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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Winter of Our Disconnect

Burning wood during more profligate times

Steve and I are playing a game of chicken of sorts these days.  As the autumn season wears on, we're trying to deal with being colder and colder by putting on more layers and sucking it up, rather than turning on the furnace.  Oh sure, we have two cords of dry hardwood stacked up in the garage, but I'm determined to make it last longer than last year's one cord of mixed woods and pallet of Bear bricks, which gave out some time in February.  A look at this past year's natural gas bill showed that March had the highest usage of the entire year, followed by April, then February, when the wood ran out, and then May.  We want to start burning the wood as late in the fall as we possibly can, so that it will last as late in the spring as it possibly can.  We also don't want to burn too much gas, so it's a balance of weighing how cold it is outside, against how cold it is inside, and deciding if: 1) we're going to tough it out, 2) it's cold enough  inside but still warm enough outside that we can make the house more comfortable with just a little bit of gas, or 3) it's cold inside and too cold outside to warm the house with a little bit of gas so it's time to start burning the precious wood.

You might think we're crazy to be this obsessed with paying attention to our consumption of things but it really seems to be paying off. Part of this conservation, particularly with the gas, is being borne out with the solar water heater.  Last year during the month of September, we used twelve therms in a thirty-two day billing period; last month's billing period was thirty-three days and we used a total of four therms.  That's a quarter of what we used last year during the same month.  It's hard to say how much gas I used for cooking for either year, but I would venture to guess that the savings is attributable to our solar water heater. It'll be interesting to see how that savings changes over the course of the fall and winter seasons when it won't be nearly as efficient as it is in the summer.  The collector plates still heat up quite a bit in overcast weather, but rain definitely keeps the collector much cooler, so we don't get as much heat out of it then.  However, it does warm it a little bit, which means the regular gas heater is heating pre-warmed water (which runs through insulated piping from the solar tank) rather than heating cold water, so we'll gain a little bit of benefit from the solar heater, even in crappy winter weather.

When the solar PV system is finally finished, I'll tell you all about that, but right now it's a bit of a sort spot.  The darn thing is taking sooooo much longer than the solar water system did, and that appears to be the fault of the project manager of the company we used, which by the way, was the same company as the water system; the crew that did the solar water heater system was really great; the crew that installed the solar PV…enh, not so much.  But that's all another post, and I promise pictures and stats and all that good stuff.

The other, more difficult to quantify, kind of chicken that Steve and I are playing is with the finances.  We've decided to knuckle down and try to live on my income, and throw everything that Steve makes at the mortgage principal.  This might not be so scary if our incomes were more in line with each other, and since I make about half what he does, what I really mean is if my income were a little closer to his, but since that's not the case, it means that things are about to get very lean for us.  Aside from getting out from underneath the mortgage that much sooner, another reason this is a good idea is that it gets us used to living a leaner lifestyle anyway.  I really want for the two of us to be able to retire together, because I want to spend more time with my husband.  We had a late start in life together, and I'm bound and determined to make up for lost time.  It doesn't mean that the minute the mortgage is paid off we're checking out of the rat race, it just means that once that's accomplished, we need to take a look at what we're currently doing and figure out how reasonably soon we could quit working.  Probably the single biggest expense we'll have once we don't have a mortgage and gainful employment will be healthcare insurance, which, if I'm being realistic, will probably be more than our current mortgage payment!

But that's the challenge for the next six months: make the wood and the money last a whole lot longer than they usually do.  Think we can do it?  Think you could do it?

In the meantime, I need to stop writing and crawl under the covers with Steve on the couch.  I'm freezing.


Ruth @ Hope, Joy and Faith Farm said...

Brrrr... hang in there. We are lucky that the weather here on the coast of Oregon doesn't get real cold, but I have lots of firewood. I am proud of you for knuckling down on both the heat and finances. I am thinking it's time for me to make some drastic changes, but I have to get caught up on some things I'm behind on first. Thanks for inspiring me!

Dani said...

