Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Sound of Distant Hoofbeats

There are moments when the things nobody wants to talk about brush the surface, like deepwater fish rising briefly to catch the sun on their backs before plunging again into the underwater shadows. Two of those moments happened in the last few days, and I’d like to discuss them briefly before we get back into the practicalities of life in an age of declining energy availability.

One of those moments was set in motion by something that was almost certainly meant to have the opposite effect. This was the recent pronouncement from umpty-billionaire Warren Buffett, who clambered into the media pulpit last week to insist that the United States is not in decline, and indeed that its best days are still ahead of it. A man with Buffett’s income can be forgiven for believing this; the last few decades, after all, have been inordinately good for umpty-billionaires, though they’ve been rather noticeably less so for the other 99-plus per cent of the American people. As long as the current order of affairs remains welded in place in Washington DC and elsewhere, it’s entirely possible that the days of billion-dollar bonuses for the guys at the top are not quite over yet.

Still, from any other perspective, Buffett’s utterance bears an uncanny similarity to the fine art of whistling past the graveyard. Nations in the rising curve of their history do not need to hear platitudes from obscenely rich pundits to recognize that better days are ahead. Empires on the way down, on the other hand, can count on hearing plenty of pronouncements of this sort, from plenty of people of Buffett’s kind; the British media was brimfull of such utterances by titled statesmen and overpaid financiers all through the period when the British empire was coming apart at the seams. There’s also more than a little echo of the organized reassurance John Kenneth Galbraith chronicled so gleefully in The Great Crash 1929, the efforts by the very rich in the wake of the 1929 crash to insist that the market and the economy were just fine when, by every objective measure, they weren’t.

The second moment I’d like to mention may have helped to cause the first. This was a quiet little article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal commenting, in measured tones, that for the first time in living memory an international crisis has sent investment money running away from US dollar-denominated investments rather than toward them. For decades now, as most of my readers will doubtless be aware, the US dollar has had the reputation of a safe haven for investments, and wars, revolutions, and financial crises overseas have reliably sparked flows of money into investments denominated in dollars, most of them here in the United States. That’s one of the factors that have kept America’s interest rates down and its trade deficit manageable, at least so far, in the face of the federal government’s epic mismanagement of the public purse.

Those days may just be over. The article just mentioned notes that since the current round of troubles hit North Africa and the Middle East, money has been flowing away from the dollar, heading toward other relatively stable currencies such as the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen. Even the euro, which has its own drastic problems, has benefited noticeably from the flight from the dollar. It’s hard to be sure exactly what’s behind this epochal shift, but it’s hard to ignore the possibility that what currently carries the engagingly timid moniker “quantitative easing” – that is, the United States government’s current practice of paying for its deficit spending by having the Federal Reserve print money to buy treasury bills nobody else is willing to take – has started to spook overseas investors.

If so, they’re right to be spooked. When a nation starts funding deficit spending via the printing press, its currency’s days are numbered. It’s true, of course, as plenty of thoughtful people have pointed out in the peak oil blogosphere, that the US money supply in its broadest sense – including all forms of debt, which count as money in our current hallucinatory economy – has contracted sharply in the wake of the 2008 housing-bubble crash, and would have contracted a great deal more if the government hadn’t basically encouraged banks to pretend that the mountains of worthless mortgage-backed securities in their vaults still had the value credited to them, at least in the delusions of real estate promoters, circa 2006. Still, it’s not often remembered that the value of a currency isn’t a function of the money supply alone; like every other measure of value, it’s a function of the relationship between supply and demand, and a currency that’s contracting can still tip over into inflation, even hyperinflation, if the demand for it drops faster than the supply.

For what it’s worth, my best guess at the moment – which is all that any observer of the economy can offer – is that we’re headed for what I’ve called hyperstagflation, more or less 1970s-style stagflation on steroids, complete with a bad case of ‘roid rage. The ingredients for that are already in place: soaring commodity prices, a US economy in freefall, and interruptions in the free flow of petroleum caused, to make the sense of deja vu complete, by troubles in the Middle East. Still, a good deal depends on just how hyperactive the Fed’s printing presses get in the months ahead. If the current shift away from dollar-denominated investments turns into a panic, as it might, and the stock market crashes in response, as it could, and the Obama administration decides to respond with yet another "quantitative easing" program to prop up the market with a flood of freshly printed money, as recent experience suggests it very likely would – well, you can do the math for yourself.

One way or another, though, whatever income my readers happen to have coming their way in the months and years ahead is likely to buy quite a bit less energy than the same amount of money buys at present. That makes finding ways to make less energy do more work crucial just now – and that, in turn, leads to windows.

If you’ve caulked and weatherstripped your home, and have a decently thick layer of insulation in the attic, your windows are where the largest fraction of your remaining heating bills go dancing out into the great outdoors. Window glass has an R-value (R means resistance to heat flow, remember?) right around 1 per layer of glass, so a double-pane window has an R-value of 2, or maybe a bit more: that is to say, not much. Interestingly, this is true no matter how fancy or expensive the windows happen to be: you get an R-value of 2 or so from an old-fashioned single-pane window with storm windows slapped on the outside, and you also get an R-value right around 2 from a very expensive vinyl-framed double-pane window with the space between the panes pumped full of inert gas, or what have you. If you want a higher R-value, glass is not going to give it to you.

One point worth taking home from this last comment is that if you’ve got windows that don’t serve a useful purpose, getting rid of them, permanently or temporarily, may be your best option. It takes a certain amount of skill at carpentry to take out a window and seal up the opening so that the resulting wall is weathertight and well insulated; if you don’t happen to have the skills, your friendly local handyperson can do the job in a day or so, and it’s often money well worth spending. If you don’t feel confident in doing anything so drastic, get some rigid-board insulation from your local lumber store, cut it to fit exactly into the window opening from inside, and then cut a sheet of hardboard to fit the same opening, inside the insulation; glue the insulation to the hardboard, paint the hardboard to match the wall, weatherstrip the edges of the hardboard so that you’ve got a good tight seal around the sides, top, and bottom to prevent air leaks, slide it into place and you’re good to go. If you live in a place with cold winters, closing up half a dozen windows in this way during the cold season can save you quite a bit on your heating bills.

What if you want something more easily movable, so you can catch the rays of the winter sun when it’s out but close things up easily at night? Here we come to one of the great forgotten secrets of the Seventies appropriate-tech movement, the fine art of insulated window coverings.

I had the chance to learn about those personally in my teen years. In 1977, my family moved from a rental house in a down-at-heels Seattle suburb to a larger and more comfortable place we actually owned – well, subject to mortgage and all that, but you get the idea. The one drawback was that the new place was expensive to heat, and that was mostly because most of the main floor’s walls facing southeast, toward a stunning view of the Cascade Mountains, consisted of single-pane windows. Insulated window coverings were much talked about in those days of high energy costs and state-funded conservation programs; my stepmother found a pattern, fired up her sewing machine, and made what amounted to a set of inexpensive quilts – faced inside and out with the ornately printed sheets popular in those days, and filled with polyester batting – rigged to slide up and down like Roman blinds. They went up in the morning and down with the sun, and the monthly heating bills dropped by a very noticeable fraction.

