Thinking about heating a Canadian home

IN CANADA in winter the _rst element of survival is a warm place to live. And for most of us, our warm home depends on the power company's electricity _owing into our homes.

So, where would you be if a winter ice-, wind-, blizzard-, and/or rain-storm hit the Maritimes with full "1,000-year storm" force, and your personal connection to power grid went down and stayed down for days, or weeks, or longer?

Eastern Canada's ice storm proves that these questions aren't hypothetical. Many Canadians are rethinking grid-free heating: interest in wood stoves and _replace inserts is booming. It's been a great year for small generator sales, as well.

One thing's clear, from the micro-level -- individuals and families -- to a national and larger level, our social supports were very willing (if not always as competent as we'd wish).

Many of us will do our damnedest to help our neighbours get through the hard times. It's also clear that we don't, perhaps can't, anticipate and prepare for all the disasters nature has in its arsenal.

Truth is, as individuals, families and communities, we often don't really prepare for clearly foreseeable "25-year" disasters (the spring _ooding in Truro, the Swissair disaster). We seem to think: "It hasn't happened that I remember, so it won't, can't happen. Don't worry, be happy." And then it happens.

The insurance factor: planning on the odds

We sometimes buy insurance policies to cover some of the risks we expose ourselves to. Sometimes we're required to buy it by our mortgage holders or by law. And sometimes we regard the government as our insurer against big disasters. And often enough, in smaller communities especially, our neighbours are a form of insurance for small-scale disasters.

And sometimes we individually take steps that help "insure" our homes and families against some of the effects of foreseeable and remotely possible disasters. Sometimes these steps can offer us bene_ts along the way, even if the disaster doesn't come.

Until the big ice storm Quebec Hydro could truthfully assert that the average power-outage experienced by their customers was under a couple hours a year, and only a very few of their customers would have been without power for more than a day, and hardly any for as long as a week. NS Power can still make a similar sort of claim.

So you, a reasonable Nova Scotian, are thinking about the odds, the costs and benefits of doing something, or doing nothing about a winter storm like the Big Ice of January 1998. If you _gure you have at most a 0.1 per cent chance per year of not getting the electricity you need for heating your house for three days or more, you might not invest $3-5,000+ in an alternative heating system or a back-up generator. Or you might… considering our neighbors' recent experiences and especially if you live out in the country where power lines are longer between customers. And if your livelihood depends on keeping other lives safe -- piglets warm or cows milked or greenhouses above freezing -- without NSPC's electricity for 24 hours or longer, you've got to look at self-insurance systems for them, as well as your family.

So you may want to self-insure against prolonged grid-failure by changing your heating systems. There's no free lunch: you'll have to make choices, trading off between noise, efficiency, pollution, safety, convenience, aesthetics, floor space in your home, life style... and how much money you care to spend to prepare for a storm that may never come to your part of Canada.

Sometimes the trade-offs aren't yours to make, unless you move and buy your own home. If you live in an apartment, as many shunpiking readers do, you've probably no way of installing a wood stove or a small generator.

Assuming you can make choices, let's look at some options that stop short of a total off-the-grid survivalist solution.

There are three levels of grid-independence for home-heating:

o Electricity equals heat

o Home-made electricity for backup, and

o Heat without electricity

Electricity equals heat

You've only electric baseboard or radiant panels in your ceiling or floors, or you have an electric heat pump, or an electric furnace (your "fuel" is electricity from the power company)


your oil- or wood- or solar- or gas-fueled heating system won't work without electricity to pump fuel in and/or to blow or pump heat to where you want it. You're 100% dependent in your house.

Home-made electricity

Have a generator to power small motors (fans, pumps, etc.) on your oil, gas, solar or wood furnace or space heaters, and a few lights, and a stereo and fridge. You're somewhat-to-very independent, depending on how long your generator can run, and how much fuel you have for it. You could even power baseboard heaters for a single room.

Heat without electricity

In at least one room have a _replace or wood stove, or a propane _replace insert, or stove-oil space heater or another of the grid-free heritage systems -- all can heat rooms relying only on natural convection and radiation. You can be electricity-independent for quite a while.

Whole house heating

If you have whole-house electric heat in any form, you could change from the electricity-as-fuel system (where all the BTUs come off the wires) to a system that works without electricity (see Heritage Systems section below), or to a system that can burn a fuel with home-made electricity to run the pumps and fans to move fuel and heat and almost all the heat energy comes from the oil, gas, or solid fuels burned in the furnace. (I looked at this electric to oil conversion a couple years back and was told it would be a $6-7,000 proposition, that might save $600 a year for heating our home.)

To provide that home-made electricity, you'll need a small gasoline or diesel generator -- one rated at a minimum 3,000-5,000 Watts (3 -5 kW). Modern homes are typically wired for 100 kW service and electrically heated homes for 200 kW, so you'd have to be getting by on a few percent of your normal capacity. [see Generators]

A warm sanctuary

If you narrow your ambitions and decide to heat only part of your home, say a room or two, you've got a lot more options.

