The other day at our outdoor skills class, we were talking about the issue of power outages. Several of the families had been affected by the recent storms here in Maine that knocked out power to a not insignificant number of homes. Our hostess, Mama Bear, mentioned the Ice Storm of '98.
Back when it happened, Deus Ex Machina and I had been in Maine for less than a year, and we'd only just moved into our house the month before. We were woefully unprepared for living without electricity, but a woodstove had been on our wishlist for whatever house we ended up buying, and this house had one. So, even though we had only candles for light, we still had heat.
It was a pretty severe storm. We lost power for about eighteen hours, all total, but there were a lot of people in the western part of the state who were without electricty for weeks. Some people died from hypothermia, because they didn't know how to stay warm without their electricity, and more than one person succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning from operating things like generators and kerosene heaters inside their homes without adequate ventilation.
Because I live in a cold climate, heat is a real concern, and so I started looking into some ideas for off-grid heating. The woodstove, of course, is my favorite solution, and I was thrilled a couple of weeks ago when I noticed that my neighbors have a chimney now, and they've (finally) installed the woodstove they've been talking about getting for two years, now. They are already very pleased with their choice, and I'm just tickled pink for them. Did I mention that I love my woodstove?
Unfortunately, installing a woodstove isn't an option for everyone, and if you happen to be one of those people who live in a cold climate, but don't have a back-up heat source in the event of power outage, there are some things that can be done.
The first bit of advice is to get smaller. That is, move your living area into a much smaller space.
In our outdoor skills class, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of adequate shelter. Fatal hypothermia can happen incredibly quickly, and after only a couple of hours of being too cold, one's thoughts become erratic, the ability to think soundly and logically is lost, and even as simple a task as lighting a match becomes next to impossible. When we learned about building debris huts, we were told that they needed to be small (about the size of the person who will be occupying the structure), because a properly built debris hut can be warmed with just one's body heat.
If we reduce our goal from one of heating our entire house, to one of heating only one or two rooms, it becomes a lot easier to find solutions. If I didn't have a woodstove, therefore, the first thing I would do is to move everyone into my bedroom. It's on the south-facing side of my house so that we could take advantage of what little solar-passive heating we would get.
Next, I would take thick blankets (or even the mattresses, perhaps, depending on if I were planning for this to be a long-term or short-term solution) and hang them against the walls as an extra insulative layer. I happen to know that this room is not very well insulated. I'd also hang a blanket over the doorway, as an extra insulative layer, and after the sun when down, I'd put quilts over the windows.
Then, I'd devise a non-electric heater.
My favorite small-space heater is the Japanese kotatsu. Basically, it's a low table (kind of like a coffee table) with a heater in the middle. A blanket is draped over the top, and on top of the blanket is a glass or wooden table top on which food can be placed. The family sits around the table with their feet under the blanket and in that way stay warm.
Modern kotatsu uses an electric heater, but if we're looking at heating alternatives during power outages, we need something else.
My solution would be a large coffee can filled with hot rocks, and I'd get the hot rocks by firing up my grill outside and making the rocks hot by placing them in the grill fire. *Note: I would not bring smoldering charcoal embers into the house for this use because of concerns regarding carbon monoxide, and the space would not be well-ventilated.
And while the grill was hot, I'd grill some hamburgers for dinner and heat up a pot of water for tea, and then, we could all go inside the "warm" room, sit around the kotatsu, listen to the next installment in the The Wheel of Time series on our wind-up iPod speaker/charger, and have a nice dinner ... and the tea would stay warm on the top of our kotatsu.
Later, when we were ready for bed, we'd transfer the hot rocks to the bed warmer, and everyone could sleep nice and cozy in her own bed.
Not having electricity does not have to be a tragedy. I mean, heck, our ancestors did it for millions of years ... and some of them lived in very large, very drafty old castles. Surely we, with our well-insulated, modern homes can do, at least, as well.