What to do when you can’t keep the heat on

By Sharon Astyk Science blogs

Taxed to Death! What to do when you can’t keep the heat on

Despite the fact that I believe people should use a lot less energy, I am not proposing here that people in cold climates go cold turkey on supplemental heating ;-). This post is, instead, about *how to survive* if you find yourself without heating fuel in a cold climate. Why do you need to know this?

Because it happens, and more often than you think. How could it happen? Well, you could live in a place that requires minimal supplemental heat, and have a sudden, unusual cold snap, as much of Florida just did. Or you could rely on electric lines that are down, and find yourself without a furnace.

You could find yourself unable to pay your utility bill, and despite legal obstacles to shutting people off during winter, find yourself, as some people have, without heat. Or you could rely on propane and oil and simply have no money to fill your tank, as others do. Or existing gas lines could fail or be disrupted. Or your furnace could break in winter, and you could not be able to get a repairman for several days. The reality is that heating can fail for many reasons in both the short and the long term, and people end up cold.

It is important to remember, however, that cold can kill you – but barring total lack of shelter or certain medical conditions, most of us NEED NOT die of heat or cold. The truth is that most such deaths do not have to happen – and so we need to make the information that allows people to survive cold and heat much more widely available, or we will have more deaths and more suffering.

This information is also necessary because fear of cold, particularly, may lead us to do things that make us *less* able to survive in the long run – burning wood or other sources unsafely, and causing fires, or misusing gas and propane heaters, burning toxic substances like pressure treated wood or with inadequate ventilation, etc… Or it might lead us to prioritize short term comfort over long term survival, deforesting the northern US to keep warm for a few winters, and leaving our kids with an eroded, polluted, warmer world, or burning coal in personal stoves on a large scale. Our fear of heat and cold, and our mistaken impression that if we let things get colder we’ll die can lead us actually to die – or make ourselves sick, or the world less habitable for the next generation.

This is going to focus on living without much in the way of supplemental heating or cooling – how to survive and function. In some climates, this may not even be a big deal. In other climates, you will not like this experience – but you need to know how to do it – period, just in case you ever need it.

Ok, starting with heating – the first thing you need is shelter – homelessness is deadly in the winter. Find some – this is why you need community so badly. Because if you lose your house, you and yours still need a place to live. If you don’t have family, you need friends or roommates, or some way of finding a place to live, whether couch surfing or using existing safety nets including shelters. And if you are lucky enough to keep your house, I hope you’ll be the one opening the doors – because it could go the other way too. I will do a post at some point on staying alive outside without a house, but honestly – do what you have to to get shelter!

Even the most crappily insulated houses in the US (and there are some truly appalling houses out there – the older parts of mine not wholly excluded) are far better in many cases than the shelters people survived with for millenia. I know I keep harping on this, but badly insulated is a relative thing – yes, more insulation would be good – and contacting your congressperson to get more funding (especially including *GRANTS* for low income families to reinsulate) put to insulation is essential – but it is worth remembering that the Lapps routinely dealt with -50+ temperatures in tents made of one layer of reindeer skin and heated only by body heat, and that when people began living in the US, winter temperatures were considerably colder than they are now, and windows were made of oilskin over holes in the house and houses were heated by a central fire pit. Human beings can manifestly live without central heating. I know you don’t think you can, but you can. It is in your genes.

Let us imagine you are now living in a very cold place, and you cannot buy heating fuel – or it isn’t available, and you are facing a long, cold winter. Assume that social support programs are overwhelmed or unavailable (these should be your first resort). What do you do?

Well, the first thing you do is feed yourself and your family well. This may seem secondary, but it isn’t. If you have a choice between inadequate heat, and enough food to feed your family, dump the heat and buy more food. There’s an ongoing crisis in the US of families whose food budget gets consumed by winter heating – their children lose weight and get sick from the cold, because they can’t maintain their body heat, because they aren’t getting enough calories and don’t have enough body fat as insulation (this is one of those things where some is good, but more is not better, obviously). Food – and good healthy food – is essential – if you are going to live without heat, put what money you have to food. Now this won’t help you in the most dire situations – and there’s not much I can offer if you don’t have food or heat, except that you should concentrate, if you can on getting food, rather than heat.

Next is heat yourself – this seems obvious, but I’m continually surprised by people who skip this step – or don’t go about it thoroughly. You should be wearing warm clothing – and lots of it, in layers. If you are going to be going in and out of different temperature spaces, you want layered breathable fabrics if possible. Getting good clothing is far cheaper than heating your house – the same goes for blankets. Think lots of layers, insulation of extremities (multiple layers of warm socks, hats indoors, fingerless gloves, pulse warmers, leg warmers (yeah, yeah, I know it isn’t the 80s, but they still have their place, especially if you wear skirts in the winter a lot – and personally, I find skirts over heavy tights or leggings warmer than pants and more comfortable).

If you have the skill set, you can make them – and if you can’t afford yarn, get old wool sweaters from goodwill, and unravel them and use them for yarn. Here are some patterns:

Various warm knitted objects for hands and head:

Although traditionally, mittens have been the primary thrummed object, you could thrum fingerless gloves, hats, socks, etc… Thrumming is a good thing. http://www.helloyarn.com/wp/?p=425. Also useful – angora and alpaca, if you can afford or find them (or have a bunny or alpaca lying around your house) are very, very warm.

