Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Energy: What Actually Matters

It’s not uncommon, when I give public talks about the end of the industrial age, for people to ask me whether I can offer them any hope. Now of course people mean many different things by the very indefinite word at the end of that utterance; some want me to tell them that I was only joking and industrial civilization isn’t really careening headfirst into hard planetary limits, others want me to tell them that when the crash is over and the dust settles, some kindly power or other will hand them an even shinier society than the one we’ve got, and still others will settle for being told that our civilization won’t drop dead until at least a few moments after they do.

To all these I have nothing to offer. Still, there are always a few who simply want to know if there’s some reason to believe that the next half century or so might not be quite as ghastly as it looks. I do have something to offer them, and it’s one of the ironies of our time that the reason for hope I’d like to discuss in this week’s post is also one of the most annoying features of contemporary society: the very common assumption that people in the industrial world can’t possibly scrape by without access to amounts and kinds of energy that few if any of our ancestors would have been able to figure out what to do with.

I’ve discussed more than once in these posts the fact that the average American uses around three times as much energy each year as the average European, to support a standard of living that by most of the standard measures isn’t even as good. That’s relevant to the point I hope to make, but there’s another factor as well. Most of the energy that’s directly used by a household in a modern industrial society consists of highly concentrated fuels and 120-volt alternating current electricity. The forms of energy that are actually needed to support a fairly comfortable human life, on the other hand, consist of food on the one hand, and a distinctly modest supply of relatively diffuse heat for cooking, water heating, and space heating during cold weather on the other.

Mind you, this is what’s needed to support a fairly comfortable human life. Most of our ancestors got by with a lot less, and a good many of our descendants will probably do the same. Still, most of our ancestors, and in all probability at least an equal share of our descendants, would or will see the point in a well-stocked pantry, a working stove, hot water on tap, and a home where the ambient temperature is well above freezing in winter, and it seems reasonable to aim for these things now – particularly because they are a lot less difficult to provide than most of the frankly less important uses of energy that get most of the press these days.

It’s worth being a bit more specific. Producing highly concentrated fuels and 120-volt alternating current electricity at home, in anything like the quantities most Americans use these days, with the sort of resources and equipment most Americans can cobble together readily, is a very challenging task; for most of us, "impossible" would be a better description. Producing the amounts of food and diffuse heat that’s needed for a comfortable lifestyle under the same conditions is a good deal less challenging, and in some situations it’s actually pretty easy. Most current projects for dealing with the harsh constraints on energy supplies in the wake of peak oil have fixated on finding ways to keep the highly concentrated fuels and electricity flowing, and a great deal of highly dubious reasoning and evidence has been trotted out in an attempt to insist that we can keep pipelines and gas tanks topped up and grids humming with power from renewable sources; meanwhile, by and large, the much simpler resources that human beings actually need to survive have been left out of the discussion.

The Green Wizard project was launched, in large part, to offer an alternative to this sort of thinking. We’ve spent much of the last six months talking about ways to produce at least some of your own food in your own backyard, using hand tools and readily available organic soil amendments in place of the extravagantly energy-wasting methods of food production indulged in by current agribusiness. There’s plenty more that could be said on that subject, and I’ll doubtless be saying some of it in passing as my own backyard garden begins another season, but the main focus of the posts to come will be on the other half of the equation: diffuse heat.

And this, dear reader, means that you need to get friendly with the laws of thermodynamics.

That may seem like an unlikely assignment, if only because the laws in question don’t seem particularly interested in making friends. Most popular presentations of the laws of thermodynamics these days tend to stress the negative side of these much-maligned rules. Still, as the word suggests, thermodynamics is simply the branch of physics that tells you how heat moves, and if you’re going to be moving diffuse heat around, you need to know how that’s done. The British musical comedy duo Swann and Flanders made this easy some decades ago by explaining the first two laws of thermodynamics in a lively little song. (The link, I’m sorry to say, will play you the song but won’t show you Swann and Flanders singing it; for reasons that left me utterly baffled, the only copy I could find online has video-game characters dancing around and fighting monsters in tune to the music. And, inevitably, throwing around vast amounts of energy in the form of lightning bolts. Go figure.)

Got that? Okay, now that you’re tapping your toes to the melody, let’s apply it.

One of the pervasive mistakes made by people in the industrial world these days – oh, all right, made by most Americans and a much smaller number of people elsewhere – is the notion that the only thing that matters when you’re dealing with heat is having enough energy to produce it. Every autumn, accordingly, you can go to your local department store and find scores of portable heaters waiting for you in serried ranks, so that you can turn electricity or propane or what have you into plenty of heat wherever you want it. You can do that, but unless you do something to encourage the heat to stay around for a while, it’s not going to work very well, and it’s also going to cost you plenty, because producing heat is only the first part of what matters; the rest of the equation, which is in many ways the most important part, is keeping the heat from leaving the place you put it any sooner than it has to.

This is helpful even if you’ve got abundant fossil fuels or plenty of electricity handy. If you don’t, and you have to get by with the much less concentrated energy available from renewable sources, it’s not helpful, it’s essential. The maxim from my old Master Conserver classes was "weatherize before you solarize," and the principle can be extended: unless you take steps to use heat effectively, if you try to get your heat needs met from renewable sources, you’re basically wasting your time.

So the first and most crucial step in making sure that you have enough diffuse heat in your life to get by comfortably in an energy-constrained future is to do a smarter job of using whatever heat you’ve got. In order to do this, you need to know how heat leaves the places where you want it—your home will do for now; we’ve already talked about the food you cook, and we’ll talk about hot water in a later post.

Swann and Flanders’ useful ditty could use just a bit of modification for our purposes, because the three ways that heat passes from a hotter body to a cooler body – conduction, convection, and radiation – aren’t equally important in green wizardry. Conduction is the most important of the lot, convection gets a look in here and there, and radiation is a minor factor; there’s also a fourth, combined factor, which is nearly as important as conduction, that’s called infiltration. This is air movement through leaks, and it’s the process by which cold air gets into your house. Technically speaking, infiltration is balanced by exfiltration, which is the process by which the nice warm air in your house goes outdoors so it can radiate its heat to the environment; in practice, since infiltration and exfiltration use the same kinds of leaks and can be fixed in the same ways, the label "infiltration" does for both.

This is a huge issue in most American homes – anything from a fifth to a half of the heating load on a house is typically accounted for by losses to infiltration and exfiltration – and in most cases, it’s also far and away the easiest and cheapest source of heat loss to fix. The gear you’ll need are a caulk gun, several (usually, quite a few) tubes of good weatherproof caulk, and an assortment of weatherstripping supplies for doors and windows; a sturdy scrubbing brush, cleaning supplies, and a pair of gloves you don’t mind ruining also belong on the list. Your local hardware store will provide you with everything you need.

If you’ve never used caulk or a caulk gun before, you’ll find detailed instructions in the fourth of the Master Conserver handouts available for free download at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website, and you can also find good instructions in any decent book on home repair. Your goal is to find all the little cracks where air is leaking into and out of your home, and seal them with caulk. There are almost certainly a lot of them: along the baseplate where your house joins its foundations, along the frames of windows and doors, in the little holes drilled through the walls by the guy who installed cable television or internet service, around outdoor water faucets, and the list goes on. Search the inside and outside of your exterior walls, and find every crack and gap; make sure the surfaces are clean, so that caulk will stick to them, and then, to borrow a phrase from one of my instructors, caulk those puppies.

Now of course you’re not going to caulk the moving parts of your windows and doors, since you need to be able to open and close them. (Nonmoving parts of windows can and should be caulked; if the windows are old, they probably leak like sieves.) For doors and windows that open, you need weatherstripping. There’s a dizzying range of products available; most of them haven’t changed much since I studied this stuff in the 1980s – for that matter, most of them haven’t changed much since the 1950s- and 1960s-era home handyman books I collect started to include chirpy little articles on "Saving Money with Weatherstripping!" – but different door and window situations call for different kinds of weatherstripping, so take your time and explore your options. The Master Conserver handout mentioned above has a fair amount of info on the subject, and so will books, new or used, that cover energy conservation at home.

A few other details can help you close off other air leaks. Electric sockets and switches on the inside of exterior walls are often the places where the air that leaks in through openings elsewhere gets into your living spaces; your hardware store will sell you inexpensive foam gaskets that go behind the faceplates to take care of this. The hatch into your attic, if you have one, needs to be weatherstripped, since your attic is probably vented to outside – and if it isn’t, it should be; more on this in a later post – and can leak a lot of heat. Finally, if you’ve got an open fireplace, one heck of a lot of warm air is rising out through the chimney to warm the great outdoors. A set of glass doors or some other way of closing up the fireplace opening when it’s not in use will be well worth your while.

