Archive for the ‘Opposition’ Category

Cold House Epidemiology & Psychology

October 2, 2011

Back in May, a group called the Marmot Review Team, in conjunction with Friends of the Earth, published a paper titled The Health Impacts of Cold Homes and Fuel Poverty.  An associated editorial was also published in the British Medical Journal.

The bottom-line conclusions of the Marmot paper, which focused primarily on Britain, are that living in cold housing is harmful, that the harm falls disproportionately on the economically disadvantaged, and that fairness demands that society provide more warmth to those in “fuel poverty”.

As you might expect, my feelings about this report are mixed.  On the positive side, I strongly support the authors’ sense of social justice, and of course agree that living in cold housing is potentially hazardous for elderly, disabled, or otherwise physically compromised people.

I have skepticism, however, about many of the inferences drawn in the paper, which are based primarily on epidemiologic correlations, rather than proven cause-and-effect.  For example, the paper notes that there is an increase in deaths over the winter months, and goes on to state: “Cold weather, and in particular cold homes, is believed to be a main factor in causing the winter increase of respiratory and circulatory diseases”.  The one citation for this statement leads to another policy paper by the same group, which, by my reading, actually provides no data whatsoever to support the assertion that cold weather (rather than, say, the increased indoor contact, lower exposer to fresh air,  and lower indoor humidities common in winter) cause these diseases– let alone any evidence for the “belief” that cold homes are to blame.

Indeed, I cannot picture any way that scientific conclusions on this topic could be drawn from epidemiology alone.  Why?  Because (more…)

Danger, Will Robinson?

February 20, 2010

I provided a little interview material for a recent article over at, which has garnered quite a few comments.  The most amusing of them was a guy who accused us of doing this only to save money in order to spend it on drinking more beer (which is funny, because we’ve actually been drinking less beer this winter.)  But here is an interesting comment thread:

“Autumn said… I think this is a bad idea. You could go to sleep one night and not wake up due to freezing to death. I have lived without heat before because of frozen pipes so I know you can get comfortable enough with warm clothing and lots of blankets but I think this is a dangerous thing to try.

Kelly said… Who ever froze to death at 52 degrees?

Justin said… It’s called hypothermia..and you only need your body temperature to drop to 95 degrees before it may not be able to be reversed. You may very well go to sleep and not wake up. Temperatures need not be below freezing for this to happen.”

This did get me thinking (after I stopped laughing, of course):  Is it likely, or even possible, that one could go to sleep euthermic, become hypothermic while sleeping, and perish without waking?

I’ve done a lot of outdoor activities in cold weather.  I have been mildly hypothermic, have been with people who were considerably hypothermic, and have known people who have died of hypothermia.  So I don’t take the topic lightly. Certainly it can and does happen that people become hypothermic, fall asleep / lose consciousness, and never wake up.  If you are already actively hypothermic, and your house (or igloo, or snow cave) is cold, I don’t suggest going to sleep.   I suggest staying awake and trying to get warm.

But my experience says (and a bit of research confirms) that an otherwise healthy person cannot go to bed warm-enough and then just die of cold in his sleep.  If you’re okay when you go to sleep, but start to get too chilly while sleeping, the first thing that happens is: you wake up, feeling cold!– so that your brain can do something about the situation before it’s too late.  Well before your brain becomes addled by cold, your body will start shivering violently enough to awaken you.  Indeed, if you’re feeling rather too chilly (but not seriously hypothermic), it’s pretty hard to get to sleep in the first place– which is a protective mechanism.

The fatal sleep that drags over hypothermic people after their body temperatures have dropped so low that their brains no longer function properly is a whole different story that unravels after your body’s defense mechanisms are exhausted.  But if you go to sleep not-hypothermic, you will not just drift off into hypothermia and perish without waking up and having a chance to do something about your situation first.

