It’s getting cold in Vermont. We’ve had more than one day that did not top 50°F. But so far, we’ve not had a frost. So I’m still puttering along in the garden as much as I am able. Which is not much this week, being that it’s been raining every day and at least one of the Nyquil swilling kids in the bookstore had a strep infection that was generously passed on to me and my co-workers. (Why do we do school like this? Is it perhaps time in this plague era to maybe ask those questions? Is control over mind-formation really worth the communicable disease costs?…)
Anyway, the associated fever and chills sort of underlined the incontrovertible fact that winter approacheth. My house is fairly snug, since the storm windows are closed and the draft blockers are scattered about. But I still have this big heating conundrum: I have an oil-burning furnace.
I do not want an oil-burning furnace. I can’t afford an oil-burning furnace. I don’t want oil-burning anything to even be. I don’t want that terrifying tank of fuel oil in my basement. I don’t want the constant worry about emissions and ever-increasing fuel costs. (My fuel supplier just shows up at random, extracting hundreds of dollars from my bank account each time… it’s enough to give one at least a minor stroke…) More to the point, I don’t want any dollar of mine to feed into the fossil fuel industry. That’s sort of the point of my life. I have been working very hard at extracting myself from all that mess… but there’s still the intractable need for a heating source in this house in the Vermont mountains. And I’ve had a devil of a time coming up with some plan to fix this.
However, now, I think I have. It involved moving all the furniture. Which, if you know me, you know this just happens around me as a matter of routine. The kids would come home from school and comment on the fact that the dining room was still in the same place — on the rare occasions that this was indeed true. My employees would show up for work and make a circuit through the building to see where everything was located this week… What can I say? Change happens. And it really happens to the furniture.
But this move was justified (oh, they all are…). Now all the pieces of that wretched puzzle can fall into place. Here is the conundrum in a bit more detail. I have a central chimney but no wood stove. The only hearth on this chimney is oddly shaped and in a rather narrow room on the front of the house. I had my dining room table in that room because when I moved in, I couldn’t see any other furniture fitting in there. However, the table was only a couple feet from the hearth — meaning no wood stove would ever fit in there. Moreover, the fireplace is so round (beautiful, but not at all firebox-friendly), that there just isn’t a ready-made insert that will fit completely recessed within the firebox. And I sure can’t afford specially crafted cast iron! So a wood stove would project a foot or more into the room. And then, as many of you know, you don’t want to eat in the room with the wood heat. Not if you want to… you know… eat… So I’d thought that the heat would have to remain in the basement.
There is a plugged-up access to the chimney down there. Originally, whatever heat source this house had when it was built was connected to the central chimney. It would not be too much work to open that back up and connect a wood stove. But… it would be a lot of work getting a wood stove down the rickety basement steps. If that’s possible at all nowadays. Also, any time you cut into masonry it is expensive. And things go wrong. Unexpected things go wrong. Black swan things go wrong… So I really didn’t want to take that on.
But there are more problems. First, the basement is far from my bedroom. Not just that it’s two levels lower, but air from the basement has to travel in a circuitous path, losing heat energy the whole way. If there was some way to connect a wood stove to the house duct-work, that might get heat to my room. But that would be an expensive project if it is possible at all. And I don’t think it is possible since it is just not the done thing. In my experience, wood-burning furnaces do not use air delivery; they are connected to the rest of the house through boilers and radiators. Furthermore, the actual furnace and boiler in these systems are normally located outdoors, not in a basement — because many reasons! — and I don’t have room outside the house for a boiler, never mind room in my budget for the installation of radiator plumbing. But in any case, putting a wood stove in the basement is not the ideal way to heat the sleeping level of the house. So that’s one problem.
Another problem is that I don’t want to heat up the basement. I put the chest freezer down there specifically because it doesn’t have to work hard down there. Even when the power goes down, it stays cold for a very long time. Plus, I want to use that cool, somewhat damp space to store the veg harvest with no energy inputs. It is a cellar. It is completely buried on its south and west sides in mountain rock. It has unsealed porous walls that are almost always dark with moisture, even in this drought. There’s even an old sealed well-head in the middle of the floor, hinting at subterranean water flow and hence perpetual humidity levels high enough to store veg. In short, it’s a perfect root cellar.
