October 27, 2015

With a bit of a heavy heart, I must announce here some changes to the Cold House infrastructure, and, probably, way of life.  For reasons that defy simple logic, but have something to do with a natural gas line being put on our street, and also something to do with a sense on some people’s part that “seven years of this is enough”, we have recently installed at the Cold House one Viessmann Vitodens 200 modulating-condensing gas boiler, 3 zone pumps, 3 thermostats, 7 Runtal flat-panel radiators, and the piece de resistance, a hydronic “towel warmer” in the bathroom.


WHY?  Why me, God?

I ask this myself, but so far have not gotten an answer.  Perhaps, to quote Thoreau, it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.  Or maybe I was pushed.

In any case, there it is.  It has many moving parts and a manual of computer codes and fault messages that resembles ones I’ve seen from the Apollo navigation system.  It is not simple, and it was not cheap– two strikes against it already, in my view.  Indeed, under our prior habits, I could’ve bought enough firewood to last the rest of my life expectancy for the same cost as just installing this thing (really, almost exactly).

But, it is magical.  And the idea– my idea, at least– is that this will not supplant the wood stove.  It will just take the edge off (edges such as those mornings or returns-from-work where the house is at 45º).  We can still heat only the downstairs, and we can still heat that only minimally.  But in reality, I can already see it may be a slippery slope.

I am still tinkering with the boiler set-up in an attempt to actually make it stay in condensing mode as much as possible, which requires that its return-water temp stay below 130º as much as possible.  Allegedly, it can achieve 95% efficiency that way.  Interestingly, it will be most efficient in the “shoulder seasons” when it doesn’t need to produce very hot water.  Meanwhile the wood stove, of course, is most efficient burning full-bore, as in mid-winter.  So theoretically they could be good partners.  We’ll see how theory matches up with practice.

In the meantime, after resolving never to deal with last year’s wood supplier again, I put in an order mid-winter for this year’s cord, with a more reliable source– only to have that source completely disappear mid-summer (phone number disconnected, website gone, etc.)  As the kids say, she “ghosted” me.  So in July I tracked down yet another supplier, who promised a delivery for this week.  I have my fingers crossed.  Then, just as I was wondering “Why IS it so hard to get firewood here in a state full of trees??”, a friend sent this horrifying Onion-esque news story about hardwood logs being used literally in support of the fracking industry.  Which, now, I am a freaking customer of.  Unless I go all apeshit and tear the Viessmann out…

Season Wrap-Up

April 23, 2015

Well, that was a pretty intense winter.  We had record cold (coldest February on record), near-record snows, multiple blizzards, a firewood shortage… there wasn’t much time between the shoveling and ice-dam mitigation missions to sit down and type.  Also, I went skiing for a while.

But it seems to be over now.  We had tonight what will likely be the last fire of the year, so I pulled up the datalogger data for the winter to see where things settled out.  I was a little late in getting the logger running at the start of the season… but here is the graph, from December 2 to today:


The average temp for this winter was… 54.6ºF — which is 0.1º colder than last winter!  Standard deviation = 5.0º.  The maximum temp was 71.0º (house sitter, who had fully permission to make herself comfortable : )  Minimum temp = 41.1º.  So, all in all, pretty consistent with winters past.

But, this may be the last year of wood-only heat.  Certain residents are strongly requesting that we get a “real” heating system, and, coincidently, the natural gas company is bringing a line down our street this summer.  We are looking at various other options (pellet boilers, mini-splits, nuclear) but one way or another by next winter we will probably have something that operates with one of those new-fangled “thermo-stats” that you hear about.  Still, it’s my plan to keep using cordwood as the primary.

Meanwhile, in other efforts towards sustainability– a solar PV array went up on the garage roof earlier this week:IMG_2083_2

Yesterday it cranked out 28 kWh, which I was pretty pleased with.  Today was rainy and cloudy, so only 14.  I’m hoping for a year-round average of at least 16 kWh/day, to make this worthwhile.  We shall see…

Mid-January Update

January 17, 2015

Here we are in the thick of the cold season.  Unsuprisingly, it has been cold.  It’s a few degrees below zero (F) outside this morning, and 48º in the kitchen (the fire hasn’t kicked in yet…)

The average temp this winter, so far, now stands at 54.4º.  Standard deviation 4.5º.  Maximum 66.9º, minimum 42.9.

Here’s the latest graph!


The long flat spot around Jan 1 was when we went away for a few days.  We do have one petroleum-burning device in the house (a Rinnai propane heater in the cellar), but ironically we only turn it on if we’re going to be away from the house for a few days, to make sure the pipes (and cats) stay liquid.  It does a pretty good job of holding the house at about 50.

