Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: Phase One of using less energy for heating

So last month my plans for lowering our energy usage for heating got the proverbial kick-in-the-butt when I got our gas bill for December which was, um, higher than I care to discuss. I have now implemented Phase One:

And here's a redux of the current changes:

1. The kitty door:

Yup, there it is. This is working out great, for several reasons, some planned on, and some surprising and neat. I installed the door with the goal of keeping the ZOMG cold air in our "sunroom" (HA!) out in the sunroom, while also keeping the kitty water, food, and litter out there. SUCCESS! Calvin the Cat has adjusted well to his door (once he got past this weird phase where he thought he had to get his paw under the door and lift it up over his head; but then, Calvin's not the brightest bulb on the tree). The door itself was not particularly difficult to install, and my DIY skill level of "Hm, I'm pretty sure this is the direction the jigsaw goes" was sufficient, and even still, after I discovered that the jigsaw's guide had busted and I was gonna have to do this freehand.

There are also two "surprising and neat" features that this little door has confered. One is that, though not visible in the picture above, to the immediate right of this door (at a 90* angle to it) is the door to the pantry. Often, both of these doors would end up open at the same time. I don't care how skinny you are (and I'm not), it was a pain to get through. And it was hopeless if you had anything in your arms (e.g., groceries, laundry, etc.). Now at least one of the doors stays closed regularly, which really helps keep that space passable. The second "hey neat!" feature is the psychological affect it's having. You see, what happens is that you come in from outside (we have a detached garage where our car, moped & bikes reside) into the sunroom, which is cold, but not nearly so cold as it is outside. And you think "Ah, warmth! I'm glad to be inside!" But then, glory of glories, you go through the door into the kitchen and it's really warm! Sure, maybe that's only 60*F, but compared to the sunroom, it's a sauna. And so the interior of our house feels even warmer still. *geek*

2. The Curtain Barriers:

There they are--these are the curtains that block off the rest of the house. Oddly enough, when these photos are side-by-side (with the white curtain on the left), it looks a surprising amount like what you see when you walk through our front door. Anyway, these curtains are designed to block heat into the other side of our house, where our family room, dining room and kitchen are. These curtains are all GoodWill finds--the one on the left is two twin-sized sheets, and the one on the right is a Queen sized comforter that I sewed some scrap fabric onto to put it onto a curtain rod. Is it working? HECK YES IT IS. It is actually startling how well this works. We've shut the vents in the rest of the house, and only keep open the ones on the living side of our house. It is remarkably warmer. In fact, I've even turned down the heat again (to 60*F), and it still feels warmer now than it did before. I may turn it down yet again. So far so good.

3. The Kotatsu:

Okay, here's the one disappointment in my current experiment, and it was the one I was sort of looking forward to the most. The kotatsu is in the living room, which is in the shut-off section of the house, but it is the room we hold our weekly roleplaying game in, so I wanted a way to warm it up a bit for everyone. But the kotatsu just doesn't work that well. I currently have three different guesses for why that is:

1. The blanket sucks. Even on high, it just doesn't feel very warm, and I'm talking even with both hands pressed on either side of the electric coils. Now, maybe it's really not supposed to get that hot--it's not an electric heating pad after all--but still.... maybe it's just not a good blanket. It's a Biddeford? Anyone?

2. It's not big enough. If I'd gotten a queen or king (correction: if I could've afforded a queen or a king) it would go over the laps of the people sitting next to the table, and maybe all would be well.

3. We're not Japanese. In Japan, people sit on the floor around the table itself rather than on couches next to the table. Perhaps this is the key difference. Sadly, I don't see our gamers starting to sit on the ground for the sake of warmth--they seem more content to stay on the couches in coats.

So, the overall verdict? A success. Even though the kotatsu isn't all that I'd hoped for, overall this strategy is working well. And for our weekly game, for the time being, I can just open the heating vents in the morning and at least bring those rooms up to 60*F once a week.

The next step will probably be getting some kind of a space heater. This will allow us to drop the gas-forced-air heat even more, and also we can take the space heater into the living room for our weekly game (and, possibly, for a new fiber-arts group that seems to be forming at my house, through very little of my own intervention). But, as usual, I'm happy to take suggestions!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why my spinning is nothing more than an indulgence

I've taken up a new hobby, yarn spinning. I have to admit, I'm very infatuated with this so far. I've borrowed a wheel from a friend in exchange for giving her knitting lessons. (Okay, two quick points: first, who in the world has an extra spinning wheel? And second, who has an extra spinning wheel who doesn't know how to knit?! I couldn't make this stuff up.) Anyway, so I've spun up a couple of bats worth of fiber, and I must say that, so far, I believe it is identifiably yarn. Probably overtwisted, and I have not yet attempted to "set the twist"--an arcane process by which I repeatedly dunk my handspun into hot water, apparently until it confesses that it is a witch, and then beat it repeatedly until it recants. I will also be attempting to "ply" this yarn, which means twisting it together with another batch of yarn in ways that I'm sure would make Rick Warren squirm. This comes before the Witch Trials.

For all that, I really love the process of spinning. It reminds me in a way of nursing a baby. "Um, it does?" you say, "Er, perhaps you're doing it wrong?" Bear with me, this makes sense. The health benefits of nursing cannot be overstated, although no doubt many people have tried, but there's another benefit to it that gets overlooked--the psychological benefit of just sitting with your newborn and feeding her. I don't care how expert a nurser one is, for the first few weeks after delivery it is all but impossible to nurse a baby and do anything else--even read a book. And you know what? That is A-Okay by me. In fact, I think that's one of the sneakier successes of our evolution--forcing new mothers to just sit and be with her new baby, letting her body heal and the bond between herself and the baby develop. Nursing a newborn is a very demanding task--both parties are often learning what they're doing, and newborns are somewhat lacking in coordination. Your focus must be almost all on the task at hand.

And so with spinning. You cannot "spin and X" in my (incredibly limited) experience. Okay, maybe you can spin and watch TV, but really, that's about it. If the other diversion besides spinning is not simply shoveling entertainment straight into your gob with no additional effort on your part (like TV), then you just can't do it while spinning. Both hands are needed, and at least one foot. All of these parts have to be doing different tasks (holding the batting, drafting the batting out, and "treadling" the wheel--spinning it with the foot peddle). It's sort of like a more complicated version of patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. And the batting has to be drafted out properly--you actually have to be looking at it (or at least, I actually have to be looking at it). Your focus is very pulled in to the vortex of the spinning wheel, the rhythmic repetitive motion of treadle-treadle-treadle, pinch-pull-slide-pinch-pull-slide... It's calming, it's meditative, and it involves your whole being, top to bottom, brain to foot.

Sadly, what it does not do in any significant sense is further my adaptation goals. "Hunh?! But it's like the most back-to-earth, no-power, *gasp gasp* anything that you can do!" True, it is, and I've no doubt that when power becomes scarce, I'll be glad that it's something I can do without electricity (although only during the daylight). But if I'm being honest, in my current adaptation trajectory, it really isn't very practical. I mean, for one thing, I don't own any sheep, alpacas, mohair or angora rabbits, or any other spin-worthy hair-producing animals (except, possibly, my husband). From whence do I plan to getteth my batting, my grease wool, my hanks of fiber? Because while there are plenty of alpacas in this area (middle-midwest, go figure?), you'd better believe that their owners all have their own wheels. My services will not be immediately called upon in times of economic and/or energy hardship to spin wool for anyone. I won't be able to barter this skill for much, because this skill isn't worth much in my area. We have plentiful stocks of yarn around, and frankly, plentiful stocks of clothes too. No one will need handspun wool, they'll need to learn how to cook lentils! Maybe, many many years from now, knowing how to handspin will be a real boon to my family, but for now, and in the immediate future? Not so much.