Crocheted socks (google around to find more relevant objects):

You also could sew them out of already felted (ie, shrunk in the wash) sweaters – I don’t have a pattern for fingerless gloves made this way, but someone creative could adapt this mitten pattern.

Certainly, leg warmers wouldn’t be hard (and could probably use sleeves sewn together – be creative:

Layer your clothes – lots of them – long johns under tshirts under turtlenecks under flannel shirts, and throw a bathrobe over it (at our house, bathrobes aren’t just for bed). For children, blanket sleepers are your friend. You can get them to very large sizes at lands end (boys 16) and to adult sizes here www.bigfeetpjs.com. My kids sleep in bedrooms that have no direct heating, only ambient from the wood heat downstairs, and sleep comfortably blanke wearing long johns and socks with blanket sleepers over them. You could put sweatpants and sweatshirts over the blanket sleepers, if necessary.

And the kids can stay in the sleepers all day long if you don’t have to go out (so can the adults, for that matter).

Ok, once you’ve got so many clothes on you look like the Michelin Man, you next have deal with retaining heat – that’s where the calories and hot beverages come in. That means you need some capacity to warm food. This means either keeping some traditional energy source (gas, electric, propane, oil) or burning some burnable that you can afford in a way that will warm your tea and your hands as well. Sterno or a kerosene stove, or even a hot burning candle (there are multi-wick emergency candles) will work, but these are short term solutions.

What you probably want is a rocket stove:

rocket stove:

Once you have a stove, you can probably heat enough water for hot water bottles, or warm up a hot stone, or some grains or beans in a bag, and either put these near your body (with a layer or two of cloth to prevent accidental burning – be careful with this when using it with children, especially curious children who open things easily), or in your bed to warm it. Elderly people and those who can’t move much to keep warm will probably need a regular supply of hot water bottles, tea and other warming items to keep comfortable – or a warm body, a cat or several cats, a dog, or a human.

It is very important to understand hypothermia – most of the people who die of cold, besides the homeless are elderly or young or disabled. Hypothermia muddles your thinking – you can even start feeling warm and strip off your clothes. So it is important to move around, eat regularly, be checked on. Most of the people who die from either heat or cold in a sudden temperature shift die as much from isolation as for the temperatures themselves – had someone been there to help them adapt, they would have survived. If getting up and moving, eating and taking care of yourself is difficult for you, you may slow down, start feeling sleepy and warm and die in a very cold environment. The best preventative to this is other people being around – either neighbors checking in or family members living together. In addition, more people in the house means significantly more warmth. Animals also have a role here – the proverbial “3 dog night” is not just a band.

The next thing you need is a warm place to sleep – if you mostly keep moving when you get cold at home you’ll be fine – but at night, when you are lying down, you need to be warmer. Again, good blankets aren’t always cheap, but blankets are cheaper than heating oil. Check out goodwill, thrift shops, yard sales. You will need a lot of them. Space blankets are also a good insulator, layered between other cold things. Wear a hat while sleeping, warm pajamas and long johns. Down comforters are ideal – and even better are down sleeping bags designed for winter camping.

And again, other people are a huge help – sleep with someone. We live in a weird culture, where sharing a bed implies sexuality in a way that it didn’t in most places, in most cultures. My four children sleep together in a bed (they have four beds, they just always end up together piled up like puppies in a heap) -we think of this as about poverty, but it is also about warmth, love and comfort. Very few people in the world sleep in their own rooms, in their own space, with no one. So find someone to sleep with – even if it is a pet.

If it is very cold, you can further insulate your sleeping area by making it smaller and tighter – one option is the classic four poster bed – build a frame around your bed, and hang heavy, warm curtains on all four sides, and over the top. Your body heat will warm the space around you. Or set up a tent in your house and sleep in there (kids think this is cool). Do NOT sleep in a tent in a room with a heat stove of any kind, and don’t sleep in a tent you don’t know how to get out of easily – that’s a major fire hazard, and remember what I said about not doing short term things that will kill you . If you go the four-poster route, you’ll want to wash the bedding regularly, especially if you have allergies.

I’ll talk more about insulation in my next posts, but you can also insulate rooms by using heavy cloth for tapestries, plastic or bubble wrap over windows, window quilts – basically, you should think in terms of living in as small a space as possible, rather in a larger one. Again, think “what did my ancestors do in the winter” – and they mostly hung out together in the warmest spot. That spot will be warmer if you are all there together, and do any cooking there (if you have a indoor-safe cooking method – do not use camp stoves or rocket stoves in the house). Be careful of ventilation however – it is better to be colder and alive. I strongly recommend that everyone have a battery charged smoke and CO detector in any room they will have any kind of heater in, and that you either acquire solar battery chargers and rechargeable batteries and/or long life smoke detector batteries.

What else can you do? Spend some time if you can in a warmer public place – go to the library, visit friends, go shopping, if anyone has heat. There will probably be warming shelters in cold times – don’t be ashamed to go to one. A short period of feeling comfortable makes a big difference. Keep up everyone’s immune system by exercising, getting fresh air, eating well and taking care of yourself – the cold is quite tolerable when you are healthy, but tough when you are sick.

Know how to stay alive in a cold house – and how to make good and rational choices about keeping warm – it is essential knowledge.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *