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Simpler ways to stay warm

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Every day, it seems, acquaintances send me articles about how to live better or save energy, many of which neglect the most obvious answers. They often report inventions that could increase fuel efficiency by 10 percent, ignoring the 500 percent increase you get from packing more people in a car. Others praise the junk foods with 10 percent less fat, not the people who eat 100 percent less junk food. When it comes to keeping warm in winter, likewise, we often overlook the simple.

We use many times more energy keeping warm than our ancestors did, partly for the reasons I mentioned last time: our houses rarely use the natural energy around them, and they leak the energy many of us import from far away. Most modern homes are many times larger than traditional ones, giving us far more space to heat. Another reason, though, is that inside these houses, more and more of us are alone.

In 1900, only one percent of U.S. residents lived alone, and half lived in households of six or more people. By 2012, 27 percent of Americans lived by themselves, and other Western nations saw similar trends. When extended families gathered under one (small) roof, the entire building could be heated or insulated more easily, and of course when people gathered in the same room, their body heat warmed the air. More people living alone, and fewer people per house in general, means more vast spaces to heat separately. (1)

For another thing, most of us keep our homes very hot these days. One U.S. organization assumes a normal indoor winter temperature of anywhere from 20 to 27 degrees C (around 67 to 82 F), but the British keep their homes at 17.5 degrees C (62 F), and a few decades ago kept them at 12 degrees (53 F), according to the U.K.’s Building Research Establishment. I don’t have statistics for Ireland, but homes here often feel colder still, and one local woman keeps her windows open during the near-freezing winter. Victorian Britons often slept with open windows – and they lived during the sub-zero nights of the “Little Ice Age,” an era when the climate was much colder than today. (2) (3)

Many old techniques allowed people to remain warm while sleeping, by transferring heat from the fire to some thermal mass and letting it radiate slowly. They put closed pans of hot coals or sand under the bed, or put their bedding atop “bed wagons” that left space underneath for heat sources. Some people in Central or Eastern Europe built masonry stoves, whose winding chimney heated a giant thermal mass of brick or stone – and some had a space for bedding attached to the stove itself, so that the fire would warm the brick underneath the bed. Hot-water bottles accomplished the same purpose with less of a fire hazard, and we still use them in our house through the winter.

If such temperatures sound intolerable, keep in mind that most of us dress poorly for the cold these days, even though we can buy highly insulating and comfortable clothes unavailable to our ancestors. Look at the everyday garments of people two or three centuries ago, and you see that what look like costumes to us were appropriately heavy and insulating. The business suit handed down to us from European gentlemen was made for a cold climate and colder age, even though people continue to wear them in paradoxically air-conditioned offices in Arizona and Florida.

Clothes insulate the body the same way that batting insulates the home, by trapping poorly conducting air pockets between the hot and cold spaces. As Kris De Decker of Low-Tech Magazine pointed out, though, insulating the body means warming only a tiny layer of space between us and our clothes – which costs much less energy than insulating our now-giant living spaces. If we feel warm, however, it achieves the same result.

Since every degree of indoor heat translates to about nine or 10 percent more energy, a 20-degree change in temperature could bring heating expenses from exorbitant to almost nil. As one of our home builders said, “If you’re wearing a T-shirt in the winter, you’re spending too much money.” (4)

As house insulation can be expressed using measures like R-values, clothes insulation is measured in the lesser-known “clo” unit. A “clo,” developed by scientists in the 1940s, is defined as the amount of clothing needed to keep a couch potato feeling about 21 degrees C (70 F) indefinitely.

If that sounds too vague, you could use the physicist’s definition: a clo is about equal to 0.155 m2 K/W. Or, if you’re an architect, you could translate it to home insulation R-values by defining a clo as 0.88 R. You could also say that a clo is about an eighth of a centimeter in clothing layers, or that each clo generally equals three kilograms of clothing weight. In everyday terms, however, it’s a three-piece business suit.

Mammal with substantial insulation

Photo: Baby polar bear with enough “clo” to survive the Arctic.

Every one-degree (C) drop in temperature can be compensated by putting on about 0.18 clo worth of insulation, and organizations like ASHREA and ISO have compiled meticulous lists of clothing and their clo-values, so a T-shirt is 0.1 clo, a sweater (or jumper, if you are in Ireland or the U.K.) about 0.2 to 0.4 clo, and trousers 0.25 to 0.35 clo. As De Decker points out in his article, if someone in a T-shirt simply put on more appropriate clothes – long underwear, heavy shirt and jumper – they could reduce their heating costs by 50 to 70 percent. (5) (6) (7)

Finally, one last and often-overlooked factor in winter warmth: most of our ancestors worked hard. Chopping wood, keeping animals, pushing barrows – even the most everyday chores from childhood to old age required physical activity that we rarely get today. Physical activity might be the most important factor in keeping the body warm.

