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Many of us have barely dug our way out of the snow that dumped across the United States last week. We’re still shivering, still trying to catch planes back to wherever we came from, and have it in the back of our heads that we’ll never get caught unprepared again! Of course life being what it is, it just laughs in the face of such serious proclamations and devises even more ways to thwart our best-laid plans and intentions.
However, the off-grid ways of staying warm and comfortable can also pose health risks and fire hazards if we’re not careful.
Bigger is Not Always Better
The power is out, it’s -10 below, snow is several feet thick and the gas furnace won’t crank because the safeties require electricity for the glow plugs. Or your weather is a little milder and you rely strictly on a heat pump, but again… the power is out.
When you can’t heat your house with conventional heating and it’s cold enough to hang meat, you need to get to the smallest room of the house with the best solar gain and insulation…all of you. These types of rooms will be much easier to heat—and the first way to do that is with the body heat you’re putting off yourself. Think like a squirrel and build a warm, cozy nest.
Pull off sofa cushions, pile up the blankets and think like a 6-year old kid.
Build a fort!
Extra clothes, linens, sleeping bags—whatever it takes, pile it up. Get everyone snuggling together and bring in the dogs and cats as well. (I can attest that my 12-pound poodle has enough body heat to keep us both going for days.) If you can get higher, do so. Heat rises, cold sinks. If you’re in a two-story house, see if the upstairs rooms aren’t warmer.
Fireplaces Safety Tips
Some of you have purchased the gas logs that poof! to life at the flick of a remote. Others have mechanical starters. Matches work fine on all types. During the ice storm of ’93 in my hometown, our power was out for several days. One set of unvented gas logs heated our house comfortably. Is this a complete off-grid solution? No. But you work with what you’ve got.
However, if you have a real fireplace that you haven’t used in years, you might be asking for more trouble than not. Bird nests and debris accumulating in the chimney can turn those crackling flames into a devouring fire that will burn your house down in no time flat. The same thing applies to that wood stove you had your cousin put in (the same cousin that got kicked off five construction crews over the last two years). If he has a devil-may-care attitude, he might just have installed single-wall flue for that stove and once you get a hot enough fire in there, the wall is going to start burning. Pay attention to small details. It may be the only thing that keeps you alive.
Do not burn pressure treated wood. It has been soaked in chemicals that can either make you sick or kill you. The same goes for railroad cross-ties. (I know, like those things are just sitting around! However, they are still available as fence posts and such, and I felt the need to warn you.)
Safety Tips for Space Heaters
A lot of people have installed unvented space heaters to get them through tough times like this. These radiant heaters run on natural gas or propane. If they’re designated as unvented, then they don’t need the ventilation that older space heaters did. However, an adequate air supply still needs to be provided.
There are plenty of houses still left with those old timey ceramic heaters sitting on the floor, running just as well as they did 50 or 60 years ago. In addition there are also kerosene heaters and spot heaters. If you’re going to rely on one of these types to heat the house, then please, crack a window to get fresh air into the house. The carbon monoxide put off by these types of heaters will asphyxiate you…and you won’t even know it is happening.
Don’t bring camp stoves into the house trying to stay warm. That’s just a disaster waiting to happen. More house fires are started during winter storms by folks bringing camp stoves and barbeque grills into the house and using them, trying to generate heat. Keep all heaters at least three feet away from any combustibles. Don’t put anything on top of a space heater and don’t use any fuel but the one the heater is designed to use.
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide is the colorless, odorless, and tasteless toxic gas that is the result of incomplete burning of solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels. It’s created in a variety of ways…faulty furnaces, backdrafting chimneys and wood stoves, exhaust fumes from cars, unvented gas and kerosene space heaters, and from gas water heaters. If your appliance is showing an orange or yellow flame, that means it’s producing carbon monoxide gas. A blue flame shows a more complete burning process, but carbon monoxide is still being generated, just to a lesser degree. Not enough can be said for ventilation.
If you or anyone else experience any of the following, turn your appliance off immediately and get to fresh air:
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle pains
- Impaired Vision
With the use of common sense, a few preparations, and maintaining supplies on hand, you should be able to survive through the winter storm that knocks your area back to the 19th century. It doesn’t matter if you live in Alaska or the Deep South. Prepare for all eventualities.
Other articles in this issue:
- The Power of Water 
- Taking Your Food Storage for a Test Drive 
- Raising Meat Rabbits: From the Country to the Big City