Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Being unprepared for no heat

We returned home from San Diego yesterday afternoon, expecting the house to be coolish since we left the heat down to 60 (which means it is more like 57 in the house - I didn't want the pipes to freeze since we have a lot of cold spots in the house). My mom had complained at how cold our house was when she stopped by during our trip to check on things, but we both just figured it was because she's used to her hot, top-floor condo, which tends to run more like 75.

When I walked in, I noticed that the house was actually colder inside than outside and went over to the thermostat and noticed that, although it was set at 60, the actual temperature inside was only 48 degrees. Needless to say, it was pretty damn cold.

I turned up the heat, but nothing happened. To make a long story short, we had run out of oil in our tank while we were on vacation (normally we are on an automatic refill). We had the oil company come out and make an emergency delivery, otherwise we would have just repacked our bags and gone to a hotel.

We left for a few hours since it was so painfully cold in the house and even our space heaters weren't doing much to heat up the place. Basically, the end result is that, if we don't have oil (or electricity for that matter), we are screwed. We are woefully unprepared to deal with really cold temperatures because even if we wanted to use our fireplace, more heat would be sucked out of the room than emitted into it. If it were an emergency situation, I'm sure we could easily survive with our sleeping bags, closing off rooms, and piling on the clothes and down. But we would still be uncomfortably unprepared.

What back-up heating plan do you have for your home if you lose your main source of heat, short of leaving the house?

Side note: Since the oil guy came while we were out of the house for dinner, he was sneaking around inside and outside with a headlamp on. Our neighbor from behind us saw this, and knowing we were out of town, he called the police, which surrounded the place. I don't know exactly what ended up happening, if the oil guy was still here or what, but it's nice to know that the neighbors are watching!


FernWise said...

We have a kerosine heater and some kerosine for emergencies. But I really miss the woodstove our last house had!

April said...

We have fuel oil that kicks in when temps dip below 20, but we use a heat pump at all other times. When the electricity goes out...we're screwed. No wood stove or fire place. Last year when our oil tank froze we survived with space heaters and the stove to heat the wasn't pleasant.

Anonymous said...

We have an efficiant woodstove as our main heat source and fuel oil run furnace as back up, but that allso heats our hot water. but if the elctricity went off no hot water except what we can heat up on the stove.

Farmer's Daughter said...

We have a wood stove in the basement, and plan to replace our oil burning furnace with a convertible wood/oil combo like my parents have.

I grew up always running out of oil, in which case we just switched to wood for heat and hot water. The problem was in the summer, when we ran out of oil and didn't want to start a fire for hot water. So... consequently I took a lot of cold showers as a kid, in the summer of course, and a few here and there in the winter when I was a teenager and couldn't fathom the idea of not washing my hair.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Oh, but I should also note that if the electricity goes out, we have no water at all due to our well. So we're in much better shape if we run out of oil than if the power goes out.

Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

My furnace and hot water heater run on gas but the house still gets cold if the power goes out because a little electric fan blows gave heat all over the house. No electricity means an unheated house. We had a week long power outage due to an ice storm for the first Christmas in our house. We shut the doors to all unused rooms and used the gas fireplace in the living room for heat. We wore lots of layers during the day. We slept on the sofabed in the living room in sleeping bags and with a couple of comforters for good measure at night. Everyone got real friendly with our double coated dog.

Lee Borden said...

We use a wood stove as our main heat source, and we try to go into each winter with two years' supply of wood. We also use heat lamps for the bathroom (to make Earl Butz) proud and the laundry area of the garage, but we could do without them if we had to. Tankless water heater needs electricity, so we have a standby propane generator.

Tree Huggin Momma said...

We heat with natural gas, so if that goes out for some reason and we still have electricity we all get cozy in the living room with a space heater. If there is no electric we head to my folks house, where they have kerosean heaters.

Robj98168 said...

We uae an indoor propane heater. And run the generator and use the electric fireplace. Not a perfect solution, but don't hsve to cut down trees for heat!no

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

We have an electric geothermal heat pump with fireplace for backup. Luckily we have never really needed it since that's a poor solution (we evacuated during the last 5-day power outage). We are considering getting a 75%+ EPA Phase II fireplace insert for backup. We could also probably cook in there with a cast iron dutch oven. Would not solve the hot water problem, but we do have a Kelly Kettle if it comes to that.

Anonymous said...

