, 60 in (at 4 PM). If it starts going below freezing at night, we’ll cave! Don’t want any frozen pipes. But it always is a sad day to lose that fresh air smell, and start smelling the artificial “heat” odor. We live in northern NJ, by the way.

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  • This year it went on in early October as the temperature went down and it was damp feeling due to oncoming rain from a hurricaine that was on the coast. Being older you feel the cold and dampness in your body . It goes off if the day gets warmer..just to take the chill out..

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  • I understand about burning wood or fuel oil or propane, and also about a budget. I have a gas forced air, high efficiency furnace. Programmable thermostat. Set to come on 15 minutes before getting out of bed, off 15 minutes before leaving for work. On 30 minutes before home arrival, and down again at bedtime. Electric mattress pad on bed for the comfort of my bones. I don’t like being cold and will “take the chill off” in the morning if it’s been in the 50’s and/or damp/rainy in the warmer seasons. My thermostat has no calendar restrictions. The utility bill is $102/mo year ’round. I hope I never have to wear a hat and see ice on the water glass INSIDE my home….Northern Michigan

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  • My target date is Thanksgiving or December 1 and I usually manage to keep that schedule. Sometimes I even make it to my birthday December 13! I also hate paying money to the gas company.

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  • We have a saying in our home in CT — “No Heat till Trick-or-Treat!” Many times we can even go longer.

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  • Never until Veterans Day. If there is a chilly night before that, we just light the fireplace. Except when its really cold and wind is coming off the bay (we live on the water) even through the winter we keep the thermostat at 62, and light a fire during the day. We use an electric heater in the bathrooms if someone is taking a shower. It’s a much healthier environment and we acclimate better to the cold winter months.

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    • And then there is that…Off go the covers, then you’re freezing, and then on go the covers and you’re too hot…Caribbean moments I call them

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  • I turn on the heat when I or other members of my family feel cold! I set no fixed date.. Comfort first….

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  • Live in Long Island New York. Not until November 1st. Could go longer. Wife and old dog wont wait and have the date circled. Heat is set at 55 degrees. Once hit we go into a 54 degrees night, 63 degrees day cycle until spring.

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  • November 1st. If it gets below 55 inside I’ll break down & run the oven clean cycle on my stove.

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  • You know folks they sell programmable thermostats these days (for some years now) that will allow your heat to come on and work anyway you want it to, for use 5 minutes or 5 hours.

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  • Dyed -in-the-wool yankee, 30 uearsbin seattle and I try to hold out until my birthday, November 4th.

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  • It’s a process. September into October, Removal of air conditioners. The house is warmer. October into November, bring storm windows down, shades up, capture sunlight. Usually October/ November is light the gas stove for a chill chaser. Heating sometime end of October into November.

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  • Roberta

    Mid-October. When it’s cool, we put sweaters on. When it’s cool and rain has set in, we turn the furnace on since the dampness chills the bones.

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  • Keep in mind, when that picture was taken, it is very likely that they kept a wood fire going in the kitchen stove to cook food.

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    • Stephanie

      Indeed! At Strawbery Banke Museum we burn wood in Wheelwright House for the hearth-cooking demonstrations, even in August. And in the cookstove and hearth room in Stoodley’s Tavern for school programs as well. That said, I personally wait until the outside and inside are under 57 degrees (nighttime winter setting) — all day — before I turn up the thermostat. Not there yet!

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  • Hilltowns of WMASS. We heat solely with wood. The stubbornness to light a fire comes from the fact that splitting, drying, and stacking our own wood is hard work and time consuming. We don’t want to squander the fruits of our labors. We don’t have a specific date in mind but it is pure blasphemy to build a fire before October 1st.

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  • I’m originally from Aroostook County but now live in Bangor, Maine. We try to hold out 3-4 week in October. So far so good!

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  • When the house drops below 60 degrees, it’s time to activate the heat.

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  • I hold out as long as possible. Shooting for mid-November this year. Rockville, CT

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  • Jones-Roberts

    When the cats (5 of them ) and dogs (3 of them) all try sleeping in bed with me, then I know it’s time to fire up the wood stove for the season. Claremont, N.H.

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  • I turned mine on late September because It was cold at night, But I turned it back down, If its cold in the house I turn it back up. Western Ma.

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  • Central Mass, pellet stove only. We’ve turned it on for about an hour a couple of times to chase the chill. No specific start date, we just run it when it’s below 66 degrees in the house.

