Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Case for Manual Labor

I like getting books for Christmas. This year I forgot my book at home and ended up wandering around in circles or reading the Times on the computer. It wasn't until the 27th that I finally opened something to read. My brother-in-law, Brian, gave me a copy of a little book of philosophy I hadn't heard of called Shop Class as Soulcraft. The author, a PhD in philosophy who owns a motorcycle repair shop, makes the case for the value of working with your hands. Engaging your mind in the creation of something. When I graduated from college twenty years ago, the joke was that I was fit to split firewood and tend sheep. My roommates found this amusing. Graduates of Holy Cross do not become shepherds. Since 1990 I have been a cook, reporter, English tutor, package store clerk, carpenter and laborer, teacher of EFL, substitute teacher, artisan baker, sail maker and carpenter again. The one omission from this list, a print estimator for my father's printing company, was my only real attempt to join the white collar workforce, and it failed. Square peg, round hole. I have spent about thirteen of the last twenty years acquiring various trade skills. Now the joke is that I have an advanced degree in Home Economics. I cut and split my own firewood. I am poised to tend a flock of sheep. Had I known myself a little better twenty years ago perhaps it wouldn't have taken me so long to get here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Holiday Test

When you're committed to heating with wood, there's only one issue to address: What do you do when you're not there to light the fire? Initially we had a very conventional solution. A wall mounted direct-vent propane heater could easily keep our house from freezing even in the coldest mid-winter weather. Then it occurred to me that running heat through the slab wasn't all that expensive. If we weren't there to light the fire, then we wouldn't be there to use hot water either, and the domestic hot water system could double as a source for in-floor heating. When we leave for the holidays tomorrow afternoon, the solar hot water system will heat our house or at least keep it from freezing. (I doubt it would freeze anyway, but I'm not willing to put my suspicions to the test.) I'll set the thermostat to 60F and close the door. Neighbors will check on it and Ox, the cat, who more or less takes care of himself.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Shortest Days

With Winter Solstice right around the corner, the sun hangs low on the horizon and disappears to the west shortly before 4 in the afternoon. Yesterday was a good day (sunny, cold and short) to check the performance of a well insulated passive solar house. During the day, obviously, there's no need for supplemental heat from the woodstove. At noon in mid-December sunlight penetrates deeply into the house, lighting up the back wall of the first floor. The temperature inside is just below 70F. A couple days ago I made an adjustment to a setting on the solar hot water system allowing more solar heat to be pumped through the slab, and yesterday was the first day to give it a try. Around mid-day I turned up the thermostat and pumped heat through the floor for a couple hours. Our domestic hot water usage is predominantly later in the day so a little loss of heat to the floor in the middle of the day leaves enough time for the tank to recover temperature before the sun goes down. At 10pm with the temperature outside approaching the single digits, inside it was still a pleasant 66F. I could have lighted a fire in the woodstove before retiring for the night, but I thought it would be a good night to see just how cold it would get inside without the benefit of extra heat. The heat for the night would come from what was stored in the concrete floor. A 4:30am it was a little on the chilly side at 54F so I started up the woodstove to give us a little boost before the sun starts working again. Not bad though. When your average house would have been burning something all day and night to keep from freezing, I used nothing but solar gain. It will take some time to tweak the system to achieve maximum efficiency, but we're off to a good start.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The East Side

The East side is finally done.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Here's an efficiency snapshot, an early example of how our house will heat this winter. Last Friday it was cloudy and in the 30's with snow predicted for the early afternoon. We hadn't really fired up the woodstove for any extended period of time so I started a fire in the morning and more or less kept it going all day. That night before we went to sleep I loaded it up with wood and shut it down for a long overnight burn. When I woke up at 6am the following morning to 5 inches of snow, the stove was just barely warm. The temperature inside, however, was a tropical 77F. We didn't need any more heat from the woodstove until I started a fire the following Monday afternoon.