By the time you finish caulking and weatherstripping, not to mention putting in foam gaskets and installing glass doors on your fireplace, you may be wondering how any air is going to get into your house so you can breathe it. With the relatively simple technologies we’re using, that’s not an issue; if you do a good job, you’re probably going to be able to reduce the rate at which air flows through your house by something around half, which means that you’re going to save about half the money that infiltration currently costs you – roughly ten to twenty-five per cent of your heating bill, in other words – without causing any problems worth noticing with air quality.

There are high-tech methods out there that will save you a great deal more. Very thorough sealing is an important part of those methods, and so is air quality remediation. These aren’t things you can do yourself – you’ll need to hire a professional – and you’re going to shell out quite a bit of money to do it, but if you’ve got the funds to invest, free heat for life is a pretty good payback; the Passive House system, which was invented in Germany and has recently taken root on this side of the Atlantic, is one approach about which I’ve heard good things. Still, unless I’m very much mistaken, the vast majority of the readers of this blog don’t have the kind of spare income that would allow them to drop five figures on a passive house remodel, and even fewer will have that kind of money as the economic unraveling of our society picks up speed; furthermore, it’s exactly those among us who don’t have the funds to spare for that sort of project that have the most urgent need to save money and energy just now.

Cutting down on infiltration by caulking and weatherstripping, then, is the first step in getting your home ready for an age of energy limits. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll discuss some of the other steps: all of them inexpensive, all of them easy enough that the average homeowner or renter ought to be able to do them effectively, and all of them important in cushioning the impact of rising energy costs in an age when most people will no longer be able to afford ignoring what kinds of energy use actually matter.


The book that needs to be listed at the very top here is one I haven’t been able to find: a good clear explanation of the laws of thermodynamics in language that a fourth-grader can follow, with plenty of colorful examples. If there is one, I’d be grateful if someone can point me to it; if there isn’t, there’s got to be a physicist out there who can write one, and I can probably even talk a publisher or two into giving it a look. In the meantime, there’s always Swann and Flanders.

Good detailed instructions on caulking and weatherstripping can be found in almost every guide to do-it-yourself home repair published since the end of the Second World War; your local public library can probably provide you with a couple of good examples, and so can your favorite used book store; review the details and then get to work, and you’ll be in a position to help your neighbors figure out how it’s done. The Master Conserver handouts mentioned earlier in this post are also useful.

If you’re interested in the Passive House system, a visit to is a good way to find out about it.


Mean Mr Mustard said...


It's Flanders and Swann - always that way round. Strange how songwriting teams are treated thus, like McCartney and Lennon, Hammerstein and Rodgers and O'Sullivan and Gilbert... :-)

For those wishing to read their First and Second Law, it's here -

Flanders and Swann also offer a useful cautionary tale for the would-be Green Wizard who is sadly lacking in practical skills, in 'The Gasman Cometh'.

'Oh, it all makes work for the working man to do...'

An interesting footnote for your British readers - Michael Flanders' daughter is the well known BBC Economics journalist, Stephanie Flanders. Evidently the humour runs in the family. Check out her part in 'The Great Hargeisa Goat Bubble', a short comedy play, featuring poor regulation, perverse incentive structures, securitised debt, and the manic pursuit of wealth.

Bob said...

It's Flanders and Swann, not vice versa. That's like saying "McCartney and Lennon" or "Tina and Ike Turner".

Nathan said...

Another insidious form of heat transfer is through latent heat - evaporation and condensation. A small amount of water vapour leaving your house can suck away a lot of heat. Luckily, your green wizard spell will solve this too. has lots of great projects for just this kind of work, and gary is fastidious about measuring real world performance and costing.

Alice Y. said...

Someone pointed out Paul Hewitt's 'Conceptual Physics' to me, maybe that would meet the need?
@RH:"One example of his explanation of one of Newton's laws: You can't give a hug without getting a hug."

John Michael Greer said...

Mean and Bob, so noted.

Nathan, true, though vapor barriers are also important. More on this in a later post.

A note to all -- I'll have very limited email access for the next five days or so; I've made arrangements for comments to be put through, and will respond as often as I can, but if I'm not as chatty as usual, that's why.

idiotgrrl said...

Out here, the issue was natural gas rather than electricity. Other than that, your column was dead-on, including the general reaction to nearly freezing your buns off. Even the trusted contractor I'm having out to do a complete energy evaluation this morning spoke first in terms of upgrading the heating system.

I told him my primary interest is in upgrading the insulation first, last, and always. He assures me, BTW, that when an insulation firm says something can't be done, check to see if they still have their heads in the "rolls of fiberglass" model - which many do - and to look into blown-in liquid foam, which I will.

Signs of the times: New Mexico's natural gas supply did indeed run into troubles, and the outlying towns were cut off "to save the core." i.e. Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Nobody ever thought we could lose our natural gas under any circumstances besides a major disaster. The alarm bells are ringing!

OTH, the City has decided to save $83K on the cost of its newest in-progress building by NOT having it meet LEED standards. Sigh. What fools we mortals be.

astrid said...

Here in Massachusetts, the MassSave program sends obliging and competent people to seal and insulate your house after doing a thorough assessment. The cost is 75% subsidized by the electric company, and I believe there is a federal tax deduction as well. It would be worth looking into these programs while they are still available.

Andy Brown said...

Here in the northeastern US at least, we'll probably get a few good cold snaps before spring. A nice single digit night, especially with a good breeze blowing is the perfect time to check the inside of your house for infiltration. It's edifyingly appalling to feel that jet of frigid air pouring in! (It's probably not best to caulk in that weather, but you can make note of the trouble spots.)

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello to JMG and all:

A green wizard testimony ;)

We haven't yet found the right storm door to replace the century-old one on our non-standard-size backdoor opening. This winter my husband simply locked the storm door, stuffed the opening with insulation and locked the back door, then plugged up the gap around the frame with that removable-strip putty they sell for windows.

Stopgap (ouch!) but effective. Don't have any heating cost numbers, but the entire house has been more comfortable, with less temperature variation.

I hope we find a good door this summer.

Richard Larson said...

Great information. An energy auditor expert hooked up a blower door and put our entire house under negative pressure. We then walked about the house with a infrared camera that highlighted all of the air leaks.

He took pictures and later sent a nice report showing the deficiencies - including a review of our electrical consuming equipment. Even more important, he gave us the information on programs and incentives that is helping us pay to upgrade this old 1919 built house.

The audit cost $300 back then, but I know there are a lot of auditors around here looking for work right now - that would negotiate the price lower. Must not be any different in the rest of the country (energy auditors willing to negotiate and some might entertain a barter arrangement).

Another "cheap heat device" can be found right now on EBAY. A simple window installed solar collector for $119 plus shipping. I haven't the need to test it - as I have 3 full-fledged 4'x8' solar air heaters on my house now and with reaching temps of 80 degrees in my house with them (on sunny days). Keywords on EBAY "SOLAR WINDOW HEATER"

Another concept you will have to explain, when you begin to type about water heating, is thermo siphoning. It can both assist in heated water movement when needed, and rob it from you when the temps have reversed. There is this simple device that will assist...

Then finally, I have been selling solar for 4 years, and having given out 30,000 cards personally at shows and fairs, I think I have a handle on the mood of the people. It will be interesting if those logging on your blog are only here to read about it, or will actually do something.

If the later is true, you can change your title to Master Motivator.

RPC said...

An attic doesn't always have to be ventilated - there's a good article at that shows multiple approaches. (The Building Science Corp. site has a huge number of useful articles - Joe Lstiburek & Co. have been looking at energy efficiency for a long time.) The best overall is to spray the bottom of the roof with high-density polyurethane foam. This, however, is definitely one of those "only can do with fossil fuels and lots of money" approaches.

scodoha said...

Pertaining to insulation and fireplaces; most modern fireplaces are only an aesthetic appurtenance, kind of like a video of a fire and usually worse since more heat leaves the area than is radiated. A late 18th century fireplace invention works rather well though, the Rumford fireplace. Known for its excellent heating efficiency and rather good EPA rating the Rumford has been a comfortable addition in my home.
Count Rumford "Benjamin Thompson" was an argument from design scientist inventor who got some things right and some things wrong; getting the fact that insulation works by stopping the convection of air but claiming that wool and feathers both insulators were put on animals by divine agency to give them comfort.

Mel, Foxtail Farm said...

"Now of course you’re not going to caulk the moving parts of your windows and doors..."

*laughs hysterically*

That's exactly what the previous residents of our house (renters) did! There was even one window where they caulked the screen into place, making it impossible to put the storm window down. Now imagine trying to move into this house during a July heat wave, with no openable windows. We're still prying caulk off of windows, years later.

