Physiology Experiment, Part I: A History of Central Heating in New England

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 2008

So, over the past few months, I got to thinking, you know, about Peak Oil, and about how– or even whether– people are going to live in New England after. We use a crapload of oil (and natural gas) staying warm up here. Everyone talks about how much fossil fuel cars burn up, but that really pales in comparison to what most around here burn up heating our homes (not to mention other buildings). Mid-winter even a small home of average age is likely burning four, six, eight gallons of oil a day or more. Crazy. Some people heed suggestions such as “turn your thermostat down one degree to save up to 3% on your heating bill”, but in the big picture that doesn’t add up to much.

In winter, here, we run from warm place to warm place. We keep our homes somewhere between 65˚ and 72˚F, maybe turning it down to 58˚ or 60˚ just before we dive under the warm bed covers. Our offices, malls, supermarkets, and other enormous buildings are kept on the warm side of the range. In our cars, where the heat is “free”, we tend to really blast it. Many people even have remote car-starters so the car can be run for several minutes before they leave the house, avoiding those few moments of cold driving before the heater kicks in. We grudgingly tolerate bits of cold between racing from house to car and car to office, but generally (with the exception, for some, of weekend outdoor recreation) we makes no bones about avoiding cold as much as possible. Most people with means take a mid-winter trip south to “warm up”. Even the words “warm” and “cold” have clear positive and negative connotations in our language.

But the reality is, this is not a remotely sustainable way to live in this climate. The ongoing (increasing) population of this region is attributable, mostly, to good fortune in heating-fuel developments. Let’s review the history:

When Europeans first arrived here, there was plenty of wood to burn. There were huge trees everywhere, and not many people. In the 17th century, massive, inefficient fireplaces burned massive quantities of wood to keep homes barely warm. Burn all you want, they made more. Slowly, though, there were more people, and fewer trees. The remaining trees were increasingly far from the population centers, and it was not so practical to transport wood (which is very bulky, for its energy content) over increasingly long distances. For a while, the wood-heat economy was sustained by 18th-century improvements in technology, particularly the Franklin stove and Rumford fireplace, which burned wood more efficiently.

These innovations only staved off the inevitable. By the 1840’s, the majority of land in every New England state (with the exception of remote parts of Maine) had been cleared of trees. Widely-dispersed rural citizens still had enough enough nearby trees to heat their own homes and villages, but acquiring firewood wood in urban areas became increasingly difficult to untenable.

Luckily, about this time, along coal and railroads. Coal has far more BTU’s per pound than wood, and the railroads were more efficient than ox-carts for transporting heavy loads. And the supply was plentiful. In addition, it was more convenient: coal was so compact that an entire winter’s worth could easily be stored in the cellar. And a coal fire could be “banked” before bed to provide heat all through the night without re-loading. In response to these pressures and advantages, metropolitan areas rapidly switched over to coal heat.

Initially, coal heat came from coal stoves which provided local heat in the house, much like their wood-stove predecessors. Later, a crude sort of “central heat” was employed in which a massive coal stove in the cellar sat under a grating in the floor above. Heat rose up through the grating to the first floor of the house, where daytime living took place. A second floor was likely to contain the bedrooms, which received only residual heat, either through a second set of grates or, more likely, just an open staircase. Warmth in bed depended on quilts, pets, spouses and (shocking) siblings.

This system was not especially efficient, however. The basement must’ve been the warmest place in the house. And upstairs, some rooms would’ve been much warmer than others. The next advance was steam heat. In this scheme, you still have a big coal furnace in the cellar. But instead of heating the air, it boils water to produce steam. The steam is led by a system of pipes to radiators throughout the house, where it condenses, releases its heat, and flows back as water to the boiler. Radiators and pipes could be sized and located in such a fashion as to produce “balanced heat”– every room roughly the same temperature, and even each part of each room roughly the same temperature. All the homeowner had to do, when he wanted to warm up the house, was go down cellar and throw a shovel-full of coal into the furnace. The rest was more or less automatic. As an additional benefit, the precision with which steam could be moved upwards allowed houses to reach up to more than two floors, while keeping all the heat-stoking machinery in the basement. This, I’m sure, was one factor which led to the boom of New England triple-decker construction starting in the 1870’s.