There are dozens of designs for insulated window coverings – or, more precisely, there were dozens of designs. It will take you a bit of searching to find them nowadays, as a result of the thirty-year vacation from reality American society took in 1980 or thereabouts. All the designs have certain things in common. The first, obviously enough, is that they put a bunch of additional insulation over the window. How much? A good rule of thumb is that your windows, with window coverings in place, should be as well insulated as the wall on either side – for an uninsulated wall of normal American housing construction, this means around R-5, and up from there as your level of insulation improves.

The second common feature is that the window covering should be sealed around the window, especially at top and bottom. Conventional curtains, open at top and bottom, can actually increase your heat loss by convection: air up against the window glass is chilled and flows out the bottom opening, making a draft across the floor, while warm air gets drawn in through the bottom opening and flows across the glass, cooling as it goes. Stop that "flue effect" and you instantly make the room more comfortable. The insulated shades my stepmother made were pressed right up against the wall above the windows, and had little magnets sewn in along the edges to hold them against metal strips in the wall beside and below the windows; there were many other tricks used to do the same thing.

The third common feature is that the window covering should contain a vapor barrier. Ours didn’t, which meant that the windows were thick with condensation when the shades went up in the morning, and often had to be mopped off with a rag. A layer of something waterproof, on the side of the insulation closest to the interior space, will prevent that, and avoid problems with mold, water damage, and the like.

Beyond these three points, the options are nearly unlimited. It’s entirely possible to use something like ordinary curtains to get the same effect, as long as they have something holding them tight against the wall on all sides of the window opening. Shades were a very common approach, and so were shutters of various kinds, hinged or sliding or even concealed within pockets built out from the walls. One of the most elegant examples I know involved built-in bookcases along a northern wall; there was a gap behind them just wide enough to make room for sliding shutters, and at night the homeowner simply pulled two inconspicuous handles together and turned the window into an R-12 wall.

These same techniques can be used in two additional ways to help save energy. The first is to use insulated coverings inside a solar greenhouse at night. The same clear surfaces that let sunlight into a greenhouse lose plenty of heat at night; equip your greenhouse with some sort of movable insulation to cover the glazing at night, and it becomes possible to run a solar greenhouse much more efficiently in cold weather. The other is the old medieval custom of using cloth hangings, a few inches out from the wall, to insulate an otherwise chilly space. That’s what all those tapestries were doing in medieval castles; insulated wall hangings can function exactly the same way in a modern house, so long as they extend from floor to ceiling on exterior walls, and have both a reasonable amount of insulation in them and a couple of inches of air space between the fabric and the wall.

None of these things are particularly difficult or expensive to make. If you have some basic facility with a sewing machine – and if you don’t, getting it might be a worthwhile project sometime very soon – you can knock together a good set of insulated window coverings for a couple of rooms in a couple of hours, using storebought sheets and some quilt batting as your raw materials. If you know how to handle a saw, a screwdriver, and a carpenter’s square – again, these are skills worth acquiring soon if you don’t have them already – it won’t take any longer to turn some lumber, hardboard, and rigid board insulation into good sturdy insulated shutters.

The time to get these skills, and get your window insulation in place, is now. Just as the inhabitants of dying empires in the past used to listen nervously for the distant sound of hoofbeats that told them the barbarians were on the way, those who are paying attention to the predicament of our own time need to get used to listening for the cracks and judderings of an overburdened system as it lurches down the slope of its own decline and fall. Those faint noises and brief glimpses may be the closest thing to a warning that we’ll get.


Once again, the Master Conservers papers at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website provide a good introduction; the paper you want for this week’s topic is titled, not surprisingly, "Insulated Window Coverings." There were also several very good books on the subject published back in the day; far and away my favorite is William K. Langdon’s Movable Insulation, but William Shurcliff’s Thermal Shades and Shutters and Judy Lindahl’s Energy Saving Decorating are also worth a look if you can find them,


Cherokee Organics said...


Hope you are enjoying spring! I picked quite a few kilograms of free blackberries today (bottling and jam)! mmmm blackberries!

I've seen people put doona's (quilts) and blankets over windows to keep in the heat. Quite effective too!

It's a funny thing reading these window and insulation blogs from down under (no offence intended). The reason I find it funny is because all of my windows on my place had to be built not to resist the transfer of heat from the inside out, but the other way around from the outside in! That is, they had to be designed, tested and built to withstand fire.

Needless to say, because of the cost, which quite scared me, I have 8 windows in the house in total! No large wall of windows which seem to be such a feature of new houses these days.

On the plus side the house is very temperate! If you can remove windows per JMG's advice it really is money well spent.

I've seen a bit of press here about the fears in the US over US$4 per gallon fuel.

We pay about AU$1.40 per litre (there are about 3.8 litres to a gallon) and it's not really the end of the world, although things are starting to get expensive... It's about the equivalent of US$5 per gallon.

There is no substitute for using less energy!



Cherokee Organics said...

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Rialian said...

===Excellent as usual (grins)

===Not quite on topic, (so feel free to not post up), but I thought you might want to glance at:

===My wife ordered his book for me, as she saw it somewhere and thought I would like it. So far, quite good. I like the Christians that "get it" (Joel Salatin is another one). I have only gotten about 50 pages into it so far, but it is top-notch in terms of addressing mindsets.

Fleecenik Farm said...

Our passive solar berm home was built in the 70's. One great feature of the home are thick insulated shutters over the windows on the east,north and west sides of the house.
I have been sewing window quilts for the southern windows this winter. I think these will also serve to keep the sun out of the home during the hottest part of a summer day.
I also have been sewing insulated curtains for doorways without doors so that when we want to heat the main living space quickly we can contain the heat in a smaller space.

Robo said...

Beyond building insulation, there's personal insulation. Kris De Decker has just posted a nice article on this topic in his "Low-tech Magazine" blog.

Title: "Insulation: first the body, then the home"

As Chris notes here, we'll also have to talk about keeping cool.

Bill Pulliam said...

We've found that warm window coverings make a big difference in our house. We cover the top of the "chimney" by making a separate strip of material that lies horizontally across the space between the wall and the curtain, with the curtain hung a few inches out from the wall. As for condensation, with a storm window installed also I usually find that the temperature of the interior glass surface stays warm enough that this is not a routine problem. But Tennessee is not Seattle, and our wintertime dew points average considerably lower! We did have this problem in semiarid Colorado on windows without storm windows, Even just a pane of safety glazing nailed up over the outside of the window without any weatherstripping was enough to make it go away in that climate.

A few small points about R-values for windows... there are other contributions than just the R-value of the glass panes themselves. The air space between the panes also contributes, as does the boundary layer of air on the surfaces that is affected in its movement by friction with the window. This latter effect is extremely dependent on wind speed, and is one of two reasons why windows are colder on windy days (the other being infiltration). The boundary layer on the indoor side is important, too, and "indoor winds" break it down and increase heat flow also. This is part of what happens with the "chimney" effect behind the curtain. It also happens when you have fans blowing in a room. So if you put in a ceiling fan to mix the air in a room and keep the hot air from all pooling at the ceiling (generally a good idea) but you do not have curtains with "chimney blocks" to keep this wind from blowing across your windows, you will increase the heat loss from the house.