So why am I doing it? Because it's fun! Because it's a delightful, meditative, low-energy activity that I feel good about doing. I like what I make, even if it won't save my family--so what? Balance in all things. Many, maybe even most, of what I do during the day is ultimately aimed at trying to adjust our lives to a new future. But not everything. And in fairness, there is a sense in which it will be helpful to have more no-power things to do in the future, so it's not like it's off the charts on the adaptation scale. It's an indulgence that I'm enjoying, but one that should be kept in perspective. It's not gonna keep my family in clothes or food in the future.

Now, on to installing the kitty door and learning to use my jigsaw! Updates on the new-heating regimen forthcoming.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Indominable Human Spirit

The sermon today at my church was wholly remarkable. Our new minister, whom I really respect and value, has actually read Dmitri Orlov. Yes, for real. She read Reinventing Collapse (which neither Brian nor I have yet read, more's the shame, although we frequent his blog And she took it to heart, which is a hard thing to do--the very real possibility that the next twenty years will be completely unlike the previous twenty years, the seismic shifts coming in our economy, and possibly in our lifestyle. She spoke about the rises and falls of informal economies, of barter systems and currency systems and their interplay, and the need to revalue them both in preparation for what's to come (and, probably, for the survival thereof). Now, I should be clear here, given our typical Sunday fare, this was a stunningly gloom-and-doom sermon. We're Unitarian Universalists, after all--we don't go in for hellfire & brimstone and suchlike. This was probably the doomery-ist sermon ever given by our minister, and possibly the doomery-ist sermon ever given from our pulpit.

And yet for all that, and for some obvious psychological needs of both the minister and of our fellow congregants, she endeavored to keep it light. She ended on several upbeat notes, two of which I want to discuss. Well, the first I just want to reiterate, because I think it's not only right, but also important. Even in the midst of a total collapse, people still celebrate birthdays, still get married, and have babies. People still love, and people still dance. Life is still worth living, even if it's a life you never imagined living. Always remember that.

The second point I want to discuss is somewhat weirder. She talked near the end about the "indominable human spirit" and how she was holding on to that feature of us for our salvation. Now, of course I've seen references to this countless times, and almost always in the vein of "our ingenuity will save us". And I agree with that, as a broad statement.

But if you pay attention to the details, there are at least two different things that people mean when they discuss this delightful human spirit. The first, probably most common, and certainly what our minister meant, is not actually a solace of human nature, but of human-created technology. She went on to discuss the inventiveness of us humans, of our new use of biofuels, or solar and wind, and of who knows what else wonders of technology on the horizon that we, as humans, can muster our intellect to command and control. With our stunning ingenuity, certainly we can create paths to a brave new future that looks not like what we live now, but even bigger, even brighter, and even better than what we have now. It is the crisis of the moment that will bring out this best in us--"best" here meaning our scientific conquests which will allow us to pursue our bigger, brighter and better new world. The human spirit (or rather, human technology) will not fail us.

And of course, I have all manner of problems with this sentiment (although I certainly understand the desire to believe in it). The most obvious problem with this attitude is that there are countless instances in the human past where our indominable human spirit has not thrown up technological solutions to the relevant problems. It is ironic that our minister shared this hope against the backdrop of Orlov's work on comparing our own situation with that of the Soviet Russia's collapse. If anyone on the planet has indominable human spirit, it's the Russians, and yet, at least when construed in the bounds of technological advancement, it did not save them. And in fact, they didn't suffer nearly the same level of problems that we are and will be--they have no shortage of fossil fuels on their continent, and yet still their gas stations were shuttered and their electricity was off. We produce less than 3% of our own oil and gas needs within our borders. We've got coal, but a crumbling infrastructure and rapidly decreasing funds to repair it. Biofuels, solar, wind, and ShinyNewPowerX are wonderful (well, sometimes anyway), and will certainly help fill in gaps, but I think it's folly to think that they will somehow allow us to continue our lifestyle, world without end, amen. Plenty of work has been done on this elsewhere, but the short version is that anyone who really believes that wind, solar and biofuels will supplant fossil fuels does not understand how most of them work, and the tradeoffs involved in each. And none of them address the crumbling infrastructure or the stunning economic problems that will prevent any serious implementation of our ShinyNewTechnoligies(tm) regardless.

