Sunday, January 27, 2013

A cold week

Photo: Aimee helping our chickadees survive the cold. These birds are part of the infamous 47%, but they don't cost that much to maintain.

The weather in this part of Maine has been pretty cold since the beginning of the week, thanks to a big bulge of Canadian air.

Heating systems need to work and work well when it's this cold.

Our Post Office lady was complaining yesterday of frozen pipes. Not good. This is an elderly lady, probably around 65 years old or more. I don't know if she has a husband and have never asked, but I feel badly for her if she has to battle frozen pipes with or without a partner.

There have also been a lot of nasty house fires reported on the news. One family of five lost four to the flames in a town just across the Penobscot River from here. The only survivor was the mother. I have no idea what that kind of loss could do to a person, and don't wish to find out, so I've been checking smoke alarm batteries even more regularly than usual.

Another farm lost its barn and chickens to a heat lamp fire. Our chickens might like some heat, but I'm afraid they will have to suffer through without. I'm not risking a barn fire. When the lambs come, they will have to have heat lamps, but we'll check and double check them several times a day.

Another good reason to delay lambing in Maine until April -- to minimize the risk of barn fire from heat lamps.

We've been using oil heat ourselves to heat the Womerlippi farmhouse, which is a pretty good sign of a cold snap. We don't use much of it -- the sight gauge on our oil tank has barely budged since the last time we put any oil in three years ago -- but it helps to keep us sane when we know we can leave the house to go to work and the pipes won't freeze. We continue to use our wood stove and the electrical baseboard heater in our living room, to minimize the oil use and thus the greenhouse gas emissions, but the furnace will come on if the temperature in the house drops below 62 degrees F. And if we come home from work and the house is at 62 degrees F because the fire in the wood stove has died down, we can use the oil furnace to heat everything back up a little faster.

I dislike our central heating system. Not only does it burn oil, but it's also a forced air system, and in a house with two dogs and two cats and a wood stove, that makes for a lot of dust. It's also noisy. So it was with relief that, as the cold snap began to moderate yesterday, I turned it all off, and we've done without since.

In years gone by, we'd have used the large outside wood-fired furnace in the garage, also a forced air system, whenever it was this cold out, but I haven't wanted to use that since the new chimney was found damaged from corrosion two years ago -- the result of crappy work from a local contractor and crappy materials from a national-level supplier.

I never got around to repairing the garage chimney, mostly because this huge machine uses too much wood. It does a great job of heating the house even when it's cold outside, and runs for much longer than the kitchen wood stove without needing to be filled, but it doesn't really help protect the pipes very much, since the air registers are in the wrong place for that, and it doubles or triples our firewood consumption for the year.

We began instead leaving a small electrical heater on much of the time when the weather was cold last year or the year before, and realized after a while that the extra electricity bill from that, around three or four hundred dollars a year, was much less than the six or seven hundred dollars of firewood the large furnace would blow through, even if it was only used for the coldest weather. This electrical heater, which is now a higher quality 115 volt, American-construction baseboard type, since the several Chinese-made oil-filled heaters we previously tried have all failed, sits next to the living room couch where we normally sit. This couch is fully thirty feet and around a corner from the kitchen wood stove. The baseboard puts the heat exactly where we need it, for about a hundred dollars a month if left on all the time.

We'll reuse that outdoor furnace in one or the other of the new buildings we have planned.

Another difficulty has been knowing exactly how cold it is outside. I managed to break our outside thermometer somehow, and replaced it with a cheap hardware store dial thermometer. Some time afterwards I realized that the new thermometer wasn't reading the right temperature, so I went back to the hardware store for another one, and installed them side by side, just to see if I was correct.

This confused me even more, since the replacement thermometer read a few degrees differently than the old one, but was still incorrect. It took me a while to figure this out. When the photo above was taken, the actual outside temperature was closer to zero degrees F. You really need to know what the temperature is outside, so you can know when to turn heating systems on or off to protect pipes.

Last year Aimee was sent to the hardware store for greenhouse thermometers and returned with these small electronic ones, so I went out to salvage these, and installed one in our kitchen window. It seems to be working. 

It didn't help any, in this game of Maine winter survival, that late last year I switched out our hot water tank for a tankless heater. The hot water tank, which used to live in the basement, was a supply of heat to the pipes down there. The tankless heater doesn't provide any heat unless the hot water taps are running, and so it doesn't protect the pipes at all when we're not here. I put a heat lamp down there instead, on a thermostatic socket adapter. When the heat lamp is plugged in to the switch, it comes on at 35 degrees F, and doesn't go out until 45 degrees. The socket adapter is less than ideal in this sense, because you can't control the temperature at which it turns on or off, but it adds protection. I also added a good deal of insulation and sealed up a lot of cracks in our basement, making it much warmer in the area where the pipes are.

All this, just because I changed the kind of hot water heater we were using! 

You really need to be on the game, technologically speaking, to survive a Maine winter comfortably. But even then there's an element of luck. Any of these carefully maintained and serviced systems could fail at any time, indeed, as our furnace failed earlier this winter, and cause a fire or frozen pipes.

I feel sorry for our Post Office lady with frozen pipes, and for the people that are having house fires.

But it's kind of fun to sit here in the warmth and read these old diary entries about all the effort we've put into to making this old farmhouse stay warm over the years.

Here's a selection:

Great Farm Diary entries with the word "cold."

Great Farm Diary entries with the word "furnace."

Great Farm Diary entries with the word "snow."

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