Odin's Raven said...

Peak Oil may be accompanied by Peak Americanism. In the world to come shortly, the rest of the world may not tolerate so much arrogant insolence from American politicians and publicists assuming the right to tell everyone else what to do and how and when to do it.

heffer said...

I would also recommend simple homemade interior storm windows, such as these.

I recently made some of these from 1x2 pine and inexpensive heat-shrink window film, and they have made a huge difference in rooms with otherwise leaky windows. Each one took about an hour and cost less than $15.

The nice thing about these is that they let the light come through, so they can be used all the time.

GHung said...

I find the idea of eliminating windows somewhat repulsive, though, since we live at about 34 degrees north latitude, we don't have the long winters with short days that many of you have. My point is that windowology is very climate specific. Having been fortunate enough to design and build our own home (with the mindset that it will be our last earthly home), its design is very site specific: no northern exposure (earth bermed from northeast to northwest); maximum glass to the south; overhangs appropriate to the seasons. Glorious light and passive solar. Let the sun in!

We use thermal curtains during the few months that we actually need to insulate the windows. A nearby hotel was sold and remodeled and we were able to get more than enough insulated commercial curtains to do every window for $50 US. While some cutting and sewing was required in the bedrooms, I consider this to be one of my best scrounging scores. We even like the green striped pattern.

I too lived in Seatle for a time, though as a 'Son of the South' I found the battle with seasonal affective disorder sapped my personal energy too much. I prefer to wear a sweater, stock an extra cord of wood, and let the light in. Opening and closing curtains has become a routine habit, along with other everyday chores.

I look forward to more discussion on passive heating, passive cooling, and adapting to moderate interior temperature swings. We have become acustomed to meeting the seasons halfway.

Spring has arrived in the South and soon we will open all of the windows, replace the screens, and feel the breezes that waft through our home until October arrives again. Best to all.

Sage Thyme said...

Excellent advice about window quilts. I would add that you can increase their efficiency by including a layer of inexpensive heat reflective mylar "space blanket" material:

Cathy McGuire said...

Great post, as usual!
You've cued me as to where the puzzling drafts were coming from - my large, well-curtained windows! I had been pleased with the heavy drapes I'd sewn, but forgot about the chimney effect. Thanks, JMG,for mentioning it, and thanks, Bill, for suggesting a quick fix! Top of curtain strip quilt, coming right up...

Astrid said...

Regarding the "flue" effect of curtains...although not currently in style, I believe valances over the window can mitigate this. Our 1970's era home has the valances built right in across the entire length of the wall over the large windows in the living room. All we need now are the insulated curtains.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

I grew up in a small, terraced (townhouse) home in South Wales. I remember the outside walls had, underneath the wallpaper, a layer of expanded polystyrene. It was only about one millimeter thick and came in rolls of a similar size to wallpaper. I also remember that above each window was a topper of wood. It was cloth covered - a matching color to the walls. Inside it, some fairly rigid fabric brushed against the top of the curtains, so much so that it could be a pain opening the curtains if curtain liners (a second, lighter curtain behind the first) were also hung. Back in those days, I thought it was for decoration, to hide the curtain rail. Reading this post, I immediately saw that the purpose was to make it harder for warm air to enter at the top.
We also had net curtains in the windows. I used to think they were for privacy but I can see how the extra layer trapped air near the window and reduces heat loss.

We’re replacing our windows at present. Currently they are single pane and the temperature difference near them is noticeable. There are some nice rebates for energy efficient windows which reduce the cost.

On a completely different note, Barbra picked up a 19th century pie safe at a recent auction, in almost perfect condition. I finally learned why one of the cupboards we had as a kid had punched tin vents in the side.

Seaweed Shark said...

Dear JMG, Good article as always. I found one unintentional misstatement: Your sentence reads "..while warm air gets drawn in through the bottom opening..." In context it looks like it ought to read "top opening".

The Heirloom Troubadour said...

I too saw the WSJ article you referenced earlier this week, and was further struck by the seemingly ill-conceived ad that appeared alongside it for the Journal's new book that is entitled, I kid you not, "Guide to Investing In the Apocalypse." You know, Hell Fire and Brimstone $0, Human Suffering $0, Food shortages $0, for everything else, there's MasterCard. Rolls eyes. Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.

Window coverings are something that I have thinking about and researching for the past few months. I have curtains that cover the two biggest windows in the house, but I will be taking heed of the warning about the "chimney effect" and will be working to create some sort of valance to lay over the top as Bill suggested.

As for my other windows, my house has some of those crazy plastic fake shudders that were designed for looks, and not practical application, during the three-decade long energy orgy that is about to come to a close. It really is sad to see something that was once a staple of an energy-efficient building relegated to the role of house pox, designed for aesthetics but nothing more. I am going to be working on replacing these with some real-deal insulated shudders this summer so that they will be ready to go next fall/winter. I am also working on some window covers of the type Heffer mentioned in his reply. With both of these improvements in place, I think I will be able to raise my R-value considerably.

On a side note, I found a very good copy of Rainbook at a local consignment shop last weekend! I was browsing through the history section, and there it was, calling out to me. I grabbed it up, and immediately marched to the counter in order to purchase it. The people in the store probably though I was nuts as I am sure that my death grip on the book was evident but hey, sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

divelly said...

Another house I lived in was just west of the Continental Divide in MT.The temperature there would swing 40 degrees F in a 24 hour period in the Summer.After Labor Day,the range was something like 50"-20".The locals were still in t-shirts.But in early Nov,the Chinook would roll in.It dropped to 40 below overnight and didn't get above 0 degrees until March.A typical weather report would be,"A beautiful clear and sunny day in the Absorkas,with a a high of 6 below and tonight's low of minus 28.But back to the house-you couldn't see it from the road but for the vent stacks.It was dug into the south facing hillside and covered with a couple of feet of sod.It was 58 degrees year round like a wine cellar.

tom rainboro said...

Someone tell me more about Buffet... I thought he succeeded because he looked at the 'fundamentals' of an investment, instead of speculating? Also didn't he buy a lot of railroad stock recently?
As an aside I'd guess that the U.S. doesn't realise how much it benefits from the dollar being the reserve currency. Some VERY cold winds will blow when that goes down.

Carl Hutchins said...

I believe Mr. Buffet is more aware of the situation than he lets on. People in the political class have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo as long as possible. Reportedly, he was very involved in his recent acquisition of the BNSF railroad. Given the increased importance rail transportation is likely to have in the upcoming difficulties, it would seem that the Oracle of Omaha is using inside information to hedge his bets.

John Michael Greer said...

Chris, I know -- it's absurd that Americans should whine so loudly about paying a price for gasoline the rest of the world would consider dirt cheap. Privilege of empire and all that.

Rialian, I'll check it out as time permits.

