Posts Tagged ‘Appliances’

More History

March 9, 2010

Reviewing the WordPress data for this blog, I find that many people arrive here after Googling phrases such as “how keep cold house warm”, “how cold too cold for cats”, or “heat bathroom with tub water”.   This is all very expected.  Today, however, I find that one reader stumbled on Cold House Journal after Googling “Where did Thoreau go potty”.

Fascinating.  I have mentioned Thoreau, but I don’t think I have used the word “potty” in any post, so I’m not sure how my blog got linked with this important question.  But since it has arrived at my doorstep, I’ll take a stab at it.  My first inclination is to answer, half tongue-in-cheek, “At Emerson’s house”– and this was likely often true.  While at Walden Pond I imagine he might have had an outhouse, but probably just went in the woods– I don’t recall any mention of outhouse-building in Walden, and it would seem unlike him to devote labor and materials to building a little palace to “go potty” in.  On thing’s for sure– he didn’t waste any heat with a flushing toilet.

Today, about 600,000 people (roughly the entire population of Massachusetts, in Thoreau’s day) visit Walden annually.  In homage to Thoreau, many of these visitors continue the tradition of crapping near, or possibly even in, the water.  Leading to problems.


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…)

Overnight Burn, Or Lack Thereof

January 14, 2010

Okay.  It’s objectively cold in here.  Even by my standards.  We’re edged up to what is, on historical average, the coldest week of the year here, and the past few mornings have been in the 0-5ºF range (-18 to -15C) outside.  The morning kitchen temps have been around 43ºF/6ºC.  Once the fire gets going, the downstairs gets into the 50’s.   But the bedroom probably hasn’t seen 50 in a week or more.

People keep asking me what quality of “overnight burn” we’re able to achieve with our wood stove– this is a popular topic of discussion among wood burning people.  (Example:  “You get a good overnight burn with that Vermont Castings at your camp?”  “Yeah, pretty good.  I top-load ‘er to the brim just before bed, get ‘er roaring, then damp ‘er down all the way and she’s good for seven, eight hours.”)  However, we haven’t bothered to find out the answer yet.  Generally we’ve stopped putting wood on the fire by 7 or 8pm, or when the temps get to the low 60’s, whichever comes first.  So by bedtime, it’s pretty much burned down to coals, and by morning, it’s a big iron icecube.  We could load four or five logs in just before bed, but really, what’s the point of heating a house while all the inhabitants are unconscious?

Post-Storm Sunday Morn

January 3, 2010

This morning it’s not especially cold out (27ºF/-3ºC), but a tad chillier than usual down in the kitchen and living area (48F/9c) in spite of being unusually warm inside (?62) when we went to bed.  The house doesn’t usually cool off that fast, but we did have high, stormy winds overnight which probably explains it (also, we slept in a lot later than usual.)  The good news is that the new chimney did not collapse in the blow (there were some doubts.)

We’ve pretty much renounced the space heaters since getting the wood stove installed– I have one heater plugged in to the portable programmable thermostat, set to 45º just in case.  (In case what?  Hm.  I guess in case I slip into a hypothermic coma here in the house, and so fail to keep the stove running– at least then the space heater will keep the pipes from bursting until my heirs can take possession of the house.)

Admittedly, though, this wood stove is seducing us into a bit more warmth than we’ve been used to.  It takes a while to heat up 300lbs of iron and the 50lbs of stone under it, but once that happens, it starts getting warm in here.  The problem is that for safety, efficiency, and emissions minimization, the stove has to burn at a certain minimum temperature of about 300-400ºF. But keeping the stove even just at 300º, consistently, takes the living areas up into the low- or even mid-60’s.  And I tell you, once it gets above 62 or 63 in here, I start getting drowsy and overheated.  It actually got to 66 at one point last week– I had to start pulling clothing off, and take a break out in garage until things cooled down.  This could all be fixed by taking down the quilt that keeps heat from going upstairs, or putting in a ventilation grate up to the bedroom– but that all seems backwards.

I love using the wood stove, though.  What it lacks in instant gratification, it makes up for in simplicity, beauty, and a tangible connection to the fuel that is keeping us warm[ish].  I love seeing the wood pile and admiring the uniqueness of each log as it goes into the fire.  I get to notice and envision what kind of tree each came from– oak, birch, beech– and I almost catch myself expressing gratitude to the trees for their help.  You don’t get that emotional connection to oil or propane.

Also, I love seeing the oil and propane delivery trucks driving in and out of the neighborhood, and knowing that none of them will be stopping at my house.


December 28, 2009

It’s a pretty big day here at the Cold House.  I spent all of Christmas day, and most of the following weekend, working on the wood stove installation.  Friend D. came over on Sunday to help with the final chimney-construction push.  This morning the Assistant Fire Chief of our town came over to do the official inspection and permitting.  I was at work, but J. reported that he found the set-up flawless, and commented that it was better-installed than many “professional” jobs.  (In fact, he told J. that, based on his inspection of their work, some of the professional installers “must be on crack”.)  Anyway, I was bursting with pride.

