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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Twenty Below and Off the Grid

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

It's a nice day. The sun is shining.
Image Credit: Martin Holladay

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?


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  1. user-963341 | | #1

    Ah, memories
    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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Bill Smith
    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. user-884554 | | #3

    Rough winters
    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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Chris Brown
    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. Ken Levenson | | #5

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

  6. user-757117 | | #6

    Good times...
    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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Lucas Durand
    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. user-626934 | | #8

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

  9. user-757117 | | #9

    Response to 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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to Lucas Durand
    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. user-757117 | | #11

    Response to Martin

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

    You hit that nail on the head.

  12. JonathanBeers | | #12

    Charcoal under van story
    "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.

  13. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    Response to Jonathan Beers
    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. JonathanTE | | #14

    A fire under the propane tank
    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. LucyF | | #15

    Very funny.
    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. Greg Labbe | | #16

    Kids in the House

    That was a good yarn, thanks!

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

  17. GBA Editor
    Rob Wotzak | | #17

    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. user-1022459 | | #18

    Old Farmers
    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. user-1044645 | | #19

    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. user-1005777 | | #20

    Engine oil
    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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #21

    Jon Vara's comments
    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. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #22

    frozen north
    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. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #23

    Response to Stephen Sheehy
    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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