Fleecenik, I envy you that house!

Robo, we'll be getting to that.

Bill, true enough. I'm still getting used to living in a place with very dry winter air.

Raven, if we can just get past Peak Arrogance, I'll be pleased.

Heffer, good point! I'll have to discuss those somewhere.

GHung, anything you can suggest on cooling would be welcome; this is the first time I've ever lived in a place that gets hot and humid in the summer.

Sage, another good point.

Cathy, thank you! The flue effect is very common and very rarely noticed.

Astrid, that may be part of what valances were originally for.

Harry, all good to know. Multiple layers of curtains, each trapping a layer of air, is another good way to insulate a window. Enjoy that pie safe!

Shark, true enough. I'll fix it shortly.

Troubador, excellent! It's a sobering experience to read Rainbook, though, because it shows just how much ground we've lost since it was published.

Divelly, good. We'll be talking about earth sheltering down the road a bit.

Tom and Carl, I don't know a great deal about Buffett, other than that he has an absurd amount of money. I noted his comments only because they're so typical of a society about to run onto the rocks.

escapefromwisconsin said...

Buffet once famously said that no one ever made money by betting against America in the long run. You would think, however, that the "world's greatest investor" would be exceedingly familiar with the words on every stock prospectus: "past performance is not an indicator of future results."

Another great benefit of wall hangings in your home is that an arras is a wondeful place to hide and eavesdrop on skullduggery. What would Shakespeare have done without them?

Michael said...

Regarding the r-value of windows, I'm building a house, and if I'm willing to pay enough, I can get windows with a u-value of 0.11 (fixed) and 0.15 (openable). Those are r-values of about 9 and 6.5. So it's not exactly 1 pane of glass equals +1 r-value.

Bill Pulliam said...

Living south of the Mason-Dixon line with little or no air conditioning in the summer, some points:

First, southern men of blue-collar lifestyles used to consider it our birthright to go shirtless just about anywhere, anytime, unless the skeeters were too bad. Suburbanization seems to have suppressed this in recent years.

Most important -- if you don't use A/C at home stay away from it everywhere else if you can. If you spend the day in an air conditioned office and drive around in an air conditioned car, your house will feel intolerable when you get home. If you stay away from a/c all day, the evening will feel pleasantly cool.

Porches, porches, porches. And screens. Screened-in sleeping porches.

Shade trees. Can't overstate the importance of these. Cool by shading and by evapotranspiration.

Make your root cellar big enough to hang out in it.

Live in a root cellar (i.e. subterranean house). If you can control the moisture this is by far the most effective solution.

Live near a crick with a swimmin' hole. Lacking this, take lots of brief cool to lukewarm showers -- I jump in the shower several times a day in the heat of summer.

Store your whiskey in the springhouse or down the well.

Those same curtains that keep heat inside in the winter will keep it out in the summer.

I really wish I had an idea for how to insulate the roof during the day but not at night, to take advantage of nighttime cooling without drawing in all the humidity you get by using window fans or whole house exhaust fans.

Get accustomed to being vaguely damp all summer.

Flip your pillow over. The other side of the pillow is nice and cool.

Jeremy said...

The top covering of curtains to prevent flu effect are known as Pelmets.
May help someone's research :-) Keep up the posts while the net is here to receive them JMG - Middle east is starting to get interesting . . .
Alex Scarrow anyone?

janaia said...

I have sewn insulated curtains for windows and skylights using "Warm Window" fabric manufactured by the Warm Company in Seattle. It's a 7-layered set of fabrics with insulation, silvered mylar to reflect cold or heat out (or back in). Magnetic strips are used to close the edges; I'd consider velcro also.

We found ourselves using about 1/3 the wood for our woodstove because of these curtains.

For skylights, we have constructed exterior covers made of reflectix to keep heat out in summer, cold out in winter.

~Janaia (Peak Moment TV).

tom rainboro said...

Hey Bill - how can wandering around shirtless in the full sun keep you cool?
Surely it would be better to wear something that both keeps the sun off and also encourages a cooling breeze over hot parts? Seems plain that every peak oiler Southern Man should be wearing a kaftan....

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello to all & JMG:

Regarding curtains: great idea for cloth toppers, Bill, since that has been my issue.

I'm not a fan of using petroleum-derived products in my home, if avoidable, especially bought new.

Instead of polyester, I suggest using cotton batting. You can also use old blankets as lining, either your own or from the thrift store or garage sale. Cover them with your choice of material as though making a duvet cover.

Window roller shades under the curtains are also useful in both winter and summer.

The Victorians switched out their curtains from heavy wool or velvet in winter to sheer linen or cotton in summer for very good reason.

Also, open interior doorways benefit from portieres in winter.

My old house has overhangs--shade in summer, sun in winter--plus shady open porches with roofs at front and back: so much more sensible than decks in so many ways.

Bill Pulliam said...

Tom -- I take it you don't live in a humid climate? Native traditional garb in hot humid places is generally pretty skimpy; almost nonexistent in some cases. You need air circulation; especially since evaporative cooling is less effective already you need every little breeze you can manage. Loose sun-blocking clothing is good for deserts, which the southeastern U.S. most decidedly is NOT. Sun intensities are lower, dew points are much higher. I've lived in the semiarid world and in the subtropical world, almost everything related to thermoregulation (personal and residential) is different between the two.

Simple piece of empirical evidence that clothing does not keep you cooler in the southeast even in direct sun in the summer: male roofers are almost universally shirtless unless their bosses, religion, or other cultural constraints won't allow it.

Apple Jack Creek said...

I realize this is a petroleum based solution, but it is accessible to even the un-handiest person, requires no changes to the wall or window (so is perfect for renters) and can be accomplished in under 5 minutes per window and for free (if you're lucky dumpster diving) or very cheap (if you aren't). It can serve as a temporary measure while you come up with something more aesthetically pleasing and long lasting, too.

All you need is a roll of bubble wrap (I got enough to do my house - with a lot of glass - at Staples for $24CDN) and a spray bottle filled with water or vinegar & water or windexy stuff.

Cut a piece of bubble wrap to fit the glass (just the glass). Spray the glass with the spray bottle, and smoosh the bubble wrap against the glass (bubble side to the glass). It'll stick. That's it, you're done.

If it peels off (we live in DRY Alberta and usually one or two come off the windows spontaneously over the course of the winter) just respray and reapply. SolarGary has great info on this (and other ideas) at One nice thing about this solution is that it does not trap moisture anywhere, so if you have condensation issues, this may be a good option.

For the windows we need to see out of (to check the animals, mostly) we splurged and bought a cling-film coating at Home Depot (expensive - about $30 CDN for a piece about the size of a patio door). It is barely visible when in place and supposedly blocks incoming heat in the summer as well (not enough of a problem for us, so I haven't really checked).

Almost all the windows have curtains that go floor to ceiling (to prevent the chimney effect - I see now I need some valances over the others!) and the difference is amazing. We got our heavy cotton duck drapes at Ikea.

