• U.S.

The Cooling of America

24 minute read
John Skow

Mud splats against wheel wells. The transmission howls. Linda Ronstadt, a half-ton Chevy pickup with a ton of yellow birch cordwood aboard, has sunk to her rusty frame in a mushy patch of logging road. Linda has four-wheel drive and a lot of heart, but this is a Sargasso of mud, the kind that bogs the wood lot every year after the leafless forest trees stop drinking water and the October rains come. Linda’s friend and owner disembarks to consider the problem.

What follows is wet, dirty and boring, and goes on for hours. The truck’s owner, an escaped city man who can sound irritatingly smug about the rewards of living in the country, is angry now at the cordwood, the mud, poor mired Linda, and himself. He is spinning wheels, wasting time. Great deeds remain undone, great orthodontist bills are unpaid. Awash with self-doubt, he heaves the birch chunks out to lighten the truck, then jacks, wedges, winches and ponders. At last Linda groans free, and all that remains is to retrieve the half cord of jettisoned birch. There is never a thought of leaving the firewood behind: in darkest February, it will heat the woodsman’s ten-room New Hampshire house for a week.

As the cost of electricity disappears round the bend, as heating oil levitates to 90¢ per gal. from about 55¢ a year ago, grubbing for firewood in a muddy forest does not seem such a bad idea. A few years ago, a good many Americans could not have said for sure what was being burned to keep them warm. Heat bills were often less than phone bills. Now, they not only know what heats their homes, but millions, particularly those who must use oil, are painfully aware that their bills will nearly double this winter over last year. Solar heating of water and living space has crossed the minds of many. The business of wood stoves is booming. Coal stoves are being rediscovered. Stores selling insulation and weather stripping are doing well. Department stores are advertising insulated “snuggle bags” or “people sacks”—sleeping bags to stay awake in. Sweaters and wool chemises are actualities. Long Johns are a distinct possibility.

Most outlandish and un-American of all—and disturbing to those who believe that growth in energy use is a necessary element in the improvement of society’s well-being—conservation, however limited, is beginning to be a hopeful factor in the nation’s energy calculations. To what degree the flammable situation in the Middle East, the world’s largest oil-producing region, plays a part remains uncertain. Price is a key factor and it keeps going up. Administration officials are confident that heating-oil supplies are sufficient to tide the nation through the winter, despite the U.S. declaration of a boycott of Iranian crude in November.

The Iran shortfall actually will not register until January, and while it may cause a gasoline shortage early next year, Washington describes heating-oil reserves as being above 1978 levels and higher than the “projected normal stock range.” The fact is that less heating oil has been ordered by customers so far this year than during the same period in 1978. A relatively warm November has helped, but the Department of Energy gives much of the credit for the shrinkage in demand to high prices that in turn have led to greater conservation efforts. Citizens are discovering that plugging holes to keep cold air out and hot air in actually works—and saves money. This may not add up to Jimmy Carter’s “moral equivalent of war,” but the President’s description of the energy crisis no longer seems absurd. Heat itself has regained its elemental magic, and keeping warm has become a tribal obsession. The season of Great Cold approaches. Scrape flesh from animal skins. Gather food. Drag tree limbs from the forest and pile them inside the mouth of the cave. Recite incantations. Make fire.

Wood stove manufacturers and importers have not yet been subjected to a windfall-profits tax, but envious oil refiners may begin to lobby for just that any day. At the All Nighter Stove Works, in Glastonbury, Conn., President James Morande says that his three-year-old firm is producing at capacity, 480 woodburners a day, at prices that run from $379 to $689, against a demand that exceeds 1,300 a day. Business is up 122% over last year. Morande talks bemusedly of visiting a retail stove store in Portland, Ore., where ten salesmen, gracing 1,000 sq. ft. of floor space, “actually were handing consumers numbers, just like in a delicatessen, to wait in line for a stove.” Some economists dismiss such sales as “life-style purchases, made to express social attitudes.” Believers go right on cutting, scrounging and burning wood.