Christmas Miracle

December 24, 2014

In a true Christmas miracle, the guys who promised me firewood back in July, and have been telling us increasingly strange stories since early October about why it hadn’t arrived yet, finally actually showed up with it.  It isn’t perfect wood– at 23% moisture (measured with my handy moisture meter) it wasn’t quite the “<20% moisture” certified on the invoice they left.  And, it is by far the dirtiest firewood I’ve ever seen.  I don’t know how they managed to get the wood so dirty.  If it went in their kiln that way (and I suspect it did), no wonder they needed an EPA air quality permit for the thing.

Anyway, we were down to the very last sticks of our very first wood purchase (2009), but now we’re good for the winter now (one cord).  I won’t be buying from these guys again, I think.  To avoid this situation in the future, I’ve already put my order in for next winter with someone more reliable and upfront:  Heidi of Heidi’s Firewood (she probably doesn’t need extra publicity, but there it is.)

Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a cold night!  (Though actually we are supposed to have rain and record warmth tomorrow…)


Early scorecard

December 20, 2014

I was a little late (Dec. 7) in firing up the datalogger this year, but we now have a couple weeks of temperature data to report.  As you’ll recall, the datalogger is located on the kitchen counter, which is probably the warmest place in the house, on average, excepting the few square feet around the wood stove.

So far this season, the maximum temp is 65.2º, the minimum is 43.3º, and the average is 54.5º.  The standard deviation is 4.3º, so we can assume that the house is spending at least 2/3 of its time below 60º.


In other news, the firewood-seeking saga continues.  I am tempted to Name n’ Shame the people who are, currently, two months overdue for delivering to us– but as J. has decided to give them one last chance I will withhold that unless / until they fail to come through.  The backup plan, at this point, is industrial compressed hardwood sawdust blocks.  Which are not at all aesthetically pleasing, or especially inexpensive, but do stack nicely.

Thought Problem

November 9, 2014

Suppose it’s winter, and you’ve just come back from the packie* with a six-pack of warm beer.

If your goal is minimizing your household’s overall energy consumption, is it better to throw the beer straight into the fridge, or put it out on the porch until it’s cold, then put it in the fridge?

( * I’m from Massachusetts originally.)

The chill is in

November 8, 2014

It is a refreshing 52.4º  (11.4ºC) in the house this morning– the first time this season it has dipped below 55, I think.  Feels great!  The sun is out so it will warm up soon…

When is it “okay” to turn the heat on?

October 31, 2014

Friend Nathan forwarded this piece from Yankee Magazine, discussing New Englanders’ tendency to pick a certain date on which is feels “okay” to turn on the heat.

Of course, the short answer is that it’s never really okay to turn on the heat, the same way it’s really not okay to be doing most of what we do to the planet.  Also, I’ve noticed that many people (even New Englanders) don’t even know they have control over this.  It’s surprising how often, in late September or so, you hear people announce “The heat came on last night!”, the same way you’d say, “I saw a flock of geese heading south this morning!”  I guess some people just leave their thermostat at some set temperature year round, and that decides when heating season ends and starts.

Our heating season may end very early indeed, if the supplier who promised us firewood doesn’t come through.  In July they promised us two cords of kiln-dried in early October.  When we called in early October, they said it was going to be a bit yet, plan on early November.  When J. called yesterday, just to check in, their voicemail box was full, and they haven’t yet responded to an email… This seems like a Bad Sign…

Hot house

October 21, 2014

Just came back from the gym, all sweaty, to find that someone had lit a fire earlier in the evening!  Now it is a stifling 65º in the kitchen…  might have to go take a cold shower.  I guess it has begun.

Meanwhile, we are playing a bit of a game of chicken with the firewood situation.  We have only about 1/3 cord left in the garage from past years.  My plan for this winter was to buy a cord of “kiln dried” wood and put it in the cellar, which is much more convenient than the garage.  Our first year here, it was no problem to buy kiln-dried in November.  This year, though, I started calling around in July, and was shocked that the first two outfits I called said they couldn’t help.

Yep, hard to believe, considering we have way more trees than people, but evidently Maine has a firewood shortage.  That, and the fact that we are basically lousy customers (we have bought two cords in five years, while the average household buys 3-5 cords PER year) led to a problem.  By upping my order to two cords, I was finally able to find someone who promised me a delivery in mid-October.  When we called to check in early October, though, the date got pushed back to early November.  And I will not be terribly shocked if we just don’t get any at all… which will really be a problem…


Heat delayed

September 21, 2014

Bowdoin College (a bit north of here in Brunswick, Maine) apparently has not yet turned their heat on (though they plan to next week).  According to their student newspaper, the college saves $8,000 for every day they delay turning on the heat.  That would pay for about 16 years of heat at my house!  Anyway, I applaud their efforts to delay.  Though waiting a few more weeks would be more impressive.

Here, no fire yet.  But I’ve split three boxes of kindling, and cleared space in the basement for the two cords of wood I’m hoping will show up in the next few weeks.


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