Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Sunset in Grand Forks, SD

Not a metaphor this time -- a consideration of real heat, as in heating homes.  Here are two versions of a recent tragic story, the second one being more positive in the end IF there is follow-through.  It suggests that rural people in places with few trees are too dependent on propane which is delivered by truck and stored in a big tank in the yard.  That means a big bill.  Trucks do not deliver unless one buys a tankful, esp. when the roads are treacherous.  Ranchers who own their land can usually swing credit against the value of the land, but Indians with land in trust do not have that option.  

Debbie Dogskin may have been “thinking impaired.”  Since she was Indian and she could have gone to her mother’s not far away, the first reflex is to think she was drinking.  But the weather became this cold when I was in seminary in South Chicago (1980) and it meant that babies died in their cribs and old ladies died of hypothermia sitting in chairs in front of their kitchen ovens.  

When I was teaching in Browning, crews used to come up from Malmstrom Air Force Base to educate us about hypothermia.  One of the most dangerous aspects is that when your body temp drops a bit, your brain -- like a flashlight battery -- stops putting out juice (i.e. thought).  It’s like getting drunk.  It’s gradual, you don’t realize how badly your thinking is fuzzing out.  Some people short-circuit enough to know something is wrong but interpret it as being too hot -- the symptoms are similar.  They are found undressed.  The Malmstrom crew taught us that people can be fatally hypothermic from hiking in chilly, windy, wet weather -- NOT freezing -- and showed us video of some young people, one of whom did begin to malfunction.  Another reason not to hike alone: monitor your buddies for goofiness and staggering.  Of course, the audience loved the prescription:  candy and skin-to-skin body heat in a sleeping bag!

In my house with a functioning natural gas floor furnace (usually more than adequate), and two back-up electric heaters going full blast, I’ve been chilly until today when the temp finally rose.  I keep thermometers wherever I’m working and check them now and then.  Here by the computer where only my fingers are moving, I try to stay above sixty degrees and my feet are on a “secretary’s friend.”  (Nothing froze, neither cats nor me. If it hadn’t been for sharing an electric mattress pad at night, we would have been far less comfortable.)

 A new generation of “Amish” cabinet heaters has hit the large-format ads in the Great Falls Tribune.  They are presented as capable of replacing a furnace, but in fact it would be more accurate to say that they are good boosters.  My property-management friend advises me that they are not as worthy as the common milk house heater with it’s buzzing hot wires.  But I’m not enamoured with those so I started reading up on infrared heat.

All heat is wavelengths.  How to produce it and what difference the size of the wavelength makes is pretty interesting.  Instead of “wide or narrow”, for infrared thay are described as Near, Middle and Far.  I’ll stick to electrical heat producers, which vary according to the filament used.  Metal wire filament heaters and heat lamps are familiar.  In fact, the Squibbie cat at my house naps under a simple household incandescent bulb.  (Producing heat with light is an advantage in our context!)  Specific heat lamps like chick brooders are specialized for greater safety with ceramic sockets and wire guards.

Ceramic infrared heaters are often large because low-watt density quartz panels do the work.   They don’t “feel” hot directly, as with fan-driven heat, but instead cause “dark” heat to develop in what they are pointed at.  This is what the Amish-style heaters are.  The advantage is that fried dust is not sprayed around the room, it doesn’t set the cat’s tail on fire, and you can’t smell charred paint from the appliance.  But you won’t feel heat coming at you -- rather you’ll just get warm.  This confuses people.

So I went to the google websites that evaluate infrared heaters.  It soon became clear that “good” is about fitting the situation -- a general principle for almost everything.  The four most crucial aspects seem to be “long heating range,” “high BTU rating,” “long quartz bulb lifespan,” and “safety features.”  Actually this kind of “long” or “dark” (it makes heat rather than light) infrared quartz heater might be pretty good for me, since it heats whatever is in front of it and could turn my endless bookshelves and bank of metal filing cabinets into heat sinks.  There are more kinds of heaters than I’m describing, but now I know what I need.  Most of the rest are industrial.

The most intriguing version is the “dry sauna.”  I’d love to have a hot tub but that’s ridiculous here where it gets so cold and I don’t want to wrestle with chemicals.  I’d thought in terms of a Swedish steam sauna, a whiteman version of a sweat lodge, but with “dark infrared” a person can buy a sort of cabinet, quite dry, that will make you sweat.  The cheapest is what a friend calls a “burrito sauna.”  That is, it’s like a little pup tent with you inside, just your head sticking out like the end of a hot dog.  Only a few hundreds of dollars and sometimes recommended for arthritis sufferers.  Controllable, zoned, benign heat.  There’s also a version that works the same but with you sitting up.

Today, finally, warm (merely freezing) air has moved back.  Usually it comes with a wall of wind.  In the night I woke at every rustle outside in hopes that that’s what I was hearing:  Chinook, the snow eater.  It never came.  At daybreak the temp was zero.  Then suddenly and atypically it rose to forty.  My pickiup is still not willing to start.  

This is a house built in the Thirties with as little wood as possible for “balloon” or “stick” construction.  The floors have a little smaller and fewer joists than would be standard now, which is why my books make the floors sag.  Originally it was not insulated, but when it was, vermiculite contaminated with asbestos was poured into the walls between studs but not under windows.  When vermiculite gets wet, it doesn’t insulate.  The roof was constructed with no eaves, because in this country snow tends to pile up at the edge of the roof if it sticks over into thin air and -- through the freeze/thaw cycle -- creates ice dams that force water up under the shingles.  But gutters were added afterwards and rather clumsily.    Water backs up in leaf-filled gutters (my house is in a grove of trees) and creeps into the walls.

The outside of the house is sheathed in asbestos shingles which do not deteriorate but which are easy to shatter and impossible to drive a nail through (one must drill a hole).  They cannot be covered with other materials because the asbestos expands and contracts (which is why it’s applied as shingles with spaces).  It can’t be, for instance, stuccoed over because even plastic “stucco” would crack.  Most people will insist that such shingles can’t be sided over.  But it’s illegal for an individual to pry off their asbestos shingles or to remove their contaminated vermiculite.  One must employ an expensive specialist business.  (Legislative regulations always means profit for someone.)  However, I could fir out the outside or inside, add insulation (maybe sheets of styrofoam insulation as was recently done with the town center) and then cover with something.  That’s my aim.  Someday.

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