Archive for August, 2008

Heating and Insulation Options

Sharon August 12th, 2008

Ok, what if you aren’t already living without heat?  What if you are planning, and want to know what to do when your current, fossil fueled option becomes untenable, either because of reduced availability for fuels, because of limitations on carbon outputs, or because (and most likely) you can’t afford to pay the bills.

This is something that I recommend people begin to address *QUICKLY* if you can.  Various lenders are freezing home equity loans even to people with plenty of equity and money - Ilargi in his commentary on today’s Debt Rattle at The Automatic Earth I think puts his finger on things - if you are going to need to borrow money to do this, the opportunity is rapidly disappearing. Now only you can tell if you should be borrowing in the first place - but if most of us have to do our adaptation with the cash we have on hand or with the subsidies the government is likely to grant, we have a very, very short window indeed.  So plan now, and begin adapting. 

In addition, since nearly everyone else is seeing the writing on the wall, accept that you are going to be making your adaptation plan with everyone on the planet - the waiting list for wood and pellet stoves is already getting long in some places.  Insulation companies are busy - if you can afford to do this, do what you can now!! We don’t know whether this will be a cold winter or not - but we can be pretty sure that there will be some cold ones in the future, despite global warming. 

Let’s talk about the problems with the way you may heat now - here are the choices, and the pros and cons.

Oil: Mostly in the Northeast US, a comparatively small percentage of US heating as a whole (about 8%), but heavily concentrated in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont - some of the coldest places in the US.

Pro: Used to be cheaper than gas, can be used where there are no gas lines, bigger tanks than propane mean fewer deliveries in snowy, icy, cold places, cleaner than coal fired electric.

Con: Crazy expensive now, not getting cheaper, minimum deliveries mean untenable for many, dirtier than natural gas, because it is a minority heating option gets less attention than the others.

Gas: The primary method of heating in the US

Pro: Cleanest fossil fuel option, no running out, great in urban areas where minimizing pollutants is important.

Con: Getting more expensive, caps set to expire in many areas quite soon, if Canadians get pissed enough that they have to sell it south, massive supply constraints, North American gas past peak, or nearly so.


Pro: Good if you’ve got wind, hydro, etc…, can reduce you to one major utility bill, may be cheaper in some places than natural gas or oil at this point.

Con: Can mean you only have one big bill and inability to pay means you freeze as well as sit in the dark, inefficient way to generate heat, most comes from coal which is distrous for the climate, rising rapidly in price, caps coming off, prohibitions against winter shut-offs due to be renegotiated, privatized energy companies have sky is the limit prices.

All of these potentially come with rapid, prohibitive price rises in the coming years (and are already prohibitive for some people).  All of them are vulnerable to supply disruptions in the coming years.  Oil is potentially the most vulnerable, but gas and electricity, depending on what you think is likely, are also subject to supply constraints and systemic problems - potentially quite serious ones.

So what options do you have?  Basically, they come in two varieties - you can need less (or in some places, no) heat, by increasing your insulation, or you can use some other mechanism of heating yourself, your immediate area and part of your house.  Again, I emphasize that most of should not be thinking in terms of heating a whole, American super-sized house, but instead living in smaller spaces, with less heat - period.  

First, there’s the insulation problem. The Community Solution and the Affordable Comfort Institute have been working together to find solutions for retrofitting American homes along the Passivehaus lines - but the data they have come up with is incomplete, and at last check, the costs extremely high.  The least expensive version of their solution looks to be adding rigid board insulation to existing inside walls, but they are still putting their materials together, but this is a job to be worked on carefully, as ventilation, outgassing and mold issues are concerns. 

So what can you do in the interim - well Robert Waldrop has done amazing things with his house in Oklahoma City - this is a great model to work with, particularly if you have some money - but it is worth noting that at last check he had spent 23K, over some years.  And since Bob lives in a fairly moderate climate, this might need some adaptation for places like the North.

There are some useful books out there - among them the books  _Insulate and Weatherize_ and _The Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings_.  They have a lot of tips for do-it yourself solutions.  And, of course, if you can afford it, you can have a professional reinsulation done.  For many people in the southern half of the US, that should pretty much eliminate the need for heating, and if you can afford to duplicate the Passivehaus designs, you probably could need minimal heat even in the North.  But while I definitely think that this is where to put your cash if you have it.