And then, of course, there's the work from Jared Diamond that helped me reshape my own thinking on the topic of finding salvation through technology. Diamond's book Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, is an overview of five different human cultures which drove themselves to extinction due in large part to their own choices. The motivation for writing the book came from a question one of his graduate students asked while studying the collapse of the Easter Island people, a people who destroyed their own civilization via deforestation--they literally cut down all of the trees. The student asked Diamond "What do you think the person was thinking who cut down the last tree?" What does go through one's mind on the cusp of a collapse? It's a haunting thought, and one we would all do well to meditate upon. Very pointedly, near the end of his book, Diamond writes:

"Technology will solve our problems." This is an expression of faith about the future, and therefore based on a supposed track record of technology having solved more problems than it created in the recent past. Underlying this expression of faith is the implicit assumption that, from tomorrow onwards, technology will function primarily to solve existing problems and will cease to create new problems. Those with such faith also assume that the new technologies now under discussion will succeed, and that they will do so quickly enough to make a big difference soon....

But actual experience is the opposite of this assumed track record. Some dreamed-of new technologies succeed, while others don't. Those that do succeed typically take a few decades to develop and phase in widely.... New technologies, whether or not they succeed in solving the problem that they were designed to solve, regularly create unanticipated new problems....

Most of all, advances in technology just increase our ability to do things, which may be either for the better or for the worse. All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. The rapid advances in technology during the 20th century have been creating difficult new problems faster than they have been solving old problems: that's why we're in the situation in which we now find ourselves. What makes you think that, as of January 1, 2006, for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems that it previously produced. (pp. 504-505)

An interesting meditation, no? Why is it that we are almost religiously placing our faith in exactly what has gotten us into the messes we're in? It's akin, in a way, to our decrying handing over several hundred billion dollars to the bank managers that created the now-defunct credit bubble and saying "fix it". One may disagree, but perhaps now one can understand my skepticism of technology uber alles. Technology has wrought wonders, no doubt, and I think there are many things it has done to make our lives genuinely better. But this isn't different in kind from acquiring a really great new knife. It can make one's life better or worse, depending in part upon how one uses it, and even more depending on the worth one placed in that knife in the first place. If you placed your faith in the new knife, that with it you would rise in culinary prowess to attain the hights of our nouveau celebrity chefs, well... sorry. Or even if you believed that, by getting this knife, you'll actually start to enjoy cooking, again.... sorry. It is our attitude towards this acquisition that makes or breaks its real worth to us, and the same goes for technology.

So what of our indominable human spirit? Should we refrain from placing our faith there? Only if "indominable human spirit" = "human's ability to manipulate technology". But that cannot be all and only what this phrase means. Look again at the Soviet Russians. They are full of indominable human spirit, even though no technological interventions saved their society. And in fact, their culture survived their societal collapse--impressive, to say the least. They did survive, but they did it by finding something to cleave to other than technology.

Our indominable human spirit must be otherwise--it is the source from which our technological inventiveness comes, I think, but it is more. It is the root of our drive to overcome, to perservere. The Russian population understood this. While their leaders scrambled to find large scale solutions to their problems, pretty much none of which panned out, the people got to work adjusting their own lives. They let go of a lifestyle that seemed untenable, and began building a new one. They danced, and sang, and bartered, and had birthdays, and gardened, and scraped, and made toys by hand, and helped their neighbors, and they found a way. That is the heart of the indominable human spirit--to find a way. To limit this spirit to what white-coated scientists (or demin-clad tinkerers) can come up with is to cut ourselves off from our own very real ability to find a way, together with our friends, family, and neighbors. We should not sit and wait with baited breath for the announcement that Science will allow our lives to continue unhindered. Our lives can be bettered now, our neighborhoods can be bettered now. The problems that we must solve derive almost entirely from a culture which has become overly reliant on our technological faith. Go back to the true spirit--the genesis of our technology, and our cultures, and our drive, and our love. The human spirit is all of this. It is what allows us to find value in our children's smiles, and the beauty of a community finding its own spirit again, and the ability to sigh and put away old ways when they no longer work, and to find new ways that will. I believe in the indominable human spirit, and I will gladly put my faith here.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Um, George, do we have a plan for getting out of this?