My friends back in Minnesota were living with minus-40 temperatures recently – Centigrade and Fahrenheit, for that’s where the two scales meet – and that might seem to require more insulation than clothing can provide. Indeed, according to De Decker, keeping a resting person warm at those temperatures requires 12 clo, the equivalent of 12 suits layered on top of one another. Walk around, though, and that figure drops to four clo, and when running to 1.25 clo!

If all of this sounds overly Spartan, keep in mind that most of our ancestors lived in harsh winters with no central heating, no electricity, no coal, oil or propane. Go far back enough, and they even survived an Ice Age, and most of the time they not only survived, but prospered. If you want proof that we can thrive during cold weather on far less energy than we use today, just look around you.

Grit Magazine

30 Comments on "Simpler ways to stay warm"

  1. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 12:35 pm 

    One of the real tragedies of the American buildup of suburban homes and commercial real estate recently has to be the lack of concern for sustainable & resilient heating and cooling. Not only are the homes built too big they incorporate architecture that is not focused on natural heating and cooling. Simple things like orientation, window placement, and natural insulation strategies. There is no concern for multiple heating sources offering resilience. Few homes have whole house fans with proper window placement design for cooling. These homes have built in obsolescence with little hope of a second life. So as a home wears out over 30 year a well built home of stone, brick or wood is worth renovating. A vinyl sided home of cheap framing built overly larger will probably become salvage. Even more disturbing is the placement of communities commented on by Kunstler as the “geography of nowhere”. This does not even start to cover large cities with multistory buildings that will have little chance of renovation in a contracted world. This does not bode well for carrying capacity that will be greatly diminished in 20 years time for a multitude of reasons. Add to this lower carrying capacity a dismal housing stock designed around cheap energy during a time of growth. This is a recipe for disaster.

  2. Meld on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 12:59 pm 

    I have a good way to keep warm. The gov should lower the recommended temp level for houses in the uk from 19 down to 10. Then we will all be much much “warmer” and save energy in the process.

    I think I might run for prime minister.

  3. J-Gav on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 1:01 pm 

    “Ain’t that just the way it goes; first yer money ‘n then yer clothes.” (or is that clo(s)?
    Winter visitors to our apartment often find it cold. So I compare their clothing to mine: often skimpy stuff to appear chic I guess, flimsy but chic shoes etc vs my thermal top under a warm shirt covered with a sweater, plus thick socks and warm shoes or slippers … Should be a no-brainer but people love to lounge around at home in a T-shirt with sub-zero temperatures outside …

  4. simonr on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 1:28 pm 

    We too are in france, here I am in 3 layers and a hat, (kids also are used to this) when we have visitors from the UK the complaining about cold is incredible, and they only wear 2 layers.

    Problem is people view it as their ‘right’ to wonder around in tshirt and shorts in the middle of winter.

  5. robertinget on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 2:04 pm 

    “Keep warm like our ancestors”

    I’ll bet a number of posters here have renovated older houses in Northern climates. Here’s a challenge:
    Has Anyone Ever found any insulation in
    outside walls, upper floor ceilings, other than rather interesting old newspapers? Rock-wool, sawdust, were available, but rarely used.
    Putting up ‘storm windows’ for winter was strictly a middle class ritual before sheet plastic.

    Fuel was dirt cheap. In rural areas firewood was free for the taking as were
    lumps of coal spilled by railway tracks. ‘Stove Oil’ was 0.12 cents a gallon.

    Before Tyvek, builders used ‘tar-paper’
    as the only ‘insulation’ over slatted wood framed houses. Brick built used
    lath and plaster with that air space best used for stuffing momentos.

    Today, even the cheapest house, because of building codes is better insulated than rich people’s homes in 1930.
    THose ‘good old days’ best for memories.

  6. rollin on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 2:18 pm 

    Yep, lots of insulation and sealing of cracks is the way to go. No need to live at hypothermic temps or bundle up like you live outside.

    With all the technology we have today, no new building should be constructed that needs much of a heat source. Insulation also saves greatly on summer cooling.

    Too many windows on the cool side and wind side of the house will also require more heating.

  7. ghung on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 2:27 pm 

    Passive solar, thermal mass, and LOTs of insulation properly installed, is our primary strategy. Add to that zoned heat; hydronic in the slab using hot water reclaimed from the woodstove. Advantages: Heat only the spaces that need heat. Disadvantages: It takes some time to bring a zone up to temperature; no instant gratification. Also, thermal curtains/shades on windows.

    I designed our home with all living spaces facing south (SE to SW), and all utility spaces (root cellar, mechanical room, closets and storage), on the north side, bermed into the hillside. Bathrooms are sandwiched in between and have their own zones (kept quite warm). Roof overhang designed for seasonal insolation. R-60+ in ceilings.

