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The lonely, thankless job of heating the world in winter

It’s almost here – the darkness and the icy death grip of winter. Some may not feel the full sting of it, if you live in sunny and warm climates, while other brave souls embrace it. Having had fingers so numb I couldn’t unlock a door, I tend to be not as thrilled, but in truth it makes no sense to go through life hating one of the four seasons just because it can be unpleasant.

Whether you like or loathe winter though, if your home must endure one you have to respect it. Winter can kill you. Very quickly.

Perhaps you’ve had a bad experience in the dead of winter and know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, it is very sobering. Say your car breaks down or gets stuck some distance from other people. A simple event like this can be life-threatening, and at the very least, if not prepared for it, the situation will be extremely unpleasant.

Those of us in urban environments, which is most of us nowadays, don’t really think about this much because either help or shelter is never far away. That is simply a given, and a dead car on a side street is generally no more than an annoyance even at -25 degrees. We can see this readily when people pop out of cars on any given winter day with clothes that would no keep them alive for ten minutes or in footwear that couldn’t traverse more than a sidewalk’s width of snow.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how relentlessly we take for granted our heat sources. We can most easily see that phenomenon by thinking of other dangerous situations that we never forget. Imagine having a close call in traffic; say some driver blows a red light at high speed, and the only thing between you and oblivion was the fact that you happened to catch a glimpse of the idiot out of the corner of your eye in time. You will remember that split-second until the day you die, and you’ll tell the story to others for that long too.

Now imagine that some errant construction worker struck a natural gas pipeline that supplied any sort of decently sized city in the dead of winter. A single incident like that could catastrophically cut off the heat supply for tens of thousands of people, instantly. And as anyone who’s experienced -25 degree temperatures (or worse) knows, you would feel the absence of that heat in minutes, or even seconds.

Now consider how fossil fuels, all fossil fuels, are vilified relentlessly. The natural gas baby gets thrown out with the same bathwater that includes coal.

Does anyone think for a second about the safety or integrity or even the presence of those natural gas pipelines? On balance, is the average person more likely to be scornful of natural gas as a fossil fuel, or to be filled with gratitude at having one’s life prolonged in those long winter nights?

This coming winter, whenever you step outside and feel that icy blast on your face, give a thought to what made possible the heat you just stepped out of, and how incredibly fragile its existence really is. A million bad things could happen to any one of those pipelines, and your life may well depend on those things not happening, just as surely as it would be saved by glimpsing a speeding car at the right instant. And consider carefully everything you hear about how deadly fossil fuels are.

This article was originally posted at Public Energy Number One

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I have been through an ice storm in rural central Illinois. It was brutal. Tried to mop up some water on the floor in the kitchen, finally realized it was coming from a refrigerator ice cube line. Had to go to a motel for a few days. My corn stove let me run a generator but my corn stove wasn't up to heating that old three story uninsulated farmhouse. The natural gas steam heat was worthless without the electrical pump. The generator oil had to be heated by the corn stove before it would work. 

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On 10/29/2018 at 8:12 PM, Ron Wagner said:

 The natural gas steam heat was worthless without the electrical pump. The generator oil had to be heated by the corn stove before it would work. 

Now that was seriously cold!   The way to have a "back-up" is to install a battery bank and a hefty inverter, something on the order of 3.5 KW, enough to start and run the well pump, so that you can keep water pressure up in the heating system.  I have discovered that (some) fire departments change out their fire-truck batteries, huge ones known as "D-9," also used in tour buses, every two years as a safety precaution.  Those big batteries have years of life in them.  String a number together and you have a great power supply!   If your well motor draws too much power on the start, there is a ramping device known as a "soft-start" that limits the inrush current and extends the start ramp time, so that you do not overload the inverter.  Once you figure it all out, you can have a nice system that makes you independent of either the generator (which may not start or work) or the power grid.  