The handsomest, and among the costliest (as high as $1,200) stoves are the cast-iron, enameled Lange and Mørso from Denmark and the Jøtul from Norway. One American manufacturer that assembles stoves of comparable quality is a down-home outfit called Vermont Castings, Inc. Two unfounded foundrymen started the firm four years ago in tiny Randolph, Vt. Duncan Syme, 42, was a sculptor with an M.F.A. degree from Yale, and Murray Howell, 34, was a bar owner and construction worker. Their meticulously crafted Defiant and Vigilant models, designed in elegant Federal period lines and selling for $575 and $470, are as prized by their owners as if they were antique automobiles. Business has doubled each year for Ver mont Castings, blazing along splendidly now at a production rate of 50,000 stoves a year. Deliveries are backed up eight to ten weeks.

Buying a stove is one thing; figuring the economics of woodburning is quite another. The countrified city man who got Linda stuck in the mud has eight cords of wood, harvested from his own property, split and stacked under cover. He will heat his house this year for about $100 —$55 for chain-saw parts, the rest for saw and truck fuel as well as stovepipe. Electric heating, which is built into his house, would cost far too much to think about; for oil, he would have to pay about $1,100 for the winter (150 gal. of No. 2 oil are about equal in heating power to a cord of dry hardwood). So the amateur woodcutter has about $1,000 to pay himself for two months of intermittent hard labor, and six months of the wood lugging, floor sweeping, ash hauling and stovepipe reaming that are attendant on wood fires.

Stove owners who must buy some, or all, of their wood, on the other hand, clearly are not saving much money. Merle Schotanus, president of the New Hamp-shire Timberland Owners Association, calculates that a cord of dry hardwood stores the heating power of $135.90 worth of 90¢ oil. He lops an arbitrary $25.90 from the cordwood figure to allow for the fuss and muss of wood, and arrives at a break-even point of $110 a cord for wood-burners. Dry firewood sells for $80 to $90 in rural New England, for $90 in the Middle West, hovers between $150 and $200 near the big East Coast cities, and has climbed to $225 in Manhattan. (Artificial logs made of sawdust and paraffin, and sold at most supermarkets, can be dangerous if used in woodburning stoves, and are no great bargain at about $1.40 for a three-hour log.) Still, even half a cord of firewood stacked in a garage is a comforting source of emergency heat for buz zards and supply interruptions. When a 32-mile stretch of Virginia’s Skyline Drive was opened up to wood collectors by the National Park Service last October, hundreds flocked in every weekend. In Nevada, U.S. Forest Service wood collection permits that once were free now cost $3.50; in California, they go for as much as $20. As one sturdy New Jersey wood scrounger put it, “Every log burned is a lump of caviar extracted from the mouth of an Arab.”

Not enough caviar to hurt, however: even in Vermont, which is expected to burn more than 400,000 cords this winter (up from 300,000 last year), the heating oil saved amounts to only 60 million gal., about a third of the state’s annual consumption in recent years. In the meantime, new problems are cropping up. Wood thefts are on the rise: one well-equipped thief got away with a haul of 35 cords from a lumberyard in northern New Hampshire. And there are more and more warnings of pollution from wood smoke. Wood has little sulfur, compared to coal, and burning it adds nothing to the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide sum. But participates from inefficient burners can polute in congested areas.

With that in mind, Vail, Colo., a densely settled ski resort, has limited the number of wood fireplaces or wood stoves to one per dwelling.

Burlington, Vt., uses wood chips to fire boilers in its municipally owned power plant. But doubts are rising about such large-scale woodburning. Huge chippers that swallow entire trees are used for harvesting; since they leave no small limbs to rot and replenish the forest, the practice can amount to mining the thin topsoil. “In 50 years,” says one observer, “New England could look like Lebanon.” President Nick Muller of Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., has another sort of woodburning in mind. He wants to build a $1.75 million central heating plant fueled by sawdust from nearby sawmills. Sawdust is cheap, burns cleanly and has much heating power. Muller, a historian, is thankful that he studied engineering for a time since he has had to transform himself into a heating and weatherizing expert who can now discuss R-values* as succinctly as Vermont history, his specialty. In the winter of 1975-76, his 700-student women’s college burned 360,000 gal. of oil to heat its 29 buildings. By last year, as the result of installing 900 storm windows at a cost of $41,000, the figure was down to 290,000 gal. Muller calculates that the college got back $20,000 of its storm-window expenditure last year, and that at 1979 oil prices it should have saved the rest by midwinter. Not all of his conservation problems are so easy to solve. A handsome arts complex, designed when oil cost less than $2 per bbl., turns out to be a stubborn and profligate fuel waster. When its radiant heating system is turned down to a reasonable consumption level, the building’s pipes are in danger of freezing.