But a lot of people don’t have it - without outright grants for weatherization for the poor and lower middle class on a huge scale, most people won’t make major retrofits, simply because the cost of the retrofit is utterly prohibitive - coming up with 4K to heat your house is simply more feasible than 10K to retrofit it for most people who are not quite wealthy.  And for those without either, well, on to the next options.

Heating with something else - or heating less with something similar: Here are the choice as I see them, the pros and the cons:

1. Electric space heaters: Newer ones are much, much more efficient than older ones - don’t waste money on an old used one if you’ve got a choice.

Pro: Cheap to buy, can provide localized heat when the furnace doesn’t work, widely available used, most places don’t permit electric shutoffs in the coldest months.

Con: Vulnerable to grid failure, won’t help you during intermittent power outages, mandatory no-shut offs may be overturned, can bring about grid failure if enough people add them to winter electric loads, expensive, you may end up without power all summer if you can’t pay your bill, dangerous - can cause fires.

2. Propane heaters: MAKE SURE THESE ARE PROPERLY INSTALLED - every year people die of CO poisoning using these improperly in a power outage.

Pro: Cheap, can be installed through walls, propane is cheaper than oil, can be used during electrical failures.

Con: Not much cheaper than oil, vulnerable to supply constraints, delivery issues,  dangerous if not properly installed, must be used carefully.

3. Kerosene heaters: Note: There are two kinds of these - cooking stoves, often used by the Amish as summer stoves, and heating stoves - both will create ambient heat, the heaters are more efficient, but one you can cook on has advantages.

Pro: Cheaper than oil, don’t have electric ignition so can be used during power outages, not terribly popular so not hard to find, can cook on some of them.

Con: Not a terribly clean fuel, dangerous if not properly installed, smelly, ventilation must be good.

4. Geothermal Heat Pumps: These are good choices for a lot of areas, particularly if you have a lot of local geothermal energy.  The technology seems to be improving rapidly, too, so do your research.

 Pros: Uses a cheap source to both heat and cool, uses much less energy than heating and cooling with electricity directly, low carbon.

Cons: Requires electricity to operate, some use more power than others, may not regulate temperatures as much as you like.

5. Wood Stoves - note, I am *only* talking here of fairly new, airtight stoves.  Don’t use anything but a newer UL stove - period, unless you are desperately poor and have absolute no other choice.  The pollutants and the efficiency issues are so great that you simply shouldn’t use it if you have a very old stove, unless the choice is to freeze or use it.  Don’t buy old stoves.  Buy the tightest, most efficient stove you can buy, and the smallest one appropriate to your space, and burn only seasoned hard wood if possible.  We’ll talk about cooking later this week, but if you are going to buy a stove and need to heat and cook, a cook stove is a lot more versatile, and only slightly less efficient.

Pro: Technically carbon neutral (I’m going to do a post on wood heating ASAP, so we’ll debate the details of this at a later date), depending on how you get it, abundant, renewable fuel in most very cold places, output (ashes) can be used to fertilize garden and keep soil healthy, extremely cheap fuel if you have a woodlot, can cut wood in national forests, use waste wood, or downed trees, many with baskets and adaptors can burn multiple fuels including corn, pellets and coal giving you the greatest possible adaptability.

Con: Pricey if you have to buy it, legal issues in some areas,  a lot less carbon neutral if it has to be moved around, can lead to deforestation, has particulate emissions issues that can cause health problems, expensive if you rely on purchased wood, you have to have a place to put it.

6. Corn Stoves: I gather that these and pellet stoves are experiencing a big boom in sales, and are backordered in many areas - just fyi.

Pro: Uses something that some low-forest areas of the midwest have a lot of, at least it doesn’t make ethanol, fuel can be cheap, possibility of growing your own and being even cheaper, low emissions, legal in many cities, cheaper than comparable woodstoves, with a dramatic reduction in feedlot meat consumption and ethanol (ie, the corn goes to heating and human food instead of cars and cows)  might be sustainable… but would require massive changes in agricultural practice.

Con: Most corn is grown with artificial nitrogen so heavy global warming impact, increasingly expensive, uses human food for fuel, on a large scale would increase food prices dramatically, added to ethanol and heavy meat consumption could be an absolute disaster, require electricity.

7. Pellet Stoves: See above

Pro: Uses a waste product of the construction industry, can be stored, low emission, possibilities for cities, no stovepipe.

Con: Backorders, pellets use a glue that may be toxic when breathed, pellet supply issues already exist, construction industry in the toilet so its by products will rise in price and decrease availability, requires electricity to run, relies on delivery from distant places.

