Natural Ways for Dealing with Cold Temperatures
Methods Our Grandparents Took for Granted Still Work Today
By Christopher Nyerges, California
Let’s start from the beginning. Let’s start with you and what you do and what you wear when it gets cold outside. Then we’ll get to the more mundane issues of how to keep your place warmer when it’s freezing outside.
Keep in mind that we’re all different, with different likes and dislikes, and different tolerances to temperature variations. Up to a point, I like the cold. I like the doors open and the windows wide open, especially when it’s raining outside. I like the feel of the breeze and the coolness of the air. There is something mentally and spiritually refreshing when the sweet rains and the cool breezes pass through my room.
But how many times I have heard others say, “Can you please close the door? I’m freezing.”
Sometimes they say it politely, and sometime with great anger.
I have my limits, of course. When I lived in Ohio with my brother, the winter temperature was once below zero for weeks. We had an oil furnace then, and it was expensive to heat the farmhouse without a woodstove, and so we blocked off the other rooms of the house and just heated the kitchen, and bedroom, and heated the living room only on occasion. One sunny winter day, the temperatures got “up to” 40°F and people in the town square were walking around in T-shirts, saying there’s a heat wave. I was still in my coat, but it made it clear how our body’s limitations are all very different.
Here in California, I don’t get snow where I live and I enjoy the cold and rain, which seem like pleasant gifts from God here in the desert environment of Southern California.
Because of my state of mind, perhaps I deal with the cold better than I used to. But dealing with the cold is not strictly a state of mind. There are practical things that can be done also.
For example, every pore of our body should be free of detritus and allow the body to excrete toxins. Our pores also, within reason, adjust our sense of comfort when it is hot or cold. So, to keep my pores doing their job, I thoroughly scrub my skin when I take baths, using a stiff Fuller brush that was probably designed to clean a sink or toilet.
Also I drink warm fluids when it is very cold, despite the fact that this may mean that I go to the bathroom more often. This is so very obvious that you wouldn’t need to tell a child to have a warm beverage or hot soup on a cold day, but I know adults who won’t drink hot tea or coffee (or even hot water) because they don’t want to have to go to the bathroom more often. In some very rare cases I can understand this, but usually, bath-rooms are everywhere. We all have one in our homes, right? Consume warm beverages so you’re more comfortable in the cold. A no-brainer.
Dress warmly. Another no-brainer.
Exercise a bit during the day. Another no-brainer. Obviously, more activity that increases the cardio-vascular activity also warms us.
Upon hearing the above advice, someone once said to me, “You must be out of you mind! Should we be doing jumping jacks in the snow?”
Yes, I know this may not be for everyone, but simple lifestyle changes and modifications can make all the difference in the world. After all, isn’t it our very modern lifestyle that has created our ecological and economical crises in the first place? How long should we cling to the faulty logic of, “I’m just doing what everyone else is doing” as the excuse to not change our behavior?
Okay, to the house.
In terms of the greatest energy savings per dollar spent (“the most bang for your buck”), insulating your walls, ceiling and floor is by far the best investment. Before you concern yourself with exotic new appliances and fancy solar warmers, insulate!
Fred Peters, a friend of my father’s who grew up in Bedford Heights, Ohio, often told the story of how he insulated his home. In Fred’s neighborhood in the 1920s and 30s, everyone heated their homes with furnaces, and a truck would deliver the fuel when you needed it. In the winter after snow had fallen, Fred noticed that the snow would always melt on the roofs of all the houses in his neighborhood. He reasoned that this was because all the heat from the furnace was being lost through the roof, and melting the snow.
Fred worked at a lumber mill at the time as an afterschool job, and managed to bring home a bag of wood shavings every day in the following spring and summer. He took each bag and packed it into the attic spaces between the rafters. By the following winter, he’d fully insulated his attic by this method. He never told his father about it, since his father was a strict disciplinarian, and he felt his father would tell him not to do it. As Fred came home each da
As Fred came home each day the following winter, he began to notice that the snow on his family’s house lingered longer than any other roof. He then knew he was right, that by insulating his roof, he was keeping all the heat in the house.
Fred still hadn’t told a thing to his father. A few weeks into the winter, Fred’s dad told him that it must be a mild winter, because he noted that they still had plenty of fuel in the heater tank and hadn’t needed to call the fuel delivery man as often.
Finally, Fred took his father outside and asked him to look at all the neighboring roofs, including their own. His father was mystified, and had noticed for the first time that their roof was still full of snow while all the others were snow-free.
“What’s going on?” said Fred’s father. Fred then told his father what he’d done, how he’d gotten permission from work to bring home a bag or two of chips each day, and how he little by little filled all the gaps in the attic.
“And your father was delighted, right?” I asked Fred.