    It snowed all day yesterday (cloudy), +3 degrees F outside this morning, and all living spaces are 65 degrees or warmer this morning using only a normal amount of wood in the stove. That’s with the thermal curtains removed for painting the walls.

    It’s all part of my retirement plan. Time to go brush the snow off of the panels.

  8. ghung on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 2:33 pm 

    P.S.: The hot water system (1600 liter storage tank) also produces all of our DHW. Hot showers are great therapy on cold days.

  9. simonr on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 2:44 pm 

    To ignore the lessons of history because we have made technological improvements is at the very best blase

    I have been in a modern house with loads of insulation and practically no need for heating, I couldnt leave fast enough, I prefer draughts and my fires.
    Again just personal taste.

    the thing to take from this article is maybe people would not die so often (in the uk) if they could learn lessons from the past, not everyone can afford this wonderful insulation

  10. Meld on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 4:13 pm 

    We live in a large Victorian house with no cavity walls and real coal fireplaces. It’s cold in winter and cold in summer (just the way I like it) These old houses breathe much better than the new ones though. My brother in law has a new build with cavity walls, double glazing, the works, his house sweats on the inside and his heating isn’t much cheaper than mine. In winter we close off most of the house and only use the Sitting room and kitchen. The bedroom doesn’t need heating, (you’re in bed) the bathroom doesn’t need heating, (you’re either taking a hot shower or a quick frosty dump)

    If it get’s really cold we just sling on the 2 season sleeping bags which are cheap as anything and away you go. People moaning about heating costs just need to face reality and think with a bit of common sense.

  11. ghung on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 5:57 pm 

    Get a small dog. Some breeds were, in part, actually bred to this purpose. They’ll burrow down to the foot of the bed and keep your feet warm.

  12. simonr on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 5:59 pm 

    wasnt that the origin of ‘three dog night’

  13. ghung on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 6:21 pm 

    Indeed; attributed to indigenous Australians who reportedly slept in a hole with dingos on really cold nights. In my case, our Standard Poodles usually prefer to sleep next to the wood stove. Smart puppies. Our little ratter prefers getting buried amongst his Poodle bitches. It’s OK,, I have the wife; she has her hot flashes.

  14. Northwest Resident on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 6:46 pm 

    What about living in a Hobbit Hole? I’ve heard that a home covered with a sufficient amount of standard dirt will maintain its temperature within a few degrees or so regardless of the outside weather. Is that true?

    Answer: Yes, it is. Here’s a link:

    In the future, we may all be living in Hobbit holes — though probably not as elaborate a hobbit hole as shown in the link above, or even as high class as Bags End hobbit hole.

  15. ghung on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 7:06 pm 

    I built our home to have a green roof; up to 18″ of soil and plants. It’s bermed up to the roof level on the north, NE and NW sides. However, my research into underground homes revealed that fire ants love green roofs, and will drill tiny holes in virtually any roof membrane. Fire ants we’ve got, unfortunately.

    I opted for about 3 inches of gravel and planters to grow peppers and other vegetables that like heat. At least there’s no one living nearby who’ll complain about their eccentric neighbour not keeping up appearances 😉

  16. Northwest Resident on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 7:20 pm 

    I know a guy who owns a business that specializes in “green” roofs — commercial and residential. I did some reading up on green roofs, and it looks like an actual solution that works to reduce the effects of a glaring sun, and also traps heat indoors during cold weather. I don’t know how his business is doing, but I hope he’s finding a lot of customers. It sounds like you’ve got a great plan that you’ve put into action, ghung.

  17. ghung on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 7:45 pm 

    Ask your buddy about how to deal with fire ants and roof membranes. I read several testimonials from folks in the South who used Rob Roy’s underground house plans who reported fire ant problems on (in) their roofs. Of course, Roy also promotes cord-wood walls; perhaps not such a great idea here in termite country.

    I still have the option to green my roof if I can find a solution that doesn’t involve poison.

    See: “Rob Roy – Earthwood Building School” and “Underground House Book”. (www dot cordwoodmasonry dot com)

  18. simonr on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 8:24 pm 

    My roof is too old, cant even put up solar panels, so I am putting them outside.

    When it gets cold, we just put the kids in our room !!!

  19. PrestonSturges on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 8:33 pm 

    Canopy beds were also a way to retain warm and humidity.

    Also, nobody is mentioning electric blankets and heating pads.

    In the US we rarely see natural gas space heaters in the 10,000 to 20,000 btu range. But they used to be common built-ins. I liked the little antique ceramic gas heaters sometimes seen set into tile bathroom walls.