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  • Awww yes, I remember those days quite well! The smell of the woodstoves, the vapor from the chimneys on those crisp cold mornings. Bundling up to walk to school, bus stops, oh that good ole comfy feeling. That’s when you know Autumn is here. The turning of the leaves, the rustling noises, running, jumping through the leaves, that’s when you know, Autumn is here. Walking in the house, Moms in her apron, the smell of Apples and Pumpkin spiced fill the air, ahhh, that’s when you know Autumn is here!!! I too, grew up in New England, Biddeford, Maine that is and may I add, a Norman Rockwell life I had! Of course, life wasn’t without its imperfections, that is what made life interesting and made us stronger. I’m now in my 50’s and look back on those days and thank God for the blessings and Hot Cocoa! I live in Florida now, the weather is warmer and summers are hell! Autumn is here and cannot tell. For the holidays are among us, no wood burning stoves. Even my Mom is gone, the smell of Autumn is here no more. If I want to see or smell Autumn, it’s sad and almost a sin to admit, I fear all I have to end this with is a trip to the supermarket. I miss New England at this time of year but what I miss most. my Mother in her old fashion rocking chair…I love New England and Yankee Magazine, you take me home always, thank you!!!

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  • Bangor, ME area. November 1 or 47 degrees inside. Whichever comes last (unless the pipes are in danger of freezing before Nov 1). Furnace does not go above 60 when we are home and is set at 52 when we are gone and sleeping. We did finally get a woodstove last year and that helped with the heating bill. Hoping we can get by on one tank of oil or less this year!

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  • I usually waited as long as I could into oct, if it was mild sometimes nov. I don’t worry as much now because of a decrease in my electric and solar panels are even better. My bill before solar $185 after solar $13! and yes, I have 2 teenage boys! Anyone can get free panels too through GetFreeSolarInfo.com and save your hard earned money!

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  • I used to wait for the first frost on the inside of the window, but my 97 yr old aunt is now living with me and there is heat year round for her, it is oil and she pays for it. House is always too hot!

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    • My grandfather lived with us when I was a kid. He paid for the coal and put it in the furnace. The house was way to hot. My father used to complain about it. Then when he got in his late 60s he started to heat the house way to hot. I worried that it would happen to me also but I’m now 71 and my son complains about how cold my house is. I’m a true Yankee what can I say.

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  • NativeMainer

    Central Maine, oil heat, no other options except baking in the electric oven,and I aim for November 1st. Even got there this year!

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  • I don’t count using the woodstove as turning on the heat, since all the wood I burn is freely collected from storm damage. It’s when I turn on the whole propane fired system that it counts, and I haven’t done that yet!

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  • We live in the Capital District of NY, but my dh is of Maine stock and I am from the North Country. We heat with the woodstove whenever the house is colder than the outside but try not to turn the heating system on until snow and ice are outside and hats are required inside. We sometimes use a space heater in one room and an electric blanket to warm the bed. Cats and dogs are also helpful in this regard.
    Heidi

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  • Set your thermostats at whatever temp you find most comfortable. Whether you set it at 60 or 70 will not save you energy. Your boiler or furnace will come on just as often to maintain 60 degrees as 68 degrees. The biggest waste is turn you thermostat down more than five degrees during the day or when sleeping. It uses much more fuel to have to heat the house up ten degrees than it does to maintain a temp.

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    • Jamie, I always thought that myself, but the energy companies say the exact opposite. That it’s more cost effective to heat the house up 10 degrees than it is to maintain a constant temperature. I never know which to believe!

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      • If you go by the old rule of inertia, it takes much more energy to start an engine from nothing than to keep it active once it is in motion. I had a furnace guy (who is married to my niece) to never turn the furnace down more than 5 degrees at night – or whenever you want the house cooler because it takes twice as much energy to get the temperature back up to where you want it.

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  • I grew up in Maine in a very cold house. I remember times when it was 45 degrees in the kitchen. My mother always said that she wanted to be cremated so that for once in her life, she would be warm! She got her wish in 1995.

    I now live in upstate New York and try to wait until October 15th to turn on the heat. With the price of oil, I try to wait as long as I can.

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  • How I hate having to turn on the heat before November 1st! This year, I had to give in and start up the furnace in late October, as the thermostat sunk to 55 degrees indoors. I guess I’m getting higher heating costs this winter! Sigh.