According to the neighbors, these same people burned through two tanks of oil before December was through, and then moved out because it was too cold. For reference, we're able to stretch a tank through the entire heating season. We should be able to do even better after the caulking we intend to do this summer.

Karen said...

We own an older house in Northern MN and are working on making it more energy efficient. Because we aren't carpenterly, we had the original double hung windows restored, which means the sashes tightened up, rehung, new weatherstripping etc. I bring this up because so many people throw out perfectly reparable old wood windows, which already represent so much embodied energy, and replace them with vinyl windows. These new windows are of a petro based material, can't be repaired and should really be considered disposable. Not very green. Reliable research from architectural sources has shown that original windows with correctly functioning storm windows and screens are as energy conserving as all but the highest end replacement windows. There are other simple measures that can be done by the non-carpenterly to reduce the leakage of old windows and I will discuss those on the Green Wizards site in a few day.

Also, we heat with hot water radiators, and a couple of winters ago we put the silver sided bubble wrap behind each radiator. This serves two functions, it reflects heat back into the room, and helps block heat transfer from the radiator to the colder exterior wall. I bought a roll at the local home improvement box store. I cut pieces just slightly smaller than each radiator and leaned the bubble wrap between the radiator and the wall. It was so simple and it made a noticeable difference in the comfort/coziness level. Especially in small rooms, such as the bathroom or when sitting close to the radiator. Cost was about $45. I don't know yet if this has helped with overall energy/cost savings because we haven't had the house long enough.

Ric said...

Another great post! I think everyone should start living TODAY as though we were already in our low energy future. Alas, I don't see many of our neighbors imitating our fledgling attempts. At least we'll have made all the mistakes so they can learn from us.

I'm a big fan of the passivhaus, but I wonder about the air recirculation systems that are crucial in such well-sealed buildings. They require electricity, plus (I believe) replacement filters now and then. This sounds like a mostly passive solution -- good -- which hinges on a high-tech industrial doo-dad, the continued operation and maintenance of which is uncertain -- not so good.

While we're talking about heat, I hope you get in a plug at some point for masonry stoves. Expensive buggers, if you aren't able to build it yourself, but I think they're one of the best solutions for sustainable heating (if you need to heat at all).

Lance Michael Foster said...

There is another factor to balance into the equation: ventilation. While a completely closed off and weatherized room conserves heat, it also conserves stagnant air. Such sealed areas are the cause of what is called Sick Building Syndrome (

This is particularly important not only with natural materials (wood chinking, moss, etc.) but with the kinds of technologies like foam and other insulation, caulking, etc. which off-gas carcinogens, etc. as the years go by.

The tighter one plans on sealing their house/space, the more one has to plan for ongoing ventilation as well or suffer the consequences to one's health.

Loveandlight said...

I recently learned an interesting little factoid. The reason that radiators in housing structures built during the 1920's (and I'm pretty sure that ever since I moved out of the college dorms, I've lived in structures built during the 1910's or 1920's) are so overzealous is because in the wake of the Spanish Flu epidemic, people were fearful of the health-effects of stale, non-circulating air. So the solution at the time was to make radiators so big and numerous that one could heat one's home with the windows wide-open. Of course, this practice fell out of favor in the 1930's when economic conditions forced people to realize that they were essentially dumping cash into a bonfire. It really drives home just what kind of extravagance was allowed by the brief period of very cheap and abundant fossil-fuel energy.

Because my apartment in this building is the only one with shut-off valves on the radiators, my neighbors pretty much have to open their windows during the winter. Why won't the person responsible for the property install shut-off valves on the other radiators? Because it would cost too much money, of course ($105 each). If you're thinking this individual is not-quite-right-in-the-head, you would be correct.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Well, I tried to guess the singing comedians but have to say I completely failed to do so. What's more, I've never even heard of them (and, yes, I'm from the UK) - maybe a bit before my time.

Regarding energy usage - given that Americans use about three times as much as Europeans - that doesn't even take into account how wasteful we Europeans are either (some more than others). Thus massive savings could be made without much change in actual living conditions.

I write this from my flat in Copenhagen, which is heated with not much more than waste energy from cooking, body heat, and some hot water for when it gets really cold (it's currently at freezing point outside with a wind chill factor of minus 20C (-4F) and inside it is a balmy 23C (73F)). I guess that is what very thick insulation can do, plus weather stripping and the simple fact that it's surrounded by other flats.

That said, as someone noted last week, the worry is that people tend to freak out if they preceive a drop in their 'standard of living'. A point in case is the British government's phasing out of old-style lightbulbs in favour of the energy efficient sort. This sparked lurid headlines of people hoarding old lightbulbs and OTT editorials about 'green nazis'. You have to wonder how people will react to a genuine cut to their living standards ...

A bit off topic, but do you have any useful advice on the viability of thorium reactors? They are being touted heavily at the moment in Europe as the saviour to every problem you can wave a stick at. Of course, they smell of rotten fish to me, but I can't find much information on them that I can back this up with, so any help would be enlightening.

Rick G said...

Excellent suggestions for weatherizing, JMG.

As a onetime residential energy auditor, I would recommend that everyone get a comprehensive energy audit by a certified professional. Although it's true that with some reading and a bit of common sense the average person can find and fix many energy leaks, there are many more that can't be seen or even imagined. (One example is an INTERIOR wall connected to an attic.)

An energy audit provides the homeowner with a roadmap of the sources of energy loss and suggested remedies including estimated costs of each and the expected return on investment (payback period). Armed with this information, you, the homeowner, can then prioritize the work according to your budget, abilities and desires.

Many states offer incentives for weatherization--including but by no means restricted to low income households--that are often contingent upon a certified audit.

As you may have noticed, I've used the word "certified" several times and for good reason. As with any boom (in this case the "green" boom), there are many fly-by-night operators out there of dubious professional abilities and ethics anxious to jump on the gravy train. Your state public utility agency (e.g.-Efficiency Vermont is mine; NYSERDA is New York State's) should have a listing of professionals trained and certified by BPI (Building Performance Institute) or other recognized entity.

If you can't find a stand alone residential auditor, many insulation or heating/cooling contractors will have one on staff.

One last benefit: talking with an auditor, following him/her around the house as they do their job and asking questions, can be a real education in the functioning of your home and residential buildings in general.

All in all an energy audit is money well spent.

Mark said...

I install solar electric and solar hot water systems for a living. The first conversation I have when on a sales call is about conservation. You would not be surprised by the looks I get from some customers. My best translation of those looks, "Can't I just buy my way out of the energy shortages?" Naturally, when I tell them that a solar array to offset their usage would cost upwards of $60,000 (10,000 kwh/year) they are usually dumb-struck. There is still lots of education to be done. Do you ever feel like you are pushing a rope? I do.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

"you need to know how heat leaves the places where you want it—your home will do for now"

My guess is that in time we need to revert to smaller, easier to heat dwellings.

We also need to revert back to a lifestyle that does not require year-round 75 degree temperatures.

I share shop space in the San Francisco Bay area with craftsmen, artisans, welders, blacksmiths. Our space is neither heated in winter nor air conditioned in summer. The temperature is simply what it is. When in the shop, we dress according to the temperature. In winter, this might be 40 degrees, in summer, heat is generally not a problem, although we can adapt by switching to shorts. Our work is physical. We are on our feet and move around. Nobody sits. Nobody complains about the temperature.

Of course, for now, we are an anomaly. But the trend toward reduced energy availability will require a general shift toward more manual labor, something that keeps the body warm at the workplace.

There is also the short term home adaptation of wearing sweaters, caps and other forms of insulation directly on the body instead of going around in tee shirts and trying to maintain the home temperature at 75 degrees.

Even at home, I see a future with more physical work, gardening, cooking and other activities that move the human thermostat to a higher setting than what is required for consuming TV or the internet.

sebzefrog said...

The four laws of Thermodynamics:
This is a preamble on four posts that I propose to write throughout
the week as an experiment on sharing my experience about those
fascinating laws. I would have loved to be able to provide a "clean
and easy to understand formulation of the four laws", but the task is
as challenging as it is interesting. This is somewhat a middle ground
between a book and a haiku, and should definitely be considered work
in progress. My focus on those post is practicality, and will thus be
less accurate than what can be found in technical books. Nevertheless,
I put all my attention into not cutting corners and not saying things that are
wrong. And after all, if I want to eat a steak, I need a good sturdy
knife, even if I could have carved the meat of the bone much more
accurately with a scalpel.

I hope that you'll enjoy them.
sebzefrog at

Michael Dawson said...

JMG, did you see that Shell Oil corporation is now producing internal strategy reports discussing the arrival of "extraordinary misery" in the not-distant future, with the main "hope" for avoiding it being some unknown thermodynamic miracle?

idiotgrrl said...