All that said, I am still a fan of the coal stove.  Coal is cheap enough, it does not spoil, you can light it up with a little diesel on top and a match, and it will produce great concentrated heat.  You can bank down a coal fire to keep it running at a low output overnight, then toss on more coal in the morning.  I saw a mansion down in Newport, Rhode Island (USA) where the owners were terrified of a coal boiler fire, so they built the coal furnace in a separate, remote building and ran steam lines underground to the mansion.  No fires at all in the house!  That system worked great, but you do have to trudge out to the boiler room to keep it operating  (unless you build a sheltered hallway out to it!). 

Edited by Jan van Eck
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Large apartment buildings typically have dual-fuel furnaces: they can switch over from oil to gas depending on which is cheaper.  However, they still need a small amount of electricity to operate the boiler feed motors and the water circulating pump motors, and when the power goes out then you have zero heat. 

I remember some decades back there was a particularly nasty ice storm in the Northern wilds of Quebec, and some 17 miles of high-voltage tower lines were pulled down.  To rebuild those towers and string new lines into the City of Montreal and suburbs took I think three weeks.  In the meantime vast numbers of homes had frozen pipes which then burst and caused lots of water damage.  What this teaches you is that you cannot take electric power supply for granted in the winter, so if you want to keep your house protected, you need either a big hefty battery bank, and a generator, and a stove for either wood or coal.  And you need lots of insulation! 

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On 10/30/2018 at 7:12 AM, Ron Wagner said:

I have been through an ice storm in rural central Illinois. It was brutal. Tried to mop up some water on the floor in the kitchen, finally realized it was coming from a refrigerator ice cube line. Had to go to a motel for a few days. My corn stove let me run a generator but my corn stove wasn't up to heating that old three story uninsulated farmhouse. The natural gas steam heat was worthless without the electrical pump. The generator oil had to be heated by the corn stove before it would work. 

What part of IL, Ron?  I grew up and lived in Illiopolis until I was about 23.  My direct family still lives all around IL, with most concentrated in the Springfield area.

And which ice storm are you recalling?  The one in the late 1978 was the worst I lived through, AND we had a blizzard that year as well, but my folks had photos of one before that that was a doozy.  Of course there have been a few since then, but that one in 78 shut us down for weeks and all of us kids had a great holiday.  Nights were spent in the kitchen playing games with blankets on the doorways and the oven on for gas heat.  3 or 4 blankets on our beds.  Great fun for a kid; major problem for the adults!  Ha-ha!

Some great photos at this link:

Illinois ice storm 1978

image.png.9a9a22cca5530bb4895a42b49b5a73e0.png

image.png.34254bea731cf03accc79e5d1b67d2cb.png

Edited by Dan Warnick
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Dan, I just found your post. I moved to Mt. Auburn which is walking distance from Illiopolis. Lived there twenty years, now in Decatur. Mt. Auburn is my wife's hometown. Our ice storm was not quite as bad as yours, but we moved to Decatur to be closer to our jobs and emergency services. I have now spent nearly half of my life here. I was born in Michigan but spent nearly half of my life in various areas of California also. Thanks for the pictures, my wife was in Springfield during the ice storm. She mentioned it several times.

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18 hours ago, Dan Warnick said:

 

image.png.34254bea731cf03accc79e5d1b67d2cb.png

Now here's the scary part:   there are probably autos buried underneath those snowbanks!  So the State cannot run a snowplow through there, or one of those huge Sicard snow-throwers, or you will be chewing up auto fenders and spitting them onto the house lawns.  That actually happened to a buddy of mine in Montreal, he had one of those Volkswagen Beetles, it had a nice round mound of snow on it, the Sicard driver took it for a windblown snow mound, and hit it with the chew blades.  I think the machine stopped chopping when it hit the engine block.  Oh, well.

