A Warm House

Remember Oscar and Emma and the saga of the digital thermostat?

Well, that’s the Skipper and me.  Only not the way you might think.  Yes, I’m the one who’s always cold, and he’s the one with the built-in furnace.  But when it comes to heating the house, my internal environment critic goes around turning down the heat until it’s just barely comfortable, and then putting on sweaters, and the Skipper is the one turning up the heat behind me and putting on his t-shirt.

The paradox has driven me crazy for years.  I never felt like it was worth burning energy to heat a whole space when I’m going to be cold anyway.  And I could never figure out how my husband, the same man who looks outside to the coldest, blusteriest, stormiest day and says excitedly, “let’s go sailing!” wouldn’t be able to keep warm at an environmentally-friendly temperature.

This fall, some pennies dropped.  I asked the Skipper one day, “did you grow up in a cold house?”  This was the same house that I knew had no running hot water and only 2 electrical circuits and was insulated with newspaper.  “You mean did we wake up in the morning with frost and icicles on the inside of the bedroom walls?  Watching our breath? Umm…yeah.”  So now, as an adult, the Skipper hates a cold house.

I also realized that I was acting out of some built-in habits and beliefs, namely that being “good to the environment” = being uncomfortable.  Hmmm…Calvinism anyone?!  Deep in my Scottish Protestant bones is still the visceral belief that if I’m not suffering in this lifetime, I’m not doing it right! 🙂

So, ’round and ’round we went, the Skipper and I, me trying to suffer, he trying not to, each with our own moral arguments, up and down 1-2 degrees on the digital thermostat.  But no more.

Drumroll please…..

The woodstove is in!

Our house was originally designed for a gas fireplace: there is a chimney box framed in that was then hidden behind drywall.  No gas line ever arrived at the property, but we’ve intended to put in a woodstove since we moved in.  This fall, we decided we were ready to take the plunge, and the Skipper took down the section of drywall, tiled a hearth, and we found a stove that would fit the space and a company to install it.  It’s been in and operating for almost a week, and though the space still needs some finishing touches (paint), the experience of heating with wood has already been transformative.

Forget fighting over whether we “should” be uncomfortable at 20 (68) degrees or whether we spend the money and burn the hydro at 23 (73).  Now we’re both warm by the fire at 25 (77)!  My sweaters are off, guilt-free; the throw blankets I just got are now purely decorative.  The tension in my shoulders that stays until summer comes back is unwinding.  And there’s more!

Our house was already pretty efficient, with a high-efficiency electric furnace and a heat pump, so it will take a few years for the stove to pay for itself, in theory.  Skipper had the system tricked so that the heat pump worked on its own, without the furnace, most of the time.  But the numbers are staggering nonetheless.  Running the furnace (which we do use, once the temperatures are around and below freezing) uses in the 20,000 watts range; using the heatpump takes us down to closer to 10,000 watts.  At the moment, we’re running the blower fan on the stove (50 watts?), and a ceiling fan (200 watts?), and then when the main room gets too hot, we turn on the furnace fan to pull the heat downstairs.  It uses less than 450 watts. So less than 1kw altogether.  Amazing!  Then there are the auxiliary benefits: just like in the summer, it seems RIDICULOUS to use the clothes dryer when the house is so toasty (I know, we could have done this regardless, but we were lazy), and staying by the fire is so nice that we’re not spread out around the house in different heated and lit spaces on different computers.  When I’m cold, I also take longer, hotter showers to help me warm up.  Add to this that the Skipper is scrounging pallets and other waste wood at his jobsite, and there are a LOT of wins here.  For the first time in a while, we’re looking forward to getting our power bill!

There’s nothing like a warm house…especially when it’s guilt-free.

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10 thoughts on “A Warm House

      1. I’m so glad to read this post. We’re planning on getting a wood stove when we build a proper house (we’re in a tiny mobile right now with no room for one). I love the idea of not having to take long, hot showers to warm up, or of feeling tight muscles due to cold. I also love the suggestion about being able to line-dry indoors during the winter. Add to your excellent comparison of electricity usage the fact that we have several tall firs on our property that we want to clear out and I think we’ll have free wood for years to come. You really hit some great points!