8. Coal Stoves: Ok, using these will be freakin’ apocalyptic for the planet if we do it on any scale.  My worst nightmare is that the northeast responds to freezing temperatures by looking for the cheapest option and discovering coal stoves - the air pollution, global warming and quality of life will suck.  That said, however, I mention them, because if you are poor and have no choice, this may be your best option.  I do recommend people who get them consider trying to get ones that can burn both coal and wood, so that you can convert to the somewhat better, renewable option later.  And may G-d have mercy on my soul for mentioning this.

Pro: Cheap.  Cheaper than any of the above options.  While coal is rising in price, it still may remain cheap for some time, particularly in coal producing areas.  The stoves are cheap too.

Con: Are you kidding?  This is the single worst way to create heat ever.

9. Natural gas stoves - These are also comparatively inexpensive and more available than corn or pellet stoves.

Pro: Cheap, use less natural gas than a furnace, easy to install, comparatively clean burning?

Con: Subject to all the disadvantages of natural gas

10. Wood Masonry Stove: These are amazing - everyone should have one.  Except, of course, that they cost a million dollars and can collapse your floors ;-) .

Pro: Use minimal wood, produce gradual heat, very clean burning, beautiful, can be made with bread ovens and warm benches - probably the ideal solution to all our problems, if only we could afford it.

Con: Heating even a small house costs 10K plus - bigger ones in the range of 20K.  Prohibitive for many - require floor reinforcements if added to an existing house in some cases.

11. Rocket Mass Heaters:  These deserve much, much more attention:

Pro: Cheap, with all the advantages of the above.  These are probably the best option we’ve got.

Con: A major DIY project, Big.

12. Passive Solar heaters - Pat Murphy at the Community Solution is rather dismissive (and based on extensive research) of most passive solar designs or retrofits, saying that most don’t actually do what they say.  Still these are worth exploring.  I’m not going to list pros and cons, because the options are so varied and each project has its own issues - do your research before you do this:  I’ve heard mixed things from various plans.

So what’s the best choice?  The best choice is to change your thinking, get used to winter, deal with the cold, adapt your house and yourself as best you can, and use the absolute minimum amount of heat from the cleanest source you possibly can.  There is no perfect option - and we’re not going to get to one without a massive commitment in the US to retrofitting our dwellings.  Sometimes people will have to do the best they can - but most of us can do rather better than we do at minimizing our heat use and expectations, and thinking about our neighbors and the future as well as ourselves when we make our choices.  We need to plan now for a long term with less energy - and as difficult as that is, we need to do so carefully and wisely.


How Not to Freeze: Life Without Heat

Sharon August 12th, 2008

There are a lot of people deeply worried about deaths from cold this winter - and the odds are good that some will happen.  Cold can kill you - but barring total lack of shelter or certain medical conditions, most of us NEED NOT die of heat or cold.  The truth is that most such deaths do not have to happen - and so we need to make the information that allows people to survive cold and heat much more widely available, or we will have more deaths and more suffering.  I will do a seperate post about surviving hot weather today or tomorrow.

This information is also necessary because fear of cold, particularly, may lead us to do things that make us *less* able to survive in the long run - burning wood or other sources unsafely, and causing fires, or misusing gas and propane heaters, burning toxic substances like pressure treated wood or with inadequate ventilation, etc…  Or it might lead us to prioritize short term comfort over long term survival, deforesting the northern US to keep warm for a few winters, and leaving our kids with an eroded, polluted, warmer world, or burning coal in personal stoves on a large scale.   Our fear of heat and cold, and our mistaken impression that if we let things get colder we’ll die can lead us actually to die - or make ourselves sick, or the world less habitable for the next generation.

This is going to focus on living without much in the way of supplemental heating or cooling - how to survive and function.  In some climates, this may not even be a big deal.  In other climates, you will not like this experience - but you need to know how to do it - period, just in case you ever need it. 

 Ok, starting with heating - because I think this will be a new reality for many people this year.  The first thing you need is shelter - homelessness is deadly in the winter.  Find some - this is why you need community so badly.  Because if you lose your house, you and yours still need a place to live.  If you don’t have family, you need friends or roommates, or some way of finding a place to live.  And if you are lucky enough to keep your house, I hope you’ll be the one opening the doors - because it could go the other way too.  I will do a post at some point on staying alive outside without a house, but honestly - do what you have to to get shelter!

