Doom and the Working Poor – Shelter and Warmth

Staying Warm

Image by Big Grey Mare via Flickr

October 9, 2010


Whether you believe we evolved into hairless primates or some deity created us that way, that little prank has turned out to be a double-edged sword.  It forced us to be a bit more creative in our quest for shelter and warmth than creatures with fur and feathers, but that creativity has gotten us into trouble over time, as the search for shelter and warmth has more often turned into a quest for status and rank.  We need to get over that attitude if we are going to survive a severe contraction and collapse of the economy in the face of peaking oil and climate changes.

If we strip everything else away, we need shelter and warmth for only one thing – to maintain our core body temperature by protecting ourselves from temperature extremes that can overwhelm our internal controls and lead to hypothermia, hyperthermia or death.  Everything else is “icing on the cake”.  Of course, modern humans use shelter for many other things.  But, for most of our history before agriculture and the civilizations that came with more permanent food and water supplies, shelter was temporary, taken where we found it or, at most, semi-permanent – given back to nature when we were through with it or easily broken down and carried with us.  We augmented this protection with clothing made of animal skins or local fibers and, once we learned to use it, fire as we moved from place to place in search of food and water. Yet, in general, we traveled light.

That’s no longer true, as anyone knows who has stopped in the middle of packing up a household to move and thought, “Damn, I need to get rid of about half this junk.”  If we’re honest with ourselves, most of “this junk” has been brought to us courtesy of the technologies developed through access to cheap, fossil fuels such as oil.

As we begin our look at shelter and warmth, I’m not suggesting we go back to the days of temporarily sheltering in caves and rock overhangs or of carrying our semi-permanent homes with us as we search for food and water.  I merely suggest that by looking at that most basic function – of preserving core body temperature – we can better decide which ancillary uses we could do without or do in ways that are not fossil fuel dependent as fuel prices rise.  It does us no good to try to hang onto the “junk” if the cost of keeping it prices us out of our place of shelter and warmth.

Where might we start?  If you can afford to hire someone to do an energy audit, it might be worth the money.  If you can’t afford to hire someone, do your own.  Look at two things – where you waste energy through heat (or cooling) loss and where you waste energy in the way you use it.  Here are a couple of sites to help you do both types of audit, yourself.

Once you know where you are wasting energy, take steps to change it.  Start with the biggest losses first – usually air leaking around doors and windows – even if all you can afford to do right now is to calk, cover your windows using those shrink fit kits or put weather-stripping around your outside door openings.  In between uses, pull the plug on small appliances that use residual electricity even when turned off.  Replace your incandescent light bulbs with cfls, even if you can only afford one or two at a time.  They really do save energy and money over their lifetimes.  Even inexpensive steps like these may save enough energy to let you keep up with rising energy costs so that you can afford shelter and warmth.

After you have made your home as energy frugal as you can afford, take a look around from the perspective of what you would let go of (or find non-fossil fuel replacement for) to make sure you have heating and/or cooling and cooking fuel.  And look at how you might provide those two or three basics if the time comes that you are simply priced out of energy or the utilities fail permanently.

By way of ideas, let me tell you a little about what I have done, am doing or plan to do as utility prices go up or in case the utilities shut down permanently.  One of the reasons I bought my house is that the previous owners had renovated the outside walls by replacing insulation, adding a Tyvek wrap and vinyl siding, replaced the worst of the old windows and added storm windows and outside storm doors, put nine inches of insulation in the attic and insulated the water heaters.  Nevertheless, some of the old windows in my apartment, upstairs, leak air when it’s windy.  So, over the next two years, I will replace them.  In the meantime, I cover them with shrink film during the winter.  It’s what I can afford now.

In looking at how I use the various utilities – gas, electric, water and sewage – here is what I found.  Electric: 5 ceiling lights or lamps (one for each room), 1 TV with converter box, 1 small, energy-efficient chest type freezer, a microwave oven, 6800 BTU window air conditioner, a portable fan and a ceiling fan, my computer and a few, rarely used kitchen gadgets.  Gas: cooking stove, hot water heater, small gas convection wall heater.  Water: kitchen sink, bathroom sink, tub and toilet.  I have city sewage and gray water disposal.