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  • I live in Virginia now, but back when I lived in Massachusetts, I would delay turning the heat on until I grew tired of hearing the kids complain that “the toilet seat is FREEZING when I sit on it!”

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  • Jennifer

    This New Hampshire momma aims for December 1st and usually makes it. I hate writing checks to the gas company much more than I hate being chilly (which is easily remedied with a sweater). The kids only real complaint is first thing in the morning when it is 58 in the house. We do cheat a little with space heaters now and then, just to take the chill off.

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  • I live in Rhode Island . I do not turn the heat on until November 1st.
    Never fail always need it on then. I keep my heat set at 59..the highest 62.
    I have oil heat.

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  • I live in Cromwell, CT and I will turn the heat on in the house when the house is colder than outside. Then it stays on in the low 60’s. I do not want to be cold and wear jackets and hats in the house – no way!!!

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  • In your pic I would assume they could be fetching wood for “cooking” which happened year around back then. Right?

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  • We held off until Novemer 1 this year. The first snow and a dip below 40° is what prompted us. Franklin, NH.

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  • The boy and girl in the above photo could have been carrying wood for the wood burning cook stove that had fire every day of the year, spring, summer, fall and winter. (Not to just keep warm, but to prepare meals).

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  • Very interesting subject. But I live in middle Georgia and it “ain’t” when you turn the heat on down here, it is when you turn on the air conditioning. Having said that, I turned mine on Sat Nov 1st when a fierce cold snap hit our area with 25-30 mph winds. We don’t have the best insulated homes in this part of the country for extreme cold. Our record low here was a -6F back a few decades ago. All the windows (single paned) were truly “Dr. Zhivago” windows – frosted completely from the inside – that cold snap. Our highest? 108F and air conditioners here ran constantly.

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  • I spent over 20 years in Connecticut but now I live in Southern Virginia. I rarely put the heat on until December. Agony washes over me as I move the button from OFF to HEAT. It must be the sound of money flying out of the window. I like the colder weather. Yes, we do get brilliant cold snaps down here. Sometimes you just have to flip that switch because it can be dangerous if it gets too cold.

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  • I live in Maine and do not own a wood stove. I wait until November usually and then it’s just to warm up the house for awhile :-)

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  • Kathleen

    My oldest was fairly certain his middle name was “Get-wood.” He survived. Heat went on when ice formed on the water-glass.

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  • Back when that picture was taken, people cooked on wood stoves so the heat was always “on”. Kids had to bring in wood for the stove even in July.

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  • Turn it on when the house is at or below 60. Had it on a couple of times so far just to take the chill off then shut it off. Usually turn it on for the winter when the outside temps are constantly below 40. Will be turning it on pretty soon I think, getting pretty chilly up here soon. : (

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  • Fun photo and fun topic (I’m a NH boy now transplanted to Pac. North West and each year I face the dilemma of when to fire up the wood heat.) But the analysis of the photo is faulty. Given that the woodshed in the photo is nearly empty I would hope that this picture was taken in spring, not fall. If not they had a long cold winter ahead of them.

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  • so, i am in the minority. i turn it on when i start to feel cold or others do. this could be in late sept or late october. i always find it kind of funny how new englanders “hold out” as if it were a game. If you really cannot afford to heat your home, then that is a different mattter all together; if you have some view point about saving the planet, all fine. however it does seem funny to have a driving force to “save” when you could be comfortable and not watch the calendar. I am a native new englander-boston and surrounding communites. just a thought!

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  • Pieceful1

    Well, let’s see…. I still have the AC going. The nights are FINALLY cooler! In the 6o’s. It is still running in the 80’s to low 90’s during the day. I would LOVE to be snuggled up to a crackling fire right now. I am SO over this heat! OH by the way, can you tell I live in Arizona? :) Have a hot toddy for me okay? :)

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  • One morning a couple weeks ago, I woke up with a cold nose and a shivering dog at my feet. That’s was my cue.

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  • Laconia, NH. We’ve used the pellet stove on/off for a couple of weeks now. It only runs a couple of times a day right now, but by the weekend, I’m sure it’ll. be on full time until the cold snap passes.

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  • I live in northern CT, and I put the heat on mid-October, no specific date. I just turn it on when I start getting cold, turning the thermostat to the mid-60s.

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  • Oct 30,2014.
    Here in Foxborough,Mass. We don’t turn on the heat until at least November 1st. And we will hold out even longer if the holds. We’ve gone as far as Thanksgiving, we had to fire up the furnace so the dinner guests wouldn’t be cold.