Even the most crappily insulated houses in the US (and there are some truly appalling houses out there - the older parts of mine not wholly excluded) are far better in many cases than the shelters people survived with for millenia.  I know I keep harping on this, but badly insulated is a relative thing - yes, more insulation would be good - and contacting your congressperson to get more funding (especially including *GRANTS* for low income families to reinsulate) put to insulation is essential - but it is worth remembering that the Lapps routinely dealt with -50+ temperatures in tents made of one layer of reindeer skin and heated only by body heat, and that when people began living in the US, winter temperatures were considerably colder than they are now, and windows were made of oilskin over holes in the house and houses were heated by a central fire pit.  Human beings can manifestly live without central heating. 

Let us imagine you are now living in a very cold place, and you cannot buy heating fuel - or it isn’t available, and you are facing a long, cold winter.  Assume that social support programs are overwhelmed or unavailable (these should be your first resort).  What do you do?

Well, the first thing you do is feed yourself and your family well.  This may seem secondary, but it isn’t.  If you have a choice between inadequate heat, and enough food to feed your family, dump the heat and buy more food.  There’s an ongoing crisis in the US of families whose food budget gets consumed by winter heating - their children lose weight and get sick from the cold, because they can’t maintain their body heat, because they aren’t getting enough calories and don’t have enough body fat as insulation (this is one of those things where some is good, but more is not better, obviously).  Food - and good healthy food - is essential - if you are going to live without heat, put what money you have to food.  Now this won’t help you in the most dire situations - and there’s not much I can offer if you don’t have food or heat, except that you should concentrate, if you can on getting food, rather than heat.

Next is heat yourself - this seems obvious, but I’m continually surprised by people who skip this step - or don’t go about it thoroughly.  You should be wearing warm clothing - and lots of it, in layers.  Getting good clothing is far cheaper than heating your house - the same goes for blankets.  Think lots of layers, insulation of extremities (multiple layers of warm socks, hats indoors, fingerless gloves, pulse warmers, leg warmers (yeah, yeah, I know it isn’t the 80s, but they still have their place, especially if you wear skirts in the winter a lot - and personally, I find skirts over heavy tights or leggings warmer than pants and more comfortable). 

If you have the skill set, you can make them - and if you can’t afford yarn, get old wool sweaters from goodwill, and unravel them and use them for yarn.  Here are some patterns:

Various warm knitted objects for hands and head:

Although traditionally, mittens have been the primary thrummed object, you could thrum fingerless gloves, hats, socks, etc…  Thrumming is a good thing.  Also useful - angora and alpaca, if you can afford or find them (or have a bunny or alpaca lying around your house) are very, very warm.

Crocheted socks (google around to find more relevant objects):

You also could sew them out of already felted (ie, shrunk in the wash) sweaters - I don’t have a pattern for fingerless gloves made this way, but someone creative could adapt this mitten pattern.  Certainly, leg warmers wouldn’t be hard (and could probably use sleeves sewn together - be creative:

Layer your clothes - lots of them - long johns under tshirts under turtlenecks under flannel shirts, and throw a bathrobe over it (at our house, bathrobes aren’t just for bed).  For children, blanket sleepers are your friend.  You can get them to very large sizes at lands end (boys 16) and to adult sizes here  My kids sleep in unheated bedrooms, wearing long johns and socks with blanket sleepers over them.  You could put sweatpants and sweatshirts over the blanket sleepers, if necessary.  And the kids can stay in the sleepers all day long if you don’t have to go out (so can the adults, for that matter). 

Ok, once you’ve got so many clothes on you look like the Michelin Man, you next have deal with retaining heat - that’s where the calories and hot beverages come in.  That means you need some capacity to warm food.  This means either keeping some traditional energy source (gas, electric, propane, oil) or burning some burnable that you can afford in a way that will warm your tea and your hands as well.  Sterno or a kerosene stove, or even a hot burning candle (there are multi-wick emergency candles) will work, but these are short term solutions.  What you probably want is a rocket stove:

Once you have a stove, you can probably heat enough water for hot water bottles, or warm up a hot stone, or some grains or beans, and either put these near your body (with a layer or two of cloth to prevent accidental burning - be careful with this when using it with children, especially curious children who open things easily), or in your bed to warm it.  Elderly people and those who can’t move much to keep warm will probably need a regular supply of hot water bottles, tea and other warming items to keep comfortable - or a warm body, a cat or several cats, a dog, or a human. 