Cold Library Journal

January 23, 2010

An astute friend spotted this article a few weeks back (also from the Times) which discussed the temperature in New York City’s public libraries.  As you will read, in Manhattan, Bronx, and Staten Island, there are contracts which promise compensation to library employees for any periods of time that the temperature falls below 68º.  I am not making this up.

When the reporter went around to a few library branches to check their actual temps, he found they ranged from 73 to 79º.  I cannot imagine trying to stay awake reading a book in a room artificially heated to almost 80.  For that I would demand comp time!

Also in this article we learn that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers “suggests buildings maintain temperatures of 67 to 82 degrees for ‘comfort purposes.’ ”  82?  For reals?  The only voices of reason quoted are the government of the UK, which describes “reasonable” workplace temperatures as “at least 16 degrees Celsius, or a hair below 61 degrees Fahrenheit”, and President Jimmy Carter who asked us all to turn our thermostats down to no higher than 65 by day, and “much lower” at night.  Where did this sensibility go?

Ethics: Professional Opinion

January 22, 2010

Speaking of the NY Times, I happened across a bit in Randy Cohen’s “The Ethicist” column from last spring which addresses the exact issue that some friends/cranks brought up here last winter.  Namely: If your dwelling shares a wall with a neighbor, is it ethical to turn your thermostat down (or even, gasp, off) if you find cooler temperatures bearable/preferable?

Mr. Cohen came to the same conclusion I did (yes, it is ethical) via largely the same reasoning.  Knowing that this issue has been pondered by the nation’s best-known ethicist, and his decision published in a newspaper of record, makes me feel better.

This winter, of course, we’ve moved and no longer have any wall-sharing neighbors (i.e., we have become “normal Americans”– or at least edged a bit in that direction).  The loss of wall-sharing turned out to have little impact on anything. Instead of a neighbor blocking the entire south side of our house, we now have sun beating down on us (when it’s sunny).  I think, overall, it’s a wash.


January 14, 2010

There are still comments trickling in on the TV news website from our 15 seconds of confused quasi-fame.  J. forwarded this excerpt from one to me today:

“…What is bad about this cold house story is that it is highly recommended that you leave your house if it gets 55 or below it is a safety precaution for many reasons.”

This made us laugh pretty hard.  Ha!  Ha! we laughed.  What the “many reasons” are that one should “leave your house” if it gets below 55º (13ºC), we have no idea.  Even funnier is the idea of running out of the house as a “safety precaution” to save our lives from the cold, only to wind up outside in the driveway where it’s 45 degrees colder still.

I’m here to tell you that we’ve been sleeping in a bedroom that is BELOW 50 DEGREES for weeks now, and there have been no discernible adverse health effects, except that Max the Cat has taken to sleeping directly on top of me, which left me feeling a bit sore this morning.


January 10, 2010

Hoo– cold one today!  (Here, and everywhere)

Outside:  -1F/-18C

Living quarters: 43F/6C  (yes, I did just light the fire)

Cellar cold-spot: 38F/3C

Florida family:  36F/2C !!  (Brother sent a photo of nephew wearing a “hoodie” sweatshirt to stay warm while eating breakfast– however, green grass and lush shrubbery can be spied through the window.)

This might be as good a day as any to discuss the perennially-asked question, “How do you keep your pipes from freezing?”  (Also sometimes phrased in the form of a statement, such as, “You dumb #&#*.  You’ll be #&*(ing sorry when your #%%#ing pipes #*(%@#ing freeze ha ha haaa!”)  Anyway, it’s a good and valid question.  In the old days, people had wells and outhouses; the limiting factor for how cold a house could be kept was the bodily tolerance of the human inhabitants.  Nowadays, with fancy indoor plumbing, the limiting factor is the point at which pipes start freezing.