My contractor pointed out that plain old caulking is a lot less effective than foam caulking, and plain old weatherstripping is a lot less effective than foam rubber weatherstripping. So, things have indeed changed since the olden days.

Pat, about to check out fireplace glass doors even now.

William Hunter Duncan said...


As this is part of the Green Wizards project, and assuming the industrial age is coming to an end, is there some alternative to caulking? I expect, if the industrial economy collapses, there won't be caulk, or the tubes that contain it. What then?

Bob said...

I have only checked out the first of these books (and one won't be out until June), but these might be a place to start:

The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Atkins

Thermodynamics DeMYSTiFied by
Merle Potter

Thermodynamics For Dummies by
Mike Pauken

Also, step one in this process would be to live in as small a house as you can tolerate, in as mild a climate as you can afford.

K.M. said...

Mister Greer,

A good, recent book on this topic is Residential Energy by Krigger.

My spouse is a home energy rater, and I'm certain she would thank you for this article. I might chime in with a few more tips:

Many people believe that fiberglass insulation can prevent heat losses from infiltration. It doesn't, no matter how thoroughly you cram it into cracks or pack it around air entry points. The caulk gun is the way to go.

Until air handlers are a thing of the past, it will be true that up to 20% of your home's heat can be lost immediately after production, in your ducts and air handling system. Many workers who install air handlers these days do not know how to properly seal them. Duct tape does not seal, nor do "zip ties", &c., though each has their proper function.

Use mastic to seal joints between ducts. Read about this in detail before undertaking the project. Take up the vent covers in your home and ensure the vents aren't poorly installed - they should be cinched flush to the interior surfaces of your home. Often enough, vents are instead blowing some air into the interstitial spaces inside your wall, floor or ceiling. Secure the vents flush with the interior surface, caulk around the vents to prevent infiltration into the interstitial space, and then put the vent covers back on.

As you note, sealing up your home will create a different problem - that of contaminants. In the historical leaky days of yore, this maybe wasn't as big an issue as it is nowadays. Use a high quality air filter and change it at least monthly. When possible, do add an air exchange system whereby outside air can be mixed with your inside air. The health hazards of home contaminants shouldn't be minimized. Frying foods, burning a candle, burning toast, all generate nasties which you don't want to rebreathe for days.

On this topic, after sealing your home, please test regularly for radon. It is a short-lived alpha emitter; alpha particles and life forms do not get on well.

And (this is my opinion) have houseplants. These can serve many roles in the household.


jksirmsdj said...

Hello john,

this is not so much a post about your thermodynamics post (I have studied thermodynamics ;-) but a personal mail to you, without mailbox on your page, to consider to think about with your knowledge of a practicioner of spiritual practices:

In the energy bullletin

I read this sentence:

"She regards a collapse more as a potential liberation than as a disaster."

I have figured outsome sort of cult that the people start to hang on that I call

"the cult of the dead planet"

Beyond many other things, we can see a cult has three main points :

1. It makes you feel guilty
2. It offers a magic pill as remedy
3. All people not in the cult are stupid.

I get the slight impression that the religion of consumerism has shifted to that sort of cult.
Magically we will by collapse solve all problems that humans carry along for at least 2000 years ?!?!?

What do you think about it?

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

So, we Americans are using 3 times as much energy as Europeans ? We're toast...

One thing that I'm having trouble replacing is the 220 VAC that pumps water for our vegetables. Our water is fairly close to the surface (~20 feet), but we need a lot of it (50 gpm @ 50 psi).

Heat loss through radiation is significant. Stand in front of a window on a cold clear night. Then pull down the shade.

One of the best methods to slow infiltration is the 3M plastic glazing that is stuck on the inside of windows with double sticky tape. It is much more elegant than a piece of old greenhouse plastic held on with laths, but the effect is the same.

If you look at your roof the day after it snows, you will see where you need to improve your attic insulation. The areas needing help will be clear of snow.

IIRC, the three laws of thermodynamics are: 1)heat flows towards cold. 2) There is no free lunch. 3) The end point of any heat is entropy (i.e. heating up the universe).


The Heirloom Troubadour said...

JMG, This is Bobby by the way, I opened a blogger account so i guess it wants to use that screen name now.

I must admit, I am really excited about getting into the heating aspect of green wizardry because it is by far the area in which I need to learn the most. I am well on my way to accomplishing my gardening and livestock goals, but my house is a different story.

It is a very modest rancher that was built in the mid-70's. The house has electric baseboard heating (groan), insulation is nonexistent, and I shudder to think of the heat that is lost through the cracks.

On the upside if does have an incredibly efficient older model woodstove in the basement that has allowed us to ween ourselves off of the baseboard heating upstairs. I really want to make this our primary mode of heating as I have access to plenty of firewood. Plus the house really is set up for it as there are passive heat ducts that run from the basement to the upstairs.

It seems to me that the majority of our heat loss comes when the hot air rises up from the basement and escapes through the windows and cracks upstairs. If only I could get more of the heat from the woodstove to stay inside, but I think your post just answered some of the major questions that I had in great detail. Thank You!

The one other question I had concerns a rather large (think about 20 individual panes) bow window in the front of the house that I know is leaking heat like crazy, and letting plenty cold air in at the same time judging by the condensation that forms on the inside panes during winter. Any suggestions on how to seal that puppy up? Should I simply caulk each individual pane?

I will be off to the hardware store this weekend to pick up some caulk, faceplate gaskets, and other weatherstripping supplies for the rest of the house.

It isn't quite time to get out into the garden yet so this incredibly useful project will keep me occupied until the ground thaws!

Bilbo said...

There are only three modes of heat transfer. Convection is defined as the transfer of heat from one place to another by the movement of fluids.

What you are calling infiltration is just a form of convection. Air is the fluid that is moving in this case.

It's really hard to make generalizations about which mode of heat transfer is most important. For instance, if you are using a forced air furnace then convection is extremely important. If fact, the easiest way to move heat from one location to another is often to move a fluid (air or water) from one location to another. If you want even heating, then you will need an even flow of the fluid you are using to heat with. It can be important to understand this when trying to understand why some areas are too hot and others are too cold.

escapefromwisconsin said...

I've heard good things about the book "Four Laws That Drive the Universe" by Peter Atkins, although I confess I have not read it.

spottedwolf said...

Excellent post John and woe be those who pay no heed to their home's ability to properly breathe.

For those of us who deal with the force of long winter cycles the problems associated to travel and storage become major concerns. I've personally known a number of pioneer families whose elder members settled hereabout in the early turn of the last century. The stories of hardship in hindsight were measures of their strength of will and determination to survive. In a blossoming industrial age they preached the advent of a 'better life' to the children of my generation....with many never realizing the short term with which sustainability would last when resources were deplenished at ever increasing rates.

There are many who are just beginning to wonder about the ACTUAL REALITY of available renewable fuels such as wood-fired stoves. It seems that all aspects of power such as falling, bucking, hauling, storing and such must be considered when considering the eventual lack of easy transport options. Its great to have a personal wood-lot but not if you haven't the physical stamina it takes to articulate its usefulness. Without chainsaws,wood-splitters,and vehicles one begins to recognize the dilemnas one will certainly encounter as what fuels ARE available become scarce. While carts and wagons will work they require draft animals and all the amenities required for their maintenance as well. The effort to secure a cord of firewood by modern methods by an average homeowner will be tripled and quadrupled using hand tools.

It is one of the many considerations we must pay heed to if we are to teach the upcoming generations the reality of simple existence.

spottedwolf said...

Annnnd..........another key understanding which will enhance heating is "thermal mass".

This is the ability of absorbed heat by an object or group of objects to continue heating their environment. The more attention paid to this the better.

Michael said...


One question about Passivhaus and similarly tight houses - they require heat recovery ventilators to maintain air quality, and those require electricity. The net savings of energy is still huge, so that's not a problem - but it seems like the houses wouldn't be habitable if the grid goes down, something that seems increasingly likely in the future. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Lynford1933 said...

Last year we had an energy audit. It was free because I knew one of the instructors and he brought a half dozen students out and they took three times as long as normal. One place they found a pretty good air leak was around the indoor circuit breaker pannel. I took the cover off and caulked all around it. No leak.

mark said...

Hello. I just wanted to thank you for writing this blog every week, and sharing your thoughts. Ive been reading for quite a few months now, and it has certainly gotten me thinking in new ways.

Growing up, my family had things like multiple apple trees, huge garden, compost pile, and cast iron cookware. As an adult, I find myself craving weird foods that only I will eat amongst my circle of people in my life.

Last week, I caught crap at the check out, cause I was buying ham hocks. Apparently, something is wrong with me, cause I didn't substitute bacon in my recipe like I did last time, in a vein attempt to get others to eat my pinto beans. My SO remarked at the time, "that's bum food".


