So long, and thanks for all the fish.

November 19, 2020

This is a ceremonial last post to Cold House Journal, which, like the rest of the world, has fallen on hard times / into warm water. With renewal up and posts down, it’s time to pull the plug. We had close to 10k visitors annually back in the day, but now down to <1k. Don’t worry, I have all the posts archived as PDFs, in case aliens ever land and want to read them. You can always reach me at coldhousejournal@gmail, at least until Google ends.

Boy, things have changed since I started writing this in 2008. Back then heating oil was over $3/gal, and no reason to think it wouldn’t keep climbing. We’d just elected a climate-change-believer to the White House. “Drill, baby, drill!” had been defeated at the ballot box. And with the Great Recession just arriving, people needed to think about economizing in their everyday lives. Between all these things it seemed likely that we would all be reducing our petroleum usage. And possible, if not likely, that the U.S. would actually take some meaningful action on carbon emissions. Maybe even take a leadership role.

Then came the fracking explosion, and falling petroleum prices. And the backlash against everything Obama. The invention of “fake news”, which of course included climate change. The “global world order” / liberal child trafficking conspiracies that somehow came to encompass everything from the Iran nuclear deal to the Paris climate accord. The people in monster pickups boxing other people’s hybrids and e-vehicles into parking spaces, I guess just to show them who’s in charge around here. The invention of “rolling coal” for similar purposes. The raging about a “war on coal” (to parallel the “war on Christmas”).

And of course since 2016 all hope of rational national action on climate has been out the window, with deniers in charge of government, and non-deniers distracted by a thousand and one other more pressing outrages. Wantonly burning petroleum has, at least among a substantial segment of the population, become not just acceptable, but downright patriotic. To “support American energy”, you see.

Meanwhile winters have gotten less cold, and summers have gotten hotter. In 2016, a storm took out a backyard tree at the Cold House. We had had never called the tree “the shade tree” until it was gone– but immediately, it became clear that’s what it was. We’d never owned an air conditioner before, but suddenly the bedroom was uninhabitable in July & August without one. So, burning energy in summer where we never did before. (I’ve planted a new shade tree. It’s going to be a while…)

Today, here in Maine, heating oil is at $1.70/gal– equivalent to $1.40 in 2008 dollars, so less than half what it cost when I started writing here. Right now, dozens of office buildings downtown are being heated with almost no one in them, thanks to COVID, while thousands of people are working from home, burning more heating fuel to do so (but hopefully offsetting most of that by burning less gas going to work.) The newest house to be built in our neighborhood– looming over the nature preserve at the end of the street– is also by far the largest in our neighborhood. And the owners have a second (or third?) home in Florida, so good chance this one will be heated but vacant much of the winter, too. Overall, motivation to efficiency and conservation seems to have dropped off nationwide. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it’s how it seems to me.

With a science-believer heading back (maybe) to the White House, there’s some hope for action again. But without a Senate majority, it will probably be limited. And even if unlimited, it seems likely already to be too late. Much too late.

If there is anyone out there still “subscribed” and reading, I’d like to thank you for all the comments and debate along the way. It was quite enjoyable. And I’d like to thank the various media outlets who had me/us on for interviews– NPR, USA Today, the Weather Channel, BBC Scotland (at 2am my time) and quite a few others– that was a lot of fun. And the nice literary agent who reached out and said I should write a book (I didn’t.)

As a final thought, I leave you with an image of a circumspect cat and this morning’s fire. Thanks again.

Annual update

April 16, 2017

Another winter more or less survived here at the Cold House.  I don’t have any indoor-temp data to share this year, because the antique datalogger has sunk out of compatibility with the latest OS.X update and can’t be read out anymore.  Safe to say the house has been colder than most, still, but warmer than it used to be.

This winter we burned about 1.2 cords of wood, and 141 ccf of natural gas.  That works out to about 2/3 of the heat from wood, 1/3 from gas.  In dollar-value it was closer to 50/50.  The total cost for the winter was about $600.  When I hear of people spending multiple thousands of dollars for heat for the winter, I am still amazed and feel bad for them.

In other home-energy news, the solar panels continue churning out the juice.  Somewhere back when I wasn’t paying attention they hit the 10 megawatt hour mark.  On net, they produced about 88% of our electric use for the past year.  Basically we wind up running out of “credit” around February and have to pay for maybe a month of electricity before starting to run a surplus again all summer.  Unfortunately our climate-change-denying Governor is determined to end net-metering here… so waiting to see where that goes.

There are still some bits of snow on the ground in the neighborhood but it’s warm and sunny out, so I’ve got to get to yard work.  Enjoy the spring!


Mid-winter update

January 24, 2016

Many people (well, like seven) ask me, “Why aren’t you posting to Cold House anymore?  Is it because you died of exposure?”   Well, no, we’re fine here.  To tell you the truth, there just isn’t that much to report, because (a) we had a record-warm December, (b) we had our second-latest-ever first snowfall, and mainly (c) there’s that central heating thing now…

But you might be curious– how HAS that central heating thing affected the Cold House lifestyle?  Well, I have to admit, it is nice to come downstairs in the morning and find that the kitchen is 56º instead of, say, 46º.  And it’s also nice to come home to a similar temperature at the end of the work day, instead of waiting an hour for the wood stove to get in gear.  But, we’re still using the wood.  In fact, the two systems are living in reasonably good harmony.  The main zone thermostat is about 8 feet from the wood stove, so as soon as it’s putting out any heat, the gas boiler knows to shut down, and the wood takes over.  And we’re still using other conservation strategies learned during the Cold Years, such as keeping the spare rooms closed off and generally unheated (the guest room is on a separate zone, set to 40º, and the office radiator is turned off.)

So what are the numbers?  So far this winter (since October 31, when I turned on the datalogger) the living room / kitchen area has averaged 56.9ºF.  That’s only 2.5º warmer than this time last year, which is a smaller increase than I’d have predicted.  Much credit is due to the other resident of the house for her restraint with the thermostat! (Not that there haven’t been a few tussles!)  Standard deviation = 4.5º.  The lowest temp so far was 46.7º.  The high was 68.8º.  Here’s the temperature graph so far:


In terms of fuel usage… we’ve burned 5,900 cu. ft. of natural gas.  Which sounds like a lot (I’m picturing a rather large swimming pool), but amounts to only about $100 worth (not counting the $20 monthly “utility fee” from the gas company.)  And of course we’ve used some wood, but it’s harder to gauge– maybe half a cord, maybe less.  But unlike past winters, we’ve had absolutely no electric space heater use, so that’s helping keep the electric use down.

Speaking of which, the solar panels are still cooking along.  I’ve been pleased that they seem to clear themselves of snow pretty quickly, just one or two sunny days after a storm.  Overall they’re producing a bit more than I expected, and we’ve been using less than in past years– so there’s a slight chance we might come out at net-zero for electric use for the year.  But won’t know that until we get to their one-year anniversary in mid-April.  Stay tuned!

Stay warm, wherever you are!  (Especially in Slovakia!)


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…