In fact, any large building erected during the late 1950s or ’60s is likely to be an oil-thirsty white elephant, particularly the glass-box skyscrapers that sprouted in New York and other big cities. “Cheap oil made us very lazy,” admits the illustrious Philip Johnson, 73, who with the equally illustrious Mies van der Rohe designed Manhattan’s Seagram Building. Conceived by their creators as formal abstractions, such austere structures bore out the “less is more” precept in an unintended way: they used far more heating and cooling energy than the buildings they replaced. Now owners are scrambling to make skyscrapers more energy efficient with such devices as heat pumps, reflective film on windows and costly refinements of lighting systems. (At present, a late-staying worker at Manhattan’s World Trade Center who does not have a lamp at his desk must switch on a quarter-acre of lights.) More important, the Federal Government’s edict lowering thermostats to 65° F has left windowless inner rooms relatively tolerable, while prized corner offices, symbolic of executive success, sometimes are Siberian. An executive, whose drafty 26th-floor office commands a splendid view of northern Manhattan and a stretch of the Hudson, sat glaring at her thermometer last week. The reading was 62°, “and that doesn’t allow for wind chill.” She contemplates rising to greet a visitor and falling flat on her face because she has forgotten to step out of her snuggle sack.

Some of the cracks that must be plugged as the nation tries to keep warm are in the structure of the society itself. The poor and the old living on fixed incomes can muster no defense against rising heating bills. Stella Falco, 74, a white-haired widow who lives in a $50-a-month tenement in Providence, is tired and bitter. After five decades of working in textile mills, she receives $3,384 a year from Social Security as well as a small pension. A quarter of her income will go for heat; price increases mean a thinning out of her already poor diet. “Why should these oil people get rich while the poor people are going to freeze to death?” she asks. “Maybe I won’t even be here by the time it gets really cold.”

In Houston’s low-income black Fourth Ward, Billy Kelly, 64, simply stays away as much as possible from his porous and weatherbeaten two-room frame house. His gas has been cut off since sum mer. When he absolutely must return home, he says, “I put newspapers in the cracks and sleep with my clothes on and put on all the blankets and quilts I can find. If you get pneumonia, that’s it.” In Wisconsin’s Green County, two 65-year-old widows have moved into one house to save on fuel costs. In Chicago, volunteers are knitting mittens and scarves for poor children while the city’s Hull House Community Center conducts weatherizing workshops for residents of the surrounding low-income neighborhood. In East Lansing, Mich., a “community tool box” provides tools necessary for home insulation. In Little Rock, Gloria Wilson, a mother of seven and the wife of a mechanic, dreads the first winter gas bill. She does not heat the living room or dining room of her seven-room home. Even so, her heat has been cut off for nonpayment five tunes in the past three years. Each reconnection has meant a higher de-posit—a kind of poor people’s tax.

Efforts to help the poor involve both motion and commotion. Their effective ness is uncertain. Vermont has tightened eligibility requirements for fuel assistance money, and though Republican Governor Richard Snelling has said that “no Vermonters will suffer needlessly from the cold this winter,” others disagree. Former Lieutenant Governor T. Garry Buckley, also a Republican, says, “I guarantee the regulations will result in some elderly persons freezing to death.”