This past February my electricity was off for 5 days (major ice storm). I managed to stay fairly warm with a kerosene heater placed in the garage, which is located in the basement area. I did close off every "extra" room and remained comfortable with layered clothing. A total electric house is p.i.a. at times but where I live there really aren't a lot of choices.

Lee in KY

Aimee said...

this is exactl;y the situation I found myself in when my furnace broke a couple weeks ago. House unbearably cold... husband out of town... fireplace not helpful.... need a woodstove!!!! Bought one off craigslist...likely to be installed sometime before next winter... new propane furnace... $3300!!!

Simple Mama said...

It's nice that your neighbors care enough to look out for you.

I haven't really considered what we would do in case of real, real cold in the house. Layer, layer, layer. Wool and down. Cuddle under the covers of the family bed. Worst case scenario would be checking into a hotel - but that's not very economical. It's something to think about. We've discussed getting a wood burning stove in our next home. We had one in our garage growing up and I remember the garage was always toasty warm in the dead of winter when my dad was out there wood working.

Paige said...

woodstove, but I am woofully short of good dry wood.

Marino said...

i have an oil panel heater but since it's summer here at the moment and I'm in Hawke's Bay (NZ) our main worry at the moment is too hot!!

It doesn't really get that cold here either in comparison to what it sounds like over there. Hawke's Bay I suppose is like the LA of New Zealand - pretty much summer yearround.

Mindyou in Wellington those southerlies can be pretty bitingly cold!! I usually try not to use the heater though and wrap up in warm clothes!!

Glenda said...

I just asked hubby and he said "turn on the oven and open the oven door" (our oven is gas). Not an ideal solution since our house has a pier and beam foundation (no basement) and the kitchen floor is one cold mo'fo, and the kitchen, dining room, and living room are open-concept so there wouldn't be any way to harnass the warmth just into the kitchen. If it was just a problem with our house, we could go up the road about 10 blocks and stay with either of my sibs and their families or my mom, but if it was a city-wide electricity outage then we'd all be up a creek (a frozen one, at that).

knutty knitter said...

Two one bar heaters are all we need here. Good insulation is where we are going next and then double glazing.

Having said that, you do get used to the cold after a while. It helps if you aren't rake thin too and somewhat active.

Mind you, our temps don't get anything like as bad as yours. Hot or cold.

viv in nz

Susan K. said...

Actually our boiler pipes froze and busted about 3 weeks ago and we've been living off of a combination of 2 or 3 space heaters, 1 wood burning fireplace and a kerosene heater for backup - thankfully haven't had to use it yet because it stinks. Our house is mostly well insulated and mostly made of concrete so it keeps the heat or cool air well. We haven't been cold at all but if the electricity went out we'd all have to huddle in the living room with the fire and somehow close it off. Hoping the boiler pipes get fixed by next week

Deanna said...

Several years ago we were without electricity for a week due to an ice storm. Our fireplace is vented into our heating system and is pretty efficient when the fan is running. However, no electricity = no fan. The first couple of days were tolerable with a constant fire and warm clothes but you know that expression "stone cold"? The first story of our house is made of stone which holds heat and releases it gradually. Then when that heat is gone it is literally "stone cold". After three tries, we finally got a generator that sort of worked and it allowed us to run the fan for the fireplace which helped. Five days into it, my dad got to our house in his 4-wheel drive and took the kids to their house which got electricity back before ours. David and I toughed it out two more days. We needed to keep the fire going to prevent freezing pipes and to take care of the animals.

We now have a very good generator for emergencies and my personal preference would be to never have to use it. I would rather read about "olden times" than to live them.

Erika said...

Many years ago, we were out of power for 32 days (lovely ice storm...). We heated the front room with the wood burning stove, put a few blankets over the door to the rest of the house, and got used to "olden times." We had a generator, but after a day or so, it was more trouble than it was worth, so we went without it. We cooked on the stove (an insert w/a cooking surface), and I actually ironed with an antique iron! We had plenty of non-potable water to flush toilets and do dishes, but did kick the generator on a couple times a week to fill up containers with potable water.
I don't live in that house any more, but do have wood and a fireplace that functions well, although, compared to a single doorway to the rest of the house, most of our blankets would be used to close off the kitchen, dining room, and hallway/bedrooms. We'd have to sleep in the living room, since our master is the coldest room in the house by at least 5 degrees.
Side note: it is nice to have neighbors looking out for you... I locked myself out one morning (5:30am), and had to crawl in through the kitchen window (thankfully I'd forgotten to lock it before leaving!) wearing my work clothes - all black. Yeah... neighbors were very concerned when we got home as to our safety... :-P

Marcy said...