“My father hit the roof,” said Fred. “I can’t tell you how angry he was,” Fred explained, pointing out the unfortunate fact that his father was mad because he was not in control. Still, within a week or so, Fred’s father finally thanked and acknowledged him for the good thing he’d done.
I never forgot this story from my father’s friend, and what he accomplished “in secret.” Still, I wonder how fire-safe wood chips would be in the attic. Probably not very safe, and today’s modern insulations are largely fire-retardant and would not represent the same potential fire danger, or weight, as wood chips in the attic.
Modern Appliances Use Energy Star
You might be ready to install another heating system. Do your homework before you make a purchase. Find out what is most appropriate for your needs.
Your best choice of an over-the-counter system will be those with the Energy Star “seal of approval.” Energy Star is a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, “helping us all save money and protect the environment through energy efficient products and practices,” according to their website.
For The Home
Choosing energy efficient appliances can save families about a third on their energy bill with similar savings of greenhouse gas emissions, without sacrificing features, style or comfort.
If looking for new household products, look for ones that have earned the Energy Star. They meet strict energy efficiency guidelines set by the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy.
If looking for a new home, look for one that has earned the Energy Star.
If looking to make larger improvements to your home, the EPA offers tools and resources to help you plan and undertake projects to reduce your energy bills and improve home comfort.
In the central heating system in my father’s house, there was a filter that had to be regularly cleaned or replaced. During the winter, my father would be in the basement regularly, shaking out the filter, or putting in a new one. This was a simple enough task, and as a child, I wondered why he was always down there tinkering around. After all, I wasn’t paying the bills—he was! Even though my father didn’t carefully articulate the reason he was doing this, he often had me or one of my brothers help him do the five-minute job of removing and cleaning the filter. His filter was washable and he would replace it maybe once a year.
My father wasn’t particularly concerned about “saving energy,” but with a house of six children, he was very concerned about “saving money.”
A clogged filter means that the heat (or cooling) delivery system is working harder, and inefficiently. Keeping any and all appliances working properly can be a big part of efficiently using our resources. This is especially so when heating and cooling a house.
Turn on the heat when you’re cold, and turn it off when you’re warm. That’s what we did in our home growing up, and that’s what most folks do. Our mindless lifestyle is what got us into this mess and it is our very mindlessness that keeps us bogged down.
Get a programmable energy-saving thermostat installed in your home, and learn to use it so that you’re only heating when you need to. You can program it to turn off when you’re asleep, when you don’t need as much heat. You can program it to kick on the heater just before you get home on very cold days.
This is an easy upgrade and an easy way to make your home more energy-efficient.
Glenn Forbes offers the following advice.
“For keeping heat inside in the winter,” he says, “try to contain the heat to just the rooms you will be sleeping or cooking in by shutting the inside doors. Just by keeping the kitchen door closed, the heat from the refrigerator will warm up that room or the one connected to it.”
Of The Grid?
Remember, the design of the house, and the insulation of the all the walls, is perhaps the best thing you can do to keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter. There are several places I have lived where I never used any sort of “central heating.”
This was party due to the design of the home, and partly because I enjoy a home in winter that is a bit on the cool side, and am content to feel the cold. When it gets a bit too cold, I’ll put on a sweatshirt before I will resort to a heat source.
Woodstoves and fireplaces are the obvious heating choices for anyone who doesn’t want to use gas or electric heat. And in most part of the country, you can obtain firewood free, usually year-round, by merely collecting and cutting it yourself.
Though I admit to having purchased firewood on occasion, by planning ahead, I have brought home logs from trees that were being pruned or cut down (some already cut to woodstove or fireplace size), and stacked them in the yard. Sometimes I needed to split the logs with a maul, and then stack them for easy use.
You can also produce your own fuel from your yard (or neighborhood) by saving all the wood from tree prunings, cut to size, and stacked to dry.
There are many woodstoves to choose from, and whole books have been written on the possibilities. Before buying a woodstove, you should have an idea of where to place it. The location should heat as much of the house as possible, not just a corner of a room. So the layout of your home may determine what sort of wood stove you will buy.
And though you can go to a fireplace store or catalog and buy any of the marvelous stoves available, I’d strongly suggest you begin by talking to friends who may already have and use a wood stove. Ask them why they selected the model they have, and find out the pros and cons of that model. After awhile of doing this, you’ll discover that there is no “right” or “wrong” wood stove; there are simply many options depending on your particular situation and needs.
You should also start looking for woodstoves at flea markets and yard sales–you might be surprised how often you’ll find these for sale, especially in certain parts of the country. When you see one, just start examining it and ask questions. Is there significant rust? Is there burn-out in certain areas? Do the doors open and close well? Are there pieces missing? Is it only good for heating, or can you cook on the top also? Will it fit in the spot you have in mind? Does it have sufficient height? Will it need to be put on a pedestal? Is it large enough to accommodate the size of firewood you have? Or will you need to cut the firewood into very small pieces? Will you need to buy the smoke pipes, or does the seller have them? Does the look of the stove appeal to you?
