Posts Tagged ‘Strategies’


November 14, 2010

The way this all started, at the previous Cold House, was that I decided to seal off the kitchen / sofa room– a space of about 150 sq ft– as a “thermal bunker”, and  just kind of live in there for the winter.  It worked well.  At the New Cold House, we have tried to do the same, closing off (unheated) guest rooms and isolating the upstairs with quilted barriers in the doorways.  But the floor plan here is a bit more open, and the new “bunker” is now more like 375 sq ft.  Not quite the same cozy feeling.

Anyway, all along I’ve been fantasizing about having a micro-space that could be quickly and ultra-efficiently heated to high temperatures.  The idea is someplace to go that just warms your body, without having to warm much of the house.  This would be great on those occasions when you’re just getting a little too cold, starting to shiver, can’t quite reclaim normothermia– to get warm, fast, without starting a fire and warming the whole bunker.  It would, in other words, be a super-bunker.

Or, in other other words: a sauna.  Or something like it.  There are lots of places we could build one, theoretically, but given my level of expertise in finish (Finnish?) carpentry, the cellar is the logical answer: even bare 2×4’s and plywood would improve the general aesthetics of this cellar.  I would build it out of rough stud walls with heavy insulation and cedar paneling on the inside.  It would be about 15 sq ft (100 cu ft) and would only need a tiny sauna heater, say 3kW.  I think it would be capable of reaching 170ºF in about 10 minutes, using about 6¢ of electricity.  And with a craftily-designed  adjustable vent system, at least at least a good part of the cellar-sauna heat could wind up in the bunker after use.

Has anyone built such a thing, or something similar?

Dr. D’s Magically Medicinal Hot-Hots

October 24, 2010

This morning J. was complaining that while she was not cold, her fingers were.  I started thinking about ways to try to open up some peripheral vasodilation, so that the fingers would warm up.  I remembered a bottle of “warming tonic” a naturopath friend had concocted for me about a decade ago, and fetched that out– but decided it might’ve expired.  I tried droppering some Tabasco under my tongue, and thought that might be having a good effect– but realized J. was never going to go for that.

Eventually I decided to try making some capsaicin candy.  I followed this recipe, but doubled the cayenne.  I’d never made candy before.  [When I asked J. where her candy thermometer was, she gave me an extremely skeptical look and asked me why I wanted it.  I said, “For an experiment”, which I guess confirmed in her mind that it was going to be dipped in gasoline or worse.  When I added, “An experiment in making candy”, she said, “Yeah, right.  I’d love to see you make candy.”]  But it turned out quite well!  J. not only ate the first piece I gave her, but went back later on her own and had more.  She reported that her face felt warm while “using” the candy.  I think it might be a winner.


October 18, 2010

For reasons I cannot fathom, J. strenuously objects to my yeti hat (which I wore this evening, being unable to remember where I stored my more traditional black toque.)  However, today she sent me this, suggesting (I assume) that we buy/make/commission one or more of these frightening head garments:

No doubt they are quite warm.  The book seems to be out of print, but I will discuss with my friends who knit things whether they can fashion something similar.

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.

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…)

Passive Geothermal: A Hole Where The Heat Comes In

January 24, 2010

When I first moved to the previous Cold House, the cellar was the warmest place in the house in winter.  The cellar steam pipes were uninsulated, and did a better job of heating the cellar than getting steam to the upstairs radiators.  I shudder to think of the oil I burned that first winter (and that the previous owners must have been burning before me)– sheer insanity.   Even after I insulated those pipes, the incidental heat from furnace and pipes kept the cellar pretty warm.

At the New Cold House, though, I thought it quite possible that the cellar would dip down below 32º and threaten the plumbing.  Other than our (hyper-insulated) hot water tank, and the occasional lurking cat, there is nothing at all adding even incidental heat into the cellar.  With uninsulated concrete walls, some crummy old windows, a frequently-opening cat door, and a barely-heated upstairs above, it seemed there wouldn’t be much to keep the cellar from equilibrating to outdoor temps.  As you may remember, early in the winter I took pains to monitor the temps down there, especially around the plumbing.

But you know what?  Even even when it’s sub-zero outside, the cellar hasn’t dipped below 37º.  At first I thought it was just the thermal mass of all that concrete cooling very very slowly that seemed to magically hold the temperature.  But when day after day of below-freezing outdoor temps failed to budge the cellar thermometer, that started to seem less likely. (more…)


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.


Yep, cold.

December 17, 2009

Heading off to bed now. It’s 6ºF outside, with a pretty good breeze too. Still, the bedroom is about 45º. I have a remote thermometer sensor wedged in the one set of pipes that I have concerns about freezing (in the cellar)– it’s 42º in that spot. I ran a little warm water down that drain just in case. I’ve been brainstorming ways to keep pipes from freezing other than turning on the furnace. Have thought of at least four so far– a future post. Ideas?

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!