We have a 'point and shoot' thermometer, so I just measured: uncovered glass is 2-4 degrees C cooler than the glass covered with bubble wrap/expensive sticky stuff, and the space between window and curtain is 2-4 degrees C cooler than the temperature of the curtain facing the room. So bubble wrap plus standard cotton duck drapes (single layer, not insulated) buffers between 4 and 8 degrees C, which is significant. We leave the bubble wrap on from Remembrance Day to Easter, generally - the cling film stuff stays all year, as it's see-through. In the spring, just roll up the pieces, label them for which window they fit, and put 'em back up next year. Mine are on winter #3 and show no signs of deterioration.

We do like our south facing glass - the house warms up a good 4 degrees C or more even on a really cold winter day, just from the sunlight (even with the bubble wrap on), and with so little winter daylight, we appreciate the sunshine!

Karyn said...

love your culturally/ geographically specific recommendations! Now that's a life with tradition to pass along! -shoshana

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Bill,

"Porches, porches, porches. And screens. Screened-in sleeping porches."

So true in a warmer climate. I've noticed that people here no longer build houses with porches (we call them verandah's). Apart from shade trees nothing else keeps the sun off your external walls better. All the houses dating back to the 1800's and early 1900's have them here. Seems to have lost favour, but they are such a simple and effective idea. Screens are good too on a cool night after a warm day.



divelly said...

As to insulating night vs. day or summer vs. winter:we survived a year in the L****** cedar Prow home by "acquiring" some Forest Service fire tents.They were Aluminum foil on one side and a high tech silicon based fabric on the other.We split the seams and covered 8 of the 10 8x4 with them-shiny side out in summer and shiny side in in winter.
P.S.We house-sat in another cedar home and both were plagued by houseflies!Any guesses?

17bbrown87 said...


Buffett's attitude reminds me of that of the Gallo-Roman aristo, one Rutilius Claudius Namatianus in his poem DE REDITU SUO which is about his return to his estates in Gaul following the upheaval after Rome's sacking in 410 A.D. He still felt that Rome would return to its greatness, even after cataloging the ruin of roads, towns, bridges, aqueducts and so on. It is worth a read. I am no scholar and don't read Latin, I've read two translations.

The best investment I ever made was insulating this house and installing double-paned windows. After reading your latest post I will fabricate some sort of insulated blinds to further insulate my windows. Did that in the 1970's using hardboard, quilting and heavy drapes.

In the 19th century some houses in this county had internal solid shutters as well as exterior louvered shutters. The exterior louvered shutters could be closed during the heat of a summer day using the louvers to allow ventilation.
Kind Regards,


greatblue said...

Re pelmets, I think the American word is cornice. They used to be standard in American decorating at one time.

Re cooling in hot and humid climates, at night we used to open windows on the first floor and use a window fan to draw the cooler outside air through the house and out the second floor bedroom. This would usually cool the second floor bedroom enough to sleep. If you then close all the windows early the next morning before the sun gets too high in the sky, that cool air will stay in the house until noon if you're lucky. True, it's humid air, but moving cool humid air is more comfortable than hot humid air. The same principle applies to one-floor houses. The key is to direct the window fan to blow toward the outside. You can pull air a lot further than you can push it.

GHung said...

Re. keeping cool:

Bill P. et al have covered many of the particulars.

Seasonal shade; I installed brass hooks on the eaves of the house, south, east, west, and I hang woven garden fencing from the eaves to the ground. We plant various fast growing annual vines (beans, morning glory, peas, cardinal vine, etc.) which provide shade yet let the air through. We put planters on our essentially flat roof and grow cucumbers and squash on the roof.

High ceilings; Our living space has a 15 foot ceiling with windows near the top that stay open all summer. Natural convection and a ceiling fan pull hot air up and out.

Fans; I grew up in Georgia (USA) without air conditioning. All of the homes had 'attic fans' that ran at night evacuating warm air, replacing it with cool (lower rel. humidity) air. By morning the house would be quite cool and remain so for most of the day. One caveat is that interior doors need to be left open (when did folks get so private anyway?). Door stops were common to keep them open.

Fans; Feng shui types say that ceiling fans shouldn't be over beds. Poppycock. We have a fan over our bed and I have trouble sleeping now, without its gentle breeze and quiet wisper. Removable window fans in bedrooms are nice as well, especially for those who insist on closing bedroom doors.

Covered porches; as Bill P. and others have mentioned, porches/screened porches are wonderful places to hang out in the evenings until things cool down indoors. Growing up in the South, most homes had porches; an important center of family life in Summer. Grow seasonal plants and vines around the porch for cool shade, beauty, and edibles. An outdoor rated ceiling fan is a nice addition.

Proper clothing; This one's a no-brainer but loose cotton is great. I have a collection of oversized t-shirts for Summer. I also like bib overalls. I buy them a bit too large so I can wear sweaters in winter, nice and loose in summer, and they can be worn without a shirt. Requires a well established personality/moderate ego :-) Love the pockets, especially in the garden, and needing no belt is nice; lets air circulate.

Cold showers in the evening or a dip in a cool stream or pond. Again, nothing new here.

Acclimatize your body for the seasons. I'm not sure what to say to folks who work all day in an air conditioned office. When I stopped working in an air conditioned space most of the time, all sorts of ailments disapeared. Sinus and alergy problems decreased and the hottest days became much less stressful. Try an evening walk to allow your body to adjust. I usually work in the garden during the cooler evenings and eat a very lite supper. Lose weight Fat people are hot people.

Summer kitchens are fun and keep the heat outdoors. A grill and small sink on the porch can suffice.

Adjust habits around the house to keep it cool; Folks are used to keeping warm/cool with the push of a button. Programable thermostats are great for a high energy lifestyle; set and forget. Maintaining comfort in a low energy lifestyle requires active management. Learn when to turn fans on/off. Simple timers and fan thermostats are great but good habits are better. Knowing when to open/close windows and curtains becomes second nature. Replacing screens and planting shade producing annuals is a spring ritual at our home, as is filling the wood shed in the fall.

Those of you who live in heat sink cities have a special set of problems. Keeping one or two rooms cool and spending evenings outdoors helps, as do fans. Use AC only to reduce the humidity and fans to cool your bodies. Saves money/resources/energy. Given a chance, most bodies will adapt.

A nice cold Gin and Tonic or iced tea works wonders when things get sweltering......don't forget the lime ;-)

marku said...

something else to think about for south glass---take the outside screens off. I find the tile floor several degrees F hotter on the side of the sliding glass door that doesn't have the screen covering it. So take the screens off for winter to let more sun in...

Jason said...

JMG: Even the euro, which has its own drastic problems, has benefited noticeably from the flight from the dollar.

Did anyone see that one Spanish town has reinstated the peseta as legal tender?

@17bbrown87 -- thanks for the tipoff on the poem, very interesting! His remarks on religion not least, according to wikipedia... what translation do you recommend?

Lynnet said...

For summer cooling in hot climates: I visited George Washington's birthplace a few years ago. The house consisted of a wide central hall/room the entire length of the house (outside doors at both ends, in other words), oriented to catch the prevailing breeze. The other rooms were arrayed on each side of this central hall. It was a very hot humid day, and the central room was very comfortable with a breeze.