I am still optimistic about the future however. I firmly believe that after awhile, many will welcome more simplicity to their lives.

Sometimes however, I wonders if we have truly lost the way, lost in contemporary American culture. I offer this tube as an example:

spottedwolf said...

John...I was a glazier for many years after leaving Tejas. Your readers who are asking about leaking windows need to consider replacement options if they wish to increase long-term usefulness.Power loss = light loss and window utility in varying degrees.

Windows are also excellent sources for solar options and plant light.

Simply caulking around a window pane only insures draft stoppage at its source but doesn't consider the total picture. It is a good idea for a homeowner to remove the trim around windows and check for insulation. This can be easily corrected with cans of expanding foam. Shrink fit plastic is a modern convenience but doesn't work near as well as a good sealed unit. Second hand sealed units can be acquired reasonably if you take the time to look. Determining their condition requires looking closely for moisture and therein price. Some companies know how to reseal them cheaply. I've built windows with little more than hand tools according to the size of the pane. Its not that difficult.

Cross current air-flow can be a bonus in good weather and it should be assessed whether window location favors this or isn't necessary. In the case of the latter other considerations could be made. Also...draft draws can be created for wood stoves. This needs to be considered for homes which are sealed to modern specs. If your shack has a basement you might consider digging to expose the foundation and covering the exterior wall with sealant. When using a wood heater in the basement it should be remembered to isolate your cold storage for vegetables etc by an insulated partition. Mositure content in the air is also a factor. Wood heat is extremely dry.

Cherokee Organics said...


What a difference another continent makes. Although it gets down to about zero degrees celsius over winter here at night where I am, mostly we're trying to keep the heat out. Fortunately the methods that you describe work just as well at this.

I've got a further complication, and that's bushfires. Fortunately, I'm building it myself and can take the time to ensure that all openings and weaknesses are sealed. Even the metal roof openings are sealed with zinc alume flashings and mineral wool. Yes it's the same commercial stuff that you find around blast furnaces! Not to mention all the other bits and pieces. Still, it works very well over summer. It can be 40 degrees celsius outside and only about 24 to 26 degrees celsius inside (depending on how many hot days have been in a row).

What's interesting on a really well sealed house, is that, the inside house temperature will hover around the average temperature if you provide no mechanical heating or cooling. This is not dissimilar to the thermal workings of a cave which always hover around the average ground temperature.

Well, I hope it doesn't get put to the ultimate test.

In Australia, we've had serious bushfires in 2009 and now very serious floods this year. I can almost see that if society didn't have the resources or the will to repair or rebuild the infrastructure, then they'd have to abandon the areas. This is the face of catabolic collapse. How many disasters can a society or area suffer and bounce back to the same level as previous to the disaster? Who knows?



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi everyone!

I just wanted to add my voice for a couple of points:

Live in a small house. Around here you regularly see houses that are 100 - 120 years old. They're small for good reason. Cheap to build, maintain and run.

Work at energy conservation before all else. If you can reduce your outgoings spect on energy, then you're saving money. Try to also heat just one room, rather than the whole house. For that matter, if you're short on funds try to heavily insulate just one room, rather than the whole house and do most of your living in there. In Victorian times, this used to be the kitchen or when visitors turned up the parlour. Seriously.

Thermal mass only works when it is isolated from the external environment. I used to live in a house that was 120 years old and it had double brick walls which were inside the house and not exposed to the outside at all. They acted like a giant thermal battery which kept it cool over summer and warm over winter. In Australia, it's standard practice to build brick veneer houses on concrete slabs. The slab is in contact with the ground and it radiates heat over summer and cold over winter - even if insulated with polystyrene. The external brick walls which are cladding rather than part of the structure, radiate heat and cold exactly the same way which is the opposite of what you require. What they need to do is put the bricks on the inside of the house and insulate them from the outside. Oh well people love them, but without power they'd be hard to live in!



Mary said...

I conducted little audit of my own this week, naught to do with thermodynamics but an illuminating experience nonetheless. A walk through my house, at night with all the lights off, reveals a little galaxy of multicolored lights that blink or beam softly or both -- my iMac does both, the indicator light a pearly white circle that dims and brightens, dims and brightens -- to tell me my appliances are turned off, but not to worry, they're ready to fire up at a nanosecond's notice.

The computer, the printer, the scanner, the toaster oven, the microwave, the can opener for crying out load (I need this silly device, to my chagrin, on account of my arthritis), the sound system, the juicer, the usb hub, the modem, the router, the plug that connects my laptop, the air conditioner, the electric space heater, the TV, the DVD player, the power strip, the standing fan, the bread machine, the phone charger, &tc.

Whose idea was this? How much is this costing me? Used to be that if you turned a device off it was, well, off. An indicator light was called an "idiot light." I feel touched, in retrospect, that the manufacturers of these devices believed I was of sufficient mental capacity to remember from day to day where the coffee maker was without a beacon to guide me in the pre-dawn gloaming.

I could unplug everything every night before I retire, but at this point it seems a daunting task, since I use most of these items most days and would have to reconnect them in the morning. I've disconnected the air conditioner and the fan for the season, of course, but what about the rest of it?

I'm really making a formal effort to use less energy these latter days, with some success. My heating bill is way down this year. I lead a modest, low-impact, and frugal life, compared with some of my friends and with the way I used to live back in the day. But criminy! Am I fooling myself? Am I merely complacent and self-indulgent about my thriftiness, which come-to-find-out is really maybe delusional? What's a mother to do?

sebzefrog said...

Law Zero: Everything has an energy, and it can be counted.

If we approach slowly and carefully the zeroth law, we first learn
that, what ever energy could be, it exists in everything. An apple, a
tree, a house...

But let's get a bit more creative and expand the idea
of "a thing". Let's play a game where we draw boundaries around things
to group them into a bigger thing.

For example around this flock of birds. That's a "thing", true
enough. It thus has an energy that could be counted. Great. But before that, let's consider closer what we mean by "this flock".
If the birds move around, or even if this little flock gets mixed in
that larger one, "our birds" remain "our birds" for as long as we
want. We have defined what we call a system. That is, we have enclosed
in a strong mental boundary a set of "things".

This allows us to rephrase the zeroth law: every system that we can
think of has a quantity, called energy, that can be counted. And if it
can be counted, we are entitled to hope that it will give us insights
on the behavior of the system. That's exciting. Exciting, but until
we know how to count it, without any practical use.

Before getting there, let's try to think about other properties that
systems have and that can be counted. For example, something that an apple, a tree,
a flock of bird all have is a mass. The mass of the apple can be
measured, and the mass of the flock of bird is the sum of the mass or
each bird. That's a good easy start. Just note that mass is not measured directly, but via its manifestation: in other words via the weight it gives things.

Now, suppose that one of "our bird" eats bread crumbs. We suddenly have
inside one of "our birds" a few grams of bread. After
few hours, we still have "our flock", with one of our birds having
expelled few grams of processed bread. The bread crumbs remained
"alien" for all the time of their transit.

This is a useful representation because if the mass of processed bread
is less than the mass of the bread crumbs, we know that there is still
some "alien bread" mass running around without "our birds". If for our
pratical needs this "alien bread" has become indistinguishable from
the bird stuff that forms "our birds", we can agree that the mass of "our flock" has increased a little. And actually by an amount we can
easily estimate.

Playing the game of drawing systems and keeping track of the flow of
matter that enters and leaves them is a very good exercise that will
prove useful once we get to counting energy. This task will be made
possible once we add the first law to our toolkit.

Janet said...

we had a audit done on our house and have the specific recommendations for improvements. We want to spend our money now to make our house most efficient. If we do all that is recommended, we will run into the issue of air quality and they advise a Heat Recovery Ventilator. Similar to other comments here -I have been wondering if that make sense for the future since it takes electiricty to run it. Should we leave in the old windows so we have some draftiness? Does the offset of less running of our heating system offset the electricity that the Ventilator will use? I am so confused.

don bates said...

I have to argue against your approach. I would compare it to replacing a car that gets 20mpg, with one which gets 25mpg, when what we really need is one that gets 100mpg, or uses no fuel at all.
Having been aware of the coming situation for a number of years (thanks to you and others) I undertook a project of revamping my house, one room at a time. I tore out exterior walls, insulated and sealed very thoroughly, and installed better windows. In the four rooms I have completed, I have installed no source of heat. Even in my very cold climate (Montana) these rooms can be heated by body heat. My bedroom will always be warmer in the morning than when I go to bed, even in sub-zero weather. I can now heat my entire house with a very small wood stove.
None of this is very difficult, nor expensive. Mostly, it requires a lot of labor, and attention to detail, but is within the scope of a good DIY homeowner, such as myself.
A book that I strongly recommend is "Insulate and Weatherize", from Taunton Press. It contains lots of practical advice, plus enough "theory" that you can be confident that you are doing the right things.