Tonight we had our first of three prescribed “break-in” fires, using just kindling and keeping the surface temperature at 200ºF for an hour.  J. and I sat on pillows and watched the flames while eating pizza.  It was grand.

Some perspective

December 23, 2009

There has been a lot of talk/criticism/snickering from various quarters along this basic theme:  “Those guys aren’t doing anything special at all.  Sure, they don’t have a furnace– but they’re using space heaters and an electric blanket, which is not “no heat”.  In fact, they’re probably using even more energy than if they just ran a furnace.  They are moroons [sic].  They should shut up and not force me to read about their lives anymore.”

In response, I’d first like to clarify that we never said we have “no heat”– we say we have no furnace, which is true, and we say we keep a cold house (by any usual standard), which is also true.  But to have NO heat would mean not only no space heaters, but also no light bulbs, no cooking, no listening to the radio, no computer (!), no vacuum cleaner– basically, no appliance use at all, because they all produce heat.  Also the cats would have to wear some sort of feline astronaut suits to ensure that they didn’t heat up the house with their body warmth.  All of this is a bit silly.

So, we do have heat, and some of it we make intentionally for no other purpose other than getting warmth.  But how much is that, in comparison to “normal people”?  Well, here’s some perspective:  Using information found here, I calculated that a house like ours would normally have a furnace capable of putting out somewhere between 88,000 – 96,000 BTU per hour (at the Old Cold House, the furnace could pump out about 105,000 BTU/hour.)  In comparison, our electric blanket on “high” puts out 614 BTU/hr, and on low, 122.  Our space heaters, if running full-tilt, can each put out 1,690 BTU/hr.  The most intense heat we’ve ever produced in the house, thus far, has been running two space heaters on “high” simultaneously– this is a rare maneuver, but even so, it only totals 10,240 BTU/hr.  Lastly, the (small) wood stove we’re putting in, a Jotul F3, has a capability of running (full blast) at 42,000 BTU/hr, or about half that of the usual furnace– which now seems like an enormous excess of heat to me, but you really can’t get stoves much smaller.  In case this is all hard to grasp, here’s a chart of the different heat-producing abilities:

Hopefully, this clarifies that we haven’t just traded one source of heat for a different equivalent one…

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!

Toilet Heaters, Personal "Offsets"

November 1, 2009

Back when I first wrote about the heat-wasting properties of toilets, I made a joke about “toilet-tank-water heaters”, a device so inane it could not possibly exist. However, I was later notified that such a device does exist– its purpose is to cure “problem condensation” on the toilet tank in summertime. The idea is that by mixing a percentage of hot water into the toilet tank, you prevent the sides of the tank from becoming cooler than room temperature after a flush, and thence prevent moisture from precipitating, dripping down, and causing problems. (In case you think I’m making this up, here’s an article on how to install one, from This Old House.) Of course, this magic comes at a price: unless you have solar hot water, you’re probably burning some sort of fossil fuel to supply hot water to the toilet tank. In summer.

Of course I was horrified to learn that people do this, doubly horrified when I learned that some of my own friends were already doing it, and triply horrified when I learned that another set of friends are installing the gizmos during their current bathroom remodel. To be fair, these last friends had a real problem. They live in Vermont, where it is fairly humid in the summer, and they do not use air conditioning, so their house is not artificially dehumidified. Moreover they have well water, which is very cold entering the house, and unlike many New Englanders they do not have a cellar– so there is no long stretch of pipe in an unfinished area where the water would warm a bit before entering the toilet. Lastly, they both work from home much of the time, so they use their toilets more than most of us. As a result of all this, their toilet tanks dripped incessantly during the summer. They had damage to their floors, peeling paint behind the toilets, mold and mildew, and other real issues. So, when they set out to remodel the bathrooms this fall, they put in the toilet-hot-water piping.

Needless to say, I gave them some crap. I felt that there were greener ways of solving this problem (e.g., how about a diverter valve for summer use that sends incoming cold water to a short outdoor coil before it goes up to the house for use? Or toilet tank insulation?) I set about number-crunching to find how much fuel they were going to burn making extra hot water for their toilets every summer. After making various reasonable assumptions, I concluded that they will use roughly two gallons of propane more each summer heating their toilet water. Horrifying.

But, my friend pointed out, shouldn’t they get some credit for simultaneously replacing their existing 3 gallon-per-flush toilets with new low-flow dual-flush toilets, which use only 0.9 or 1.6 gpf? I grudgingly conceding this might be true, and again set about data-crunching to determine how much heating fuel they will save in winter by having smaller flushes. And in fact, I found they will save roughly seven gallons of propane per winter. Thus, the net effect of their renovation is an annual savings of five gallons of fuel. And me left with little to poke fun at.

However, this net savings is largely due to the length of Vermont winters and brevity of Vermont summers. If you are much south of here, you won’t be able to do the same trick. Also, if you already keep your house cold in the winter, the fuel returns on the low-flush toilet start to diminish.

Finally: I am predicting that the smaller-flush toilets alone will cure my friends’ condensation problem, even if they don’t use the hot water mix-in. I am curious to see if this turns out to be true.