In other words, just start examining it very carefully and ask any questions you can think of. The wood stove will become a central part of your home, and you want one that will provide you with years of service without being a nightmare.
Many of the wood stoves are entirely cast-iron, which means they get very hot. Some are made of sheet metal, and thus will not last as long. Some are mixes, like some of the early Sears models that were cast iron internally, but then coated in white enamel to look like a modern stove.
Some are covered in layers of soapstone, which is an excellent choice since the stone will absorb and radiate heat for hours. You’ll might pay more for such a soapstone stove, but it’s well worth it in efficiency.
If you buy a used wood stove, you must examine it carefully inside and out and do your best to get a good deal. Remember, there are only a few reasons why someone would sell a wood stove. One, it might be a smoky stove with broken parts and the owner is tired of it. It might be fine for someone who wants an ornamental object in the yard, but not for you who want a workhorse. Two, it could be an estate sale where someone died and all the furniture is being liquidated. Three, the stove might be fine but the owner no longer wants the trouble of bringing wood into the house, and then having to deal with all the wood ash on a regular basis. A person with a self-reliant mindset feels good about doing these things, but there are many reasons why someone will choose to stop doing that (for example, an elderly person who is now living alone). Four, the city may have become hypnotized by political correctness and passed a law forbidding wood stoves—yes folks, that is a trend. Learn your local laws before you leap into this. Although many people speak “green-friendly,” they (meaning, the city authorities) often speak with forked green tongues.
So there are many reasons why you might find a used wood stove for sale. I have purchased new and used wood stoves, and always felt that I got the better deal when I made a careful purchase of a used one. You can read all about the used wood stove that Dolores purchased and I installed in our 1999 book, Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City, which can be obtained used from Amazon or used bookstores (it is currently published by Dover).
Of paramount importance is safety. You don’t want to burn your house down as the cost of “self-reliance.”
So first, you don’t put the woodstove directly onto a wood floor. You must lay down a safety layer of bricks, or any of special boards used for this purpose. You must not have the wood stove any closer than 18 inches to the wall, though there are wall protectors designed to allow you to situate the stove a bit closer.
Typically, the smoke piping will go: 1) horizontally though the wall, and then up vertically; or 2) straight up vertically through the roof (where there is no ceiling); or 3) commonly, up through a ceiling and then through the roof. The method you use is determined entirely by where you decide to put your stove.
When I installed our woodstove, I could have used the third method, since we had a ceiling in the living room. However, rather than go straight up vertically, I connected the smoke pipe up nearly to the ceiling, then I put in a 90-degree elbow, and ran the pipe about five feet horizontally, and then I put in another elbow for the piping to go vertically through the ceiling and through the roof. This brought more heat into the room, rather than most of the heat simply going out into the night.
There is a special triple-walled insulated device that you want to purchase where the pipe goes through the ceiling, and then another special smokestack where the pipe goes through the roof. Do not try to cut corners here, since you do not want a super-hot pipe touching the wood of your roof and burning your house down.
When you feel everything is safely installed, start a small fire first and test to see if any of the line smokes, which means you don’t have a tight seal.
Another safety consideration has to do with children. If there are children in your household, you must find some way to create a barricade around the wood stove so that the child does not touch the stove and get burned.
In general, fireplaces are less efficient for heating the home than a wood stove. This is largely because most fireplaces are designed very simply, and most of the combustible gases end up going right up the chimney.
The brick does heat up somewhat and so there is some radiant heat from the bricks after the fire dies down.
The Russian fireplace is a design whereby several baffles are built into the fireplace, slowing the combustible gases so that more heat is radiated into the house. This design is a much more massive fireplace than a typical “ornamental” fireplace, and in some cases, the house are designed around it.
But if you are living in a house where a typical fireplace was built, there are still things you can do to increase the efficiency. I once lived in a house with a fireplace at one end of a very long living room. If you were in the third end of the room that had the fireplace, you’d be warm. But if you were on the other end of the room, you could actually still be cold. We added a grate that was composed of hollow tubes rather than just solid metal. The tubes opened into the room. The idea was that the air in the space inside the tubes was heated, and would naturally flow back into the room. The use of this grate did increase the warming quality of the fireplace by perhaps 20 percent, which was significant.
I have seen such grates with hollow tubes and a fan that blows the hot air back into the room. This seems like a great idea, though I have never personally tried it.
Amish Building Practices
I was first exposed to the Amish when I lived in rural Ohio after I graduated from high school. Years later in the late 1990s, I got to go inside many of the Amish homes and workplaces with Peter Gail who was then conducting tours of the Amish countryside.