Jim said...

Barry Commoner's Poverty of Power is the book that clarified Thermodynamics for me (though as a biology student was familiar with the concepts).

jonni said...

JMG's book The Long Descent was recently mentioned on the Business Insider. Interesting article about the convergence of 4 long-term economic threats that the author predicts in 2020.

phil harris said...

All good stuff and informative comments.
You mention that your garden, that source of food, will feature in a future account. I wonder if when the time comes you could get us to count our food sources? If I remember correctly, you did something similar when we listed the fuel we used domestically, and asked us to check the primary energy source?
It is not too difficult to find the calories count for the items in our food diary, and it would be interesting to see what percentage comes from which purchases, and which was home grown. The same is true for the protein content of the food. There is even software that allows a comprehensive food analysis, but that could be a step too far, I guess.
Perhaps we gardeners in future could also do something similar for the nutrients our soil needs,and where the quantities are sourced?


Jason Heppenstall said...

Folks, up until recently, I lived in a 500 or so year old house in a village up a mountain in southern Spain. It was built by the Moors, who took their building designs from their ancestors in the Sahara. The walls are a yard thick and we spent the first winter there shivering half to death, despite loading up the woodburners with logs every evening.

It fell on the village baker to point out to me that I should keep the fires going for two or three days non-stop, allowing the hundreds of tons of stone in the walls to heat up. I tried it and, it's true, the heat radiated back to us slowly, keeping the place warm (ish) throughout the days. I believe it is called thermal mass.

Conversely, in the summer, the intense sun on the (white) experior walls never quite managed to penetrate the house's thermal defenses before it set.

@Mary - get some timer switches to turn off during the night time. They are inexpensive and, if you can't do without various appliances, they will at least save 8-10 hours of their consumption with minimal outlay.

Bill Pulliam said...

Don -- I have been weatherizing a 19th Century farmhouse for many years; the total jon is very big and very slow. I think he point of JMG'd post here was something quick and inexpensive that people can benefit from right away. It also depends on the initial state of the house. Mine had no sheathing, just clapboard on the outside and thin tongue-and-groove boards on the inside with an air space between. Plus a metal roof nailed over widely-spaced perlins with no underlayment. In a situation like that, a caulk gun is indeed a fly swatter against stampeding elephants. But a lot of people live in houses that are not in such dire initial conditions, and for them the caulk gun can make a quite noticeable difference. I know after I got my walls and ceiling better insulated, then a day with the caulking gun would really make a noticeable difference in the temperature of a room.

How to find where the air is infiltrating? Use your head! Literally. The forehead is very sensitive to small drafts. On a cold windy day run your forehead around all the windows, doors, outlets, baseboards, etc. The cold spots will leap out at you!

john john said...

This video talks about the Laws of Thermodynamics, and other flows in an inspiring way.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Folks, I still want to put in a word for the snug.

Do all the things which JM has suggested (and the things that he will suggest), but as well as that, seek out one SMALL place in your home which you can insulate like an igloo, all round, on top and underneath; and where you can acquire a really DRACONIAN control of the air throughput: tiny trickle of fresh air in, equally tiny trickle out.

Heat pump the outgoing trickle if you can, but so long as it's small enough, you could leave out that rather expensive, hitech step without substantial energy loss.

The basic idea of the snug is that it's somewhere where you can retreat to keep warm by day -- and sleeping too, if necessary -- whilst the rest of your house remains rather cold. It's a beautifully cheap, practical, lotech, very low energy-demanding refuge, where you can retreat when the weather is bitter, whilst you continue to install proper high-quality energy conservation in the rest of your house.

Take a look at some of the traditional Korean peasant houses of former times, especially in the north, to get ideas of how to do all this with only modest, local, hand-installed means.

My snug is a space approximately 6' x 6' x 17', already insulated and draft-controlled, heated by a modest, very un-greedy woodstove that I made to suit both heating and cooking uses.

The key point about this snug is that, as a small boat, it was fitted out from the start to have ALL the facilities that you need to cook, eat, wash-up, sit, study, write, relax, sleep, shower and dump, all carefully tailored into that one small volume. (The shower'n'dump facilities are separated away inside an even smaller -- but artfully-arranged -- cupboard at one end of the main cabin).

Having lived here since 1993, I can tell y'all that it's a very convenient and satisfactory living space, and laughably easy to fuel. I just go out about 150 days a year with the dogs and pick up whatever woodland light timber comes to hand, and is easy to carry home. Bit of useful light exercise with bill and bowsaw, and that's my snug fueled, and to spare.

I'm not making this up, or exaggerating how easy it is. But you do have to get off the North American/overprosperous-Brit lifestyle, fairly comprehensively.

However, that's a real nightmare way to live, compared to the much lower-pressure way that this modest demand on the world makes possible. I'd never try to go back, even if I won the lottery.

Praetzel said...

We have a '91 home when the building standard finally forced builders to use 6" walls - something my father was doing in the 60's. Like our neighbours humidity is a huge problem - and we solved it by leaving the bedroom window open a bit and turning a bath fan on all night. I've sealed the house a bit over the years and still know lots of places where I could do additional sealing - but the problem with houses of this vintage is that they're wayyy too tight and it's not unusual to see kids playing with condensation on the windows - which is rotting the wooden frames ...
I've replaced nearly all glass with low-E/argon; finally insulated the uninsulated, above ground slab for our living room and swapped out the metal patio door. It's more comfortable now but even so it's <$500/yr in natural gas to heat the place and I don't expect to see energy savings as we've been leaving the window open more in an attempt to drive the humidity down below 38% RH.

don bates said...

Bill - I don't mean to discount the benefits of a caulking gun and a can of spray foam. They do, indeed, provide a significant immediate benefit for little money. My point was that they only get us a short distance towards where we need to be.
In my personal experience, one of the disadvantages of doing an initial marginal upgrade is that it then becomes very difficult to rationalize redoing this work on a full upgrade.
I sympathize on your farmhouse. Mine is only a little newer, and a little better built, so I know the challenges. We will someday have to face the reality that some of our housing stock is just not economically salvageable from an energy standpoint.

LynnHarding said...

@sezbefrog - your posts look interesting but I really can't read them due to formatting.

I have had three seasons of experience with a contra-flow masonry stove and can say that it is expensive to install but worth it. It has a built in oven so I can bake bread and roast meat. Downside is that it heats one very large room and the rest of the house is chilly. It was a retrofit so I didn't have a choice of location.

The heat is radiant and delicious. We do have a woodlot and the ability to cut our own or hire someone to do it. So, there is no free lunch but the menu is at least variable.

By the way, I had a limited amount of money to use and I could have chosen to install an active solar system. It looked really complicated and all of the parts were made in China so I chose the masonry stove instead. But I still have a lot of insulating to do in the rest of the house.

Hal said...

The timing of this series is unfortunate for me. All the time we were talking about growing things, it was a frozen tundra outside. The last week here has been so perfect that to do anything but dig in the dirt would be unthinkable. Last two days I have dug three beds and planted lettuce, collards, carrots, and onions. All good companions to each other. Also planted a peach tree with the backhoe that came with the tractor I picked up at auction last month. Just can't think about weatherizing, though I'll probably wish I did next year.

Actually I won't. I don't believe in living in an thermos. I deal with the cold in this cheap little 70s ranch house by bundling up, heating one room at a time, and making the oven do double duty. I've found over the years that the older I get, the more important it is no not let myself get chilled.

In the past, when "toughing it out" in the cold, I did it to the detriment of my health. My ex is very knowledgeable in Chinese medicine, and said the chill probably brought on a deficiency in the kidney system, which is related to energy and heat. If your hands get hot when the rest of you is cool, that's a sign, and not a good one.

This year, I wore lots of layers, topped by a quilted jump suit. And got back into T'ai Chi. The core never chilled, and it kept me well all winter. Hey, if it means skipping a shower now and then, it's worth it.

Cathy McGuire said...

Making small baby steps in insulation... mostly because it's been rather dry and decently warm, so I'm working hard on getting yard ready for gardening! One raised bed finished today... but I also fixed the lame weatherstripping around the kitchen door- they had the concept but forgot to check for drafts! LOL! I moved it so that there aren't gaps... the drafts had been fairly obvious. And I got some foam sheets for behind the switchplates... Thanks for the good explanation -- thinking systemically is helping.

eatclosetohome said...

The glass doors we had on our old fireplace made almost no difference in the air flow up the chimney. You could watch the spiderwebs blow in the breeze. Our next attempt to block the chimney was an inflatable draft stopper: which was better, but not great. We then put in a fireplace insert, which really seals things up and makes the fireplace a functional and moderately efficient heating appliance. We keep the thermostat 3 degrees cooler and we feel warmer now that the fireplace is sealed.

