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Households Take Up Challenge to be Cold

In Laura Nichols' Maplewood, N.J., home, Poochie the dachshund is a hot commodity.

Nichols and her four teenage children vie for the use of the 30-pound dog as an overnight leg warmer to stave off the 50-degree chill in their home.

Once again, Nichols has entered a local Internet message board's "furnace abstinence" contest where bragging rights and an iceberg-shaped trophy are at stake for those who can go the longest without turning on their furnaces.

Such challenges have popped up across the nation as bloggers in states such as New Jersey, Washington, Oregon and Connecticut lay down the gauntlet. Tight budgets and eco-friendly consciences push hundreds from Northern California to Maine to accept, testing their fortitude and comfort. Some in the warmer climes of Florida and Texas instead vow to resist turning on the air conditioner, posts written on the websites say.

Nichols, whose 2008 trophy graces her fireplace mantel, is vying for a repeat win in the New Jersey competition, which began in September.

"Heated homes are a modern concept," says Nichols, who is unemployed and looking to save money - she received a $1,000 credit on her utility bill last year. "Over 120 years ago, people had a stove fireplace, and that warmed their homes to a point. They didn't walk around in T-shirts and shorts all year long."

Even her 14-year-old son is game to win, unfazed by the cold.

"I actually like to be cold when I go to sleep," Harry Nichols says.

Run on an honor system, some challenges, such as the one in Maplewood, dare households to go cold turkey for as long as possible. Using space heaters and fireplaces is allowed. Other challenges, such as Deanna Duke's "Freeze Yer Buns" on her blog, thecrunchychicken.com, ask people to reconsider their comfort zones by setting their thermostats a few degrees lower than usual.

There is no physical prize in most cases. The reward is knowing that participation in the challenge means helping the environment and saving on heating costs, Duke says.

A Seattle computer programmer and mother of two, Duke says she saved $800 last year by setting her thermostat to 62 degrees during the day and 55 degrees at night. For her, though, it's primarily about reducing her carbon footprint; saving money is a bonus.

"We just wear more clothes," Duke says. "One of the things I've learned is that people are a lot more adaptable than they think."

About 200 people from all over the country and Canada join her challenge annually. It's in its third year. Duke says she's found that people's low-temperature threshold drops during the challenge as they get used to the cold.

"We wear wool slippers, flannel pajamas and a robe; it's not that bad," says James Lee, a father of two in Chester, N.H. "Training yourself to live cooler is a good thing."

Lee says his wife balked when the temperature hit 48 degrees in their house, so they turned on the heat, but the thermostat doesn't go above 55 degrees ever.

"There is joy in not being a slave to your utility," says Katy Wolk-Stanley, a part-time nurse in Portland, Ore., who runs a similar no-heat challenge on her blog, The Non-Consumer Advocate.

Daniel Filene, a Falmouth, Maine, psychiatrist participating in Duke's challenge this year, independently experimented last year, keeping his heat off through December.

His new girlfriend at the time, Jordan Albair, thought Filene was eccentric but agreed to try it out.

"It's not always easy getting your pajamas on in a bedroom that's 50 degrees - that's challenging," Albair admits.

Filene bought a home that does not have a furnace, and they don't plan to install one. Instead they're getting a wood-burning stove. In the meantime, they've got the old-fashioned hot-water bottles under the mattress and an electric blanket on top.

"There were times it was uncomfortable, but I was never unhappy," he says of the experiment. "A hot cup of coffee is a lot more enjoyable when you're a little cold."

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