Archive for the ‘Product Endorsements’ Category

New Toy

October 26, 2010

I have a new toy, a birthday gift from my parents.  It’s a temperature/humidity datalogger (this one— one of the few compatible with Macs).  Basically, this gizmo keeps a constant internal log of the temperature and humidity, at intervals you specify (every second, every hour, whatever you like).  Then when you want the data, you plug it into your computer’s USB and all the stored information downloads.  The software makes lovely graphs, and you can export the data to Excel for further manipulation.  It’s very cool.  If you find such things cool.  I stuck it on the underside of the kitchen island.

Now, here is the first readout, comprising three nights and two days (most of which we were at home).

The nights, as you can see, produce lovely “decay” curves as the house gradually cools (the first night it was about 30º out, the past two have been warmer.)  The steepest upswing, on Day 1, was a brief fire– you can even see a blip where it started to die, and J. added a second log.  The more curved upswing on Day 2 represents a bit of space-heater use.  All the other small upticks are making coffee, french toast, grilled cheese…  Overall, our temperature over this span averaged 59ºF.

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Cold Rocks

July 7, 2010

Frankly, I do not know how people manage to live anywhere south of the 43rd parallel.  It has been plenty hot enough here– but I know I don’t have much to complain about, when it’s been over 100ºF (38C) in Boston and New York and Philly and Baltimore.  Those places, I’d perish.  Here, it’s just damn hard to sleep.

So last night (would’ve done it sooner, if I’d thought of it) I pulled out the bedwarmer stones that have been sitting idly since March and threw them in the freezer for half an hour before bed.  Aaaahhh!  Absolutely delightful.  J. put one under her feet.  I lay on my back and put mine right on my chest.  Really, really good.  Try it.  Use a pizza stone, or a flat rock from the back yard, or whatever you can find.

Product Endorsement Day

February 23, 2010

Here are a couple of products which have been helpful in getting through the winter in a cold house.  First is, basically, a rock with a handle:

This is a soapstone bedwarmer from Vermont Soapstone.  My parents gave us a matching set of these for Christmas, and we’ve enjoyed them greatly (my mom reports that she had one as a kid in New Hampshire, and that my grandparents continued to use them throughout their lives.)  Basically, we just put them on top of the wood stove as the fire’s dying, then carry them up to bed.  J. likes to drag the stone back and forth across the sheets and pillows to warm up the bed; then you just cuddle up with it.  Sounds kind of weird, but the soapstone has a very silky feel to it that is surprisingly pleasant (the website says it’s “almost therapeutic”.)  Another great thing: if you bake a pizza for supper, you can throw the rocks in the oven after you shut it off.  They’ll still be warm for bed.  My endorsement of this product is tempered only by the fact that the company is currently waiting for a permit to resume quarrying the stone locally in Vermont, and so is temporarily importing from Brazil.  Let’s hope they get their permit soon.

Next up: The Hat.

This thing is awesome.  I bought it originally as a potential Christmas present for my nephew, but decided it might be too scary for him (or for my niece to see him wearing.)  So I gave it to J. instead, but she doesn’t seem to wear it much (even though it looks really cute on her.)  What is it supposed to be?  I’m not sure.  It sort of makes me think of Monty Python, and/or Donnie Darko.  But the manufacturer claims it is a yeti (don’t look like no yeti I’ve ever seen, though.)

In any case, this hat is really, really warm.  It is so toasty warm.  I have a collection of about five house-hats now, but this one is my favorite.  The fake fur really is much better than a crappy wool or fleece toque.  This has got me to thinking about fur-wearing, historically, as a very useful strategy for coping with cold environments–  one that is not generally accepted as an option anymore (apart from the Upper East Side, perhaps.)  But it’s given me some insight into why we killed all the buffalo.

A Tale Of Two Heating Systems

January 28, 2010

In past years, my good friend D. and I had similar heating systems: oil boilers and old-fashioned cast-iron steam radiators. As of last autumn, though, J. & I had just bought a new old house with no heating system at all, and D. had just ripped his heating system out– leaving us in the same boat of starting more or less from scratch, heating-wise.  D. wound up installing a Viessmann condensing natural gas furnace driving a system of hydronic radiators.  The Cold House wound up with a Jøtul wood stove.  We’re both very happy.

These systems have something in common: arguably, they are both among the lowest-environmental-impact heating-retrofit options readily available (barring still-somewhat-extreme options such as geothermal and  solar applications).  As such they both qualified for federal tax credits.  In every other way, though, they are just about polar opposite.  Which is better depends entirely on your lifestyle, expectations, and personality.  Here’s the main control area of D.’s system:

The burner (far right) actually condenses the water vapor in its own exhaust to reclaim that heat; in this way, it has around (more…)

Efficiency & Bathroom Humidity

January 27, 2010

Reader Frank recently commented:

“Another strategy that I’ve found useful is the proper use of the bathroom vent fan. I know the cfm rating of it and after figuring the size of the room determined that the fan is capable of completely exhanging ALL the air in the room in under two minutes! Excess humidity is no good either; the windows throughout the house frost up noticeably more when the fan doesn’t get used and interior humidity is too high. Anyway~ fan stays off during shower operations and gets flipped on for 1-2 minutes right after, and that’s it. Most of the humidity goes out, most of the heat stays in.”