  1. I hadn’t seen that Corner Gas episode – thanks for the laugh! The new wood stove looks wonderful!

    This is our third full winter here at Mucky Boots, and we are continuing our tradition of trying to heat the house only with the wood stove. There are a few problems with this – chiefly that the woodstove is on the lowest floor of our three-level house, which means that even with an air exchange system, the lower level tends to be stifling hot, the main level is comfortable with a fleece and warm socks, and the upper level (our bedroom) hovers around 10 degrees. Brrrr! But we’re stubborn, and cheap, and won’t turn on the heat (electric baseboard heaters) except when guests come (since we’d like them to come BACK) and in the music room, where assorted instruments need temperature TLC. On one hand it feels like an adventure and a challenge, and on the other I know exactly what you mean when you describe the shiver-induced knot in your shoulders…

  2. Miriam, we loved Corner Gas, and that episode in particular; it’s not unusual for us to walk around complaining about “the hot part of Japan”. 🙂 And we must have moved to the area at just the same time–this is our third winter too! Our stove is on the main floor, with our main living space that includes our bedroom, and upstairs my office is the toastiest room in the house! But, like you, the guest quarters, which are downstairs, may need a space heater if we want folks to come back. We’re experimenting with running the furnace fan to pull the heat downstairs, but we haven’t worked out all the kinks yet.

  3. Congratulations on the new woodstove. We had one installed almost immediately after purchasing this house as we love woodheat and in the heavily wooded location we live in – power outages during winter storms is very common place so having a low tech source of heat is important. We have a small home and the woodstove manages to heat the entirety of it with no problem as a result. We do use the back up electrical heat system but only in the mornings and early afternoon until we are ready to place a fire on the hearth for the evening.

  4. Hi Toni, Congratulations on your new heat source! There truly is nothing like the look, sound, smell and feel of a wood fire, is there? You just FEEL better as soon as it’s lit.
    When I was a kid, we had an old Renfrew wood stove in the kitchen and I would stay snuggled deep under the covers until Dad had a fire snapping away in it’s belly. These days it’s me who feeds the beast that heats our house and, much as I curse all of the work involved, it still feels just as awesome today as it did all those years ago.
    One question arose while looking at your little “stove nook” (sorry, little Miss Safety Officer strikes again)… Did your installer use cement board or ordinary drywall? In the picture it looks like ordinary drywall (and you can tell me to just shut up and that everything’s fine, but I wouldn’t want you guys to wind up having a house fire because I didn’t ask!) Building code, here at least, requires cement backer board in addition to minimum clearances (and, speaking of which, your slate tile “hearth” looks beautiful and very safe).
    About the problem of heat distribution associated with wood stoves… If you can move the heavier, cold air out of a space, the lighter hot air will be able move in (that’s why furnace ducting for cold air return is always larger than the warm air pipes) and, once you’ve established a convection current, you’re laughing! We use a fan on the floor to pull the cold air out of the back room (kitchen) so that heat from the airtight can get back there. Used in conjunction with passive, register-sized/covered ceiling vents, the stairway acts as a giant cold air return and heat can gain access to the upper story. We usually only need to supplement with the electric baseboard heaters (don’t ask, we didn’t build the house!) on the coldest, windiest of Nor’ Easter’s.

  5. Laura and Deb, you are right, there is nothing like wood heat. And your eagle eye is correct, Deb, that is drywall you see. But not to worry, modern stoves come with clearances for both combustible and non-combustible walls, so we’re all to code, inspected, and certified. And we’re getting the hang of the fans!

  6. For a quick warm-up (like when the fire is just getting going), put a hot water bottle on your chest, under your sweater, and cover up with a blanket. In five minutes, even your hands will be warm!

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