Here in not-as-hot Colorado, we have two large openable skylights. In the summer we always have them open, which pulls the hot air out of the house.

Bill Pulliam said...

Just conducted some tests on our windows and curtains, taking advantage of a gray, sunless, breezy day with a near-constant temperature of 35-37F. The test setup: old single-pane wood sash double hung windows with exterior storm windows, caulked and weather stripped. Two sets of curtains on each window, an inner set that is thin, sheer, and lacy, plus an outer set that is multiple layered, thick, and insulated. Curtains hang from near the ceiling to the floor. Test metric: the air temperature near the inside surface of the windows, in the gap between window and curtain if the curtains are closed (i.e. a thermometer sitting on top of the lower sash). The idea here is that the colder the air is right up against the inner window, the less heat will be flowing through the total window assembly to the outside world.

Results -- the most important thing appears to be to cut off air flow across the window, even if this is done by just a thin single-layer curtain. Closing just the inner sheer curtain dropped the temperature behind it substantially. Closing the outer insulated curtain resulted in an additional, but much smaller drop in the temperature. Removing the fabric "chimney block" from the top of the curtains caused a very sharp increase in temperature, meaning a very large increase in heat loss, as the air began cirulating behind the curtains. Just closing the thin sheer curtain with the "chimney block" in place was better (lower temperature) than closing both sets of curtains (including the thick insulated ones) without the "chimney block" installed.

Tucking and taping the curtains to the wall to make a tighter fit did give some slight additional improvement, but is was pretty small.

So, my little results suggest that, doing the most effective things first, these would be the priorities:

First, put up any curtains at all and block off the air space at the top so that room air will no longer circulate across the windows. Even thin flimsy curtains will help if they block the air.

Then, work on thicker insulating curtains.

Finally, if you like, work on making a tight fit at the sides and bottoms of the curtains.

Beaver Creek Farms said...

I apologize for making an inquiry
not related to window coverings; however:

Has anyone here read The Biochar Solution by A. Bates? Anyone here trying for soil improvement
using compost-tea soaked(or urine soaked) charcoal? Anyone
make one of those charcoal stoves? I tried to contact the
person that bought the USA rights to make and sell the
Adam retort - Peter Hirst of New England Biochar -- but he
never returned my call nor email inquiries. :(

zadeekah said...

I've been doing a lot of the things you talked about in your blogs long before you wrote them, but your blogs laid down a systematic set of things that could be done on the way down to preserve some of our comforts--food, energy, heat, etc.--and for that I thank you. This week's post reminded me that I have much to do for next winter, what with 15 double-paned windows for an 800 sq ft place.

Thanks aside, however, I do have a question about the thrust of your blogs. They all seem to be about how to preserve or conserve existing comforts using amendments to existing practices and structures. So, to preserve the warmth brought by cheap energy, add some blankets (or related amendments) to existing structures--and voila, you've preserved and can continue business as usual.

This is fine, but does it have any potential for the future? Maybe you're just concerned about making it through the next two or three decades, but what about beyond that? Also, don't we really need to change some fundamental features of our habitations so as to exist--persist?--in the long run? I'm thinking, for example, of why humans insist on living on the surface of the earth. Why not underground, where heating and cooling have quite different features and requirements than living on the surface. Why do we insist on surface life for food when there is underground life that could just as easily be used?

John Michael Greer said...

Escape, those who bet against the United States in the fall of 1929 made truckloads of money. Buffett ought to know his history better than that.

Michael, have you had those figures independently evaluated? That seems very high.

Bill, thank you! I'd figured out a few of those already from experience -- notably the value of doing a lot of work in the basement in July -- but it's good to have some additional hints.

Jeremy, thanks for the detail! Interesting times indeed.

Janaia, good to hear from you again. Thanks for the tip.

Adrian, all good points. Anything that will fill a quilt will fill an insulated window covering.

Apple Jack, if it gets you through the winter, it's good.

Chris, I'm pleased to say that a lot of the houses here in Cumberland -- including mine -- have deep porches. Getting ours fitted with screens is on the agenda.

Divelly, a nice bit of salvage!

Barry, excellent! You get today's gold star, for paying attention to what can be learned from previous cycles through the decline and fall process.

Greatblue, good. We used a variant of that to get through a muggy July last year.

GHung, I've read about attic fans. I may just have to look into installing one.

Marku, true enough. And put on plenty of screening or shade in the summer, when you want to keep the sun out!

Jason, I hadn't seen that -- thanks for the heads up!

Lynnet, good. I suspect there are a lot of tricks like that that can be rediscovered.

Bill, excellent! That's exactly the kind of data that's needed. I wonder if the same thing would hold true in other climates.

John Michael Greer said...

Beaver Creek, I read it, and found it very disappointing -- surprisingly, as I've appreciated a lot of Bates' previous work. To me, at least, it came across sounding like a sales pitch rather than a serious examination of the strengths and weaknesses of biochar.

Zadeekah, good. You're paying attention. You're quite right, of course; most of what I've been discussing in terms of energy conservation is predicated on making existing housing stock more viable in a time of expensive energy, rather than exploring the possibilities of starting from scratch.

There's a very good reason for that approach, though. Most people just now don't have the time or the resources to build, let's say, a comfy earth-sheltered hobbit house. With the price of oil spiking, the economy on its beam ends, and a baker's dozen of other resources running short, the housing stock we've got is the housing stock we're stuck with, at least for the next three or four decades. After that, granted, it may be time to start transitioning to those hobbit houses, but we do have to survive the next three or four decades first, and a lot of what I'm discussing is aimed at helping people to do so. Does that make a bit more sense of the strategy?

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: Attic fans.. what we in the South call "attic fans" are technically called "whole house exhaust fans." That's the one that you install in a centrally located ceiling to exhaust the air from the living space into the attic, and then out the attic vents (fresh air is drawn through windows and doors into the living space). Technically the true "attic fan" is a fan that exhausts hot air from the attic and draws fresh air into the attic through the attic vents; it does not move the air in the living space. It can be confusing when you start looking online for the equipment and installation info.

I grew up with "attic fans" = whole house exhaust fans, and installed one in our present house very soon after buying it. They use little electricity and move a huge amount of air. I actually use ours quite often for heating as well as cooling; on warm early spring days when the house retains a winter chill, the fan can blow out winter and suck in spring really fast. But it also sucks in pollen and humidity, so you have to balance all the issues.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Regarding windows etc - I always remember my parents going to great lengths (excuse the pun) making heavy curtains and velvet clad pelmets. In my ignorance I just assumed they had an obsession with chintzy interior decor, but now I realise they were in fact doing their best to insulate the house and save energy! Thanks JMG.

My dad also made cheap home-made storm windows to place on top of the regular ones in winter - something he said he learned to do while living in Canada in the 1960s.