  20. kervennic on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 10:09 pm 

    Hey simonr whereabout are you in France?

  21. Kenz300 on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 10:12 pm 

    Good insulation and sealing up air infiltration openings can make a HUGE difference in your energy consumption in heating your home.

    Having someone come out and do an energy audit on your home is worth the effort.

    People too often look for short term savings when buying an appliance like a furnace or air conditioner and miss out on the long term savings an energy efficient one can provide. Even changing to LED light bulbs will save you money in the long run.

    Save energy and save money……….

  22. HARM on Wed, 29th Jan 2014 11:08 pm 

    Re: fire ants and roof membranes, what about building the roof with steel or aluminum instead of wood? With steel, rust might be a concern, especially if it’s a soil-covered “green roof”, but galvanization should help with that.

  23. DC on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 12:12 am 

    Sawdust, matchsticks and PVC shacks, again. The problem is not, as the writer points out, that simple and far less energy intensive ways dont exist-they do. The problem is rather, someone else came up with a seemingly even ‘simpler’ solution.

    Centralized fossil fuel heating.

    And they made it so cheap and buried the costs and complexity of it so end users were not ‘burdened’ with any of it, it just because much ‘simpler’ to crank the heat and walk around all winter in yer underwears….

    It became simpler, just crank a dial and pay a few extra dollars for it and the end of the month, rather than either build proper buildings, OR, even go through the stress of having to put on a sweater and some light gloves.

  24. ghung on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 12:33 am 

    Yeah, Harm, I’ve considered metal roofing, but our roof has very little slope; designed to shed water gently, Expense is also a consideration. If I was rich, I would use standing seam steel sprayed with a two part rubber foundation sealer like //inflowsolutions [dot] com/residential/. We had a similar product sprayed on our foundation walls. It’s tough stuff with seemingly infinite stretchability. Whatever I use will need to be resistant to a living roof, with all of its bugs and stuff.

  25. Tim on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 1:07 am 

    So I was watching “Journey Of Man A Genetic Odyssey” on You Tube.Deep into the video at about 1 hour and 31 minutes it shows Anthropologist Spencer Wells getting ready to bed down for the night.Mind you this is in Siberia where temps dive down to -60 degrees.The locals use a tent in a tent set up covered in reindeer skins.Whats their heat source? It is literally a couple of candles in the inner tent.Spencer said he was warm as toast all night.Go figure…

  26. Tim on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 1:16 am 

    Low Tech Magazine has an article called “Heat Your Clothes Not Your House” It covers whats said here with the addition of the use of electric clothing.Basically
    by using todays electric clothing one can save a heap on their heating bills.Plus vs non electric clothes much less clothing is needed.Something to ponder.

  27. Makati1 on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 1:19 am 

    Lots of ideas and good thoughts above.

    I lived with my family in a log house built in the 1700s. It was a small two story about 6 by 9 meters, or the lengths of the oak trees that grew on the site when it was built. We were the 12th family to live there. It had small windows, and plank floors and roof and the walls were about 8 inches of oak or line & horsehair plaster covered with a more modern German wood siding.

    We lived there for 11 years and yes, the heating bill was high, but the house was only kept to about 65F in the winter. Had the big stone fireplace not been knocked down to allow the road to be widened in previous years, I am sure heating would have been easy with wood. We survived and the kids, even today, say they were the best years of their childhood and liked living there.

    Most houses built since 1940 are wasteful of everything and will not last until 2040 with out major renovations/repairs and much money. Many built before that will survive as they were built to be passed on to future generations. But, you all knew that.

    Then again, with the climate change and the extreme weather swings we are experiencing, who knows what/who will survive. We shall see.

  28. James A. Hellams on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 1:44 am 

    I think that one thing was left out of this article and the comments that is critical.

    If you look to the very old homes of decades or centuries ago; most of these homes had no running water or plumbing for water.

    Today’s homes come with plumbing and running water as standard equipment.

    If you live in a very cold environment, you will definitely need the heating (particularly of the whole structure) to keep the pipes from freezing and breaking open.

    You will have to set the thermostat at a temperature that will prevent the freezing and breaking of the piping.

    Piling on the clothing or bedding will not keep the pipes from freezing and breaking open.

  29. PrestonSturges on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 2:42 am 

    I was burying some wooden posts and I treated them with the foundation seal because creosote is apparently unavailable now. I diluted it 5:1 with kerosene and soaked the end for a day.

  30. Arthur on Thu, 30th Jan 2014 9:08 am 

    When the fossil age is over, you can keep yourself warm for a few dollar per month:

    Currently application is restricted to ‘motor devils’, who keep warm at minus 10 Celcius and 80 mph. A little more sophistication and you can use this stuff indoor. Become a polar bear yourself 😉

    Great business idea for the Russian market *now*.

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