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7 hours ago, ronwagn said:

Dan, I just found your post. I moved to Mt. Auburn which is walking distance from Illiopolis. Lived there twenty years, now in Decatur. Mt. Auburn is my wife's hometown. Our ice storm was not quite as bad as yours, but we moved to Decatur to be closer to our jobs and emergency services. I have now spent nearly half of my life here. I was born in Michigan but spent nearly half of my life in various areas of California also. Thanks for the pictures, my wife was in Springfield during the ice storm. She mentioned it several times.

Well I'll be darned.  Hello once upon a time, sort of, neighbor.  Now I wonder if we've met.  Quite possible given my farm industry jobs, girlfriends and friends in Mr. Auburn, school sports functions, restaurants and bars.  Take care.

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7 hours ago, Jan van Eck said:

Now here's the scary part:   there are probably autos buried underneath those snowbanks!  So the State cannot run a snowplow through there, or one of those huge Sicard snow-throwers, or you will be chewing up auto fenders and spitting them onto the house lawns.  That actually happened to a buddy of mine in Montreal, he had one of those Volkswagen Beetles, it had a nice round mound of snow on it, the Sicard driver took it for a windblown snow mound, and hit it with the chew blades.  I think the machine stopped chopping when it hit the engine block.  Oh, well.

I drove a snow plow starting about 5 years after that storm system moved through.  Buried cars were not uncommon, but common people knew to move them before the storm started, or during at least, and plows didn't have too much to worry about.  Having said that, the township only had one dump truck that was used as a snow plow in winter and it took a few days for us to get everywhere.  We first had to help clear the town together with the town's one truck and then moved to the country roads and lanes and driveways (farmers would treat snow plow drivers like me with a great breakfast if you did their long driveways!  Hey, we plowed all night!).  Every able bodied resident got out the snow shovels and dug everybody out.  One really bad problem, especially in ice when the phone lines went down too, was people with snow drifted against all the doors and windows to their house!  We had to be aware of this and identify such houses so we could get them dug out fast.  I remember getting to some old folks who thought they were ended under the snow!  Nobody, and I mean nobody, accepted money for any that.  A cup of something hot, a glass or two of water, maybe a piece of home cooked pie or cake, and we were on our way.  Idyllic, really.

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21 minutes ago, Dan Warnick said:

  One really bad problem, especially in ice when the phone lines went down too, was people with snow drifted against all the doors and windows to their house!  We had to be aware of this and identify such houses so we could get them dug out fast.  I remember getting to some old folks who thought they were ended under the snow!  Nobody, and I mean nobody, accepted money for any that.  A cup of something hot, a glass or two of water, maybe a piece of home cooked pie or cake, and we were on our way.  Idyllic, really.

Dan, a major tip of the hat to you!  A five-star post.  America; ya gotta love the spirit!

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4 minutes ago, Jan van Eck said:

Dan, a major tip of the hat to you!  A five-star post.  America; ya gotta love the spirit!

Thank you very much, Jan.  People may read some of my posts and think it's BS, but it is reality where I come from.  That's why it pains me when I read comments that group all Americans into some kind of perception, learned from afar.  For most of America, from coast to coast and top to bottom, people are like the ones I talk about.  Black, white, yellow, and yes, even some of the orange ones!

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17 hours ago, Dan Warnick said:

I drove a snow plow starting about 5 years after that storm system moved through.  Buried cars were not uncommon, but common people knew to move them before the storm started, or during at least, and plows didn't have too much to worry about.  Having said that, the township only had one dump truck that was used as a snow plow in winter and it took a few days for us to get everywhere.  We first had to help clear the town together with the town's one truck and then moved to the country roads and lanes and driveways (farmers would treat snow plow drivers like me with a great breakfast if you did their long driveways!  Hey, we plowed all night!).  Every able bodied resident got out the snow shovels and dug everybody out.  One really bad problem, especially in ice when the phone lines went down too, was people with snow drifted against all the doors and windows to their house!  We had to be aware of this and identify such houses so we could get them dug out fast.  I remember getting to some old folks who thought they were ended under the snow!  Nobody, and I mean nobody, accepted money for any that.  A cup of something hot, a glass or two of water, maybe a piece of home cooked pie or cake, and we were on our way.  Idyllic, really.