The advantages of central steam heat, it seems, were so compelling that all new construction employed it, and everyone else retro-fitted it. Growing up in Major Metropolitan Area in the 1970’s, steam was still by far the most prevalent method of residential heating. Hundred-year-old steam radiators are still at work in the Turbopalace, in my parents’ house, and in millions more homes. The disadvantages– primarily, the habit of the pipes to bang and clank– were sufficiently minor as to still be tolerated today.

But coal as the source of the heat to provide the steam was not to last. In spite of its improvements over wood, coal had several detractions: it was dirty to handle, it was dirty to burn, and it could not easily by fed into furnaces by automatic machinery, Perhaps most importantly, you could not readily turn a coal fire on and off– you could crudely control the heat upstairs by shoveling more or less coal under the boiler, but that was about the limit of thermostatic adjustment.

The appearance of oil (and later, natural gas) solved all these problems. With oil, you never have to see, let alone touch, the fuel that will heat your home. Instead of a dusty coal bin in the cellar, you have a sealed oil tank. Instead of shoveling the coal into the furnace by hand, it flows through a pipe to the burner. The burner runs on electricity, has a powerful blower, and can be controlled by a thermostat upstairs. The only remaining tasks for the resident are selecting a preferred temperature, setting the thermostat, and paying the oil bill. Truly miraculous. Sometime around WWII, virtually everyone retrofitted their steam systems to run on oil burners instead of coal. [The suddenness of this seems to have been a bit Pompeii-esque, and has left considerable evidence of the earlier era. Often the old, disconnected coal boiler was left in place for decades next to the modern oil one. And often a partial-season’s worth of coal was left in the cellar. I remember as a kid that there was still a coal shoot, and some lumps of coal, in our basement. V., over at Life In The Slow Lane, reports the house she bought a few years ago has a pile of coal downstairs to this day.]

In theory, this has been “progress”, and everything has gotten more efficient, wasting less and less of the heat contained in our fuels. But, in typical American fashion, that efficiency has been tapped more to increase comfort and convenience than to reduce fuel use. This seems, to me, directly related to the increasing physical and psychic distance we have from the fuel. We’ve gone from being able to count the trees out back, to having coal rolling across the landscape from West Virginia in open hopper cars, to having oil delivered from Saudi Arabia in tankers and pipelines that are largely unseen. We’ve gone from having every member of the family handling pieces of firewood throughout the house all day long, to one person handling coal in the cellar once or twice a day, to never touching or even seeing it. We’ve lost direct connection to our heating fuel, and that makes us much much more likely to waste it.

In my opinion, our current trajectory and attitude is wholly unsustainable. All else being equal, if oil goes up to $6 a gallon, or OPEC clamps down the supply, people will not feel it’s worth living here. I envision New England rapidly depopulating.

If we could burn fuel with the efficiency of today, but with the habits of yesteryear, we’d be in much better shape. In my parents’ older house, and my grandparents’ even older one, there has never been a source of heat in the bedrooms. The only heater on the top floor of the house is a small radiator in the bathroom– and that, I surmise, only as a necessity to keep the water pipes from freezing. When my parents bought their house in 1972, there weren’t even ventilation grates to the heated floor below. Bedtime was cold time. Sometimes really, fucking, bone-chillingly cold. I well remember when, some years later, my parents caved in (slightly) to the modern concept of warm bedrooms and had some small gratings cut in the floors, to let a speck of heat upstairs. That was a big luxury. But the other day I was researching what the definition of a “bedroom” is (for property-tax purposes) and found that in many modern jurisdictions a “bedroom” is required to have heat. Things have changed.

