Heat Still Off

Just an update, in case you were wondering if I’d frozen to death. (Answer: No.) Certainly I’d envisioned that by this point my heat would be on, or else I’d be running three space-heaters full-tilt around the clock to stay alive. Neither is the case. I use one space heater, at partial-tilt, for parts of the day (sometimes two heaters for brief periods, if I have company and they might object to a cold bathroom.) I have used the electric blanket some lately, while sick, just to stay warm on the sofa– but that uses only 150 watts. It’s pretty much like sitting on a lightbulb. I’ll admit to cooking and baking somewhat more these days than usual, which does warm up the kitchen, but I find no shame in that. And I’ve gotten much better about deviously reclaiming heat from doing dishes, showering, and drying laundry.

Now the solstice has passed… Christmas has passed… still I haven’t seen a need for the central heat. We’re getting more and more sunshine every day, which encourages me. Statistically, the next four weeks are the coldest of the year here. But, statistically, they won’t be much colder than it’s been already. So, no promises, but it seems conceivable that the switch could stay off altogether this year.

You might be wondering how this is possible– to pass a winter in New England without turning on the heat. I’m kind of wondering myself. I wouldn’t have believed it two months ago. The little auxiliary bits of alternative heat mentioned above do add up and help. But beyond that, I think it comes down to three factors: Physiology, physics, and psychology.

Physiology: With just a space heater or two, your house simple isn’t going to be so-called “room temperature” (68F/20C). Your body will need to get used to being less warm. I’m finding out, it’s not that hard. Another post later on the mysteries of human cold adaptation; but I can attest that I now routinely feel comfortable in temperatures which, in October, would’ve had me shivering. In fact, I have noticed only three shivering periods: (1) Shaving in the morning, with wet face and bare chest– but this is followed by hot shower; (2) Undressing in the evening & putting on cold PJs– but this is followed by warm sleep; and (3) While sick– this was miserable, but I think unrelated. Otherwise, my body’s now pretty happy inside at a temp of about 54F/12C during the day and 38F/3C for sleeping. Getting used to temps in this range is definitely the prerequisite.

Physics: It’s astonishing how much less effort is it to keep the house at 50F/10C than it is to try to maintain 68F/20C. Temperature differentials play into everything. A cold house loses what heat it does have much less quickly than a hot house. It’s much easier to keep up with replacing it. This is something I never really had an instinct for, prior to the Cold House experiment. In the old days, if it was 15F outside, and I had my house at 68F, and turned the heat off for the night, it wouldn’t surprise me to wake in the morning up finding the indoor temp had dropped 14 degrees to 54. Which, initially, led me to some fright that my water pipes could freeze if I went to bed with the house at 50… because the same spread (50 minus 14) starts to get uncomfortably close to freezing.

But this just doesn’t happen. The closer the house gets to the outside temp, the more slowly it cools. I never see a general 14 degree drop overnight now. Maybe 5 or 6 degrees, on a really cold night. If the house is anywhere above 40F, and the outdoors isn’t below 0F, I don’t have any worry now about freezing pipes while I sleep.

And happily it works in the reverse, too– the colder the house is, the more heat gets reclaimed, faster, from warm stuff going on. I mentioned before that my pleasant surprise realizing that if my bathroom is below 48F, I actually get heat from the municipal cold water when it refills the toilet tank. That’s fun, but pretty trivial. More considerable is the amount of heat my cast-iron bathtub soaks up from a hot shower; full post on that coming later, but suffice to say, when the tub starts really cold, it absorbs a lot more of the water-heat than if it starts warm. And the colder I let my kitchen get overnight, the more heat I get back from my dishwasher-bucket. And so on. Between these two benefits, it’s really not that hard to keep the house in the 50F/10C range without the furnace.

Psychology: Stay tuned, I’m thinking about that one.

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