The Amish eschew nearly all modern appliances, including electricity. They live in this world, but are not of it. All Amish do not hold to identical beliefs about their use of appliances and modern devices, something that Peter once tried to explain to me. Apparently, each local leader can make their own decisions about such matters, and it often revolves around the issue of whether or not the appliance or device will more readily bring in the bad influences of modern society, and whether or not such usage is “prideful.” There seems to be a lot of room there for debate and discussion.
Anyway, their homes are heated by woodstoves. Part of doing this effectively has to do with how the Amish build their homes in the first place. Most Amish live in Ohio and Pennsylvania, areas that get very cold in the winter. The homes are not all crammed together as you see in the city, where there is no concern at all with alignment to the sun, local wind currents, underground water, etc. Amish homes are built to take advantage of the natural sunlight, so large south-facing windows are common, and workshops are also built facing the south.
Houses are built with entryways, and vestibules, and service porches, all those pre-entry spaces that also serve as a buffer to keep the cold out and the heat in.
Size, According To An Architect
According to architect Steve Lamb, “Most people think they need too many rooms, and that they need them too big. I have been in some gigantic homes that were no more comfortable or expansive to the mind than a shoebox. I have seen small homes with well-planned vistas and a sense of openness that made you feel you were in the most open expansive place imaginable.
“A 12-foot by 24- by 8-foot room is 2,128 cubic feet to heat and cool. A room with the same or even lower function that is 16-foot by 36- by 12-feet is 6,876 cubic feet to heat and cool. It’s double the square feet, but triple the cubic feet. Worse yet the larger the mass of air to heat and cool, the more difficult it is to heat and cool it and the more difficult it is to keep it at temperature, and the more important the air leaks become. So whatever you can do to reduce the volume of the rooms and keep open sightlines for the psychological benefit of the inhabitants is vital. The worst thing you can do is build a tall, vertical room. That’s like just throwing heating and cooling money down the sewer. The more horizontal a room, the more it has a tendency to transfer the warm or cool air across to the inhabitants. The more vertical, the more the tendency to transfer the hot or cool air up and out and away from the inhabitants. Vertical rooms also can lead to inversion layers where the hot air rises and forces the cool air down, not desirable in winter. “Having said that, high, well-insulated windows that are under the eaves and don’t really have views are excellent devices for taking heat off the ceiling in the summer and causing drafts for cooling. You could make same out of plywood and cork sandwich, cork being the best natural insulator, but nowadays the code requires any hinged opening device to be made by a approved manufacturer so until someone starts making them in a factory, we are stuck with the less-efficient windows.
“None of these ideas is new. They were common folk knowledge, and they were found in the work by some Arts & Crafts architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, early Greene and Greenes, all of Louis B. Eastons work, and even by Richard Neutra in his work before World War II.
“A book that has some of the best ideas in it and that is still ahead of the times in what it demonstrates as being available options is Shelter by Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, California, first published in the 1970s. Many of the ideas in there are still just as useful, practical, and more-time proven than ever, but still not allowed under our codes, even as the codes become more allegedly ‘green.’
“A lot of this green crap that is being approved is high maintenance high-tech high poison content, corporate nonsense that finds a way to mitigate a poorly designed and sited building, or a way to get extra LEED points by doing cutie pie things like constantly adjusting the lighting in a inhabited room for maximum efficiency, but not taking into account the actual and psychological needs of the user in the room. I, for example, find it annoying when someone else is jiggering my lights. There are lenses that can be used that easily, cheaply, permanently throw light throughout a room, but you can’t get any LEED points for using that 100-year-old technology!”
Again, the house design is perhaps the single most important factor in creating a home environment that is comfortable in both winter and summer.
It does seem that we are all slow learners who can often barely see beyond tomorrow. Though lots of folks are “talking green” today, they are talking today because so little action was taken over the past 50 years of business as usual. We knew about increasing population and dwindling resources back then, and yes, there were many proclamations and alarming statements, but all the talk did very little to alter our basic way of building home and building businesses and building cars.
This is, fortunately, finally changing, little by little, not by government decree, but by ordinary individuals like you and I—pioneers of the quiet revolution—who are choosing to embrace a sustainable lifestyle.
Steve Lamb’s Advice
Architect Steve Lamb had a little to say about this topic.
“Annoyingly, the State of California has just passed regulations against wood burning fireplaces. The good news there is that if your only heat comes from a wood burning fireplace, you can use it. For real heat you need a real masonry fireplace. Those steel zero clearance things may as well be a television set for all the actual warmth they produce. Real masonry is heated by the wood and stores the heat in the masonry mass and slowly releases it throughout the day. The best of these I have found are the Soapstone units. They throw heat out for hours on end. A good hot fire early in the morning and one around dinner time in a real masonry unit located near the physical center of the home will keep you warm in the coldest winter.”