It is very important to understand hypothermia - most of the people who die of cold, besides the homeless are elderly or young or disabled.  Hypothermia muddles your thinking - you can even start feeling warm and strip off your clothes.  So it is important to move around, eat regularly, be checked on.  If those things are difficult for you, you may slow down, start feeling sleepy and warm and die in a very cold environment.  The best preventative to this is other people being around - either neighbors checking in or family members living together.  In addition, more people in the house means significantly more warmth - animals serve this purpose as well.  If things get really cold, those who farm might consider taking their livestock in with them - this was done routinely in cold places - you bring the goats (mine want to come in anyway ;-) ) or sheep or whatever in.  Most of us won’t love this idea, but it is better than freezing.

The next thing you need is a warm place to sleep - if you mostly keep moving when you get cold at home you’ll be fine - but at night, when you are lying down, you need to be warmer.  Again, good blankets aren’t always cheap, but blankets are cheaper than heating oil.  Check out goodwill, thrift shops, yard sales.  You will need a lot of them.  Space blankets are also a good insulator, layered between other cold things.  Wear a hat while sleeping, warm pajamas and long johns.  Down comforters are ideal - and even better are down sleeping bags designed for winter camping.

And again, other people are a huge help - sleep with someone.  We live in a weird culture, where sharing a bed implies sexuality in a way that it didn’t in most places, in most cultures.  My four children sleep together in a bed (by choice) -we think of this as about poverty, but it is also about warmth, love and comfort.  Very few people in the world sleep in their own rooms, in their own space, with no one.  So find someone to sleep with - even if it is a pet. 

If it is very cold, you can further insulate your sleeping area by making it smaller and tighter - one option is the classic four poster bed - build a frame around your bed, and hang heavy, warm curtains on all four sides, and over the top.  Your body heat will warm the space around you.  Or set up a tent in your house and sleep in there (kids think this is cool).  Do NOT sleep in a tent in a room with a heat stove of any kind, and don’t sleep in a tent you don’t know how to get out of easily - that’s a major fire hazard, and remember what I said about not doing short term things that will kill you ;-) .  If you go the four-poster route, you’ll want to wash the bedding regularly, especially if you have allergies.

I’ll talk more about insulation in my next posts, but you can also insulate rooms by using heavy cloth for tapestries, plastic over window, window quilts - basically, you should think in terms of living in as small a space as possible, rather in a larger one.  Again, think “what did my ancestors do in the winter” - and they mostly hung out together in the warmest spot.  That spot will be warmer if you are all there together, and do any cooking there.  Do be careful of ventilation however - it is better to be colder and alive.  I strongly recommend that everyone have a battery charged smoke and CO detector in any room they will have any kind of heater in, and that you either acquire solar battery chargers and rechargeable batteries and/or long life smoke detector batteries. 

What else can you do?  Spend some time if you can in a warmer public place - go to the library, visit friends, go shopping.  There will probably be warming shelters in cold times - don’t be ashamed to go to one.  A short period of feeling comfortable makes a big difference.  Keep up everyone’s immune system by exercising, getting fresh air, eating well and taking care of yourself - the cold is quite tolerable when you are healthy, but tough when you are sick. 

Know how to stay alive in a cold house - and how to make good and rational choices about keeping warm - it is essential knowledge.


Thinking About Heating and Cooling Differently

Sharon August 12th, 2008

Today’s posts will focus on heating and cooling and how to deal with these issues.  If you live in the north, heating is probably a growing anxiety for you, because of the rapid rise in cost of nearly every method of heating.  Oil prices are now effectively prohibitive for poor and working families - with 100 or 125 gallon minimum deliveries and no credit extended, many households that rely on heating oil (disproportionately in the Northeast) simply won’t be able to afford to heat their houses at all with conventional methods.  Gas prices are expected to rise steadily, and besides the rising cost of electricity, there’s the question of whether heavy reliance on electric space heaters to replace other heating methods may actualy result in power outages, leaving even more people in the cold.

And if you live where summer temperatures are regularly above 100 degrees, and every summer seems hotter than the last you are probably deeply concerned about what happens as the price of electricity spikes and air conditioning becomes prohibitive - or is shut off.  What do we do, short of abandon our homes?

 I’m going to talk about strategies for both of these things - first of all, how not to die from heat or cold - how to live without any heating or cooling, even in very cold or hot places, and then also how to cool and heat your house using fewer fossil fuels, but before we go there, I want to talk about how we *think* about heating and cooling overall.  Because that has at least as deep an effect on how we approach this as the actual method we use.