A 4,000 W generator could put out enough to electrically heat a room or two (1.5-3 kilowatts) as well as a few lights and freezer...

You can rely on electricity-free room heating. You could use an existing _replace (make sure the chimney is in good enough condition to safely handle a big _re burning 24-hours a day, days on end) or add a wood-burning or propane-burning free-standing stove or _replace insert. In addition to the initial cost of installation ($2,000 -$5,000 or more) you have to look at the cost of the _oor space for both the stove (a 4 x 4' area in your living room) and storage for your fuel (a cord of wood in your basement, in 18" lengths stacked 6' high would take up 15' of wall-space).

If you use the new appliance frequently for recreational heating (you like to watch the _re, reading shunpiking, snuggling with a friend ...instead of watching TV) or for supplemental heating (you regularly replace some electricity or oil or propane with a less expensive fuel for part of your house heating) as well as for the emergency heating function, you'll get better value for your money.

The Heritage solutions

I'm old enough to remember living in homes heated with coal furnaces in the basement (the early 1950s), KeeMac-type stove-oil heaters in the kitchen (50s), propane _oor furnaces (1960s), a natural gas central boiler with old-fashioned radiators ('60s), and an Ashley wood stove (late 70s). Mary Ann Ducharme describes her heritage wood stove elsewhere in this issue. They all kept us warm when the grid went down.

Here's a truth -- these older central heating and space heating technologies could keep us warm without electricity, but at a cost: they were often dirty to live with, labour-intensive, frequently unsafe (even when new and installed and used just as they were supposed to be), and quite fuel-inef_cient. As these systems used natural convection to move the warm air or water about the house they needed larger ducts and vents or big pipes and large cast iron radiators, all using valuable _oor-space (and they didn't get much heat to the far corners of the home either). I suspect many of these "heritage" systems would not meet current building codes and air-quality standards. But they would see you through the Big Ice -- if you happened to have enough fuel in store when the storm hit.

The newer house and space heating systems are far more fuel-ef_cient, pollute our air far less, require less hands-on care, are cleaner and take up less of our expensive living space, are safer, and generally make for a more comfortable life than systems even a few decades old. The main draw-back is that most, regardless of fuel type, work only when there's 110 Volt AC power available to run the system.

Our family's solution, which we arrived at before the Big Ice, was electric base-board heating (we bought the house in spite of that feature), a propane (gas) kitchen stove, and recently, a propane _replace insert to _t in our old victorian stone mantelpiece, which has made serious inroads on our TV watching time.

The generator: economics of home-made standby electricity

You'd pay about $1,800 all in for a new Honda 3,500 W generator. Under an "average" load (1,700 W?) it will use two litres of gasoline an hour. It can put out 12.5 Amps at 220 Volts or 25 A at 110 V. It can't be run inside a building.

A 4,000 W RV-type generator would cost $4,300 (with HST) and is designed for installation in an enclosure -- the exhaust can be ducted, there is sound insulation, and larger gas tanks.

To get either properly installed as a regular and safe back-up to the grid, you'll need a new electrical sub-panel with proper switches, a safe enclosure for the generator, a proper exhaust system (so you don't poison your family with carbon monoxide), safe fuel storage (you'd need more than 300 litres of highly flammable gasoline to run one of these for a full week at average loads), regular annual testing and maintenance, ... Add at least another $1,000 to set-up costs.

So, budget $3-6,000 dollars to set your system up, and _gure on $1.50 per kilowatt hour for gasoline when and if you run it.

Simply using a generator in the ice storm proved hazardous for some -- carbon monoxide gas killed some Quebecers who didn't make sure their generator's exhaust got safely outside their home. Some generators were stolen from homes and businesses.

And many generators broke down as continuous use and heavy loads stretched to weeks.

(Sidebar) An ice on the wire

The experts said: accumulations of freezing rain exceeding 40 mm in thickness might occur perhaps once in a hundred years in any particular location, so if we design our transmission systems for the weight of 70 mm of ice on our power lines and pylons we're sure to be safe. That allows for three times the weight of the expected worst case.

And then freezing rain fell for an unprecedented five days over an area bigger than ever seen before on this continent, and the ice grew to 100 mm thick on wires and branches and roofs, and the lines and the poles and some of the roofs and some of the trees came down. And stayed down for hundreds of thousands homes for weeks.

Numerical factoid

On a 25 mm (1-inch) wire, a layer of ice 40 mm ( 1.5" ) thick would weigh about 8 kilograms per metre (or 5 lbs. per foot).

A 70 mm layer would weigh three times as much at 21 kg/m (14 lbs/ft), and a 100 mm layer would almost double that, and weigh some 40 kg/m (26 lbs/ft).

Applying this to the two NSPC poles I see across the street as I write, the top three strands of wire, at 100 mm of ice, would carry 1.8 metric tonnes (or 2 tons Imperial) each. Add the greater weight of larger TV cable below - say 2 tonnes - for a total of some 15,000 kg extra. This is rather like parking several cars on the wires between each pair of poles. Then add the shock of the ice-coated weight of tree branches breaking and falling on the wires...

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