Now, the current furnace does put some heat into the room. But most of its heat is blown into the ducts and up to the rest of the house (as it should be). Very little radiates into the basement. It warms the basement air just enough to keep things right next to it from freezing, but last winter proved that it does not create a completely frost-free space. I lost a couple scented geraniums and a Chinese money plant to the cold, and they were sitting only a few feet from the furnace. (This year I shall be using cloches on the most tender species down there.) A wood stove is almost nothing but radiant heat. It would definitely warm up that whole space. Which might make it comfortable to be down there doing the laundry, and the clothes might dry in less than a week — but the veg would rot. In less than a week.
Some of you are probably now thinking, “Why are you burning anything at all? What about a nice electric heat pump that puts heat directly where you want it?” Two words: intermittent electricity. Also… those electrons are not exactly free from fossil fuel emissions. Very little of our grid energy comes from renewables. You may not be burning them personally, but your electricity use is still dependent on burning them. I’d like a system that reduces my fossil fuel use, not just relocates it.
Furthermore, I am not at all convinced that heat pumps work in Vermont. We regularly have temperatures below the tolerances I’ve seen posted for most kinds of heat exchangers. There simply isn’t enough heat in central Vermont surface soil to exchange, never mind taking heat from the air. This might change in the future, but I need heat now. I’d like to install a system that will work now and into the future.
Another problem with heat pumps is that I live in an old house. I’d need to rewire the entire house to install anything that electricity-intensive. And I’m not sure that wouldn’t cause problems for everyone else on our old grid. It might be sort of like that scene in Christmas Vacation when he turns on the holiday lights and the entire city goes dark. We already have brown outs when everyone in the neighborhood turns on their window AC units. I can only imagine what would happen if even just a few of us were using heat pumps.
Which comes back to intermittent electricity. I want to get off fossil fuel addiction, but I also want to have reliable heat. And electricity… is just not reliable. Not now in Vermont. Probably not at all anywhere in the future. There are plenty of days when the power goes down. The Vermont grid is rather ad hoc, with wires strung all over the state, interwoven with tree limbs and subject to all sorts of weathers and human errors that cut the flow. This can and does happen any day of the year. And when this happens in the winter, I have no heat because the blower and the thermostat are both dependent upon house electricity.
And this is the most reliable electrical current that we’re likely to see for the rest of my lifetime. Electrical flow will only get more punctuated as time goes on. So I sure don’t want heat that is reliant on electricity. That means no heat in exactly the kinds of weather when you really need a heater!
“So what,” you say, “about a solar heater?” And I’d say “Hell yeah!” … If I lived where there was sun for more than one or two days a week in the winter. And more than ten hours of daylight when you need heating the most — only a few of which daylight hours see the sun at a height that will heat up the panels. We had a solar attic growing up. It warmed up water that was piped down to cement block walls in the basement which radiated warmth into my basement bedroom all night long. We also had solar heating panels on our home in New Mexico. Between that and the basement fireplace with its massive masonry hearth, we hardly needed our gas furnace. (And yes, New Mexico gets cold enough to warrant heat. Albuquerque is at 6000 feet elevation… in a desert… so no insulation… it’s cold at night even in June.)
But here in Vermont? And in many places Up Nort’? Solar heat will be great for the shoulder seasons when there are sufficient hours of sunlight and the sun is far enough north to shine down on the panels at a good angle for heat collection. It will mean we won’t have to burn anything until November and probably will be able to stop burning again in early March, substantially reducing our wood fuel needs and reducing pressure on woodlands. But solar heat will not keep you warm in January. (For the same reasons, there will not be solar electricity in January… so best keep that in mind also…)
Hence, I moved the furniture.