Now we all know that people have lived in very cold and very hot places in the world for most of human history, and most of them still have no central heating and no central air conditioning - and no one, not even the richest folks - had them until the last century or so.  So any discussion of heating or cooling has to begin from the recognition that our sense that we “have to” have certain temperatures, barring a few medical conditions - is really cultural, not physiological.  Human beings would not have survived in Northern climates, living in houses heated only by an open fire (and most of the heat goes up the fireplace) in uninsulated houses - or in more portable dwellings - for thousands of years if human beings couldn’t tolerate temperatures below 65 degrees inside. 

I realize this probably won’t make me anyone’s best friend, but the truth is that except for the ill, very elderly and underweight, you can regulate your body temperature in a house that is in the 40s or 50s - you won’t like it, but you can live that way  - in fact, you probably evolved to live that way.  If you dress very warmly, in layers, and move around a lot and have enough blankets, you will be fine - period. If you have an infant, the best strategy is to keep them against your body all the time - and they will be just fine. 

What is true is that people lived differently - they slept with another person, spent their days mostly together in the heated areas, or moving around and being active.  They often slept a lot more in the winter, and spent a lot of time when they were not being active in bed. 

The same is true of extremely high temperatures - while the world is manifestly warmer than it once was, it is also true that human beings have lived in very, very hot places for much of human history, and mostly lived.  But again, they lived differently - activity ceased in the heat of the day, life moved more into the night times, people spent more time in and near water - for example, in some parts of Southeast Asia, a shower (a bucket with holes in it) is a basic part of hospitality.

 It is true that most of us are physiologically better adapted to one kind of temperature than another - if you are from a hot place and move to a cold one, you will feel the cold more, and vice versa.  People raised in warm places actually do have more sweat glands, for example, than people from cold climates.  That said, however, our bodies also can adapt individually - someone who spends a lot of time working outdoors in a hot climate will build sweat glands, and someone who doesn’t over heat their house and goes out will acclimate to colder and colder temperatures.  The process of acclimation and adapting our lives is probably the most basic thing we can do to deal with heat and cold - and up until now, we’ve been using tools (central heating and cooling) that prevent acclimation - that is, we spend half our day in air conditioning, so our bodies don’t adapt to the heat.  Everyone who has ever worked outside on a bitterly cold day knows how *hot* even a lightly heated house feels when you go in.  This is acclimation, and we have to use it more than we have.

Now the odds are good our bosses probably won’t let us start siestaing, or give us the winter off to hibernate, and that we can’t totally change our lives to adapt to temperature.  But we can change our lives, and our ways of thinking to adapt to the weather, and we can work on acclimation.

One of the things that shifts in an era of cheap energy is the relationship we have to the idea of central heating or cooling.  When energy is cheap and widely available and perceived as having no major environmental consequences, we can afford to keep the whole house at a comfortable temperature - and central heating and cooling seem to have the advantage.  When costs go up and impact matters, central heating and cooling don’t work very well - the temperature your house is at goes up above what is comfortable or down below it, and localized heat or cooling starts to have the advantage.

 Why?  Well, we tend to think of heating or cooling as “keeping the house” at some temperature, but localized heating or cooling simply doesn’t work that way - over by my woodstove, there’s a spot that is often nearly 80 degrees - it feels great if I’ve been sitting at the computer in my 49 degree office, but far too hot to sit there all the time.  Out a bit further away, is an optimal temperature, and that’s where everyone will read or hang out.  Further still, it gets cooler, and the sleeping spaces (where we are warmed by heavy blankets and body heat) are the coolest of all).  Elderly people, or those who have been ill, or new babies can have the spot next to the fire, and be warm.  Those who need it less can have periods of comfort for quiet work, and less heat when they are up and moving.  And the same is true of cooling - if you need air conditioning, localizing it to the most urgent spot - perhaps the bedroom or living room- gives you comfortable sleep or a place to congregate and do your work.  This is less costly than trying to cool a whole house, but it also gets you adequate cooling in a localized space.  If you don’t use a/c, perhaps moving your bedroom to the shady north side of the house where the cross breeze comes, putting your mattress on the floor for summer, or sleeping outside (which is what people used to do) will be sufficient.

The most localized heating and cooling of all is the heating or cooling of your body - this could be as simple as dressing warmly, wearing a hat indoors, holding a cup of tea or coffee or even hot water, using a hot water bottle in bed or on the back of your chair, and putting your feet on a hot brick or other heated substance.  As I’ve mentioned, my office last year hovered in the high 40s, and I wrote a book that way, rather cozily, actually, with my fingerless gloves, my tea, my hot bricks and a bathrobe over my clothes.   For cooling, soaking a bandana or freezing it and putting it under your hat or over your hair, drinking copiously and sticking your feet in cool water are good strategies - it isn’t always necessary to cool your environment, just your body.