This reminded me that I’ve been meaning to to discuss bathroom vents.  To start with my conclusion: unless you use them as Frank does (i.e., most judiciously) I think they are a horrible idea in winter.  They are the equivalent of cutting a hole in the wall and blowing cold air in through it at somewhere between 50 and 200 cubic feet per minute.  Oh, I know– they don’t blow air in, they blow air out.   But that air is replaced with air from some other part of your house… which is replaced with air straight from outdoors.  There’s no way around this fact.  You don’t really notice it, probably, because it’s sneaking in through a thousand cracks, and you’re likely in the shower while it’s happening.  But it’s a travesty.

In fact, it’s a double travesty, because besides replacing warm air with cold air, you are losing the (much larger) amount of heat contained in the water vapor.  One of my Cold House mottos is that water should leave the house in the same phase of matter (more…)

Cellar Tour

December 14, 2009

Here’s a quick tour of some of the Cold House cellar features.

This is the laundry area:

We generally wash with cold water, but we do use some hot for whites. The washing machine discharge is conveniently located, making it easy to reclaim wash-water heat. Method: I start the machine, setting it for 8 minutes of washing. I go away and return in 7 minutes. I put the discharge hose in a big bucket. When the machine starts draining the wash water, I collect the water (it’s more than my current 5 gallon bucket will hold, so I just watch carefully and pause the washer before the bucket overflows). Then put the hose back in the drain before the rinse cycle starts. I cover the bucket of hot water and bring it to the kitchen to cool (just like the dishwasher water.)

Speaking of hot water, here’s the hot-water-heater timer I installed yesterday:

At the old Cold House, our hot water was heated by a heat exchanger in the furnace boiler, and was essentially tankless– so we could turn it off easily when not in use, and not keep hot water percolating when we didn’t need it. Unfortunately the new house has just a standard electrically-heated storage tank, which is not so easily controlled. But this timer will help. It’s very flexibly programmable, so we will be doing experiments to see how much it can be turned off. For the moment, it’s set to be off between 9:00 pm and 5:00 am weekdays (9:30pm – 7:00am weekends), but likely we’ll be able to shut it off during the day some, too. If you’re desperate you can push the white button and turn it on any time (or, turn it off…)

Next, this is our wood pile, just waiting for the stove to be installed. It makes me feel warm just looking at it (it also made us quite warm moving and stacking it.)

Lastly, this is the kitty door:

They have a ramp down to the floor. It does not seal very well, unfortunately, but is still probably better than repeatedly opening the human-size doors to let cats in and out. This spot of the house is the one area where I do have concerns about frozen pipes– the drain from a bathtub we rarely use is just adjacent to the window and cat door. So, I’m monitoring the area with the remote thermometer sensor (the little white box atop the pipe.) Right now it’s 45. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue, but I’m going to get some extra insulation done there just to be on the safe side.

Clothes Drying: Big Improvement

December 7, 2009

Longtime readers will recall my ongoing struggles (intellectual, physical, moral) over the issue of drying wet laundry (first, second, third.) To summarize:

1) I have found no simple, dependable way of reclaiming heat from the dryer (i.e., re-condensing the moisture from its exhaust air);
2) Air-drying indoors in the winter is not much more energy-efficient (it uses almost as much heat as it saves) and not practical in the Cold House (things take eons to dry at our temperature, and we already have more than enough moisture in our air); and
3) Air-drying outdoors is fine in summer, but just not functional here in winter (clothes freeze before they dry, no one wants to wade through snow drifts to get to the laundry, etc.)

Now as the days get colder, I’m particularly displeased with running the dryer: I’ve done some math, and determined that in 45 minutes of running, the dryer sucks all the air from our cellar (which is replaced, of course, with cold air from outside.)

Frustrated with efforts to get back heat from the dryer, I turned my attention to the idea of using it less. One option was to not do laundry till spring: this was quickly squelched by J. The next option was extracting water mechanically rather than thermally. The idea there is that moving water uses much less energy than evaporating it.

I first tried giving laundry an extra run through the “spin” cycle of the washer, but that had no measurable effect. So, I made in investment in a commercial product, the hyper-drive spin-dryer from Laundry Alternative ($135). Success! Running a recent medium load of just-washed mixed clothing through the spinner, I extracted an extra 1.5 liters of water that would otherwise have been boiled off in the dryer. Based on some previous measurements, that represents about half the water content of the laundry load– which should, at least theoretically, reducing the dryer time by 50% (we do have a dryer that senses humidity and shuts itself off at a certain “dryness”, so there’s no guessing with a timer.)

Putting some real numbers to all this: the spin dryer uses 300 watts, and I ran it for about six minutes for this load of laundry– so that’s 0.03 KWh of electricity used. Compare this to the energy needed turn the same volume of water to steam: 0.95 KWh (and that’s assuming absolute efficiency– in reality of running the dryer, it would be more.) In other words, getting this 1.5L of water out with the spinner saves at least 97% of the electricity that the dryer would use to do the same job. Oh, and as an added (trivial) bonus: the 0.03 KWh it does consume winds up as heat inside the house, rather than sent outdoors!

The downsides to the spinner: (1) it isn’t dirt-cheap– at current electricity rates, it will take several years to actually pay for itself. Then again, our big dryer may last twice as long and need half as many repairs if we run it half as much, so you have to figure that in… (2) It’s a bit of a hassle– the spinner basket only hold a third what the washing machine does, so you need to spin a load in two or three stages. (3) The instructions have an inaccurate diagram which resulted in damage to the first unit I bought, having to return it, etc– if you actually buy one, email me and I’ll tell you how to avoid making the same mistake!