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How Not to Freeze: Living Without Heat

December 16, 2010 - Michael Palmer
I have, over the years, through different sets of circumstances found myself in situations where I have had no heat.

Not homeless, but just inconvenienced.

I just got natural gas back on the farm and was elated to have my expensive propane fired furnace converted over to the free resource. I scheduled the furnace work and when the tech flipped the switch, the some 300 pounds of pressure the well pumper had said were available had vanished.

That’s right, I just paid $300 to convert my furnace to a fuel I no longer have available.

The well pumper said he had no idea what had happened to the gas pressure. It seems that some repairs to the well will have to be made and there is no estimated date for completion. During what may prove to be one of the coldest Decembers on record in Ohio, of course!

Fortunately I have a small wood burner insert in my fireplace and some nice ceramic electric space heaters that are keeping it a very cozy 55 degrees in my house.

Living in a climate that can be quite cold in the winter months, everyone of us could find ourselves in this circumstance. We rely on the electric lines that provide us with power for our warmth, they provide the electricity that lights our homes and runs our heaters, or to run our furnaces when they are working.

In this economy it also could be because someone was unable to pay a utility bill that they are wtihout heat, and despite legal obstacles to shutting people's gas or electricity off during winter, it happens.

Or you could rely on propane and heating oil and simply have no money to fill your tank, these types of providers are not restricted by the PUCO and can shut off or remove a home owners fuel supply for any reason they should choose.

As in my case, a commercial gas line or well could fail or the service be otherwise disrupted leaving you without heat.

Furnaces are simply machines and like other appliances, could break in winter, when you need them most, and you could not be able to get a repairman in for service or replacement for several days or even weeks.

Whatever the reason, the reality is that heating can fail in both the short and the long term, and people end up cold.

Living on a farm, we tend to be self sufficient, the old saying is, “Improvise, adapt and overcome.” People, all of us, can survive and function without the conventional heating sources if we use our heads.

While cold can kill you - through hypothermia, it is important to remember not to panic and use dangerous methods to heat your home and keep yourself warm. Burning wood or charcoal unsafely can cause death. There is the danger of starting fires with improperly contained and vented fires and space heaters, there is the danger of asphyxiation by smoke or carbon dioxide poisoning also associated with these types of heating devices.

A carbon monoxide detector is important even when using proper heating devices with adequate ventilation.

If there is a limited part of your house where water and plumbing is, this is a priority to heat as damage from frozen pipes is expensive to repair. Using approved heat tapes, if your electric is still on, is a good solution. Pipe wraps or just wrapping with a standard fiberglass insulation product can also prevent freezing, but do not use the heat tape and insulation together.

If there is no power, try ambient heating devices rather than direct flame to thaw or prevent frozen pipes, many home fires in the winter are caused by thawing pipes with open flames.

Keeping yourself warm can be rather simple. Using layered clothing and thermal fabrics, wearing thick coats, knitted hats or gloves and warm fuzzy footwear around the house will keep you toasty warm in even below freezing temperatures. Warming a sock filled with rice or beans in a microwave or conventional oven can provide a warm companion for you during these times. Be careful, especially with small children, not to burn them with these improvised personal heaters. There are commercially sold hand, feet and body warmers available at department and outdoor or hunting stores that work well for personal warmth also.

I survived the blizzard of ’78 with no electricity, have made it through other winters with out power, heat or running water. In fact when the gas first disappeared from the farm some 10 years ago I had to learn to cook for a family of five with just a microwave, a hot plate and an electric skillet while we converted to propane.

I may have to blog about that some other time. I only wish this had not happened right before the holidays, with a tight budget this year to begin with, it will be a leaner Christmas than originally planned.

I am staying busy cutting firewood and looking into other heating sources. Let's all stay warm and play it safe this winter.


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