Here are some of the steps I’ve taken to cut down on utility use:

Electric: Only one light on at a time – the exception is 4 cfls to augment sunlight for my small, indoor winter garden. TV on for 1-4 hours in the evening several days a week, pull the plug on it and the converter box as soon as I turn it off.  No refrigerator, (when my old, inefficient one gave out a couple of years ago, I bought the small freezer and freeze gel packs and water in soda bottles to keep a camp cooler for what few foods, mostly condiments, I don’t freeze).  I cook with the microwave almost exclusively most of the year and use the gas stove only for baking in the winter or what little cooking I can’t do in the microwave.  I also unplug the microwave in between uses, as it uses residual electric for a clock.  I use the air conditioner only when the outside temp gets above 90 and it’s humid, close off the stairwell and two of the rooms and set the a/c on 80 degrees – which, with a fan moving the air, is very comfortable for me.  Overall, I use it about 6-8 hours a day for only about a dozen days per year.  Since I have windows on all four sides, I use Venetian blinds, the windows and one of the fans to control how cool (or warm, in the winter) the apartment stays most days.  The computer is on a surge strip with a switch to turn it off when I’m not using it.

Gas: Cooking – as outlined above.  For heating, I don’t use the heater at night, since I prefer sleeping in a cool room.  I set it on the lowest setting which kicks in at about 55 or 60 degrees.  In all the winters I’ve lived in this house, I’ve only gotten up once and found the heater running at night. The temperature outside that night was a few degrees above zero. For daytime, I made three flat passive solar heaters like the one shown in this picture: (instructions can be found here ) out of Masonite board and 1’x1’ strips, cut to fit my one south and two west windows (each one was a slightly different size).  In the morning, I turn on the gas heater to about 3 for a couple of hours to warm the apartment and I turn on the ceiling fan.  As soon as the sun hits the south, and later, the west windows, I open the solar heaters and turn the gas heat down to the lowest setting.  Most sunny days, it won’t come back on until the sun goes down.  I turn it up a little in the evening so that it runs for about 5 minutes out of each hour until I turn it back down for the night.  I do wear two layers of clothing and, occasionally three, but I am comfortable.  On cloudy days I let the gas heat run on setting 2 for most days.

Water: I use what I need, but don’t let it run (like when I’m washing my hands, showering or doing dishes).  The washer and dryer are downstairs in my son’s apartment, but I usually only do laundry twice a month since I wear most outer clothing two or three times before I wash them.  Water for both apartments and what I use on the garden is on my utility bill.  The downstairs apartment has its own electric, gas and sewage connections.

Overall, the utilities plus sewage (which is a straight charge for every household) average between $60 – 75 per month for my apartment and water for both apartments.  Are all these little changes inconvenient?  At first, but you soon get into the habit of doing them so that it becomes almost automatic.  And, honestly, if things get as hinky as many expect over the long haul, we are going to have to get over our love of convenience if we’re to make it through.

We have no way of knowing, of course, how collapse would manifest in any specific place or over what period of time, so I am assuming several scenarios.  1) Utilities get increasingly expensive until I can no longer afford them; 2) Utilities become increasingly “spotty”, with rolling blackouts, water days (water is on for certain days/hours, off at other times) as utility companies try to conserve resources; 3) Utility company goes belly up and there are no longer any utility services.

We’ve talked about ways to collect, store and filter water for the long haul, but if the purpose of shelter is to provide enough warmth to keep our core body temperature at an optimal level, how do we Working Poor stay warm through the winter if the gas or electric goes away?

There are three things to keep in mind.

First, every day you and your family stay alive is a day you (and your community) can use to come up with a better solution than your current one.

Second, when we’re active, our bodies produce heat by burning food calories.  You can generate that heat by staying active and maintain that heat as you work in a cold house by layering your clothing.  But you can’t remain active 24 hours a day just to keep warm.

Third, you don’t have to heat the whole house to stay alive when you’re asleep or inactive.  Having one room that you can keep warm enough to sleep in or relax in would get you through the winter.