Heating and cooling are going to be serious strains on our society - we may first experience an “energy crisis” in a real sense this winter or in a coming one.  We’re going to have change our way of thinking - to start from acclimatization, and localized heat sources, rather than begin from the assumption that we all must live in 68 degrees.


Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Week 6 - Life As We Knew It

Sharon August 11th, 2008

With gas down to $3.89 gallon here and everyone trumpeting the rise of the dollar, I’m tempted to switch our book club to the “Happy Ending Book Club” but, I’m resisting.  So back to LAWKI.

First post today (I’m hoping there will be two, but I’ve got peaches and cucumbers calling me, so we’ll see) is the “Is this a real problem?  If so, is the book a good guide?”

First the commentary from DH the astrophysicist (remember to include an astrophysicist in your emergency kit ;-) ) - the author does a bad job of describing the event in real terms, but the effects are probably understated if anything.  If an asteroid that large really were to hit the moon, you would not see instant “knocking” out of phase, nor would it instantly become larger, or you have near-instant tsunamis.  Instead, what would happen is that the velocity of the object (in this case the moon) would change, so it would take several days for major tsunamis to hit, and the dramatic visual effect of the moon would change most 2 weeks later, at perigee.

That said, however, Eric’s take is that if anything, the author *understates* how dramatically the world would change if this actually were to happen - a moon that was 10% closer would create tides that were 30% stronger - forever.   Much of the coastal areas of most nations would probably never be inhabitable again.  The volcano eruptions and earthquakes are perfectly plausible - what isn’t plausible is that things would normalize as quickly as they do. Eric was actually quite impressed that Pfeffer managed to create such a original and fascinating disaster scenario - because in fact, it truly would be utterly disastrous.  The only other caveat he had was that it is unlikely that astronomers would, in fact, underestimate the mass of an asteroid quite so much - so people probably would have had some sense that the impact might disturb things on earth. 

Ok, looking at the book as a preparedness manual, some people were quite harsh about the mother’s preparations - and there are definitely things to critique.  But honestly, given that the implication is that the mother in the story has never, ever thought about these situations before, has never done any preparations, her level of foresight, is, I think, rather good.  That is, she thinks not only of bottled water and short term preparations, but long johns, tampons and medicines.  She makes a fairly rapid transition from “normal” to “prepared” and does, not spectacularly, but reasonably well.

 I admit, all the shopping scenes in these books have inspired me to play the mental game “what if I knew before everyone else” - that is, what would happen if I was fairly sure things were falling apart and had a little notice.  What would I buy?  I come at this better prepared than most people - my fantasies tend to settle in around dog food and fresh fruit for as long as I can get it. 

What I think deserves critique is how the Mother begins to sort out her children - I find the idea that a 13 year old, even one who was fed at baseball camp (which to be fair to the Mother and siblings, is, I think a large part of the reason that they are trying to preserve him - because he never endured as much hunger as the rest) would be the one they’d choose to survive kind of bizarre.  But even more bizarre, I think is the behavior of the father - the trek across country is incredibly risky, and he knows he probably won’t see his kids ever again.  I can’t imagine any divorced father of my acquaintance, or any decent father I’ve ever met, abandoning his existing children entirely in favor of a proto-child, even at his wife’s insistence, much less risking both their lives and the unborn child’s when the parents might cross to them. 

 Of course, this is a plot device, and parents do abandon prior offspring, but in a survival situation, investing your energies in the long-term survival of all offspring makes much more sense than the cross-country trek.  Having Dad and Lisa move in with Mrs. Nesbitt, who desperately needed more people in her house would certainly make more sense, although, of course, divorced families often act irrationally.

We were tough on the mother for her choice to preserve her son, and perhaps justifiably to a degree, but it is worth noting that she’s starving to death, and that does affect your ability to think critically.  The constant references to school work aren’t just, I think intended to point out that it is hard to keep going, but that it is physically hard to do mental work on inadequate food.

 One of the things that does impress me in this book is the level of family unity and endurance - that is, people do do what is necessary to survive and go on - Miranda does get through the winter to the hospital, even though it doesn’t help.  Matt does help save everyone from smoke inhalation.  The book has its weaknesses (I think, for example, the religious subplot is incredibly stupid), but it does show something that doesn’t appear in the shiny, guns and ammo stories - that a lot of the time, survival is just about going on from where you are, and picking up and going on again after the next set-back.