Heartwarming Dan, I am very grateful to have gotten out of California 32 years ago. I have lived two lives plus 26 months in Germany as a young soldier. Traveled all of Western Europe. Now we visit California during the Winter or whenever something calls us there. Small town USA is my choice and I like lots of green plants. Fortunately, we often get that and the flowers in the winter in California too.  

 

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On 11/19/2018 at 11:43 AM, Jan van Eck said:
On 11/19/2018 at 11:20 AM, Dan Warnick said:

  One really bad problem, especially in ice when the phone lines went down too, was people with snow drifted against all the doors and windows to their house!  We had to be aware of this and identify such houses so we could get them dug out fast.  I remember getting to some old folks who thought they were ended under the snow!  Nobody, and I mean nobody, accepted money for any that.  A cup of something hot, a glass or two of water, maybe a piece of home cooked pie or cake, and we were on our way.  Idyllic, really.

Dan, a major tip of the hat to you!  A five-star post.  America; ya gotta love the spirit!

Agree. Great story. One of the few things that gives me hope for world, really, is that silent majority. I have experienced similar in small communities in Sweden, Cuba, Brazil, Denmark, Nigeria and Ghana. Seems to me that this type of behaviour is trait of smaller communities versus big urban communities where there's more anonymity. 

Edited by Rasmus Jorgensen

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33 minutes ago, Rasmus Jorgensen said:

I have experienced similar in small communities in Sweden, Cuba, Brazil, Denmark, Nigeria and Ghana. Seems to me that this type of behaviour is not exclusively American but more a trait of smaller communities versus big urban communities where there's more anonymity. 

Yes, and.....?

If you took some sort of nationalistic offence in the omittance of Sweden, et al, from my little story, does that imply that I think other countries don't have this?  Why, oh why, am I not allowed to tell a story about my home grown experiences without someone telling me America is not the greatest?  Why, oh why, would you even think that it had anything, anything at all, to do with you our your country?  Am I being narcissistic because I tell a story about my real experience?  That's a real question.  The answer may help me to understand some of the comments from others.  I always thought when someone said they have travelled and met Americans that were narcissistic, it was because those Americans were the type to go around saying things like "we do it better in America" or something like that.  But to tell a real experience and be accused of saying that other countries are not the same is a whole different animal.

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3 minutes ago, Dan Warnick said:

Yes, and.....?

If you took some sort of nationalistic offence in the omittance of Sweden, et al, from my little story, does that imply that I think other countries don't have this?  Why, oh why, am I not allowed to tell a story about my home grown experiences without someone telling me America is not the greatest?  Why, oh why, would you even think that it had anything, anything at all, to do with you our your country?  Am I being narcissistic because I tell a story about my real experience?  That's a real question.  The answer may help me to understand some of the comments from others.  I always thought when someone said they have travelled and met Americans that were narcissistic, it was because those Americans were the type to go around saying things like "we do it better in America" or something like that.  But to tell a real experience and be accused of saying that other countries are not the same is a whole different animal.

Dan, 

Genuinely sorry if it came across like that. My comment was to Jans comment and I really just meant to say that people around the world are not that different. We should emphasize our common traits rather than differences. That + I am @ office trying to multitask and failing at it. 

I could have been clearer. Sorry. 

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2 minutes ago, Rasmus Jorgensen said:

Dan, 

Genuinely sorry if it came across like that. My comment was to Jans comment and I really just meant to say that people around the world are not that different. We should emphasize our common traits rather than differences. That + I am @ office trying to multitask and failing at it. 

I could have been clearer. Sorry. 

Thanks for taking the time to explain.  It is part of the discussion to try to understand each other, right?  And part of my comment was with hopes that maybe others would take note as well.  Sorry to put it all on you.

