Monday, October 17, 2011


The thermostat in the hallway says the temperature in my house is around 65°.

We haven't started the woodstove, yet. Those of you who've been following my blog for any length of time know that we heat with wood, and that even though we still have an oil-burning furnace in the house, it hasn't been used in more than three years, and we haven't had an oil delivery since 2008. The oil tank is still half full.

I would be lying if I said that I didn't feel cold, because I am chilly most of the time, and some days I don't warm up until I go to bed. In fact, as I'm sitting here writing these words, I'm wrapped in a fleece blanket. The dog is snuggling under my daughter's hoodie on the couch. Even the cat has been looking for a warm place to snuggle, and he's discovered that the Internet router and WiFi are warm. He's been sleeping there a lot over the last few days.

We feel a little chilly, sure, but 65° - even the low of 60° we had the other day - isn't cold enough to do any damage to either us or the house. So, until the house temperature gets and stays below 60°, I don't plan to fire up the woodstove. There's no need.

Some time last year, I started participating in John Michael Greer's Green Wizard project. Much of what he recommended, I'm already doing, and so the project really has just been a continuation of the way we live anyway.

The one homework assignment I most enjoyed, though, was the one where we had to take a very close look at all of the ways heat comes into and goes out of our houses.

My house is a bit quirky. It's not an "old" house, although there are some parts of it that pre-date World War II. It started much smaller than it is now, and has been expanded several times. In the more than a decade we've lived here, we've discovered some rather unsettling things about the house with the worst being that we had lived here for eight years, never realizing that there was no insulation above the kitchen nor above the room where the furnace was located, and that the uninsulated duct work went right up into the uninsulated ceiling. Goodness knows how much oil and electricity we burned over those eight years trying to make a Maine winter day outside warmer :).

I liked the exercise, because it made me think, and then, as I made my lists, I had one of those "duh!" moments where something I've always known suddenly became abundantly clear.

What I've always known is that electrical appliances give off a great deal of heat - I mean a LOT of heat, but because their purpose is not to provide heat, we don't usually think of them in that way.

I've done a lot of posts over the years about heating our homes in a lower energy society, and my suggestions and comments have always been based on the assumption that having no heat in our house is a direct result of having no electricity, but what if that weren't true? What if, we didn't have heat, because we couldn't put oil or propane in the tank, and we had no wood burning stove?

According to the Portland Press Herald website, it's 52° outside right now. Before the sun rises tomorrow, the temperature will dip into the low 40's, but the temperature in my house will not drop below 60°.

We have two things going for us. The first is that our house, after years of taking corrective action, is pretty well insulated. There are certainly some areas where we could do a lot better, and that's definitely the plan, but compared to what it was (and compared to some of the stories we hear about other people's houses in our area), our home is in pretty good shape.

Because our house is pretty well insulated, the temperature tends not to fluctuate too wildly. In the summer, the temperature inside tends to stay right around 75° - that's without air conditioning. This time of year, when the days are in the 60s and the nights are in the 40's, our home stays right in the 62° range. That's without any heat.

But is it?

The thing is, like most modern American homes, we have a few heat producing appliances. In fact, anything that plugs into an outlet will throw off some heat.

I already mentioned the Internet router and WiFi that the cat sleeps on. It doesn't put out a lot of heat, but if it and I were in a small room, we would raise the temperature of that room, compared to a room next door that had no appliances or people.

So, let's imagine that we're getting ready for winter. We have suddenly realized that we can't afford to completely fill our oil tank. We might be able to afford some oil, but, at best, the thermostat will be set at its lowest setting, which for us is 50°.

It will be cold at that temperature, for sure, but it will be warm enough to keep the pipes from bursting (and in a cold climate, in a modern home, the biggest worry when it comes to facing a winter without heat, should not be that *we* will get cold, but rather that no heat, means that we might end up with burst pipes, which would be a very bad thing), and despite what we might think when we're sitting at the computer in a house that's only 50°, we can't freeze to death at that temperature - as long as we're dry and out of the wind.

There are a number of things we can do to keep ourselves warm. The first is the same advice I've always - and will always - give: Get Smaller! When we were taking our survival skills classes the first thing we learned was how to build a debris hut. A debris hut is a very small, one-person cover. It's, basically, a stick frame that's covered with "debris" - i.e. leaves and twigs, etc. A properly constructed debris hut will keep the person inside warm and dry, even on the worst weather days, and, yes, even in the coldest temperatures. It stays warm using the person's own body heat.