Re: other Jason - I've just come back from Spain and they have introduced an emergency speed limit on all motorways of 110 km/hr (68mph) and are turning off all lighting on these roads. They have done this in response to the threat of limited energy, much of which comes from Libya.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Beaver Creek Farms,

I'm in a cool temperate environment with temperature ranges from about 0 degrees celsius to 40 degrees celsius. I've mucked around with biochar to try and increase soil carbon, and it was a waste of time.

Nothing improves soil carbon in cool temperate environments like mulch for trees and compost for vegies. Keep all soil covered with mulch and then keep reapplying. Let the weeds grow and then cut and drop them. I started with no top soil in some parts here and you wouldn't know it now.

Biochar keeps raising it's head. I don't think it increases the soil flora and fauna as well as compost and mulch. They're the dudes that improve your soil and there's no quick and easy fix.

I think it may be a tropical environment thing? Perhaps someone else knows?

Give it a go yourself and compare a plot with compost and mulch.



Jason said...

JMG: Jason, I hadn't seen that -- thanks for the heads up!

Here's another, unrelated but interesting: Marine Le Pen, daughter of "right-wing nationalist" Jean-Marie Le Pen, and leader of his Front National, would come out placed top in a first-round French presidential election held tomorrow, according to a recent poll. That's right, not runner up like her dad, but outright winner over Sarkozy and anyone the socialists could field.

Right on cue, right on cue...

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello to Beaver Creek and Cherokee re biochar--as we wander further off topic (sorry, JMG):

Biochar is a specifically Amazon Basin thing (and perhaps other tropical rainforest areas.I don't know.) Terra preta was a specific response to a specific set of conditions.

I agree with Cherokee that depending on where you live (I'm in the American Midwest prairie/savanna region), compost, mulch and the like do a great job of improving the soil and storing carbon without all the effort and required expertise of biochar. You could add diluted urine to the compost heap, were you so inclined.

To do biochar the way the Amazonian cultures did it required whole villages and towns making charcoal out of what would have been midden materials in certain other cultures. And the basic soil structure is very different there.

I have heard of people proposing scaled-up biochar plants, but that whole concept seems antithetical to the green wizard project of low- tech projects achievable by individuals or small groups.

Compost and mulch, on the other hand, work well in temperate zones and the process mimics nature in those parts. Centuries of natural, non-human composting is what makes prairie soil so fertile, after all. Sorry, can't help my provincial pride. ;)

Back on topic: Bill P., I love your curtain tests. This year is a little late, but I'm definitely making some "chimney toppers" before October!

Harry J. Lerwill said...

As I commented last week, we’re replacing a lot of our old single pane windows with dual panes. We were planning on buying retrofit windows that simply slot into the holes where the current windows are.

However, after reading this blog and thinking about it, we came up with a different solution. We’re buying standard off-the-shelf windows which are smaller than the current window opening and reframing the openings to fit. The cost of standard size windows is about half the cost of custom ones and it reduces the heat flow through the window openings even further.

Thanks JM, your ideas saved us a few thousand dollars in up-front costs in addition to the ongoing cost on our heating bills!

Apple Jack Creek said...

More on attic fans - Canadian summers do get warm, although they are short. :)

When I was small, my dad would carefully position a big box fan on a kitchen chair pushed right up against the front screen door: he even rigged cardboard edges so that there was a good seal, and all the air was blown out of the house. We'd open our bedroom windows and put a doorstop in to keep the doors open, and the bedrooms cooled beautifully. All the warm air headed towards that fan - so you wanted it as far away from where you were sleeping as possible.

Later, we moved to a house that had an attic doorway right in the hallway outside the bedrooms. Dad made a frame that fit in the attic door, wired a switch to the hallway, and laid the box fan in the attic door opening (with a set of louvres below - a later edition of the same system used a square of the plastic 'egg crate grate' for fluorescent lights). You flipped the switch and the fan sucked air out of the house and up into the attic (which was, of course, not airtight and had ventilation gaps at the eaves). By 2 or 3 in the morning, you almost always have to turn the fan off as the house gets too cold (mind you, outdoors is pretty chilly most summer nights).

In the fall, you take the fan and set it in the attic, and replace the insulated attic door. It works great - the hardest part these days is finding one of those old fashioned box fans!

M. Francis Heins said...

To Archdruid Greer: I've been Net-less for months and months and out of the "infosphere" in general as well. The best thing about dipping my foot back in recently has been this series of down-to-earth, nuts-and-bolts, get-to-work posts on your blog. Much thanks!

To Cherokee Organics re: biochar. I wouldn't say I know much about biochar, but it does seem to me that most of the "soil improvement" end of the biochar discussion forgets that the original Amazonian version (terra something in spanish) was combating VERY specific tropical soil issues, i.e. heavy, heavy, rain and lots and lots of sun. No scientific opinion, but my take has always been that outside of tropical rainforests, biochar is not needed for soil quality improvement or retention. If I actually had some evidence-at-hand that the biochar argiculturalists of Amazonia had become farmers elsewhere and were adapting to their new conditions -instead of just presuming it from what little I have read about their behavior- then maybe my take WOULD be -a little- scientific ;).

Oh, and for what its worth, the Amazonian biochar folks were also more silviculture focused than most of today's would-be biocharistos will likely be. Intimate polycultures of trees with edible or useful fruits, nuts, bark, etc. surrounded relatively teeny annual plant gardens in some areas, while in others, a more broken-pot heavy version seems to have been used almost exclusively for building up mounds above the floodline and silvicuture.

So there ya go...

Bill Pulliam said...

Apple Jack -- what you describe is EXACTLY what a prefab "whole house exhaust fan" looks like -- a big rotary fan built into a box with a louvered shutter below it. They can be bought from various suppliers online for very reasonable prices. Mine has been trouble-free.

One problem they create is the big uninsulated hole in the ceiling; even when the louvers are closed they don't block heat flow very well. I made an insulated door that closes over the bottom of the fan (it swings down into the living space, not up into the attic), rigged it so that it could be latched open or closed, and painted both sides to match the ceiling. It is just a layer of rigid foam insulation between two sheets of plywood with a wooden frame -- very easy to make. I also wired the fan so that it turns on and off with a wall switch rather than using the dangling pull cord provided (I still use the pull cord to adjust the speed between low and high).

Re: biochar -- the specific Amazonian circumstances it evolved in were deep sands in very hot and rainy environments that had little capacity to hold on to nutrients (tropical spodosols for the technically minded). The charcoal provides nutrient holding capacity. If your soil already contains some clay and organic matter (the large majority of soils do), or is not in a high-rainfall climate with the resulting soil leaching, biochar is likely no better than a bunch of other more readily available soil amendments -- like compost and manure!

JP said...

The U.S., as "world leader" of Western Culture/Civilization, is experiencing deligitmation.

The U.S. got to be World Leader from 1989 through about 2008. Now it's starting to slip as the generations move on.

It's a regularly scheduled Great Power cyclical occurrance.

The next macrodecision point (when the next leader is chosen) will happen about 2040, I think.

The U.K. came back for a second round of leadership. The U.S. may experience the same thing, even with Peak Oil.