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6 minutes ago, Dan Warnick said:

Thanks for taking the time to explain.  It is part of the discussion to try to understand each other, right?  And part of my comment was with hopes that maybe others would take note as well.  Sorry to put it all on you.

No problem. 

I guess part of the challenge is also having this type of discussion on a semi-anonymous internet forum.

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23 minutes ago, Dan Warnick said:

Yes, and.....?

If you took some sort of nationalistic offence in the omittance of Sweden, et al, from my little story, does that imply that I think other countries don't have this?  Why, oh why, am I not allowed to tell a story about my home grown experiences without someone telling me America is not the greatest?  Why, oh why, would you even think that it had anything, anything at all, to do with you our your country?  Am I being narcissistic because I tell a story about my real experience?  That's a real question.  The answer may help me to understand some of the comments from others.  I always thought when someone said they have travelled and met Americans that were narcissistic, it was because those Americans were the type to go around saying things like "we do it better in America" or something like that.  But to tell a real experience and be accused of saying that other countries are not the same is a whole different animal.

Actually, Americans, specifically in small outlier communities, are different than similar or analogous conduct in other countries.  I have found that Americans are, or can be, the most generous, self-less, and kind people on the planet.  It is precisely the reason I choose to live here, and not say Canada next door.  As you pointed out,Dan, precisely nobody would dream of accepting one dime for the special effort. 

I once stopped to help an older couple travelling with another older couple in the Interstate, this was down outside New York City.  They had a flat front tire, fortunately curbside, and were attempting to remove it with a jack and the little bar that theMercedes came with.  I had a hefty 3/4-inch breaker bar with me, put that on the lug nut, and heaved.  No movement.  It was apparent that the wheel had been fastened by some moron with a hefty INgersoll-Rand air impact gun, and those can output 1,650 lbs.-feet of torque.  Those wheel studs are not designed to hold more than 90 lbs at best, my guess is that the Mercedes was designed for perhaps 85 lbs.  A 3/4-inch bar should be able to break a bolt tightened to 600 lbs-ft.  I could not budge it(and no, it was not left-hand thread).  

So I told the fellow from NYC that the last clown that had screwed with his car, some guy at the tire shop, had probably wrecked his rotor assembly, as that kind of overtightening will cause hairline cracks in the studs and cause stud failure, or will distort the rotor and degrade the braking performance.  that is what happens when you do not use a torque wrench to tighten the lugnuts.  It is carefully designed for a certain specification and you have to keep to that.  Tire shops will use those lug guns because they are scared to death that a wheel will come loose and they get sued.  So intelligence goes out the window. 

Now this fellow wanted to pay me for stopping to help him.  Hey, I don't stop for payment; I am not a tow-truck driver.I am just some guy stopping to help him out. I ended up driving the owner to a garage down the highway another exit up, then had to circle back to take the rest of the people in my car to that garage as the tow-truck man will not tow a car in with a person inside the towed vehicle, so it turned into an exercise.  But for some family in their 70's, hey I don't mind. Interesting that the New Yorker could not grasp that folks will do something just to be considerate, not for money.  In New York, everybody is hustling for money.  It is precisely the reason I don't live in New York. 

Meanwhile, two days ago, we got another foot of snow.  I had started attempting to hand-shovel the stuff, my driveway is well over 100 feet.  I was going out after a bit to do another go, and there the entire driveway was all plowed out, somebody had come by with a pick-up truck and plow and made two passes down the length, just to be nice. Americans, ya gotta love them!  What a great country.  Literally the most generous people on the planet. 

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The guy that tightened that lug nut was an A-hole, simple as that.  No other reason for a mechanic to do it and they all know it, or should.  Assembly lines should have hard set precise impact tools for the specific assembly being carried out.  The impact wrench used for wheels should not even be capable of over-tightening the lugs.  More powerful impact guns shouldn't even be kept around the wheel area of a shop.  At least the car/auto/pickup area.  Any one of my bosses back in the day would see zero humor in over-tightening lug nuts.  You could get fired for that kind of crap.  If it was friend or relative that tightened it, well, case by case I guess.

