Last month the mayor of Anchorage, Alaska, Dan Sullivan, announced the launch of a “three-tiered alert system” designed to conserve natural gas in the event the city faces a sudden shortfall in supply during the winter (which, for various reasons, is apparently not all that improbable.) Under the scheme, the usual status is “Green”, in which residents may feel free to use/waste as much gas as they like. Should a “Yellow Alert” be announced, however, residents are asked to (voluntarily) turn their thermostats down to 65º (!!), turn their heated garages down to 40º (!!), and reduce the temperature of their hot water. If things get really dire, there could be a “Red Alert”, at which time “thermostats should be set to 60 degrees” and “household activities should be consolidated into as few rooms as possible”.
Here at the Cold House, we spent pretty much all of last winter under a state of “Red Alert” (with the exception that we didn’t turn off our hot water) and were none the worse for it. In fact most of our house was well below 60º, most of the time. As you may remember, we turned our large-ish kitchen into a semi-insulated “bunker”, in which we did most of our living. Our bedrooms and bathrooms were essentially unheated. We had the hot water turned off altogether for about 20 hours of each day.
But Alaskans are already dubious about doing this, even in an emergency. One intrepid Anchorage columnist did test out the idea a couple weeks ago, turning his thermostat down to 61 while watching TV for the night. He didn’t enjoy it much, and neither did a visiting friend who “did little but whine about the cold house”. After the trial, he was highly skeptical that even supposedly-hardy Alaskans would ever voluntarily turn down their thermostats to 65, let alone 60– noting (accurately) that “many Americans find 68 a sacrifice”. His suggestion was that all residents should, instead, be encouraged to build an “Alasaka panic room”– a super-insulated retreat within the house that can be heated to toasty temps by a wood stove. Not a bad idea.
Further evidence of extreme psychological resistance to the idea of living with less warmth showed up in the comments posted to news articles on the mayor’s announcement. One character wrote: “They’ll have to pry my cold dead hands from the ‘HOT’ shower faucet!!! The colder it gets the more gas I’m gonna use, it may be the only way we get more gas.” Sadly for our collective future, the prevailing sentiment has been to say eff the conservation experiment. Or worse.
Undaunted, however, the city of Anchorage decided to go ahead with a test-run of the program last night, asking residents to turn down their heat to 65º, turn down their water heaters to “warm”, and not do laundry. For a whole two hours. From 6pm to 8pm. You might picture Alaska as already frozen solid this time of year, but in reality the temperature at the time of the test was about 40º–just about the same as it was here in Maine– so if someone’s house started at 70º, two hours probably wasn’t even enough time for it to get to 65º, let alone suffer long at that temperature.
The internet comments following the announcement of the trial-run were predictably oppositional. One mom wrote “My thermostat has been on 62 degrees all day. Of course, when I get back home, I am going to turn my heat back up. Let’s think realistically here.” Another wrote “GET MORE GAS FOOLS!”. A third reported “I farted in a jar tonight to save gas.” One fellow, clearly an outcast, did note that “somewhere a long-gone sourdough is laughing his butt off because people in anchorage are whining about 65 degrees”. But his attitude was in the minority.
Anyway, the results of the test are pending. But whatever they are, I say: way to go, Anchorage, for at least suggesting it’s possible for people to exist without tropical temperatures in the winter. And I am nominating Dan Sullivan for the first Heroes Of The Cold House award. (P.S. Mr. Sullivan: we kept our heat off last night. All night.)