Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

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…)


November 23, 2010

We’ve barely made use of our two space heaters since the day fire was born.  But yesterday we were both out all day, the house was chilly (49º) when we came home, and for the couple hours we’d be up before bed J. logically opted to use a bit of miniature electric radiator rather than fire up the the wood stove.  A little later she asked me to turn it down, so I set it on “medium” power and thermostat setting.

This morning I got up, came downstairs to the kitchen, and my first thought was, “Whoa whoa whoa… it’s crazy warm down here.”  Then J. got up, came down, and had the same reaction.  Yes, obviously, we forgot to shut off the little heater.  But the funny thing is, it was only 57º in here– a temperature which, in old times, I would’ve found shockingly cold in the morning, rather than shockingly warm.  Truly, you do adapt.

Buddhism, Happiness, Freud, The Cold House

January 31, 2010

I’ve been reading a book by Dr. Mark Epstein about the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and Western psychotherapy (professional interest, mainly, but I recommend it to anyone remotely interested in the topic.) Early in the book, Epstein describes “a basic Buddhist concept… that the pursuit of pleasurable sensory experiences leads inevitably to a state of dissatisfaction, because it is the nature of pleasure not to be sustainable.” He discusses the Buddhist realization that unhappiness (or “suffering”) is the inescapable result of trying to “extract lasting pleasure or meaning from what is essentially a transient pleasure.”

A marvelous parallel exists between this philosophy and Western psychotherapy’s insights into human nature.  As Epstein quotes from Freud (in Civilization and its Discontents):

“What we call happiness in the strict sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been dammed up to a high degree, and it is from its nature only possible as a periodic phenomenon.  When any situation that is desired by the pleasure principle is prolonged it only produces a feeling of mild contentment.  We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things.”

I’ve been thinking a lot, during these two winters, about heat as an addictive drug, or intoxicant, or sensual experience, to which we’ve all grown tolerant and inured. Over the past 50-odd years people in these parts have come to expect, insist (more…)

Gender, Thermostats: Poll

January 29, 2010

Conversation this morning (house temp 45º):

J:  When are you going to the office?

Me:  Not– working from home today.

J:  Great!  Then you can light a fire!

Me:  Hm, maybe.  Why, when are you going to class?

J:  In an hour.

Me:  Well, that’s not enough time for it to warm up in here anyway.

J:  Oh, pleeeease just promise me it will be in the 50’s by the time I get home tonight!

I think people reading these pages picture J. and I in perfect harmony about this cold-house thing, but that’s a phony image. Like couples everywhere, we bicker a bit about the temperature in the house.  True, the “set point” around which we bicker may be 10 or 15 degrees lower than “normal”, but the process is recognizably similar.  I’m to the point where 48-50º is fine for protracted periods.  I’ll let J. speak for herself, but my guess is that she’d choose 5-10º higher.  Please note that this still makes her an exceptionally good sport, in my book.

The stereotype, of course, is that men like/tolerate colder (or as we call it, “more normal”) house temperatures than women. People have written news stories on the topic, and the Times (UK) asserts there are physiological underpinnings.  Certainly among the couples I know with widely divergent temperature preferences, it is the man who likes it colder– but it’s not a large sample size.  So I’m interested in feedback from readers as to whether this is just a sexist stereotype, or whether there is something to it.  In your house, who likes it warmer?  By how much?  And a potentially illuminating question– do same-sex couples and have just as much disagreement about the thermostat as different-sex couples?

Also (assuming there is any basis to this all to begin with), is it that women prefer it warmer per se, or that they have a narrower range of comfort?  For example, in hot places– where the question is A/C instead  of heat– do men still prefer it cooler, or does the disagreement reverse, with women wanting to turn the A/C down to 68, but men wanting it at 74??

[Addendum:  I managed to titrate the fire so that it was 50.2º when J. got home.  I am a man of my word.  But I’m not sure she was entirely amused.]

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.

No-Heat Challenges

December 8, 2009

There was an informative article a few weeks back in the New Jersey Star-Ledger about “no-heat” challenges, in which packs of loonies band together in an attempt to outlast each other before flipping on the furnace in the autumn (or winter, as the case may be.) I will nominate the various people who organize such challenges as Heroes of Cold House Journal– they include Fern over at Wild Blue Yonder, Deanna at Crunchy Chicken, and probably many others. I’m pretty sure that I lack the charisma to actually attract/motivate/brainwash hordes of others into joining in on my experiment (I did try– made a Facebook page last year for the purpose– a dozen or more friends “joined”, but most openly confessed they were only following along to mock me.) Anyway, I’m glad there are people out there who are actually organizing others to try living less-hot.

I was interested (and a bit amused) to read in the article that Fern, even while organizing a Challenge, had herself “dropped out in mid-October.” The article reported that “She and her two cats were just too cold in their Connecticut house.” Fern was quoted as saying “My indoor temperature was about 56, and that was as cold as I could get… You’re only human.” Amusing only because early-to-mid-October is when average (normal, non-no-heat-challenge-participating) people around here (Maine) seem to start turning their heat on. This furthers my evolving belief that what you tolerate as “comfortable” temperature-wise has a lot to do with your expectations, what you see going on around you, and what you’re accustomed to. I have absolutely no doubt that 56º feels colder in Connecticut than it does in Maine, and colder still in Maryland.

Also, along the same lines, after a week or two of dank, rainy, 50ish degree weather here, we finally returned to seasonally normal weather. Now there’s snow on the ground and it’s a crisp 24º outside. And I can report that 52º inside definitely feels warmer this week than it did last week– I think because, in comparison to outside, it is.