If we take that example into our homes, the first thing we'll do when facing a winter with no or with very little heat is to move the family into as few rooms as is possible, and close off the rest of the rooms. It's much easier to heat a small space than it is a large one.

Second, insulate. Insulate. Insulate. Insulate. Yes, go to the home improvement store and buy that pink stuff - or the eco-friendly stuff, or whatever. But make sure, at least, the ceiling has the minimum R-value for the region where you live. If possible, double the R-value recommendation.

Of course, if the reason one is looking at a heatless winter has to do with the cost of oil, buying insulation is probably not likely either. In that case, the fastest and easiest way to get some benefit from insulation is to put heavy blankets over the walls, windows and doors.

And let me just say that I know how effective the very simple, blanket over the door trick is. In my house, we have rather leaky doors, and during the winter, after the sun goes down, we drape blankets over the doors. These aren't, necessarily heavy blankets, either, just blankets. One morning, after a particularly frigid night, when Deus Ex Machina was getting ready to leave for work, we took the blanket down, and there was a thin crust of ice on the door.

So, get smaller, and put layers of blankets over doors and windows.

Next would be to move as many as possible of those heat-producing appliances into the rooms/areas where the family will be spending most of their time. A small room with several computers will be a few degrees warmer. An enclosed kitchen with a fridge and an oven (that's recently been used for baking would be even better!) will be pretty warm.

If there's a basement, it might just be worth it to move everyone down there. The basement will always stay 55° - even without heat.

Last month, Deus Ex Machina and I took the girls up the coast to visit one of the sites where natives in this part of the country spent part of their year. We had a tour of the area and saw some of the kinds of housing structures they lived in. It was one of those chilly, rainy fall days that Maine (and Scotland) are famous for, and standing in the rain, looking at those flimsy structures, one of the kids asked, "How did they stay warm?"

Which is a totally logical question, given that the natives in this area lived in wigwams, which were, essentially, bark covered, chinked, wood-framed structures with no insulation.

Our guide talked about how they had a fire in the wigwam and the fact that the doors were really tiny, "But really," he told us, "They just got used to the cold."

And that's the part that we simply can't seem to do - acclimate ourselves to the changing seasons.

Deus Ex Machina and I have discussed on several occasions recently the best timing for our first fire. We're trying to make sure we have enough wood to get through the whole winter. Last year was a hard lesson - and we were really lucky. So, in the interest of conserving our wood supply, we've decided that our first fire will not be until the night temperatures are below freezing for three consecutive nights.

According to the weather forecasts, the next several nights will be in the 40's. Looks like Mr. Pumpkin is going to be cuddling the router for another week, at least ;).


  1. We've found that my husband's computer, with several monitors (hard core gamer :) is sufficient to keep a book lined room relatively warm for much of the year if the door is kept closed. When I want to run something like the dehydrator, I wait until the evening and run it in a room where I want the heat.
    Watch out for animals on your internet router - my brother found a huge python warming itself on his one day :)

  2. Sorry, I just don't get it. Just why aren't you choosing to be warm? Are your trying to acclimate yourself to being cold so you can do without it in the future? Or is it because you can't afford it?

    Having lived in a cold country in a leaky house that we couldn't afford to insulate I know what it is to live in a cold place and if you have wood and a place to burn it why wouldn't you want to live in comfort? I would never voluntarily put myself back in that situation. When we lived like that we all ended up sick and didn't get better till we moved to a place we could heat.

  3. But what are renters supposed to do when they live with cheap landlords that don't care about insulating the house? The house we're in isn't so bad at all insulation-wise. But that could just be because of the squirrels nesting in the insulation at the old apartment!

    We aim to not turn on the heat until Dec. 1st. If we can go longer--peachy. And even then I only turn it up to a whopping 60 on the weekends. Anything above 60 seems so decadent!

  4. I think that is amazing that you are waiting to start a fire! I always assume that if we had a wood stove, we would start it as soon as it started to get chilly. Maybe we wouldn't, but my husband doesn't enjoy the cold all that much :-) We also do the blankets over the door trick. Actually, we tend to hang sheets over the doorways in our house too to try and block off some of the rooms. We only have one zone in our very large colonial, and it is downstairs right next to our drafty door :-) I think the lower temps only affect Matt and I though, my kids seem to prefer to be naked, even when it is only 55 degrees in the house :-) Perhaps they know something that I don't...