The decisions leading up to this point have not been made. And no one can see around a choice they don't understand. There are many players on the world stage, but only a few are the so-called Great Powers.

EBrown said...

Another biochar comment here -

I've been tempted to experiment with biochar a bit, but haven't gotten around to it. I wonder whether it would actually be beneficial to my situation at all. I too believe its primary track record is in the tropics and I live in a cold temperate climate (-35 to 32 degrees C).

Speaking from imperfect knowledge on the matter here are my thoughts. Generally speaking organic matter as a percent of total soil increases as one moves from warm to cool. Soil organic matter in southern Missouri is going to be something like 2.5% while in Minnesota it could be around 5%. For plant health the important thing is the rate of breakdown of carbonaceous material and its concomitant release of nutrients. The rate of both plant growth and organic material decomposition is highly temperature dependent. In a cool soil decomposition occurs more slowly, thus nature provides that a larger stock of carbon builds in the soil to the point that the total breakdown of material in Minnesota roughly equals that of a similar soil type in Missouri.

Carbon based molecules have many benefits in the soil as readers of this blog are surely aware. I suspect that highly weathered soils such as are found in the tropics have more to gain from the addition of stable carbon that nitrogen and other nutrients adhere to than less weathered, more fertile, cooler soils do. Perhaps in moist, hot climates the rate of decomposition is so high that even fecund growth can't keep up with total breakdown. Also, I can see there being some sort of special adsorbing property of biochar that hold on to plant essentials more effectively than the clay colloids do in the face of copious rain. In some places loss of nutrients to leaching is less of an issue than in others. Perhaps if I lived in a wet part of Oregon or Washington I'd be a little more excited about trying biochar in a cool climate...

Chris said...

I would like to chime in in defense of old single pane windows. Our consumerist society has spent a LOT of time and $$$ convincing us that 'products' are key to everything. "Buy a new 'product' and your problems are fixed!" As, in my opinion, the whole idea behind Green Wizardry is to try to break away from this mindset, I advise everyone to rethink the idea of replacing your windows.

Yes, there are better insulated windows available, and they make sense in some situations, but we can get just as far by making sure they are up to snuff, and addressing the window treatments and storm windows / shutters mentioned in this discourse.
New windows are expensive, and often ruin the aesthetics of your building for many reasons. The least of which is that they usually don't fit. (Harry Lerwill's statement about installing smaller windows makes me cringe. No offense, and it could be your best option, but I've seen this done so many times and it usually looks horrible)

We have lost all our "craftsmen" in america. All we are left with are construction workers that install products. New windows are a quick fix with a short track record. The old single pane windows in my 1768 farm house are still in good shape with service every 1/4 to 1/2 century. And yes they can be weatherized to eliminate drafts. People weren't stupid just because they didn't use petroleum plastics, rubbers, and foams. The Anderson double pane windows in my 1970's built apartment (on the same property) are now drafty, the plastic seals are breaking, some double panes are cloudy inside, and they have to be propped up with sticks (just like the 1768 windows) due to the mechanisms breaking. NONE of it is serviceable. I have to install an entire new window to fix any of these problems.

How will you construct yourself a double pane replacement in the future we're worried about? How will you fix the plastic parts that are out of production? Mine already are and it has nothing to do with collapse… The windows were top of the line and are only 30 years old!

The advantage of a double pane window is what? Insulation? We're addressing that in this blog. Drafts? Drafts can be addressed. Old windows aren't hard to fix properly. In the meantime, a quick fix is to use clay rope sold especially for the purpose. I've used the Mortite brand from my local hardware store. Cost? $4-$5
Quick search =

To find out more about windows and how to rehab them, check out John Leeke's Historic Homeworks website, forum and books:

As a side note, anyone looking to "update" their old house should browse this forum first to familiarize themselves with the possible perils of using new building techniques on old buildings. Old buildings were built the way they were for a reason. It's important to know "why" before making a decision about changing them.

Michael is building a new house and it makes sense to try to get the best window in that situation. I'm simply suggesting that weatherizing, storm windows, and the treatments suggested here can get you as close or better than a new window alone. Put the money you save in windows toward something else!

Rialian said...

===As I note the digression to biochar...and link it back to skills and the personal "kit of possibly useful tech"

===There are a number of interesting small-scale designs for biochar-producing cook-stoves that might be of interest to folks that want to add a bit of that to their soils, as a side-light to their cooking needs. (I am about to play around with this and see what I get.)

Steve Baker said...

I'm all fired up about building some window coverings for our bedrooms now.

There has been a recent trend here in New Zealand for retrofit double glazing which is basically a clear acrylic sheet fixed to the wooden window frame with magnetic tape.

This doesn't really appeal, but the magnetic tape is now readily available. I'm thinking of making my window coverings with some kind of panelling attached with magnetic tape.

Then we will ditch the relatively ineffective curtains. Much to my surprise my wife didn't despair at my suggestion and is happy with the thought of panels just painted as decoration.

So now I just have to figure out materials, considerations so far are MDF, plywood or foamboard (a poster mounting laminate)

Jim Brewster said...

Another biochar comment -- hey maybe we should discuss this over at the Green Wizard forum?

Besides temperature the other big factor that might determine its effectiveness is rainfall, both overall for the year and rainfall distribution throughout the year. Here on the mid-Atlantic coast we get lots of precipitation throughout the year (as my basement currently reminds me...), and soils are often pretty leached of nutrients. We may be halfway between the rainforest and the northern Plains when it comes to soil and climate properties. I think a little biochar could be helpful, but finding the right balance with compost, mulch, hugelkultur, etc. is a challenge I intend to investigate.

TomW said...

I would like to read your take on what happens "after" the industrial decline? Can you respond in basic scenario forecasts? In everything I read these days, I look for the list of "what to be prepared for" after the list of gloomy predictions. Not saying gloomy isn't true, but what's the response most likely to such stimuli?

Endif said...

Re: windows and R-values:

The best solution, one which allows easy opening to catch free heat from the sun, is a well measured blackout cellular shade installed inside the window-frame.

The dead air in the spaces between cells provides amazing R value, the blackout rejects all light and so keeps cooler in summer. Inside mount provides tight fit. There are still tax breaks in place to defray part of the cost.

If you can swing it, this is the best option, short of adding new windows to the mix.


This is an intresting contibution to the debate by one of the Uk"s most respected media enviromentalists.

Does Fukushima Change Anything? (Jonathon Porritt)

Richard Larson said...

I have to check into that train ride!

Excellent post, do very much agree, ending all the various subsidies to fossil fuel burning will change energy use. And yes, it is not a coincidence the US Military is heavily involved with the oil-producing areas. They came out with a forward-looking report last year that spelled this all out. Internet search keywords: JOE Report.

Had not thought about the human condition in relationship with carbon fuel sources. Very interesting.

Russ said...

One of the most beautiful inside shutters I've seen was, amazingly, at the Athens, Greece airport Sofitel Hotel. The window was very deep but on the inside was a lovely wood veneer wood panel that slid over the entire window blocking out all light, all remaining sound and was completely insulating. I intend to install something like this on my next house on the north facing windows.