December 29, 2009

Boy, it can be hard dealing with some of the critics of the Cold House experiment (and by “critics”, I mostly mean “my friends”).   Over the past few weeks, several pals have said ,”You know, I don’t think you really want to keep your house cold– you just want to be energy-efficient” (this in response to our installing a wood stove).  Others have said, “You know, I don’t think you really want to be energy-efficient– you just want your house to be cold and weird” (this in response to my not installing geothermal heating, or a pellet stove, or applying more insulation to the house before starting all this.)

It’s not so black-and-white here, people.  We’re trying to save some energy.  We’re trying to use more-renewable energy.  We don’t mind (almost like) the house chilly.  We’re don’t have a furnace, ducts, heating water pipes, steam pipes, thermostat wiring, “zones”, or permanent radiators, and we’re interested to see whether people can live a normal life without all that complex and expensive stuff– but that doesn’t mean we aren’t “allowed” to have a wood stove.   Lastly we (well, I) am interested in learning about human beings’  mental and physical ability to adapt to new environments– colder ones, particularly.  That’s it.


December 22, 2009

Predictably, the recent local TV news story about the Cold House—  in spite of being only about 70 seconds long– unleashed a string of vitriolic commentary.  I will take a moment to respond to them:

“I am not impressed. If you are eco-friendly you would probably not use electric to heat your home with space heaters or electric blankets. Don’t these people know that it requires fuel to produce electric? Why not invest in a wood burning stove, they heat an entire home and it is efficient.”

Thanks for the tips.  Now finally I know where electricity comes from!  Before I thought maybe it was the Electricity Fairy.  Seriously, though, possibly you are ignorant of the fact that close to half of Maine’s electricity comes from wood, wood waste, and hydro (according to the Department of Energy).  And you seem to completely miss the point that using a space heater or electric blanket here and there is vastly more efficient than keeping every corner of your house hot with a furnace.  As far as a wood stove– yes, we’re putting one in.  However, even the very small stove we’re installing needs to burn at a minimum rate of at least 20,000 BTU/hour  or so in order to keep itself efficient and keep the chimney clean.  That’s about four times the heat output of the space heater we’ve been using in the living area.  In other words, it’s more heat than we’ve needed, so far.

“I am not impressed either….they still use electricity which comsumes resources, sometimes even more than gas heating….really people, get over yourself!”

So sorry you are not impressed either.  Please rest assured that we are over ourself (?).  As far as your suggestion that electricity “sometimes” uses more resources than a gas furnace, I agree.  It would, if we were using electric heaters the way people use gas furnaces: to keep their whole house at 68º, or even to keep various “zones” in a range from 56º to 68º.  If people could (and then did) use gas heat to heat one room at a time as needed, and keep those rooms well below “normal” temps, then yes, it would be better than electric.  But most heating systems don’t allow that level of control, and most people wouldn’t do it anyway.

“Doesn’t using additional electricity for space heaters and electric blankets defeat their blow hardy purpose? Give me a break! They haven’t given up anything. Congrats on your 15 minutes… clearly that was all you were after. haha Can’t even believe this made news.”

Look buddy.  The electric blanket puts out 614 BTU/hr for the 30 minutes we have it on “high” nightly, then 150 BTU/hr for the rest of the night on “low”.  Compare this to the recommended-sized furnace for our house, which is 88,000 BTU/hr, and you will get a sense of how silly you are being.  As for “haven’t given up anything”, compared to most people (you?) we have given up about 25º in our bedroom when we wake up in the morning, and about 14º around the house most of the day.  It’s not nothing.  As for fame: I’ll take it.  But we didn’t call the TV people– they called us.

“we’ll probably read in the paper that the house has burned down next…so many nuts around ….obviosuly the squirrels didn’t gather them all this fall.”

Wow.  Thanks for the comment.  Remind me not to invite you over when you run out of oil.

“keep useing those will be back in the news (FIRE DESTORIES FALMOUTH HOME)”

Nice.  Merry Christmas to you too, friend.  BTW, we give free spelling lessons here on Thursday evenings if you care to drop by.  But destorying the house isn’t a bad idea– we could probably get by with just one floor.  I’ll take it under advisement.