Paula - If you have any way of heat dry beans (microwave / wood stove / gas oven) we found that that really helps to keep you warmer in the evenings. Heated beans stay warm for ages, and placed on your lap / round cold hands or feet - it's just the trick :) We did just this last winter (info can be found here:

Btw, use the heated beans you could put them in a large COTTON sock, and tie a knot in the top :)

click clack gorilla said...

Of course you can do it! Best of luck on paring down on the finances. Will be interesting to hear what tricks you come up with to make it work. I'm dealing with a seriously parred down salary at the moment myself because in order to get on the Beard's health insurance plan (when I found out I was pregnant I wasn't insured) I was/am only allowed to make 360 euros a month. I really miss how much I was getting to save before, but so far so good. Best of luck!

click clack gorilla said...

PS I am totally in love with your wood stove.

Lisa said...

Hi Paula.
I don't know if you have a truck and chainsaw, but here in Maine I am always seeing ads on Craigslist for "free wood-you cut & haul". Might be a way to supplement the woodpile and allow for a little more heat?

morgaineotm said...

Lived some years in Northern NJ with ELECTRIC heat in a rental house. that monster was NEVER turned on. not only was it an inefficient way to heat the house, the house itself was inefficient to the Nth degree! 3-4 cords of wood were our mainstay. Even after we bought the house and did some re-modeling, remained basically a wood stove house. FANS are the answer. There is a great little beastie that sits on top of the stove and the hotter the stove, the faster it spins. Also drapes. and when heating with wood, it does work to close off rooms you don't use.

Miriam said...

If anyone can do it, you can. Since my first visit to your blog I have been so impressed the intelligent, well-researched, focused way you plan and live your life. You have worthwhile goals, a partner who shares your values, and the smarts to make your vision of the future happen. Go Paula and Steve!

becky3086 said...

I love your wood stove. Would love to have one. We use little electric heaters and we don't turn them on until we really need to. This is GA so you really can't freeze to death even without heat.
Health care insurance would be an interesting thing to have too, never have.

The Village Queen said...

I live in a really old rental with no insulation, the heating and cooling game can become consuming. Since its a rental I cant do much about the old furnace which I also havent turned on yet. Took me a year to figure out the pilot light alone was costing about $30 a month. So now in spring it gos all the way off. Its been sunny during the day and in the 60's, so more layers at night. Im determined to not turn it on until November. But some nights I feel like Im winter camping. Need a hat to keep my ears warm! Here electricity is much cheaper than gas so one thing is to have a electric mattress pad. Pre heat the bed then turn it off when you go to sleep. You'll be toasty warm and sleep well and wont need the heat on for the night.

Rachel said...

I can't quite relate. It was about 100 degrees here today (Phx AZ) and we still have the air conditioner on.

Amanda said...

so as Tamar can tell you, the joke in my house was always, "if you come to dinner, bring a jacket" cause it was always freezing. this is a combo of both my hatred of oil costs and general hatred of the effect of heat (dries everything out, makes me tired). haven't turned on the heat yet (infact, i still haven't removed the A/C from the living room window, so I'm a moron) but I pick up an electric fireplace today and I couldn't be more excited since I'm pretty sure the bone chilling cold of today only tells of what's to come.

good things come to those who wait?

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Boy, do I know the feeling!

I feel like a wanton spendthrift getting the temperature over about 63. On one hand, I like the challenge of making the firewood last as long as humanly possible but, on the other hand, I have recognized that there is a temperature below which I should not go. If I'm too cold to move around and live moderately comfortably, I just never get anything done.

I suspect, though, that you're made of sterner stuff.

It is immensely gratifying to live on less and own your house free and clear. You go girl.

Daisy Farm said...

I live in Wisconsin and don't turn the furnace on until Nov. matter what. And it goes off April 15. That means less than 6 months of gas heat payments. I keep it at 55 for the evening, turn it up to 59 for the few hours when I"m actually inside the house and not at work. I like fingerless gloves in bed when I read. I also enjoy a lightweight mohair coat as my bathrobe. Last year, I replaced all of my windows and that helped a lot. Wisconsin isn't Oregon but you can do it!