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Twenty Below and Off the Grid

When the thermometer drops, rural Vermonters pay close attention to heat flow

Posted on Jan 10 2014 by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

In a recent blog, Allison Bailes did a great job defining heat and explaining heat flow. It’s important to remember, though, that Allison Bailes lives in Atlanta. When the temperature drops to 6°F in Atlanta, the story makes national news. But when the temperature hits -20°F in Vermont, we just tell our kids to remember to wear a hat when they walk to school.

I think it's fair to say that residents of the Peach State don’t fully understand the value of heat. Now, if you live in northern Vermont, it's vitally important to pay attention to heat flow. When the temperature drops to -20°F or -30°F, heat quickly flows from certain objects to the outdoor air, and the results can be inconvenient.

If you live in a house that is connected to the electrical grid, the solutions to this undesired heat flow are fairly simple. All you have to do is buy a collection of inexpensive gadgets and plug them in. Once you've got heat tape for your plumbing pipes, a block heater for your truck, a battery charger, and a couple of hair dryers, you're all set. (Well, more or less. Occasionally it's also useful to have an arc welder and a small bulldozer. But that's another story.)

What if you live in an off-grid house? Well, then you have to learn a few tricks.

Every incident described in the following dialogue actually happened. However, it’s possible that the events didn’t all happen on the same day; there may be some poetic license involved.

A cloudless day in January

Setting: The tiny lobby of the post office in Sheffield, Vermont, on a January day. Two customers are chatting.

Martin: Hi, Bill. What's up?

Bill: It was 28 below at my house. What about your place?

Martin: Only 25 below. It's always warmer on the hill.

Bill: Well, my car doors were frozen shut this morning. I couldn’t find my flat bar, so I had to use an ice scraper to pop the driver’s door. It took a while.

[Bill notices Martin’s cross-country boots and the ice on his mustache.]

Bill: Isn’t it a little cold to be skiing to the post office?

Martin: Truck wouldn’t start.

Bill: You should have brought your battery indoors last night.

Martin: I did. I put it on an orange sled and hauled it in. Left it on the shelf beside the wood stove all night.

Bill: And your truck still wouldn’t turn over?

Martin: No. I even tried the coals-in-the-lasagna-pan trick.

Bill: Huh? I don’t know that one.

Martin: That’s where you go out to your truck with a metal bucket full of hot coals from your wood stove, a lasagna pan, and a blue tarp. You pour the coals into the lasagna pan and put it under the truck’s oil pan. Then you put the tarp on your hood and wait 15 minutes.

Bill: Isn’t that how Fred burned up his truck?

Martin: Could be. Luckily, my truck didn’t catch fire. It just won’t start.

Bill: What about your old Subaru?

Martin: Well, the Subaru started. But I can’t move it because the truck is in the way.

Bill: Couldn't you pull the truck with a come-along?

Martin: I thought of that. But I was cutting firewood yesterday up at my clearing and got my bar pinched. I used my chains and come-along to free my saw, and I left everything hanging from a branch in the woods. I didn't feel like snowshoeing up there just to get my come-along.

Bill: Is your little tractor strong enough to pull your truck?

Martin: The fuel filters on the Kubota are clogged and the diesel is too thick.

Bill: Did you try pouring some kerosene in with the diesel?

Martin: I did, and that seemed to help. It almost started, but then the battery died.

Bill: Why don't you charge the battery with your generator?

Martin: I forgot to bring the generator into the living room last night. The choke is frozen, and it won’t start. Otherwise I would have borrowed my neighbor’s Torpedo heater and built a few tents.

Bill: Well, at least it’s a sunny day. You’ll make a little electricity once the sun hits your solar panels.

Martin: The panels are iced up pretty bad from last week’s frozen rain. I can’t scrape them yet.

Bill: Try pouring some warm water on them.

Martin: That’s a terrible idea. It could crack the glass. Anyway, my water pipes are frozen.

Bill: Don't you have a propane torch?

Martin: Yes, I went down to my cellar yesterday with the torch and I managed to get the water flowing, but then a different pipe froze — one of the ones behind the drywall. It’s a pipe that I usually thaw with a hair dryer. But I can’t get my generator started, so I can’t use the hair dryer.

Everything’s frozen solid. I had to put a big rubber basin of snow in the hen house, so the chickens can peck snow. It’s hard to give them enough water when it gets this cold.

Bill: Bob told me that the potatoes in his cellar froze.

Martin: That’s too bad. He should have covered them with hay.

Bill: He also ran out of dry firewood. I helped him move a cord of green wood into his living room. It steams up the windows, but at least the wood is beginning to dry out. While I was there, we swapped his propane tank. His driveway is too rough to plow, so I helped him pull in one of those 100-pound propane tanks on his toboggan.

Martin: Did you hear that Frank went away for the weekend, and he forgot to put antifreeze in his toilet? That’s the second time he’s cracked his toilet.

Bill: You’d think he would have learned after the first one. Are you going to be OK at your place with no car, no generator, and frozen pipes?

Martin: I’ll be fine. I’ll melt snow to make dinner, and I’ve got plenty of kerosene for the lamps in case my house batteries run low. Before I go to bed, I’ll bring the generator indoors. I should be able to get things going tomorrow.

Bill: It’s supposed to be 30 below tomorrow morning, so you should put an extra log on the stove before you go to bed.

Martin: Right. Don’t forget to leave your water dripping.

You can do better

Yes, we're a bunch of hippies who live in leaky cabins. Learn from our mistakes! Remember, if your plumbing pipes or your potatoes are freezing, insulation won't solve your problems. It's all about air leakage, not insulation.

If you pay attention to airtightness when you build your home, and test it with a blower door, your plumbing pipes and potatoes will never freeze, even if you go away for the weekend.

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Open-Cell Spray Foam and Damp Roof Sheathing.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.


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  1. Martin Holladay
1.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 08:28

Ah, memories
by Bill Smith

Helpful? 0

A pretty good description of much of my childhood. We weren't off grid, just on the part that didn't work when you needed it.
My dad always used you folks up in Vermont as our "Could be worse" example. "Don't complain, you could be living up in Vermont!" It was almost 2 miles away.
You could've brought those chickens in ya know. Let's face it, chickens are as important as the kids.That's next years food.


2.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 08:39

Edited Fri, 01/10/2014 - 08:44.

Response to Bill Smith
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Bill,
Back in the late '70s, in late winter, I snowshoed over the hill to visit my neighbor John, who was even further from a plowed road than I was. I came down off the ridge through the trees, a little unsure of which way to go, and finally spotted his house and the smoke rising from his chimney. He invited me in, and he had two goat kids in his kitchen. He was keeping them warm. As you can imagine, his house smelled of goat.

There is nothing cuter than a baby goat, however.


3.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 08:58

Rough winters
by Chris Brown

Helpful? 0

Yeah, and zip lines weren'y always for entertainment either! I can remember my grandfather setting one up from a second story widow to the barn. Where there's a will......


4.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 09:14

Response to Chris Brown
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Chris,
The zip line trick isn't needed every winter -- only when the snow gets so deep that you can't open the first-floor doors.


5.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 11:02

Great post
by Ken Levenson

Helpful? 0

with a great ending. Hope the thaw-out is proceeding well.


6.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 12:25

Good times...
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Helpful? 0

Martin,
If you've gotten to the point of trying the "lasagnia pan" technique, instead try draining all the engine oil into an old soup pot and heat it over a burner for a while before pouring it back in.


7.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 12:33

Response to Lucas Durand
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Lucas,
Your trick is worth a try, I suppose. But when it's really cold, isn't the oil so thick that it's hard to drain?

I've definitely removed my spark plugs and put them on a brick on top of my wood stove for ten minutes. Then I wrap the spark plugs in a rag, run out to my truck, and put them in as fast as I can.

I can't say that the trick works, but I've tried a lot things over the years.


8.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 12:44

That made my day...
by John Semmelhack

Helpful? 0

...I'll stop complaining that it's 33F and raining here in Virginia.


9.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 12:48

Response to Martin
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Helpful? 0

Martin,
Yes it can be very slow to drain...

It's an old bush-pilot trick, but I think in those days they used to drain the engine oil into a drum while the engine was still warm and bring the oil into their tents with them then heat it again on the fire before putting it back in.


10.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 13:09

Response to Lucas Durand
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Lucas,
That's the only problem with all of these cold-weather tips -- you have to remember to do them before you get into trouble. Once the weather is good and cold and your batteries are all dead, you have fewer options.

One thing's for sure: we all get a little smarter as we get older.


11.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 14:50

Response to Martin
by Lucas Durand - 7A

Helpful? 0

you have to remember to do them before you get into trouble

Martin,
You hit that nail on the head.


12.
Fri, 01/10/2014 - 19:02

Charcoal under van story
by Jonathan Beers

Helpful? 0

"Lac du Flambeau — Authorities on the Lac du Flambeau reservation say a woman was lucky to escape injury after she tried to use hot charcoal to heat up her vehicle in subzero temperatures.

A WSAW-TV report says authorities responded to a vehicle fire Tuesday morning.

Lac du Flambeau police Chief Robert Brandenburg tells The Associated Press temperatures were about minus 23 degrees and the woman's 2007 Dodge Caravan wasn't starting. So first she took out the battery, warmed it up inside and reinstalled it.

Then she shoved a mound of hot coals under the van hoping to warm up the engine chamber. He says the undercarriage of the front bumper caught fire, causing about $1,000 of damage.

Brandenburg says he's used the charcoal trick successfully, but he doesn't advise that others try it.

http://www.jsonline.com/newswatch/wisconsin-woman-tries-to-warm-van-with...