If we'd not bought the insert, we would have bought a $700 chimney cap with a pull-chain mechanism to actually seal the chimney at the top. You pull the chain to pop it open when you want to use the fireplace.

DIYer said...

It's worth noting here that, in the deep south the purpose of insulation is to _remove_ heat from the living space. For example, old plantation homes have the kitchen in a separate building. The construction methods mentioned by Bill Pulliam are commonly found in old houses across the deep south, for this reason.

Also, a wide veranda and a breezeway or courtyard may also bee found as an integral part of the architecture in hot climates. I know my own mansion in the 'burbs would be vastly improved by having awnings over the windows, at least.

tom rainboro said...

Interesting posts and comments as usual!
I'm in Devon in the west of England, where our winters are generally not so bad, our summers not very hot and we have a lot of rain and general humidity.
My house is 1890, 24 inch thick stone - and rubble- walls with some cob higher up.
I'd say that reducing the surface area of your house exposed to the elements is a good thing. The traditional Devon 'longhouse' extended to house the animals as well as people. My north wall would benefit from a veg and fuel store to keep the wind off.
I'm slightly alarmed by those who burn fuel and then try to reduce air intake to a minimum - sure a recipe for carbon monoxide poisoning? I think building regs (often ignored) here provide for an external supply of air to a fire (through a wall or under floor).
In what now seems like a previous lifetime, I once worked in Norway and Sweden. I was in a studio apartment in Norway in midsummer. It had triple glazing and underfloor heating. (Probably powered by electricity generated by sustainble plants in the fjords?) The windows could not be opened and the heating could not be turned off. I could only sleep with the door open to the street. I must admit that I'm in the 'wear more clothes and open the windows' camp. Human activity produces an enormous amount of moisture. Unless some dry heat and ventilation is supplied then condensation is surely going to be a problem? This can cause damage to the building fabric.
I have a 8kw modern woodstove, powering 3 radiators in the upstairs room, by convection - (no pump). I will certainly sometimes run this low and keep the doors open to get a healthy flow of air when the tenperature is 5 - 10C! There is a rule of thumb that says that if you can think of 3 benefits of an action then it's probably a good idea. If my stove heats the air, central heating water, domestic hot water and dries the laundry then it's difficult not to justify its use. A good way to keep wastage to a minimum is to cut, cart and chop your own wood - makes you appreciate it!

jvolzka000 said...

Hey JMG-
I see your picture with that really cool beard. I hope you don't start pulling it out when you finish reading the next sentence.

Imagine for a minute a drafty, uninsulated 1890's stick frame with the leaking roof and the paint peeling off, in the middle of a Wisconsin January when the temperature is minus 20F, standing, at 10:00 am, with the doors wide open letting that damnable heat out. What the----?

What I didn't say is that when I went to bed the night before it was about 80F inside and when I got up at 7:00 or so in the morning it was about 30F, yes, freezing.
Another thing I didn't say is that what I am doing to get the house that hot (like 90)is making the charcoal I use to cook and can with as soon as I can start cooking outside, like I do until it gets too cold in the fall.
There is much, much more to this than I am able to talk about right now, as I don't want my battery to go dead in this snowstorm. But I joined up with the Green Wizards forum a couple of months ago and have been lurking there kinda' afraid of speaking up for fear of being labelled a certifiable nut job (which may indeed be correct). If I am, it is equally likely I am not alone.
If you go to a website called financial sense online there is an essay about the fall of the roman empire. You are mentioned there in regard to your ideas about catabolic collapse.
I have been a very regular reader of yours for over a year now, but haven't been reading the comments until a couple of months ago. Now it seems you have some competition, as the resondents aren't slouches either. My only comlaint is that you need to get your butt in gear about chapter 23.

You and I have been on the the same path for over forty years. I thought I was alone.


Jason said...

@John John -- thanks, learned a lot.

Bill Pulliam said...

"We will someday have to face the reality that some of our housing stock is just not economically salvageable from an energy standpoint."

This is really 20th Century thinking applied to 21st Century circumstances. An existing house represents a great deal of embodied energy; tearing it down to rebuild sends all this to the dump and requires another big chunk of energy for the replacement structure. It also assumes the financial, material, and energy resources to rebuild all these old houses are freely available.

In many ways, the greenest house is the one that already exists, flaws and all. I think a more energetically favorable approach is to accept that much of our housing stock can never be economically heated to our accustomed "room temperature" in every room, all the time, even after retrofitting. Wear sweaters, as earlier generations did, and many europeans still do. Wool is still a lot cheaper than new houses.

sebzefrog said...

@ LynnHarding: Thanks for notifying me. On my browser the formatting looks fine.
Could you please email me (sebzefrog at with an explanation of what is wrong with the formatting on your browser, so that I could try to fix it ?

Have a nice day

Praetzel said...

Many have questioned passive house and energy audits. I highly recommend an electrical energy audit - 1/3 of our energy use was vampires. Getting rid of them was the key and doing wierd things like converting some to use the same DC source (door bell, central vac), rewiring the microwave to be off if the door is open and just leaving it that way. Our water soften is not plugged in - it uses more $$ in electricity to meter the water than it uses in salt (we manually regenerate every 7 weeks or so).
Passive House is really neat - but it assume an extrodinary amount of energy use which will heat the house for you. If you energy use is <1/2 that of a typical household you've got no chance. The HRV is critical and most of the time they're oversized for the home driving the humidity down to 30% RH. Choosing a proper model would make it possible to power one with electricity. Our home needs some sort of extra ventilation - be it an HRV (expensive, impossible to install) or a bath fan on all of the time with a window cracked open.
Friends went whole hog with a 1960's house - they took off the aluminum siding, adding strapping, pulled out the sagging 2" thick fiberglass (in 2x4 studs) and sprayed in about 6" of foam - air sealing and insulating. It wasn't cheap but they didn't have to touch the inside and boy what a difference it made.

John Michael Greer said...

A friendly reminder from JMG's temporary comment moderator --- comments with profanity will NOT go through. If your comment on this week's post didn't go through and you want to resubmit minus the four letter words, please do so.

Hal said...


I think I know what you're getting at by saying insulation in this part of the world is for removing heat, but of course, all insulation is, is... insulation. To remove heat you either need ventilation or a heat pump of some kind, i.e., air conditioning. The unspoken assumption in play when saying that insulation is good for cooling is that one is going to be air conditioning. Most people in the South these days can't imagine living without A/C, but our ancestors did it, and I haven't used mine in a couple of years, though my house is far from ideal.

The house you described sounds like the basic Southern dog-trot house, and I'd love to have one, but as Bill said, I'm probably stuck with what I've got. The dog-trot features two separate cabins with a breezeway between, and a heat-source (fireplace, traditionally) on each end. It's usually off the ground with high ceilings and dormer windows to maximize air circulation. In addition to the air circulation allowed by the breezeway, it also seperates the cooking space from the sleeping area.

If I ever build it will be a dog-trot, only well insulated for the winter. I'll also put a loft in the cooking cabin to sleep in during the winter months.

This might be jumping the gun to a future topic, but one thing that's really not good in the South is thermal mass. I know that's heresy for those educated on the West Coast and other semi-arid areas, but if you aren't going to have A/C, thermal mass is the worst design you can use in humid areas. My brick facade bakes me at night in the summer.

pfh said...

GMG, OK, but we still need to learn to think straight, and how to overcome the fear of questioning cultural beliefs we don't quite know how to check. Sometimes evidence raising questions about them arises and we spend decades dodging it... It's great cypher for our current dilemma it seems.

Simple facts ... and Hard memes...

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Bill,

I'm with you. Nothing is perfect, housing stock least of all. We need to learn to live with what we have, rather than what the ideal says we should have.

To rebuild the entire housing stock so that it enables a continuation of the current levels of household comfort at a lower level of energy consumption would probably end up requiring more energy than it would ever save. There is so much embodied energy in a house and it's materials.

Also, people tend to be lead by fashion when it comes to housing, rather than the function of the house itself. As fashion is a function of the prevailing culture, you can't fight or alter this path until such time that the culture changes.

The energy that you don't consume is far cheaper than the energy you have to obtain or generate.



Twilight said...

Kinda late to this party, but...

Infiltration is not really the same as convection. Most heat transfer from a system in the real world is through some combination of convection, conduction and radiation, but convection in that process does not require actual mass to leave the system. For example, convection from the radiator to the air and from the air to the window pane, conduction to the air outside, etc. Infiltration is removing the actual mass and its thermal energy out of the system, which is different enough to be a useful distinction in these discussions.