I was sitting in my office space, which consists of lots of bookshelves, two comfy chairs and an old drop-leaf table that I call a “desk”. This room boasts a wonderful, albeit somewhat chilly, window-seat — which I’ve loaded up with pillows in an attempt to insulate it in style. It also has a ceiling fan. I made this room the office largely under the influence of history. The former folks seemed to use this space in this manner, if they used that room at all. (Their cat used it… but not as an office… I had to toss their window seat cushion… wearing a mask.) The politico-lawyer who built this house probably received clients in that space since it has a private entrance (now blocked, for good reasons… the door won’t close if you open it… did that just once… ) So it was just “the office”. But as I sat there, I looked into the dining room with its fireplace and thought “Sure would be nice to have these comfy chairs in front of a fire”.
Well, one idea led on to another and before I knew it, all the furniture had been swapped. OK I’m being hyperbolic. I left the bookshelves.
But this move solved many problems. There is now a ceiling fan above the place where I eat. This will be very much appreciated in summer. I had a box fan in the old arrangement, but having air blowing in your face and over your food is just not as effective or pleasant as having air circulating around you while you eat. The space where the dining room used to be now no longer has a dining room table wedged between the bottom of the [elaborate] staircase and the [equally elaborate] hearth. It feels bigger and less like you are going to certainly break your neck if you slip on the stairs. (A concern for an aging body…)
And most importantly, I can fit my favorite über-efficient Hearthstone wood-stove in the fireplace now, right where my cold feet want to be warmed. Also right at the base of the stairs, so that heat will radiate directly up to my bedroom at the top of the stairwell.
There are more advantages. I was not best pleased with the idea of hauling wood into the basement. The basement stairs are… well, they’re stairs in the roughest physical manifestation of that word. I get nervous carrying the laundry down them, never mind anything heavy. They are also narrow, not much wider than I am, so that I have to carry things extended in front of me. Not really an ideal position with a load of wood… though it would make me some ripped biceps and pectorals! (Ahem…) With the stove on the main level, there are no stairs except the ones leading to the porches. Which I think I can manage. Because that’s carrying wood up, not down. Big difference. And the steps on the front of the house, the entrance closest to the fireplace, are enormous granite blocks. Probably not going to collapse under me no matter what I am hauling. Anyway, I’ll be able to stack a half rick of wood just outside the house (but not touching the house… woodpile bugs : wood house = bad… ) and carry in armfuls with no fear.
One more “not very important in the grand scheme of things but oh so very important to me” thing is that I don’t have to fill up that space in front of the basement chimney foundation with a wood-stove. I now have space for a real loom and maybe a spinning wheel. I took a weaving class a few weeks ago and remembered/discovered anew that I’m pretty good at it. Once upon a time, getting a loom was a goal. That sort of got shuffled so far to the back of the priority cooker that it wasn’t even in contact with the burners any longer. But now there’s this ideal spot where I can work in the summer evenings and stay cool, probably providing endless entertainment to my cat in the process. So that is a goal again.
I won’t be doing any of this this year. I don’t have the money for a stove installation, nor would it be possible to get one put in on that short notice, never mind get someone to clean up and line the chimney. (Not sure what state that dark space is in… probably not at all burn-ready, given the bird sounds coming from up there… cat is fascinated by the fireplace…) So this year I have to suffer the irregular heart rhythms that come with oil delivery and hope costs don’t rise beyond my ability to pay. (Not at all sure what happens if I don’t have the money in my bank account on the day they decide to pump… probably don’t want to find out… could be there are dark rites and blood debts involved… ) But I did move the furniture. I can now see a path toward reliable heat. That in itself is quite a relief.
Meanwhile winter approacheth. I finally broke down and bought a raised bed for the winter greens. I’ll be putting it together, filling it with compost and seeding it this week. I started hauling dead cucumber vines to the compost pile. I’ve got some more perennials planted to fill in the holes on the bank-o-mess out front. I filled up the bird feeder for the first time last week. And the rodents are busily gnawing their way through all 150 daffodils I planted, as well as every last mini-pumpkin. (Why am I against violence again?) They don’t even eat this stuff. They chew on the rinds and leave the messes for me and my neighbors to clean up. I hope the daffodils are giving them one heckuva case of indigestion. Maybe even poisoning…
Oh, to be so lucky…
Teaser photo credit: “Octopus” furnace with oil burner. By US National Park Service / Photographed by John O. Brostrup – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID hhh.md0536.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33703016