Monday, November 15, 2010

Staying Warm in a Modern Home

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.


  1. Good suggestions.

    I believe this additional idea comes from Cody Lundin's book on survival: to stay warm while sleeping, erect your camping tent in the living room (or bedroom). Have everyone sleep inside the tent and zip it closed. It will help hold in body heat for the night. If you have sleeping bags designed to get down to cold temps, this is also the time to break those out.

  2. I think I'd prefer hot potatoes to hot rocks. Wake up and have a nice little breakfast.
    This is why I prefer a cold climate to a hot one. I can deal with no electricity and getting warm. I can't deal with no electricity and trying to cool myself.

  3. Chile - that's a really good one and goes right along with the making-spaces-smaller. A tent inside the living room would be warm enough - with just body heat - to keep a family from freezing to death.

    Kaye - I'm with you. I'd rather live where it gets cold, because I can always add more layers, but when it's hot, it's tougher to get comfortable.

  4. When I was a child in Maine in the late 1970's and early 1980's we were really poor. We couldn't afford heating oil most winters and a couple of them the furnace didn't work anyway so we relied a lot on the Franklin style woodstove in our living room. Come wintertime Mom would close off the stairway with sheets and blankets and a large Christmas tapestry. We would close off the living room at night and everyone slept in the living room around the woodstove. We even hauled the mattresses from out beds down for the winter.

    The scary winter was the one we didn't know if we were going to be able to afford to buy the wood for the stove. I wanted to bring this up to point out that even if one changes to a woodstove, unless one own one's own woodlot and cuts and transports one's own wood one is still "on the grid"; a different square but, still the grid. But then again I tend to see all the grids interlinking as one giant web.

    For readers out there, another thought that came to me was that while practical for Maine with a large wood supply, wood heat is not as practical me here in Texas where most of our land was clear-cut for ranches and more contemporaneously housing developments. Some sort of solar heating system would probably be the best non-fossil fuel heat source available at this time for my area. Just 300 miles to the east in Arkansas geothermal might be more viable. One has too look at the resources of one's area.

    Chile is right on with the sleeping bags. Down comforters, featherbeds, and flannel sheets are good directions to go too. Don't forget the woolens either. The more of your own heat you keep to yourself the less you have to produce with a fuel source.

    I do love the kotatsu idea. It reminds me of the stories of folks taking hot bricks with them to church to rest their feet on.

  5. Woolysheep - That's a very good point, and I wasn't trying to suggest that heating with wood was the only solution. As you pointed out, it is a good non-fossil fuel option where I live, but in areas where they've experienced peak wood, other options will need to be explored. It is absolutely true that there is no one-size-fits-all and that we must find solutions that work best with the resources we have, but, for me at least, hearing about what other people are doing encourages me to try to think of ways that their solutions might work for me, and that was the point of this post. Here in the US, we don't usually consider heating a single room, but why not? Why is that we feel deprived if our whole house isn't a constant 72° year round?

    On the subject of the cost of firewood, I should mention that Deus Ex Machina and I don't buy our cord wood. Neither do we have a wood lot. We glean fire wood from trees that are downed during spring storms, and we spend the most of the spring, all summer, and a good portion of the fall, gathering, splitting and stacking firewood for use during the winter. But more importantly, we don't try to heat our entire house to 72°F. In fact, if it's warmer than 45°F outside, we don't even start the woodstove, because it will, typically, be 55°F or warmer in the coldest part of the house, and we can always put on a sweater or wrap up in a blanket. As long as it's above freezing outside and one can stay protected from the wind and wet, there really isn't a *need* for a heat source inside at all.

    All of that said, I don't think people should discount fire as a valuable resource and depending on fire for cooking and heating doesn't mean that one needs to spend money or have access to cords and cords of firewood. Something as simple as a charcoal grill, a rocket stove or a hobostove on the back deck is enough to heat rocks for use with a kotatsu.

  6. Hope you don't mind me chiming in with another comment, this time regarding cost of wood...

    Here in Arizona, it wouldn't be too difficult at this time for someone to heat with wood for free. Many people prune their mesquite trees and post the branches for free on craigslist. Talking to the local landscapers about picking up the larger branches would probably work, too, since it would decrease their hauling costs.

    This, of course, would change completely if natural gas prices skyrocketed and more people started heating with wood. 'Course we have the option here to tap into passive solar heating.

  7. Chile - that's kind of how we get our wood right now - from people who have downed trees and just want them gone, but we fully recognize that this source of free wood might dry up if everyone was using wood, which is why we're also learning to live with less heat.

    The thing is, it's not a bad idea for people who have a dry place to put the wood (like a garage or a basement) to start laying in a small supply - just to have ... just in case. If it's kept dry, the wood won't rot, and it will keep for a very long time. So, even if one doesn't think one will be heating with wood, one might want to have a few logs, especially if it's free.

    Some other sources for "free" wood (right now) are wood pallets, construction debris, and broken furniture.

  8. Other ideas: trombe walls or masonry walls that face south to absorb solar heat or water filled black painted drums, usually 40-55 gallon, to absorb solar heat These are inside the house and will radiate heat at night.
    Wear a hat indoors - especially in the early morning and at night, especially good for little ones and the elderly
    Stacked bricks or cement blocks or even slabs of granite or slate put behind and around the wood stove - stores and releases heat
    Attitude - for me that tops the list. If your attitude is a 'can do' it will be much easier to actually do.

  9. Bellen - great ideas! Thanks for the input, and I totally agree that a positive attitude is pretty important. I like to say we should not focus on limitations, but rather imagine possibilities.