"Sure we got a plan, boys. *giggle* They ain't never seen ord'nance like this before!"

Sorry, I've been lapsing into and out of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? for days now. This is the line that went ringing through my head, though, as I read over our gas bill for December. Despite my previous post, and our varied efforts to reduce our heating energy consumption, our bill was over $200 (ouch). So now the stakes have been raised. And no, I'm not currently planning on blowing anything up (despite my mention of "ord'nance" above).

Why is our bill so high? As far as I can see, there are two basic reasons. The first is that we have 10' high ceilings. Now, these ceilings save our butts in the summer--we didn't turn on our A/C at all last year (well, we did once, but that's a long story best saved for later). But our salvation in the summer is our damnation in the winter--all our heat rises above our heads. The second reason for the high bills is that it's fricking cold outside.

So now I will embark upon Stage One Preparations, as per the schematic below:

Okay, you may need to click on it to see it better--sorry. The relevant changes are in red. First, notice the barriers between the left (East) side of our house and the right (West) side of our house. We spend almost all of our time on the West side of the house, so why not make it official? I will be constructing some kind of blanket or multi-layered-sheet barrier to put up in these two locations to keep the heat in the West side of our house. I'd like whatever we use to be multi-layered, but I'm not wanting to break the bank here, either, and the one to go between the family room and living room will need to be king sized, I think. One option I've been kicking around is picking up some used king-sized sheets from Goodwill and sewing them together with some cheap batting in between them--sort of a poor woman's quilt, as it were. We'll see what I can scare up.

Moving right along, we have the Kotatsu! This will be in the living room. It will be for the express purpose of our weekly roleplaying game, which is held in that room, and for the somewhat regular "no, I really need to be in a different room from y'all now" moments. The coffee table that is currently there is a glass-topped model, so I will be putting an electric blanket on the table and then topping it with the glass. The gamers, who pretty much sit right around the table, can stay toasty-warm!

Third, I will be installing a kitty door in the door between our sunroom and our kitchen. Why? Because despite what the room is called, there is no significant sense in which the sunroom is, in fact, a sunroom. It might be more aptly described as a "cold room" or maybe an "ice box". At any rate, it's fricken' freezing in there, but it's also where Calvin the Cat's food, water, and litter are (and it's where they'll stay). Being able to keep this room even nominally closed off from the rest of the house will do wonders for our heating bill, and it will have the added bonus that installing the kitty door means I'll finally have to learn to use my jigsaw.

So there you have it. Please note that these are our Stage One operations. We don't actually have a Stage Two yet, but it will probably involve a space heater or two (and thanks to Anne for posting that website about kerosene heaters! Okay, yeah, the guy who wrote it is a bit of a zombies-are-coming nutjob, but the advice on heaters seems sound.) And, as usual, suggestions are welcome.

(BTW, we did have an energy audit done last year, and he found the house to be quite tight, and very well insulated, so working on those points will probably be shelved for later.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

It's cold in here!

One of the most basic things my family has already started working on is adjusting to the idea that houses don't have to be 68*F in the summer and 72*F in the winter. In fact, if you look at it like that, it's a bizarre luxury that we've come to expect as a birthright. But humans have survived for a good long time in a huge variety of temperatures, and there's no reason we can't go back to it.

We are starting slowly at this. Right now, our main actions have been:
  1. lower the thermostat in our house to 60*F
  2. learn how to dress in fricking layers in our house (it's really not that hard)
  3. don't turn on the A/C during the summer
  4. perform the summertime "dance of the windows"--more on this when summertime rolls around
It is wintertime where we are right now. We don't have a programmable thermostat--yet!--and my husband and I are nothing if not incapable of followthrough, so the house pretty much stays at 60*F right now (rather than dropping the temperature over night, etc.). And so far, despite some complaints on the part of visitors (who are typically polite about the situation as they quietly put their coats back on) it's really not bad.