So, how might you go about setting up such a room?  I would pick the smallest room that everyone in your family can sleep comfortably in with the biggest, unobstructed south window(s).  The little passive solar heaters I described above are good for adding heat to a house during the day and reducing usage of electricity or gas.  They are not much good for heating without an extra source of heat to take the chill out of the air first.  But, if you keep a south room closed off with the window shades up and simply allow the sun to shine in (make sure the window panes are clean), the room will warm up on its own.  The problem comes when the sun goes down and that heat dissipates.  You need a way to store some of that heat so it is released slowly over the night.  That involves what is called thermal mass.  Read about it here: and study this chart:

Now that you have an idea of what thermal mass is, remember all that rainwater I talked about storing inside for the winter to keep your rain barrel system from freezing?  If some of it were stored in five-gallon plastic buckets and the bottoms and back of the buckets were painted black, you could stack them across from the window where the sun will shine directly on them during the day (the longer they can stay in direct sunlight, the better).  Water in containers makes a very efficient thermal mass; painting the bottom and back of the buckets black helps the water heat more rapidly.  Once the sun goes down and the room begins to cool, that heat is slowly released back into the room.  The water will absorb heat even on cloudy days, though not as much.  So you may need extra covers on the bed those nights.

Cover any other windows and the door to the room (and after sunset, the south window(s)) with blankets to keep outside cold air out of the room as much as possible.  You can make thermal blankets for this, but anything that helps keep warm air in the room and cold air out will help.  Carpeting and padding on the floor will help reduce the amount of cold air, too.

This is not a particularly “elegant” solution, but as I said, every day you and your family stay alive is a day you can use to devise more elegant solutions.

Keeping cool on hot days is another set of problems.  I won’t address that here, but I will start a shelter and warmth section at the top of the blog.  I’ll put more information on how to save energy around the house so you can afford it longer, ideas for non-fossil fuel solutions to things you use energy for around the house, more heating and cooling ideas and possible solutions to handling sewage when the utility company no longer handles it, as I find them.

Here are some ideas to get you started.  You could build a small solar generator like the one described here ( ) to run a computer for a few hours every day or two as long as the internet is up and running.  Or you could use it to power the cfl lights for an indoor garden, a fan on really hot days or a light or two.   You can heat water in a gallon jar or two in the sun (I brew my tea that way) or in a sunny window to use for dishwashing, laundry, sponge baths and hairwashing.  You could even wash and rinse a small load of clothing, socks, or underwear in a 5-gallon bucket, using a (clean) plunger as an agitator and dry them – indoors or out – on a folding drying rack.  If you used a large commercial type mop bucket with wheels to move it around and a press-down wringer on it, you wouldn’t have to carry it around or wring out your clothing by hand.  A solar battery charger and rechargeable batteries would let you operate camping lanterns or flashlights for short periods at night.  I also keep a shake-and-charge flashlight and a radio/emergency light that can be recharged by solar, hand crank or, perhaps, by plugging it in to that little solar generator I mentioned above.

Exactly how you address your particular problems regarding shelter and warmth depends on your house or apartment, your family’s needs and what you have or can obtain to work with.  But, as with food and water, now is the time to begin preparing.   If the trade-off for our loss of fur was bigger, more creative brains, now’s the time to use them.


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4 Responses to Doom and the Working Poor – Shelter and Warmth

  1. Glenn says:

    A simpler solution might be to simply relocate to a more temperate climate. I have a feeling it will be a popular choice. Might be a bit crowded…

    • theozarker says:

      True, but sometimes it’s hard for people to put out those expenses if you’re not sure you have a job ahead. I was lucky, in that I had hospital training and almost always had a job waiting for me. Our climate here can get pretty hot and humid in the summer and below freezing off and on during the two worst winter months, but rarely below zero.
      Mainly, I’m just trying to get people thinking and planing ahead and to give people options until they can find better solutions.
      Thanks for your thoughts.


  2. Glenn says:

    Linda – I see you’re a moderator at – can you approve new members? I’ve been pending for awhile now, no response from Matt (guess he’s busy?)

  3. theozarker says:

    Hi Glenn, no, only Matt and Jock can approve new members. Matt’s been out of town for classes for a couple of weeks. I w ill leave them a message on the mods board, though. Hope that helps.


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