There is no doubt about it: People here in New England used to be colder all winter. And yet they didn’t move away. Even before the softy Europeans discussed above, Native Americans somehow found winter here tolerable– and they didn’t even have the benefit of metal tools to cut trees, or stoves to burn them in. How can it be that the Abenaki and Penobscot and Wampanoag made it through hundreds of winters here? How can it be that the Pilgrims didn’t abandon the region as uninhabitable, after the first winter?

The only good explanation I can think of is that people in the past used to adapt to cold, while people of today just avoid it. I am on a bit of a quest to discover whether this might be true.
POSTED BY TURBOGLACIER AT 3:35 PM
3 COMMENTS:

brushfiremedia said…
I posit that the Abenaki of yore would not have eschewed central heat if they had it. Though, they may have been smarter about its use.

Personally, I’m all for most people moving away. It’s getting crowded, and doesn’t seem to be improving the economy much anyway. Truck ‘em south, I say.

11/26/08 4:34 PM
Johanna said…
When I see my parents at Christmas, I spend a few days in a colder environment than where I live. Not so much the inside part (their wood-heated home tends to be warmer than my natural gas furnaced one) but family Christmas tends to mean a lot of time poking around outside for us. When I come back to southern Ontario, inevitably, I spend a few days walking around with my coat open because the same temperatures that made me shiver before I left now seem a bit balmy.

Similarly, when winter camping, coming into a snow shelter with inside temperature of around freezing feels warm.

This year, I’m back to walking/biking to work, which means 25-45 minutes outside twice a day by default. This isn’t even counting all the puttering around I do outside by choice. I dress differently than when I car-commuted, but I also tolerate a substantially cooler home than a year ago.

However, if I sit still for >20 minutes, I’m cold at home. I wear a long undershirt, a wool sweater, long pants, wooly slippers, and sometimes a toque. If I’m on the couch, there is a throw blanket around my shoulders, and I’m still cold. But if I’m puttering around the kitchen or hanging my laundry on racks or vacuuming or working on any of my many projects that don’t involve sitting still in front of a computer or television or with a book, I’m perfectly comfortable. I conclude that our proclivity for warmer homes has a lot to do with our more sedentary lifestyles.

Also, I spent my early childhood years in a home without central heating of any sort. It is perhaps no coincidence that my siblings and I all spent time in the (heated) playroom but never (unheated) bedrooms, and as soon as we moved to a Canadian house with heat in every room, we turned our bedrooms into our own little kingdoms and our toys migrated there. As soon as it was available, we took advantage. It probably comes as no surprise that contemporary Inuit homes, in my experience, are warmer than my house, which is kept on the lower end of your home temperature ranges above (and definitely warmer than the Turbopalace).

I find it intriguing that you don’t take the leap of logic and consider that heating technology may change again. You seem to assume that once oil is no longer affordable, New England becomes uninhabitable, rather than, once oil hits a certain price level, geothermal heating becomes a reasonable alternative.

And for what it’s worth, we – all of us in the developed parts of the world – *do* lead unsustainable lifestyles if we’re going to take a global view of it. Funny how we take it absolutely for granted that we are “entitled” to these.

11/27/08 11:03 AM
Anonymous said…
This post is either the argument against Canada, the argument for global warming or the argument for more efficient building standards.

11/28/08 11:03 AM
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2 Responses to “Physiology Experiment, Part I: A History of Central Heating in New England”

  1. Cold House Journal Says:

    […] about gives me apoplexy.  Anyway, she is shocked, and I would be too.  Indeed, I was shocked, three autumns ago, when oil was close to $4/gallon– so shocked that I didn’t turn on the furnace until New Year’s, and started a […]

  2. Peripheral Central Heat « Cold House Journal Says:

    […] worked out well with the advent coal and oil heat.  Until the 1970′s or so, fuel was relatively cheap and plentiful, and burning it was […]

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