December 14, 2009

J. and I were interviewed by USA Today last week for their story “Households take up challenge to be chilly“, and we got a little mention at the end of the article. (You might be concerned about the idea of using hot water bottles and electric blankets together in bed– please rest assured that we did not have these operating at the same time. And, we’ve since discontinued the water bottle use anyway.)

The comments on the USA Today article range from encouraging to extremely frightening. There is a large contingent of Americans who openly oppose energy conservation, efficiency, simplicity, and anything else that makes them think there is a socialist conspiracy against them. They left comments like these:

“Stupid. These idiotic greenies won’t be happy until we ALL return to the horse and buggy. Funny thing about these eco freaks is that they are not happy to just do it themselves. They insist that everyone join their ridiculous ‘religion’.” [I am happy doing it myself. Did I even invite you? I did not.]

“Other than cost reduction, why do I need to conserve if I have the means to pay for the energy use?” [I don’t know. Why do I need to not shoot you, if I have the spare bullets?]

“There you go. Lower our standard of living one household at a time! Obama’s trickle up poverty in action.”

“Well, I guess I’m just an old curmudgeon. I keep the house at 71 throughout the heating season and that’s as low as I will go. Sell crazy somewhere else; we’re all stocked up here.” [So I see.]

“These people are just useful idiots!” [Uh- thanks? Or did you mean useless? U can haz high school?]

“As far as running one’s house without a furnace, that’ll continue until someone’s in-wall plumbing freezes and splits a pipe. [In-exterior-wall plumbing is foolish in places where it routinely gets below freezing outside. But see post coming soon on the topic of pipes.]

“People arent the ones making the planet warmer, deal with it. The earth is a large volcanic eruption away from blocking out the sun, I bet if we throw enough liberals in one, itll get angry and erupt. Maybe then they will be happy.” [So global warming is the only reason you can think of for not burning as much oil as we possibly can? Really, you can’t think of one other reason?]

“I’ll do what I want with my heat until this dictator Ozama his new Heating Czar takes my furnance out of my house! This community dis-organizer and his band of moorons has basically overstepped its’ boundaries at every turn. Just say NO to socialism in America (Chicago style) to take your country back!” [Must I comment on this?]

“How about maintaining some common sense and keeping the temperature inside the house at a normal level? My neighbor has all kinds of insulation on his pipes… I don’t have any. I don’t need any. I keep my inside house temperature at a normal level and I have no problems.” [This guy is proud of his lack of insulation? I am not sure this could get any more effed up.]

“My house I will do as I want! Again my house until the democrats send teams around to check my thermostat or have the utilities turn it down automatically.” [My toy! You no touch! I don’t wanna share! Baaaaah!]

“These people are probably the same people who are hyper-milers who go around with their cars coasting down hills in neutral (to save money of course) – which in turn is not only illegal but puts other at risks. If you want to be efficient to that extreme then go for it… just don’t affect my life with that.” [Not sure how I am affecting this guy’s life with my house temperature, other than maybe saving some oil for his grandkids to burn in 2040. Also, this guy is probably the same guy who drives a monster SUV or king-cab “dualie” pickup, just to impress people, meanwhile endangering the lives of everyone on bikes, on foot, and in smaller cars…]


“This is just more faux environmentalism that makes people feel like they are doing something (in this case freezing their bu++s off) when in fact they are doing nothing. It’s like people that take these so-called eco-tours or eco-cruises.” [??]

“screw that. I think I’ll turn up my thermostat a bit to make up for these yahoos trying to reduce their “carbon footprint” I would like to see a contest built around who can generate the most carbon dioxide per person.” [Hope you aren’t procreating.]

“Wow, that looks like tons of fun. Huddling around the TV while shivering in your own home.” [What TV? And, more fun in my home than in yours, I’m guessing.]

Heroes Of The Cold House, #1: Dan Sullivan

October 22, 2009

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.)