Oh, the tow truck stories I could tell!  I drove/operated several through my high school and college years (many times to pull my own heap back to the garage to get it going again, sometimes to pull in a, er, fender bender I was involved in).  A lot of AAA stuff but about an equal amount of regular for-pay calls.  There were a lot of times back then when I would drive up on people broken down on the side of the road and I always stopped to assist, even if that assistance was to call another tow truck for them if I was on my way to another call.  All the drivers I knew would do that.  If I had time though, I would try to help them with their problem.  Sometimes another towing company was already on the way but the car/vehicle was in a hazardous location, so I would turn on my yellow lights and help steer the traffic out of harms way until the other truck got there.  Sometimes you'd get a hook-up out of the stop, and we would charge for that, but always standard rate, no "special" rate just because we were "rescuing" the people.

I guess we're getting pretty far off topic, so I'll shut my yap.

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1 hour ago, Jan van Eck said:

Actually, Americans, specifically in small outlier communities, are different than similar or analogous conduct in other countries.  I have found that Americans are, or can be, the most generous, self-less, and kind people on the planet.  It is precisely the reason I choose to live here, and not say Canada next door.  As you pointed out,Dan, precisely nobody would dream of accepting one dime for the special effort. 

I once stopped to help an older couple travelling with another older couple in the Interstate, this was down outside New York City.  They had a flat front tire, fortunately curbside, and were attempting to remove it with a jack and the little bar that theMercedes came with.  I had a hefty 3/4-inch breaker bar with me, put that on the lug nut, and heaved.  No movement.  It was apparent that the wheel had been fastened by some moron with a hefty INgersoll-Rand air impact gun, and those can output 1,650 lbs.-feet of torque.  Those wheel studs are not designed to hold more than 90 lbs at best, my guess is that the Mercedes was designed for perhaps 85 lbs.  A 3/4-inch bar should be able to break a bolt tightened to 600 lbs-ft.  I could not budge it(and no, it was not left-hand thread).  

So I told the fellow from NYC that the last clown that had screwed with his car, some guy at the tire shop, had probably wrecked his rotor assembly, as that kind of overtightening will cause hairline cracks in the studs and cause stud failure, or will distort the rotor and degrade the braking performance.  that is what happens when you do not use a torque wrench to tighten the lugnuts.  It is carefully designed for a certain specification and you have to keep to that.  Tire shops will use those lug guns because they are scared to death that a wheel will come loose and they get sued.  So intelligence goes out the window. 

Now this fellow wanted to pay me for stopping to help him.  Hey, I don't stop for payment; I am not a tow-truck driver.I am just some guy stopping to help him out. I ended up driving the owner to a garage down the highway another exit up, then had to circle back to take the rest of the people in my car to that garage as the tow-truck man will not tow a car in with a person inside the towed vehicle, so it turned into an exercise.  But for some family in their 70's, hey I don't mind. Interesting that the New Yorker could not grasp that folks will do something just to be considerate, not for money.  In New York, everybody is hustling for money.  It is precisely the reason I don't live in New York. 

Meanwhile, two days ago, we got another foot of snow.  I had started attempting to hand-shovel the stuff, my driveway is well over 100 feet.  I was going out after a bit to do another go, and there the entire driveway was all plowed out, somebody had come by with a pick-up truck and plow and made two passes down the length, just to be nice. Americans, ya gotta love them!  What a great country.  Literally the most generous people on the planet. 

Jan, 

Great story. Really. I have some good ones too from small towns in the Southern states. However, this is not exclusively American. I have seen people that didn't know where their next pay-check was going to come from share a meal with their neighbour, because the Neighbour was in an equally bad position. You get this type of kindness all over the world. Seriously. 

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Moral of the story:  Everybody stop bashing each other simply because of what country people come from.  

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