A few weeks ago, Crunchy Chicken posted the 2011 Freeze Yer Buns Challenge. One of the participants, the North Park Homestead, described "heat miles" as something we should think about with the same devotion we offer to "food miles" in our efforts to locally source what we eat every day.
This year, with any luck, all of our heat will come within a mile and a half of our house.
When our 700 square foot cabin was built at the base of Pike's Peak in 1927, it had no electricity or indoor plumbing, and the woodstove was its only source of heat. Since then, it's been retrofitted with the world's tiniest bathroom, electric lights and water heater, and a small CoZy Heater, which is less of a furnace than a glorified space heater. But unlike many modern houses, this cabin was designed with the stove in mind specifically to be the sole source of warmth. It sits in the center of the house, facing into a large living room, with the doors to the bedrooms nearby. The stove insert sits partially into a wide chimney made of local pink granite rocks, mostly about 10 inches in diameter. Enough of the surface of the stove sticks out into the room for you to heat dinner or boil a teakettle on top, but enough of the stove is nestled back into the rocks to allow them to act as a heat sink. It can take us up to two days of wood burning to get the rocks warm, but once they are, they will radiate heat back into the house for another two or three days.
When we light up the stove on chilly 40°F autumn days, it quickly raises the temperature inside the cabin to 80°. Last winter, our electricity and gas were out for several days during the coldest week of the year. But even while it was -20°F outside, our stove still kept the inside of the house around 60, all by itself. Needless to say, I was sufficiently impressed. It does get chilly at night, but we let the fire die down rather than waking up in shifts to tend it. With two adults and two 60-lb dogs snuggled up under thick blankets, we couldn't much care if it gets down into the 40s while we're sleeping, and the rocks re-radiating the warmth from earlier in the evening keeps our plumbing above freezing. We could turn on the gas heater for back-up if we needed to, but we haven't yet this year, even though we've already had two mountain snowstorms.
I write about our woodstove not just to brag about how awesome it is, but hopefully to inspire some folks reading to think about alternative sources of heat. For us, like many folks who have elderly or very young family members, turning the thermostat back to 60 or 50 degrees isn't really an option. Maybe it's because I've had a prior case of hypothermia, which makes me especially susceptible to the cold. Maybe it's because we, like many soldiers, started developing arthritis in our 20's. Whatever the reason, even when I spend the majority of my days working outside, I can never seem to take off my heavy winter jackets without shivering when the temperature is much below 70°. It encourages me to think that I can keep my home at whatever temperature I want, as long as I'm willing to trek up into the woodlot and cut the renewable resource required to warm it up.