We have ONLY a woodstove... but we're only heating an 800 sq ft cabin. We regularly wear layers & have several quilts on the bed & throws to curl up under when we're not in bed.

Unknown said...

Thankfully, I am phenomenally well-adapted to cold, and have both worked and slept in temperatures below the freezing point by a fair bit. It helps, admittedly, that we have two small, snuggly dogs who are phenomenal heat sources when sleeping.

That said, in addition to our central heating we also having electric space heaters and a (poorly positioned in a not-well-designed-for-airflow house) wood stove. Alas, due to this being high desert, fuel for the stove is somewhat difficult to reliably acquire without verging into hazardous territory.

Julie Andrea said...

Mum and Dad's house had an awesome setup for when the power went out.

Out in the garden shed there was a gasoline generator (outside so that the fumes aren't in the house), with a pipe running underground to the house, the electrical line inside.

Two furnaces, one wood, one oil, in the basement share one chimney and one set of ductwork throughout the home .. heat rises anyway, but the generator could power the blower if needed.

Many many cords of wood were outside to 'season', they were rotated into the basement once dry. Oil tank is in the basement so it doesn't freeze and it was scheduled to arrive every 30 days, same driver all the time, on automatic payment so that if they weren't home, they didn't miss a delivery.

They also had a Coleman camp stove .. and if the water was out too, there is a spring a few miles away on the side of the highway.

Coal oil lamps and plenty of flashlights, battery powered radios, wool blankets and down duvets rounded out their emergency preparedness plan.

Oh .. and keep your vehicle filled up with gasoline, not all gas stations have a generator to pump fuel when the power is out and keep cold hard cash on hand too. :-)

Hugs, if you want one,
Julie Andrea .. stay warm!

Anonymous said...

we have a fireplace in the living room and lots of sleeping bags and a gas cooktop. I think we would tough it out until the heat problem resolved. A giant slumber party in the living room would make my kids thrilled....
No Elec means no water here so we would have to fire up the generator...

Anonymous said...

We'd be fairly screwed as well. We should really get a space heater. In an emergency, we'd hole up in my bedroom and make massive quantities of tea. Just keeping the hot pot full of water and running (assuming we had electricity) would do quite a lot to heat one room. Assuming this was due to the boiler breaking and not some massive disaster, we could also kind of go halfway in the "leaving the house" thing and spend the daytimes at the library or other communal heated buildings, returning home to hide under a pile of quilts.

Olivia said...

Here in the frozen North (Canada), we HAVE to be well prepared for power outtages. We used to heat exclusively with 3 woodstoves but now we are down to one wood cookstove that does an admirable job of both heating our house and cooking our food. Ceiling fans and a fan behind the stove help to circulate the heat: there is also a water jacket on the stove used to keep water hot and humidify the house. We also have an oil furnace (tank inside) that is used primarily for keeping the basement walls from freezing and cracking (which they have done, anyway, thanks to constantly shifting sandstone soil.)

When the power goes out the water pump for the well goes off as well as the furnace and all other electrical sources. In winter, however, we can just melt snow. (We live in the country so it's clean snow.) Depends on how long the power is out and how cold/windy it is outside. Temps. of minus 30 Celsius combined with winds of 100 km./hour can be pretty brutal and I guess we would all wrap ourselves in sleeping bags and sit beside the stove - at least we could still cook hot food. If the weather is milder, we just layer on the clothes and go about our business in a cool house (the fans make all the difference and if they can't run . . . brrr.)

Katy said...

My plan is to live in south Texas. I know, not really a plan, but so far it has worked. I haven't even truned my heater on this year and have gotten used to living in layers. There have been times when it was colder inside than it was outside. When that happens we just open a window.

Now ask me what I'll do if our electricity dies and its 104 in the shade... That I need a plan for. How to stay cool with no fans and no A/C? I know people did it before, I just can't figure out how.

Elisabeth said...

I know this isn't a plan, but I live in Texas so heat is not much of an issue. That being said, I am not really prepared for much. We did drive to Arizona through the Christmas snow storm, and I prepared for that.