It does take adjustment, though. If you're used to 70*F, you cannot just drop the temp by
10 degrees and expect to be hunky-dory about it. The best thing we did, in fact, was not turn the heat up in the first place. So far this winter, I've not set the temperature over 62*F, and that was something of a concession to my Gigi for her visit over Christmas. I've found that if I push the temperature below 58*F, my nose gets cold inside, and for some reason this bugs me more than I can say, so I'm compromising with 60*F (until I figure out how to knit a nosewarmer--or make one of these! [youtube video] Oh, I love Beaker and Bunsen!).

The main way we deal with colder indoor temperatures is, as I said above, to dress in layers. All of us wear at least a t-shirt and overshirt during the day. My husband and I both have thermals under our pants. I try to get the kids to wear pajama pants under their regular pants (although since my older son is at school during the day, he'd get too hot that way and I try get him to add clothes when he gets home). I am also continually amazed by how my children just don't seem to notice the cold. Yes, I do try and keep them covered, but I'm always looking over and seeing that they've taken their socks off, or their overshirt, or who knows what. So keeping their clothes on at an appropriate level is a bit of a struggle, but one I won't concede.

We also sleep mostly together, and often with hot water bottles. The boys have opted to sleep in the same bed, and we're fine with that, and my husband and I sleep together. Now, I should say a few words about hot water bottles. Those words are "GET" "ONE" and "NOW". My favorite luxury, by a long shot, is to sit on the couch with a hot water bottle under my feet, and maybe even (bliss!) one on my lap, with a book or knitting, and a cup of hot tea. This is the sort of luxury one cannot experience in a 72*F house--it's just not possible. We've got four water bottles--two for our bed and two for the boy's beds. I bought some cheap fleece and sewed some bottle covers for them, just to make them a bit more pleasant to have against the skin. Everyone loves them. I will probably buy a few more this year, and maybe even knit some cutesy covers (although fleece has much to recommend it, not the least of which wicking away the odd stray droplets of water that the outside of the bottle might have on it). And remarkably, even after a full night in bed with us, I've found the water bottles to still be warm when we get up--not hot, like they were the previous night, but still warmer than body temperature. And naturally, we have piles of quilts & blankets on our beds, too, which we can layer as we will.

What about when we're up and around? Well, honestly, if I'm up and doing, I don't notice the temperature at all (except for that whole 58*F cold-nose thing). We still dress in layers, but activity warms the body very nicely. I've also completed my first set of fingerless gloves, which I've been wearing around to keep my hands warm while also being able to do work (like right now).

But if we can hack 60*F with relatively little adjustment in our lifestyle, how much further could we push it? Now I start laying in plans. Here are some of the things I'm planning/hoping to do either this winter or next to go even lower:
  1. Sew blanket barriers to section off our house--and heat the part of the house that we're actually in.
  2. Try out a space heater or two rather than using central heating. Now, I'll admit I'm a bit lukewarm on this idea, because I've been given to understand that space heaters are spectacularly inefficient. But even an inefficient space heater might be better overall than very efficient whole-house heating, so I'll give it a shot.
  3. Make a kotatsu. I got some great inspiration on this topic today from Colin Beavan over at the No Impact Man blog, including making a japanese kotatsu: I'd never heard of a kotatsu, and in some ways it's just another version of a space heater, but options are always good.
What else can we do? Well, partially as an excuse to feed my knitting habit, I'll be making everyone some close-fitting wool caps for indoors (not those big, nobbly woolen hats which are great for outdoors but frankly feel silly when you're indoors--even if indoors is 50*F). I'll probably knit up some more fingerless gloves, which were quite easy, and I've got some leftover yarn for them anyway. But I'm reasonably sure that going lower in temperature than we are now will require having some source of warmth to go to, whether it's a space heater, a kotatsu, or hanging out in the kitchen while I bake bread. Someday having a woodburning stove might be nice, but that's firmly in the "pipedream" category (ahahahaaa! bad pun). Anyone got other ideas?