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 ;).