What are your thoughts?


Independence Day Update

Sharon August 10th, 2008

It has been a while since I’ve done one of these - I’m definitely still doing the challenge, I just don’t have time to devote every Sunday’s post to this, at least while I’m neck-deep in various class posts.   After the summer course season settles down, I hope to come back to it more. 

Part of the reason I don’t have time to write about it is that I’m actually doing it ;-) .  Harvest time is starting to get into full swing here - the tomatoes are late so I’m not doing those yet, and despite my claim that I brilliantly time my cukes so that they aren’t bursting out everyone until September, they’re already going crazy.  But we’ve had some cool weather, so the pickles are a happy thing. 

Ok, I’m not going to try and cover what I’ve done in the last month, just the last week or so.

 Plant something: Daikon, chinese cabbage, Rapini, arugula, spinach, peas, beets, kale, cabbage, various cover crops, rye grass and trefoil to cover bare spots in goat pasture where we dug the posts

Harvest something: Oh lord everything - tomatoes, peppers, hot peppers, garlic, onions, beets, sorrel, eggplant, apples, currants, raspberries, cabbage, broccoli, beans, cucumbers, zucchini - you name it.

Preserve something: Cucumbers into sweet icicle pickles, dehydrated zucchini “noodles”, dried blueberries, blueberry sauce, blueberry jam, raspberry jam, applesauce, honey-lemon carrots, pickled beets, mint syrup, lemon verbena syrup, sumac lemonade, dehydrated garlic, hot sauce.  Technically the transformation of my first goat milk into ricotta and chevre counts as preservation, but since the ricotta with honey and blueberries and the grilled tomatoes with goat cheese on homemade baguettes disappeared more or less instantly, I’m not sure I can really count this - but it was seriously cool.

Manage Reserves: Managed to get rid of all the veggies in the freezer (mostly ate them, but a few went to the chickens),  cleaned out the food storage room - kinda.  {ut most of the stuff that was waiting to go in buckets into buckets.  Need more buckets.  Cleaned out linen closet - then children got into linen closet, which badly needs re-cleaning.

Cooked something new: We got a grill/outdoor canner, so we’ve been exploring the pleasures of grilled vegetables, which I’ve always loved, but almost never made myself, since we’ve never had a grill.  I’ve made 20 versions of grilled vegetable salad, and love them all.  The children are starting to roll their eyes when Mom asks if there are any more zucchini around for her to grill ;-) .  We also split a cow with much of my extended family, and ended up with 30lbs of beef, which is pretty nearly a year’s supply for us.  Let’s just say that we didn’t buy much beef, other than stewing cuts and hamburger before this, so figuring out what to do with various pieces of our cow has been kind of fascinating. 

Stored Something: 40lbs of Chana Dal, 20 lbs of buckwheat (our homegrown!), more popcorn, plus various home preserved items.  Also stored more goat feed, dog food, cat food and beer (the last not being a survival item by my definition, but definitely is by husband’s ;-) ).

Prepped: Linens N Things is going out of business, and when the signs hit 70% off, I went.  I got two gorgeous flannel down comforters for $27 a piece (queen sized - will go on the boy’s two futons), and two large tablecloths without giant holes in them (to replace my many-times mended large tablecloths) plus 12 matching napkins - dirt cheap .  I also got 5 packages of clothespins for .50 each.  Stopped at Goodwill and found (on red tag day) a shirt for Eric, dress pants and a skirt for me (more professional events mean that my current wardrobe of jeans, cutoffs, tshirts, stained sweatshirts, things with goat poop on them and pajamas is umm…sadly lacking), two shirts for Eli and a totally unnecessary pair of superman slippers for Isaiah, who apparently got the shopping gene from my sisters, and was an excellent spotter of red tags, patient while Mom was trying on skirts, and whose patience was rewarded by a 50 cent pair of slippers.  Also picked up some sheet music and a new-in-the-box food mill at a yard sale.  This was more shopping than I’ve done in a year ;-) .

Also started moving my office upstairs, to our bedroom for the winter, so that we can shut off the downstairs bedrooms that don’t get heated well by the woodstove.  We’ll only open them up when we have guests, to save on heating. 

I have to say, this may be the best motivator I’ve ever had - we have more put away right now than we ever have at the same time of year. 

Ok, how about the rest of you?


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