Sparkless said...

We have a gas fireplace that heats up the livingroom. We've used it before when the power goes out because our gas furnace can't run it's fans without power.

Greenpa said...

Crunch, and everyone- this is going to be extreme- but on the other hand, could save your life.

Dig. Straight down.

It took years for this to hit me. One of my favorite "Little House" books is "The Long Winter".

It's kind of the ultimate of family pulling together, to survive. Scary; and wonderful.

Eventually, the out of the box solution occurred to me. The Ingalls family lived in their house in town for this winter- no insulation whatsoever, with no fuel except grass hay; which had to be hauled at serious risk of death for Pa, and incredible amounts of work.

So. Hopefully this would have occurred to me before too long, sitting around thinking in the dark, in his shoes.

Cut a hole in the floor- and start digging; down. Throw the soil sideways, under the floor- that would cut wind, making the house warmer. When that's full; pile the dirt against the walls- inside. Leakiest windiest walls first.

Dig the hole big enough that everybody in the family can get their chair set up- and sit, in the bottom. Cover the top with blankets, to hold the heat. If you're really lucky, you could make it deep and big enough to move the stove down there.

Guess what? It's warm down there, no matter what the blizzards are doing. It would be work- but a fraction of the work they did- and a vastly higher chance of surviving. You wouldn't eat so much food, because you'd be warmer. Same for the horses.

Depending on the soil, more than one family could share work and heat- digging a bigger hole. More company; better hole; more body heat. Even if you hit water not too far down- water is vastly warmer than outdoor blizzard- (and of course if the neighbor's kid is obnoxious; hey, eat 'em; more food.) :-)

Anyway. Keep that in mind; if you're REALLY stuck; and nobody is helping. The work of digging will warm you right up, where sitting and worrying won't- and you essentially CAN'T freeze down there.

And you could wind up with a really good root cellar!

Crunchy Chicken said...

Interesting idea, Greenpaps. I suspect that would only be useful in real dire circumstances as you said.

We wouldn't be able to do it as we have a basement with concrete slab under the floor and would need some sort of jackjammer unless you know of a way of breaking through that without killing ourselves...

Unknown said...

We heat with a high-efficiency gas which of course requires electricity to run the fan and glow-plug igniter. But we have a photovoltaic system which includes enough battery storage to run essential household stuff for a few days. Our gas range would need to be lit with matches since it's not on the PV circuits and its piezoelectric igniters wouldn't work. We have a very efficient woodstove and a modest supply of wood that would see us through a week or two of very low temps and no gas or electric. Our house is highly-insulated with some other passive solar features which help it stay warm. We also have a kerosene heater and 15 gallons of kerosene which we could fire up if we ran out of wood. Finally, we have excellent sleeping bags and comforters and silk nightshirts. We've plenty of fleece vests and caps to wear around a chilly house, too.

Unknown said...

Well, of course, that was a "high-efficiency gas furnace" that we heat with.

LdeG said...

We are sometimes too warm in bed with just a thin cotton quilt and a medium-weight down comforter and the thermostat at 50. I once lived in a two-story 8-room house, built in 1906, where the only heat was a small unvented gas space heater and there was no insulation. The wallpaper literally blew in the wind, and the cat's water froze on the kitchen floor overnight. We wore layers and slept under down and wool comforters. It is all what you are used to.

Greenpa, just staying in bed with all your covers is probably as warm as digging down. Many European peasants through the 19th c. essentially spent the winter in bed, not eating much.

See this NY Times article.e

Greenpa said...

Crunch- "unless you know of a way of breaking through that without killing ourselves..."

Fire. Build a fire on the concrete- (furniture can burn nicely) the heat will fracture some of it- whack away the loose stuff, repeat. You'll get through. The hot rebar can be bent aside. :-)

And yeah; extreme dire only- but that's definitely what they describe in "The Long Winter".

Re blankets- we'd die here; literally. When it's 30 below, Farenheit- it's really too cold. Here in southern Minnesota, the historical "average" temperature for January; ie. average of all hours, all month- is minus 4°F; that's -20°C. All month.

Obviously- digging in to survive 3 days of "kinda cold" weather in south Texas would be pretty silly.

Bill the Galactic Hero said...