  5. That's one drawback to laptops and other low-power computing devices: they don't generate as much heat. During the summer, that's actually an advantage though!

    It's already gotten down to 40°F a couple nights on Planet Georgia, and it looks like a chilly week ahead once these storms blow past. Lots of trees down, but haven't had a chance to cut or stack much.

  6. @ Anon 9:58PM - We're holding off burning our wood until it gets really cold because last year, we started burning our wood too early - before it got really cold - we underestimated how much wood we'd need and we ran out of wood. We were lucky that our neighbor was able to bail us out, and give us enough wood to get through the rest of the winter, but that's not going to be the case this year, or ever again.

    I guess what you don't know is that we don't pay for wood. We glean wood over the summer from fallen trees that people need removed from their yards. It takes a while for wood to get dry enough to burn well - green wood will burn, but it doesn't put off much heat, and so burning green wood is pretty useless, if the goal is to heat the house. Soft wood (pine) dries faster, and so we can burn pine that we gathered this summer, but hardwood takes longer, and to be really dry enough to burn, we should wait at least a year. So, any hardwood that we gathered this summer shouldn't be burned until the fall of 2012.

    At any rate, while we're feeling chilled on some days (and in the morning), as Kaye points out 60° isn't "cold."

  7. @ Kaye - *grin* I know what you're saying.
    It would suck to be renting a house with a cheap landlord ;). I think in that case though, the renter can only do as much as he/she can do, and putting blankets on the walls, over windows and doors does help somewhat.

  8. @ Heather - Funny! My kids don't seem to feel the cold as much either, and they'll often be half-clothed in the middle of winter. For me, the biggest issue is my feet, and if they're warm, I'm usually comfortable enough. But again, it's not *that* cold, really.

  9. @ FARf - so true. We realized also that the CFLs don't really put out much heat - not like those old incandescents. I can remember warming my hands over a light bulb when I was younger - not possible these days ;).

  10. I'm really feeling the heat. As I type here I'm sweating and the lap top is generating heat I'd rather not have.

    I caved a few nights ago and put on the aircond for an hour or so when I went to bed. But I slept so well and din't wake up to turn it off so it was on most of the night.

    Our bills have gone up so much in Australia in the past year. I've tightened up big time on a monetory level and now on an eco level.

  11. I would also add that it's amazing how much heat a single candle can produce. During a power outage (they happen a LOT in this area), we had put three candles in each child's room for lighting purposes. It was getting really cold out, and the house was very chilly. But Jonathan came out of his bedroom wearing a tee-shirt, and was surprised by how cold the rest of the house was! His bedroom - measuring ten feet by eight feet - was at a comfortable temperature from those three candles. Blew my mind away, and his little brothers begged to sleep in his room that night!

  12. Great post. Your remarks about insulation work as well here in SW FL for keeping the house cool in the summer - with and without the AC.

    Our home has the typical open floor plan with BRs on either side of the kitchen/dining/living room. Our adult now lives with us and was sleeping with the BR door shut so the room was hot overnight. We put a lightweight tabbed top curtain on a curtain rod at the doorway - what a difference, literally 10 degrees cooler.

    For renters - besides blankets over doors & windows, they can use draft dodgers at the base of doors and windows, cardboard under area rugs,
    sheets of styrofoam at the back of cabinets or closets on outside walls, cut thin sheets of foam and put them inside outlet covers on outside walls - all these materials can be gotten for free, ask around.

    For you Wendy - down booties for those cold feet. Put them on your Christmas wish list or find a down comforter or even a pillow, used of course, and make your own.

    Also, do you fire up your furnace once a year? Read somewhere, long ago, that for those who opt not to use a furnace it should still be turned on once a year to be sure it is in good working order. And, does the oil in your tank need a 'preservative' to keep it usable?

  13. @ Frugal - Here in Maine we pay a lot for heating fuel and electricity. Our electricity rates are almost twice what some people in other states pay. So, we try to cut our usage wherever we can ;). As you've said - for us, it's both a way to save money and to live a little lighter on the earth.