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  • Maine- I just turned my heat on the beginning of this week. Sweaters just didn’t do it anymore. I try to hold out until the 1st of Nov if I can. Now I will keep the heat set the heat at 50 until the snow hits but then it gets set at 60.

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  • When the inside temperature goes below 66 degrees. Usually late september, early October.

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  • Gardiner, ME – our heat is set to 58 and has come on by itself a couple of times. We used our woodstove for a few nights during that nor’easter last week, because it was so raw and damp. Right now we might burn one stove-load of logs, and that will suffice to keep the stove warm all night – in the winter we’ll load it up 2-3 times a night, and sometimes in the middle of the night if it’s really cold. No reason to suffer when you have a wood stove.

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  • Around the first of October I start the smaller wood stove in the evening here in Maine. Try not to start the bigger one until November 1st.

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  • Woodstock, Vermont. Never before November, and then the temp is set to 64 in the day, 60 at night.

    Sweaters are our friends.

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  • We live in on the north shore of Ma and have a pellet stove we’ve had on and off for about 2 weeks now. Furnace still hasn’t been turned on for heat yet. We turn the stove on when temp in the house is below 64 on the first floor. After work we fire it up and let the room get to 71 or so and shut it off for the night. Won’t be turning on the whole house heat until the temp in our bedroom is below 60 in the morning.

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  • Never before October 15th, and then only when it gets below 65 inside on a grey day. As long as the sun is out there’s no need. It may go on and off until mid-November. Then I set the programmable thermostats to keep it at 67 when we’re home and 62 at night. Which is not to say that my chilly teens don’t push it higher from time to time.

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  • I turn my heat on when the house cools below 65 degrees. This year I had the heat on for a couple of days in mid October, and then had to run the AC the week after that! That is a first for me.

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  • Could it possibly be that the firewood the children are carrying is not used for *heat*, but for *cooking*?

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  • In North Attleboro Ma We don’t turn on the furnace for as long as possible using the wood stove only till into Dec and still don’t light it up till it’s cold enough or too damp and just want to take the chill out. With the exception of Thanksgiving day(when we cook all our veggies on the stove) we don’t run it constantly till Dec anyway.

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  • Usually my first fire is around Columbus Day, no earlier. I hold off on the thermostat as long as I can.

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  • November 1st here in the Litchfield Hills of NW CT, unless it snows before then. The 20 ” Hallowe’en storm of 2011 took out the power for a week and had me stoking the fire.

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  • When the dogs start looking up at me as if to say “you’re kidding, right?”

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  • We waited until we could see our breath in Massachusetts along the Concord River….

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  • No set date but the later the better. When the house is colder than outside and I’m reluctant to come inside it is getting about time to fire up the furnace. Never before mid October.

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  • Let’s not forget that the stoves were not just for heat. They could have been bringing in wood for their cook stove. My grandfather used to tell stories of his mom baking 7 loaves of bread a day!

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  • Taunton, MA., about forty-five minutes from Boston and a half an hour to Cape Cod!!! Usually around the beginning of October if the heat drops below 65 degrees inside the house!!! Then the thermostat is set to go off for the night, but not to drop below 67 degrees, then it comes on early in the morning until about mid-morning and then turns off all day until late in the afternoon again!!!

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  • Living now in Wisconsin, I see the same stubbornness about flicking on the heat here as I did back in Massachusetts. That being said, for all practical purposes and being practical is very New England, the first day to turn on the heat is the morning after ice forms in the glass of water on the night stand. One more comment…maybe these children lived in a REALLY old-fashioned New England family and were gathering wood for COOKING. This photo could have been taken in August!

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  • I have a propane fired stove that I run here in the shadow of Mt Washington just to take the chill out of the room. But,until the pipes are at risk of freezing I refuse to turn on that oil fired furnace. Maybe by mid November, even later depending on temperature! Why waste resources?

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  • We live in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. We have just started using the wood stove in the last couple of weeks. Usually we light it up and let it burn for a few hours and then shut it down. That does the trick so far. I think this weekend it may run a bit longer.

    We still have our heating system shut off.

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  • North Attleborough, MA, midway between Providence, & Boston. Never before Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day (whichever folks prefer) and even then, only if the wood stove insert and the pellet stove won’t keep the chill off sufficiently.

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