The Mechanics of Warmth

A house enjoys both physical and emotional warmth, but in a Canadian winter cold snap, it is the physical component occupies our attention. Visible heat, in the form of a woodstove, always seems more gratifying than the anonymity of gas or electric heat.   There are two parts to the physical warmth of a house: the generation of heat, and the keeping of it. This latter has always fascinated me: window seals, door sweeps, vapor barriers, insulation batts and even double-muffled dog doors I find immensely compelling. I cut my teeth on this subject in Saskatchewan in the early 1980’s, that brief time when we Canadians actually cared about energy conservation. A friend, Rob Dumont, built an energy efficient house in Regina. I “can heat it with a toaster,” he bragged.  Dumont was the subject of some popular envy at the time.

This Summerland house we live in was built sometime in the 1930’s, with the classic floor plan of the era; small rooms and narrow hallways, a basement fruit cellar and a half-story loft upstairs. The anonymous carpenter who built it was no professional, but he didn’t stint on materials: the floor joists are massive rough-cut 2×12’s. When we renovated the interior, I stripped off mountains of lath and plaster to get down to the bare 2x4s, which actually measured up to and even beyond their name. The one material the anonymous carpenter did scrimp on was insulation. Actually he didn’t scrimp: there was simply no insulation at all. Just a few newspapers here and there, which made for interesting historical reading.

Insulating a new house is a challenge; insulating a heritage 1 1/2 story renovation moves beyond challenge into obsession. You have to consider air movement, condensation points, R values and airtightness while completely swaddled in dust mask, gloves and overalls. Peering through foggy goggles, you join vapor barriers with a runny black goo that promises to stay sticky for thirty years. You spend endless hours in claustrophobic crawl spaces. Insulation dust mixes with sweat to form the itchiest compound known to man. But somehow, the job goes forward. You become expert in cutting batts without measuring, and laying them into uneven joist spaces with a perfect press-fit. You seal vapor barriers like you would tuck a cold child into a warm bed. And you prowl the house like a forensic detective, looking for tiny air leaks.

I am a great fan of Roxul, an insulation batt that is partly made from an enormous mining slag pile near Grand Forks, BC. It’s a little stiffer than the ordinary fiberglass insulation, and I discovered that it cuts beautifully with a serrated bread knife. Who knew.

The payoff to this prolonged and itchy obsession is heat retention. You don’t keep cold out; you keep heat—produced by you, the dog, the woodstove, the baseboard heaters, the coffee pot, the bathtub, even the toaster–in. All this is so you can sit in comfort in an easy chair next to the woodstove, with the dog on your lap, and contemplate the soft mechanics of warmth.

I don’t look forward to winter, but once it’s fully arrived, I settle into it.  Days get short, and my world gets smaller. All those springtime tasks I planned on doing got pushed into summer, then into fall and are now blissfully forgotten. The focus now is on the mechanics of warmth. Domestic life centers around the woodstove in the living room. The woodpile is assessed on a daily basis, and I am reminded of a universal law of firewood physics: the driest wood is always at the bottom of the pile.  Next to the woodstove is an easy chair, and next to that is a coffee table, where piles of half-read books and research journals accumulate.  Stale coffee cups and an empty wine glass or two the remaining space. Both the dog and the cat make their sleeping areas close to the stove, but whenever I leave my easy chair for a moment, one of them will instantly colonize it, claiming my residual body heat.

An easy chair in front of an energy-efficient woodstove is a good place to speculate about the carbon footprint, which is actually more like a highly interconnected spider web than it is a footprint. Every log I put in the stove sends a packet of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. But every log I put in means I use less electricity, which in BC’s hydro-based generation system doesn’t produce carbon, but troubles our rivers instead. And the beetle-killed lodgepole pine I’m burning: is it better off to stay in the forest? Will it burn anyway, in a wildfire? Is cutting firewood one way of reducing the density of our overgrown dry forests? What about the fuel and chainsaw gas I use to get the wood? It seems that climate change has made everyday decisions far more complicated. But I suspect the real truth is that our previous decisions were far too simple and shortsighted.

2 thoughts on “The Mechanics of Warmth

  1. This resonates with me on many levels, and is also just beautiful and funny for its own sake. First, when we moved into our current house, we discovered that the attic insulation was useless, in addition to sagging rafters and damaged ceilings. So on one of our classic Okanagan blast-furnace weeks in July, with highs of +38C, we tore out the entire ceiling, with 1950s “insulation” falling like summer snow into our hair, our clothes, our lungs and our eyes. It was awful, a nightmare.

    Second, we’ve been wanting to add another source of heat to our baseboard-only living space since moving in five years ago, but were paralyzed by the problematic factors you outlined above. All of the options seemed to have major environmental and ethical downsides. Also, we had to admit to ourselves that although we were country folk at one time, we weren’t willing to do what it takes to really do wood gathering and burning properly. So we chicked out on the woodstove.

    The alternative was getting Fortis to connect our house to natural gas during the shortage caused by a pipleline explosion. We thought the connection would be expensive, but like cell phone plans that give you the phone for free, they claimed we could connect our house for the princely sum of $25. So a large crew of hard-hatted workers with an impressive array of heavy equipment dug a massive trench through our yard and Victoria Road North over two days, installing pipes and valves and then covering everything up again, including repaving the road. 25 bucks.

    So now we’re burning dinosaur farts from the Peace, and probably doing our part to accelerate climate change with everyone else. Because of creative accounting, or misguided government subsidies or whatever, our new faux-woodstove gas fireplace runs for free. Actually, it runs at a profit, because the gas bill is a hundred bucks a month, but our electricity bill is reduced by more than that amount. WTF?

    But here’s the thing, environmental angst aside — we love it. Having the fire going draws everyone into the living room, like moths to the flame. Even the exhausted, surly teenagers and the restless tween boy who won’t want to hang out with his boring parents for much longer. We read aloud, and laugh, and read quietly, and snack…always by the fire. That’s gotta be a deep, ancient genetic pull of some kind.

    And maybe it would be better if we fed the fire with wood won by the sweat of our brow. Maybe we should feel consumer guilt every time we pick up the remote control to switch it on. But it’s bloody cold outside, and someone just picked up the box of dominoes…

  2. A lyrical description of a monumental task! Almost sounds like fun.
    We have the same problem, albeit in a less challenging climate. Our old house, originally a summer retreat on top of the Blue Ridge, “breathes” through poorly insulated walls and around windows.
    We survive the occasionally Canadian comparable temperatures wearing sweaters and warmed by woodstoves amply provided with firewood by the Emerald Ash Borer and windstorms.

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