Saturday, August 29, 2009

On Being "Powerless" - The Heat is On

On Friday morning in early December 2008, I woke. The house was dark and eerily quiet. Outside, I could hear the cracking of ice-heavy limbs falling to the ground when the wind blew.

I got up to look out the window in my bedroom.

It was like a crystal palace in a fairy tale. The trees were bowing and almost touching the ground from the weight of the twinkling ice encrusted branches. Beautiful, sparkling brilliance, but deadly. A branch from the choke cherry tree just on the outside of our fence had snapped and was hanging by its bark over the top of the chicken coop. We'd have to get it down before it fell and crushed the structure. I didn't want to be outside trying to rebuild their roof in the freezing temperatures.

Speaking of cold, I shivered. It just seemed really cold in my room at that moment.

Out of habit, I looked at the LED alarm clock to see what time it was and saw only blackness where the familiar red glow should have been. I realized we didn't have any power.

I fumbled around, shivering in the dark room, and found the sweatpants I'd dropped on the floor before snuggling with Deus Ex Machina under the several layers of down comforter, fleece and flannel. I grabbed a sweatshirt, pulled on a pair of wool socks and went out to check on the fire.

The fire was nearly out, and I stirred the coals and found some kindling to stoke it up a bit. After the fire caught, I added a few logs. I sat on the floor in front of the woodstove watching the fire dancing behind the glass door for a few minutes.

It was a good stove.

We'd replaced the old relic that had been in our house when we bought it eleven years earlier, almost to the day. When the price of heating oil started rising, we'd discussed our alternatives for heat, because truly, in Maine, heat isn't, exactly, a luxury. It's, maybe, not a necessity like food or water, either, and certainly heating all 1500 sq ft of our house to a balmy 75° is not just wasteful, it's also incredibly expensive, but having one or two places in the house, where the girls and I spend nearly 24 hrs a day, warmer than 40° is nice.

After much discussion, we decided to invest in a more efficient wood stove and keep the oil furnace (at least for the time being) as a back-up source of heat. Much later in the winter, we would realize that on the coldest nights, after we had gone to bed, and the fire had burned down, and the temperature in the house dropped below 50° (the lowest setting on our thermostat), the furnace would kick on, but it had to be seriously cold, like below 0° cold, before the radiant heat from the cooling firebox wasn't enough.

Since mid-October, when the temperatures during the day time weren't getting very far (maybe ten degrees) above freezing, our only heat had been the wood stove, and as I sat there, in the dark, realizing that even if the fire did go out, there'd be no furnace, I was very happy we'd made the decision and invested the money in the wood stove. Our old wood stove worked okay, but this one had been keeping the whole house warm with no help from the furnace since October. That realization comforted me.

I heard footsteps in the hall, and Deus Ex Machina came into the room.

"Power's out," I said.

He told me he'd figured it out, and I asked him what time it was. His cellphone cast a greenish light on his face, and he told me it was 4:30.

I grabbed the wind-up alarm clock I'd purchased at the hardware store several months earlier, set the time, and wound it up.

We went back to bed.

When I woke, several hours later, Deus Ex Machina was already up. The dogs had awakened him at their usual breakfast time, and he'd gotten the wood stove going, heated up water in the kettle, and made coffee.

"No one has any power," he told me. He'd talked with the guys who usually got to work around that time, and the power was out in the industrial park, too. He said he'd go over later and see if the power was back on, but for the time being, everyone was staying home.

I called my client, and they were without power, too, and wouldn't be opening the clinic. It looked like we both had the morning off.


In a survival situation, the first concern is shelter. In inclement weather - like sub-freezing temps during an ice storm - one can die of exposure in a matter of hours.

In our "survival" situation, we had shelter, because we were at home. Our next concern would be to make sure our home stayed secure and because we live in a cold climate, to make sure we stayed warm, which was easy, for us, because we had our new wood stove, which provided heat.

But it also provided a surface for cooking, and I'll go more into that on a later post.


  1. I've wanted a woodstove for a long time. Unfortunately, our insurance company would nearly double our premium, so hubby put the kabosh on that. We have a backup generator to run the furnace if we lose power, but realize that isn't the best solution. I envy you being so self sufficient.

  2. heating exclusively with wood feels so good. there is so much waist wood in our area that the winter is our cheapest season. our electric bill in the august is twice what it is in december. i burn less than two gallons of gas in my chainsaw each year. i split all the wood by hand. providing heat for my family in this manner is one of the most satisfying things that i do.

  3. LOVE woodstoves, though we have little call for them here in Florida (the TN girl in me is having homesickness pangs)...can't wait to hear how you cook on it!

    :) Robbyn

  4. Love reading your posts! Looking forward to reading about cooking on a woodstove. It's feeling very fallish here and my longing for a wood stove is growing.

  5. We live in a log home and have an electric/wood furnace coupled with a smaller wood heater in the main living room. To insure our place - because we are rural ( out of reach of a fire truck ) and burn wood ( we only use the electric if we are away in the winter) The best insurance we can come up with is $4500/year! I can replace our home for about $30,000 ( As I have family in the log home business). With wood heat and a gravity fed water system and back up generator, the monthly power outages in the winter are just chances to relax a bit more..

  6. I forget if you have a refrigerator or not (I sometimes get my bloggers mixed up), but if you do, know that you should probably keep the minimum temperature in the house (at least in the kitchen) to about 55 degrees. Lower than that causes the compressor not to work properly, I think. Something like that. You can probably find more information in your refrigerator's manual (which is probably available online without too much searching).

    Of course, the alternative is keeping your refrigerated/frozen stuff in a cooler outside in the winter, as long as it's protected from bears, raccoons, etc.

    Anyway, good post as usual.

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