I was inspired to caulk and gasket the last leaky door – it's the one next to the wood stove where it is usually 80-90 degrees, so motivation was low but what the heck. Sealing up for me mostly involves using rope caulk and small cardboard shims cut from cereal boxes to stop the old sashes from leaking so much. When they were made some 175 years ago they undoubtedly fit a little better (and some are replacements), but then they were never intended to totally seal and thermally isolate the inside of the home from the outside environment – that is a new concept that I don't find at all appealing. Instead I'm trying to learn to use it more like it was intended, which means it was around 52 in the bedroom this morning, and that feels perfectly normal to me.

The easiest thing to fix about your home's thermal performance is your own expectations about how warm it needs to be, and how constant that heat needs to be from room to room or over time. It is very easy to keep your own body warm, as the surface area is quite small compared to your home and it is constantly producing waste heat. Beyond that, keep in mind that the efficiency of heat transfer increases with temperature difference, so the warmer your home is inside the harder it is to keep it from moving to the outside. Note that this does not apply to infiltration, which is pretty much completely efficient at removing heat regardless of temperature difference.

There's a diminishing return on all our battles against entropy. Certainly it makes sense to keep the actual warm air from just blowing out of your house. Basic insulation too. But somewhere between that and tearing your place down to the studs lies a point where your efforts and resources might be better spent elsewhere – like buying a sweater and planning the garden.

DIYer said...

First I'd like to thank the temporary moderator, who looks a lot like JMG ;-)

And then I'd like to edit my post above, which did go through. Why does it always look worse once it's committed to publicaton?

I meant to say that in the Deep South, we frequently leave insulation out, and deliberately build loose open houses, to facilitate the removal of heat. Of course they're a bit drafty in winter, but they let more of the breeze through in summer.

These building traditions have not served us well in the 20th century, unfortunately. Those leaky houses cost a lot more to air condition.

K.M. said...

Carbon monoxide dangers in sealed homes with gas appliances

Mister Greer,

I apologize for adding a second comment - but this concerns safety after sealing your home!

People who seal up their homes and have gas or propane appliances will run the risk of gas exhaust backdrafting into the home due to the pressure changes that can occur in a newly sealed house. Over time, carbon monoxide can build up in your home due to this effect. The symptoms are commonly misdiagnosed and often seem like a low level flu.

It is imperative that you have a professional come and test your home for carbon monoxide and backdrafting, once you have sealed your home.

Also, concerning thermodynamics:

My training is in physics - with a nonlinear emphasis. What you're interested in is the emergent thermal behaviors of matter - the laws of thermodynamics are very general and a few more specific consequences are really what we should pay attention to:

1. Air mass density: Hot air rises. This means it is far more important to seal up the top parts of your home than the bottom, in the winter.

2. You are interested in the Stefan-Boltzman law of radiated energy per unit surface area. A consequence of this law and the behavior of blackbodies ("all surfaces of a house are blackbodies!") is this: Each additional layer interposed between you and the outside (it matters little what it is, as long as air does not pass through) will reduce radiation losses by 1/(N+1) where N is the number of layers. Radiative cooling of the home occurs through windows and by radiation of the exterior surfaces. Multiple window layers - or more properly, multiple interstitional layers of air - can help. As you can see, even a few layers will help significantly.

3. Performing work using thermal energy (viz, "burning something" to do work): In thermodynamic terms, it is the difference between the temperatures of two things, which is exploited to do work. Once that temperature difference has been dissipated, we can no longer do work. In conceptual terms, we exploit the temperature difference between two "heat reservoirs" to do something useful through various contraptions of our invention.

These are all cyclical thermodynamic processes, since to do useful work they must in an abstract sense cycle through a set of states. This is called a "heat engine"; real engines of course fall within its jurisdiction. What Carnot showed was that no heat engine can be more efficient than the Carnot efficiency (and a "Carnot engine" is a thought-construction, impossible in practice.)

Implications: The greater the temperature differential you are exploiting, the more "pep" your device will have but the less efficient it will be, qualitatively. Et cetera.

Mike said...

While not exactly relevant to the current week's topic, I was surprised to see this in the Harvard Business Review: We all work at Enron now which seems to echo some of your sentiments.

Bill Pulliam said...

DIY - It is definitely true that insulation cuts both ways, as does thermal mass. There are always tradeoffs in temperate climates.

Our house is actually a dogtrot, the wood-frame version of it that was popular in the early days of wood frame construction replacing log construction around here. It's the L-shaped "3-pen" variant, with a third "cabin" behind one of the two main ones, also separated by a space. This rear space is the kitchen, thermally separated from the sleeping areas for better summer sleeping and for better isolation of kitchen fires. Our version is built as one enclosed structure, with double doors on either end of the dogtrot. In the original log cabin concept, of course, the dogtrot was roofed but not enclosed, hence the dogs could trot through it.

Before I insulated the house, it cooled off wonderfully on summer nights. With the uninsulated metal roof exposed to outer space, the interior cooled down almost to outside ambient temperature. And then the sun got up, and hit the roof, and the upstairs (it's a 1-and-a-half story house) became uninhabitable. Now the temperature swings are less, the upstairs is livable in summer, but the whole thing is substantially warmer at night for sleeping, which is NOT a plus here in August!

But... in the winter before the insulation, the house was almost unheatable except for spot areas. Milk froze on the kitchen counter. Pipes froze in the bathroom. It was not compatible with bare minimal expectations for 20th Century indoor infrastructure (e.g. indoor plumbing) unless you pumped huge amounts of 20th Century energy in to it, which is how people did live here through the 20th Century. Now, with the insulation, I actually can make some headway on the heating with 21st Century heat sources like home-grown wood and active or passive solar. Plus the efficacy of the remaining 20th Century energy sources is greatly improved. So, on balance, in the Tennessee climate, winter trumps summer and insulation wins. Vice versa in Miami. Somewhere in between the balance will tip, depending on your architecture, needs, and preferences.

spottedwolf said...

The thermal mass thing came years ago by way of the industry I worked in....some of the more educated of you could I only know that you lose as much thermal mass through an open window as you do through a poorly sealed door. This I best understood from what we referred to as the 'whistle effect' discovered while hunting wild beasts and lodging in old cabins.

Lance Michael Foster said...

Another option is in extreme weather to think in terms of inner envelopes too. The Chukchi people of Siberia make a large outer tent of caribou hide. This just cuts the wind. It is almost as cold inside the tent. But they make a sleeping tent perhaps 6x6 feet (depending on how many sleep in it) inside the larger tent of caribou skins with the hair facing inside. Inside, there is one candle or oil lamp used. This in combination with the body heat allows the sleeper to sleep warmly in temperatures of 60 below or colder.

Joel said...

I'm very fond of Warmth Disperses and Time Passes, by Hans Christian Von Baeyer. It's written at a level above 4th grade, but doesn't require the use of math, either.

It also doesn't rely on appeal to authority to make its case: the social construction of science is on full view throughout.

sebzefrog said...

Hi all,
after one week out sick and one far from internet, me posting here the next message about thermodynamic laws lost lots of its interest.

Those post are nevertheless written, and I will email them to anyone who wants them. Just ping me at sebzefrog at

Writting those was a very interesting exercise, and I might very well try to expand them and publish them in an other form in a not too far future.

Have a great day
sebzefrog at

K.M. said...

Amendment to comment

Apologies, I'd like to amend a typo in my previous comment - just on the general topic of thermodynamical devices, and not really related to home insulation -

Concerning heat engines, thermal efficiency depends basically on the temperature differential you are exploiting. Take the Carnot Efficiency "CarnotEff" as an over-the-top, never-going-to-happen, best possible efficiency for any given heat-engine you have built:

CarnotEff = 1 - (T_cold/T_hot)

(A perfectly efficient device would operate with Efficiency = 1.)

Since T_cold, the temperature of the cold side of your heat-engine, is generally going to be the temperature of the outside air (or in some cases, the temperature of a nearby body of water, or a well you drill in the earth), the easiest way to change your thermal efficiency is to change T_hot, the temperature to which you are heating the hot part of your engine.

So what I mean is, keeping T_cold unchanged, thermal efficiency, in a loosely argued general sense, should be expected to *increases* with the highest temperature you can achieve in your heat engine. This will also give you more "pep".

Apologies for any confusion generated by the tail end of my previous comment about efficiency and "pep. Just goofy, that.

See here:

Typical heat-engines of most kinds would be lucky to operate at half the Carnot efficiency in practice.


Ponter said...

This is off-topic, but I don't know how else to contact you ...

Which of your books on Druidry offers the best introduction/overview to the topic? I'd like to read something you've written on that. You can write back to me at the gmail address that I presume accompanies this post. Thanks.

John Michael Greer said...

Ponter, no email address accompanied your post! The book you want, though, is The Druidry Handbook.