General Update

December 2, 2009

December 1st! Coming up: the twelve coldest weeks of the year [on average]. Hard to believe that in just six weeks, it will actually be getting warmer out [on average] and that in twelve it will be no colder than it is now [on average].

I guess it’s hard to believe because we have, so far, had an unusually mild late autumn.

Nonetheless, I just checked, and the warmest it’s been in the warmest part of our house this week was 60.2ºF (lowest, in the warmest part, 50.2º) Right now in here it’s 57º, which has come to feel “warm” to me. We are routinely eating breakfast at about 54º (and hats) without too much trouble.

Still haven’t managed to get the wood stove installed, so thus far we’ve just been heating, to the extent that we are at all, with one space heater, the electric blanket, lights, cooking, dishwashing waste water, crankin’ the stereo, etc.

There was one amusing story recently: A relation of J’s came up for a night last week, from southern New England. She knew about all this barely-heated-house crap and was, I gather, prepared to be miserable. On arrival, she remarked that it was f#*(ing freezing in here (I’m paraphrasing from a second-hand account) and noted that she is no softy, she keeps her thermostat at 62º, but this is just ridiculous. Then J went and found the thermometer and determined that in fact it was 64º inside. She was pretty pleased I think. Anyway, the moral of the story is that at least half the question of comfort is in one’s head, and has as much to do with expectations as with reality.

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.)

Behavioral Change

October 17, 2009

I still don’t believe that technology, alone, will or can save us from ourselves. I still think the problem with heating houses in cold places isn’t that we’re running low on fuel, or that we need better insulation or more advanced, efficient high-tech heat-producing technologies.

Witold Rybczynski wrote a brief piece in the latest Atlantic Monthly generally agreeing with this. He writes,

“The problem in the sustainability campaign is that a basic truth has been lost, or at least concealed. Rather than trying to change behavior to actually reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. Keep doing what you’re doing, goes the message. Just add a solar panel, a wind turbine, a hybrid engine, whatever.”

The behavioral change he advocates is a reverse exodus, from suburban housing back to high-density urban living. He points out the incontrovertible fact that, per unit of living space, detached single-family homes waste more heating (and cooling)

energy than apartment buildings or townhouses where neighbors share walls. He argues (and I agree) that any reasonably well-built multifamily building will be inherently more efficient than a suburban house arrayed with solar panels and other “new-fangled” green technologies.

But I can’t agree that the best behavior change we can make, in regard to the enormous quantities of fuel being used to heat our buildings in winter, is to abandon the millions of existing suburban homes and build millions of new urban homes for all the refugees thus created.

I think the problem is that we are addicted to extreme warmth and have forgotten how to live without it. And the simple, if unsexy, behavior-change solution is: get used to being somewhat less warm, some of the year, in some parts of your house. The way every person who ever lived in a temperate climate, for all of history, up until about 100 years ago, was used to it. Stay where you are. Don’t spend $10,000 for new windows. Spend $50 on a down vest and a hat, and decide it isn’t crazy to wear them indoors. Turn the thermostat down five degrees. See if you aren’t still alive in a week.

Towards the end of his diatribe against “tricked-out” quasi-green suburban housing, Rybczynski says “A Thoreau-like existence in the great outdoors isn’t green. Density is green.” If by “a Thoreau-like existence” he refers to the McMansions lately built in the vicinity of Walden Pond, I will agree. But otherwise, I think the author shows some ignorance of Thoreau’s accommodation and lifestyle. Much of the time Thoreau lived in the homes of Emerson or others (i.e., “multi-family” living). So far as I know, the only time he had a home entirely to himself was during his experiment at Walden– there, he lived in a ten-by-fifteen foot cabin. Not many people– urban or otherwise– live in 150 sq. ft. these days, and I think that is “dense” by almost any standard. Also the cabin was built almost entirely of recycled or on-site materials, using no power tools. It was heated (barely) with firewood felled a few yards away and split by hand. And I guarantee you the average winter temperature in that cabin was lower than in any home you could find in Massachusetts today.

A Thoreau-like existence, I would argue, is green anywhere. Thoreau also wrote quite a bit on the question of how much of what we think of as “necessities” are really luxuries– heat included. Perhaps some more on that later.

Culture-Bound Delusions

January 6, 2009

Delusion, as defined in DSM-IV: “A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary. The belief is not one ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture.” (emphasis added).

Apropos of that, Green Grrl just posted the link to this excellent article in a comment below, but I thought it was worth moving up front. It shows how the belief that one can go through winter without central heat can be considered delusional, dangerous, and unstable in one culture, while being perfectly normal in another.

While Mr. Sakamoto’s town in Japan goes about its barely-heated winter as usual, here in New England pleas for fuel-oil assistance are approaching record levels. Some quick math from that article reveals that, as of December 22, almost 9% of all households in the state had already been approved for government aid for heating oil. And winter’s only half over. Even more fascinating, the article says that “the average benefit is expected to be about $940”– which I’m pretty certain is much more than I’ll spend, total, on heat this winter. Kind of shocking.

I have no issue with spending taxpayer money to keep people from truly getting hypothermic. That is money well spent. But perhaps the first question that should be asked, on the “emergency” fuel assistance application, is, “How much of your home have you decided to keep cold for the winter? If none, why?”

[P.S. I am definitely going to build a kotatsu for next winter.]