13.
Sat, 01/11/2014 - 07:03

Edited Sat, 01/11/2014 - 07:05.

Response to Jonathan Beers
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

Jonathan,
I love this news story. Of course I identify with the woman trying to start her car at -23°F. (Her town was named by French voyageurs; it means "Lake of the Torch.") What's her next move? It's a classic gambit -- coals in the lasagna pan.

Sadly, there is a fire. Police Chief Brandenburg responds, and issues a warning.

Then the twist. With an unexpected flash of truth, Police Chief Brandenburg, remembering his youth, undermines his warning: "I've used the charcoal trick successfully, but..."


14.
Sat, 01/11/2014 - 12:20

A fire under the propane tank
by Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

Helpful? 0

That's what my brother and sister-in-law in Alaska did a few times when the propane was too cold to flow. They tell us it was a small fire.

The other trick they had at that house was to keep the toilet seat inside, and carry it out to the outhouse when nature called.


15.
Sun, 01/12/2014 - 11:38

Very funny.
by Lucy Foxworth

Helpful? 0

I read this story out loud to someone who grew up in Maine and someone who grew up on a ranch in Utah. Both of them could relate. Painfully funny. I hope it is more comfortable for you now.


16.
Tue, 01/14/2014 - 22:21

Kids in the House
by Greg Labbe

Helpful? 0

Martin,

That was a good yarn, thanks!

I grew up with goats but couldn't imagine them in the house...Marbles everywhere!


17.
Wed, 01/15/2014 - 12:26

Screenplay?
by Rob Wotzak

Helpful? 0

Great story, Martin! I can't completely relate, but I can sort of imagine what it's like to go through all of those ordeals and how they are just a fact of life for some folks. I think this would make a great short film or public service announcement.


18.
Wed, 01/15/2014 - 19:23

Old Farmers
by Tim O'Brien

Helpful? 0

If you notice old farmhouses in the north, you will often see the house sitting on a rather high foundation. Often four or more steps up to the "regularly" used door. This is because the old guy that built the house decided to move a couple tons of rock once (for the foundation) was a good trade to avoid having to shovel three feet of snow from in front of the door each winter. And they didn't have attached garages either...


19.
Thu, 01/16/2014 - 11:38

Edited Thu, 01/16/2014 - 11:42.

Delicious
by Fred Greenhalgh

Helpful? 0

Great stuff, I'm sure a few more horror stories could enter the canon from this past Christmas week when we had an inch of ice to go with the -13F weather.

I'm a 2nd gen back-to-the-lander myself, luckily I have learned from prior errors and my off-grid house is built with SIPs, so a single firebox of wood is enough to get us toasty even in the worst of times. In fact one of these -13F days we cooked a pie and had the wood stove going and it was so hot we smoked ourselves out.

People think you're crazy when you open your windows in sub-zero temperatures because cord wood is cheaper than electricity...

- Fred

(in house off-grid web marketer for ReVision Energy)


20.
Thu, 01/16/2014 - 14:47

Edited Thu, 01/16/2014 - 14:56.

Engine oil
by Roger Williams

Helpful? 0

The answer to starting a cold engine is to use full synthetic oil with 0W as the first viscosity number. My car owners manual calls for 5W-20 oil. I use 0W-20 in the engine. The oil is available in 0W-20, 30, or most recently 40 viscosity ratings. I don't use a block heater and have no problem starting down to -40F. The oil stays liquid to a much lower temperature. It is much easier on the battery as well as it never cranks more than a second or two to start. Batteries normally last 6 or 7 years if you maintain the water level. Even the "maintenance free" battery plugs can be removed to top them up every couple years. AGM batteries are much better.

NOTE: NEVER lower the second number on the oil that is recommended for your vehicle. That is for warmer temperatures as in running the engine.


21.
Wed, 01/22/2014 - 20:32

Jon Vara's comments
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 0

I just received an e-mail from my friend Jon Vara, who, like me, is a former associate editor at the Journal of Light Construction who lives in an off-grid owner-built house in Vermont.

Jon wrote, "I liked your post about those days. I was tempted to send in a response complaining, 'What, you had a lasagna pan and a blue tarp? We used to DREAM of having a lasagna pan and a blue tarp! We used to carry the hot coals for our oil pan around in a hubcap!"


22.
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 17:39

frozen north
by stephen sheehy

Helpful? 0

Martin: Tell me again why we live here?
Maybe those two perfect days in May before the black flies arrive.
And September is pretty nice.


23.
Tue, 02/04/2014 - 17:50

Response to Stephen Sheehy
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Helpful? 1

Stephen,
Yes, I've felt the same way when I've spent too many hours in the cellar repairing frozen water pipes. But then I put on my snowshoes after dinner, and climb up to the ridge on a cold, below-zero night, and I look at the stars -- and I know why I'm here.


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