We're OK if we only lose one utility. If the gas was off or the boiler quit working (which it did the beginning of this cold season) there is a small built in electric heater downstairs and plenty of thermoelectric appliances (ovens, toasters, etc.) that we can turn on to boost the heat. I could even pull the vent hose from the dryer and pipe it into the house.

W/o electricity the solenoids and pump stop on the boiler system. I've been meaning to rewire that so I could power it from a battery and inverter. The water heat is a mechanical thermostat so there is still hot water. We also have a propane fireplace that does not use any electrons. Plenty of grill and campstoves with propane for outside cooking. I should add a rocket stove as well.

If both gas and electricty go things would have to get pretty improvisational. The ceramic logs could come out of the propane fireplace to be replaced by real ones (why I have wood, but no indoor woodstove or fireplace is a separate story.) Otherwise, it's sleeping bags and heating bricks in the propane grill!

Of course it helps that it rarely gets really cold in Denver. Of course this winter has been an exception.

Anonymous said...

Actually, we had no plan when our heater died last winter. We used space heaters a bit, but in northeast Ohio space heaters don't help much in January.
This year finances made us choose between food or a furnace and.....well, we chose food. Hubby got a Quonset Hut Heater from a friend and we run that in the back of the house. We still run a small space heater in the bathroom at night mostly to keep the pipes warm and an oil-filled heater in the bedroom at night.
We've learned to live with the noise the quonset hut heater makes and hooked a thermostat to it so it doesn't run continually. Other than that we have learned to dress warmly and to use sweaters and blankets. It's not the ideal life, but we doing what we can and using less natural gas.

Anonymous said...

We've got a wood stove for primary heat, such as we use. "Backup" is stuff that requires electricity, which we don't use now: space heaters and a propane heater in the cellar. Nice thing about a woodpile: it's unlikely to "run dry" without your noticing!

Also, just a thought-- any chance someone stole your oil while you were on vacation? That was become not-so-rare here last year when oil prices topped $4/gallon, especially for those with outdoor oil or kerosene tanks. Would explain why you ran dry in spite of having an autodelivery plan (such plans, in my experience, usually top you up before you're more than half empty.)

Lastly, 48-50ยบ is pretty common in our house every morning these days, and we no longer feel it's unpleasant, let alone an emergency or survival situation. It's all a matter of acclimatizing, I think!

Greenpa said...

"Also, just a thought-- any chance someone stole your oil while you were on vacation? "

Hm; I must not be as paranoid as I thought. Or as I need to be.

That's an excellent question and possibility; and one you should look into Crunch.

It's like a game, for certain types; and the way they make their living. I've had 100's of gallons of gasoline disappear from my locked farm tank; carefully stolen 10 gallons at a time... took a while to be sure it wasn't leaking or being wasted otherwise.

Changed the locks to a much more expensive type.

You situation could be much easier to tell.

Allie said...

We don't have a heater that functions in our house (for the last year or so, I've wondered if it worked but I was told the other day by my boyfriend that it doesn't) and have poor insulation and single-pane windows. We do have space heaters, but to be perfectly honest even last night when it was in the 20s, I woke up roasting and turned the little space heater by the bed off. 3 blankets was more than sufficient (and even then I ended up tossing one of the blankets off of me).

The dog has an electric blanket on his bed, so he doesn't really sleep with us more than a minute anymore.

I think when you get used to the house always being cold, it doesn't bother you so much. I just spent a week in Utah, so the weather seems tame (still cold, but not as) compared to how it was there (and I spent considerable time outside).

I worried a bit about the pipes freezing, so I left a faucet dripping slowly into a measuring cup. It dripped for about 18 hours (I forgot to turn it off when I got up) and the measuring cup said it'd dripped just over 8 ounces (which went into the dog bowl). This week it's supposed to be in the low 20s for a couple days, and I'll do the exact same thing again - slow drip on the faucet (and use the water to fill the dog's bowl), few blankets and that's it.

Even if the power went out, we'd be fine w/ just the blankets, though if the water went out I'd be concerned about a pipe bursting.

Anonymous said...

Just found your website while researching cold frames, greenhouses, sprouting, gardening in general and solar box ovens.

In one of your articles you mention that you were researching solar box ovens. Did you ever follow through?

I plan on building a cardboard solar box oven in a month or two and plan on using it during the summer. I too live in the Seattle area, so you know the sun doesn't show up until summer.

I've always been a gardener at heart.

I look forward to reading more on your website.