  14. @ Patricialynn - I'm glad you mentioned lighting candles to add heat. It also adds a nice ambiance that makes the room "feel" warmer, even if it really isn't :). And lighting nine candles in Feng Shui is good luck ... or so I read ;).

  15. @ Bellen - awesome ideas! It also dawned on me how important furniture placement might be for renters. A full bookcase on an outside wall provides some great insulation, and if there's a barrier (like the thin sheets of foam you mention) between the back of the bookcase and the wall, it would be even more insulative ;).

  16. Great post! Reminds of a mid-December storm we had in Northern MN one year-I was nine months pregnant with our first; the power went out and it was well below zero! As soon as the power went out I hung quilts over all our windows and doors downstairs (and closed off the upstairs). Luckily I was cooking at the time (gas) and put pots of water on to heat; and then started turning all those pots into lots and lots of wonderful soup! And then baked some bread and cookies to go with it. Our town had emergency shelters set up and were even holding people in heated buses. We lived in a poorly insulated house built in 1920. The power was out for over twelve hours. We were lucky-our south-facing windows helped naturally keep our house at 68 when the heat was working and the sun was out; yet, on a sub-zero night with no power, our house never dropped below 57F! Many of our friends had frozen pipes and one even lost a pet to the cold. I am a firm believer in quilts on windows and doors and hot soup on a cold winter night.
    As we plan our next move, and look at houses, we will definitely be looking for a south-facing exposure and a wood-burning stove. It can make all the difference in the world :)

  17. In winter, we spend much of our time in the office, with two cats, two computers, two humans, and when it's really freezing, a tiny space heater. It's always a shock to go into the rest of the house and realize how chilly it is.

  18. My furnace doesn't go on until the thermostat reads 49 degrees and then it gets set to 50 degrees. Why so cold? I simply cannot afford to turn it up any higher.

    Luckily, my low-income status qualified me for an interest-free loan through my city's housing rehabilitation program. Through that program, my home, circa 1913-14, was insulated, re-sided, received all new windows and a new door. I already had a newer furnace and added insulation to my attic. Now my winter utility bills (I heat with gas) are affordable on my low salary, as long as I keep the heat down and watch my electric usage.

    Having lived all my life in Wisconsin, I learned a long time ago how to stay warm - I dress in layers....long underwear, sweaters, sweatshirts, etc. I have blankets to cover up with on the couch and when I get too cold, I'll sweep or dust or clean something just to MOVE and get the blood circulating. During the day, I have the blinds open on my 3 large south facing windows.

    I use my gas oven more in the winter, burn candles at night for light AND heat, and my four cats act as wonderful, portable heaters all winter long.

  19. So much good information here. I love it. Here are some of my winter tricks. Warming hands in hot dishwater. Drinking hot tea. Putting an old pillow on the floor under my desk to insulate feet from the cool concrete. Keep bedroom/bathroom warmer with a little electric ceramic heater, close off and don't heat extra bed/bath, moderately heat balance of house. Move desk/computer setup into heated bedroom. Windows without a view can be misted lightly with water and bubblewrap will stick to them, but it still allows light in. Pin pieces of black woven fabric to the drape lining of sun facing windows - air comes out top 17 degrees warmer than at bottom - even with the bubblewrap you get a 13 degree rise. I use my dryer just enough to get the wrinkles out, then hang clothes on a rack or hangers to finish drying, but in the winter take the exhaust vent off the wall and vent it indoors into an old pair of pantyhose if you have an electric dryer (do not do this with gas dryers). Stuff something into the wall vent to prevent cool air coming in. Spend some time at the library - use their heat. Use plantings that give good shade in summer, but lose leaves in winter so sun can warm house. Cook a crockpot of beans/soup/etc.

    brenda from arkansas

  20. Great ideas. I asked my landlord if I could install a programmable thermostat. He said yes and now I have control of when the electric heat comes on. SJ in Vancouver Canada

  21. What I use on those in between days when it really is quite cold but I can't bring myself to turn on the heater is wheat sacks which I heat up in the microwave for a couple of minutes. I make different shapes for different parts of the body and reheat them every hour or two. (Wheat sacks are just a tube of material about 18 inches by 5 filled with wheat and heated in the microwave.) A blanket/wrap and shawl add to the comfort.

    Just a thought - we used to own an old people's home over 50 years ago and all the old people had shawls and lap blankets for comfort on cool days.