The Federal Government’s emergency fuel bill aid, under which financial help is granted to pay heating bills, was troubled by distribution problems last year. It has been doubled, to $400 million for this winter, and the eligibility limit has been raised to $8,375 from $7,750 for a family of four. Red tape has been snipped: applicants no longer have to present a notice from their fuel dealers saying that service has been cut off for nonpayment. In addition, a hastily conceived new program will send $1.2 billion in cash grants, averaging about $150 each, to 7.3 million low-income recipients. Not everyone is happy with the programs. Legislators in Minnesota and North Dakota are grumbling that under Washington’s allocation formula Southern states may receive more money than they need —while the cold North suffers.

States and communities are in effect trying to cope on their own. Well before really cold weather had set in, the Hartford city council declared a “finding of public emergency” and authorized city managers to overspend by $500,000 for energy emergencies. Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso called the legislature into special session to ask for $5 million in appropriations and $11 million in borrowed funds to support loan programs to small oil dealers, homeowners and municipalities. She estimates that 40,000 families in the state will need help, mostly to pay oil bills.

Wisconsin’s legislators will consider a special bill next month that would promote conservation and alternate energy systems. In New York, the legislators and Governor Hugh Carey have been involved in a tug of war over heating assistance funding. “We are not ready for winter and never will be,” says Charles Raymond, who in November left his 18-month post as manager of the most dilapidated structures in New York City, the 4,100 apartment houses run by city hall because owners were forced to abandon them for nonpayment of real estate taxes. Raymond’s crews have partly weatherized every one of the structures. But, says Raymond, “there are just too many buildings out there,” and more are abandoned by landlords every week—of-ten, the owners claim, because regulations do not allow rent hikes high enough to pay fuel bills. In International Falls, Minn., the coldest town in the Lower 48 and the spot where Sears tests its Diehard batteries, a community energy-education program is well established. “We started out in 1975,” says County Agent Don Petman, “when it wasn’t even popular to keep warm.”

The oil companies have little comfort to offer beyond the assurance that supplies of heating oil are adequate. Says Gulfs Charles H. Bowman, vice president for energy regulation and compliance: “We are earning money in a shortage situation—hardship, if you will—that will be used to help alleviate the shortage. We don’t feel that our profit increase on home heating oil, about three-quarters of a cent per gal. over three years, is exorbitant. If anything, it is not enough.” True, Europeans are struggling with heating-fuel bills of as much as $1.50 per gal. in Denmark and Austria, but that is little consolation to Americans.

Yet there are indications in this cold season that Americans are beginning to believe that conservation offers the only way to fight back. Newly built homes everywhere are generally more energy efficient than the houses of a decade ago. Some public utilities across the country are offering (along with bill-stuffer assurances that nuclear energy is a good thing) free or low-cost energy audits of ratepayers’ houses. The offers are being accepted by the hundreds of thousands. “There are frenzied people out there,” says Austin Randolph, who handles such audits in Westchester County, N.Y., for Consolidated Edison. For a nominal $10 he investigates a house from basement to attic, then makes a written report to the owners suggesting improvements in thermostat type and location, windows, weather stripping and insulation, complete with cost estimates and anticipated savings. Randolph’s audit on his own gas-heated four-bedroom home in Hillcrest, N.Y., persuaded him to begin a three-year up grading that will lay foam insulation throughout the ground floor, put nine inches of insulation in the attic, install new siding and add a solar hot-water heater. Estimated cost: $9,000.

At a recent “Thermoscan” show at Mamaroneck High School in New York, 2,300 house owners showed up over a two-day period to see aerial photographs of their neighborhoods taken by Con Ed with heat-sensitive cameras. A black roof indicated little heat loss; light gray showed that insulation was needed. Suppliers of thermal glass and insulation materials report strong sales across the country, although high interest rates have kept down new construction. Low-interest or no-interest loans for weatherizing are sometimes available through utilities. Along with how-to-do pamphlets like In the Bank … or Up the Chimney, the Federal Government offers two types of tax credit: up to $300 for energy-saving devices, such as insulation and storm windows, and up to $2,200 for equipment that provides renewable energy, such as windmills and solar water heaters. Wood stoves are not eligible.

In a system under stress, however, solutions sometimes create problems. Massachusetts has become the first state in the nation to ban urea formaldehyde foam, the largest selling type of blown insulation. Public Health Commissioner Alfred Frechette says that “we find there is significant correlation between the foam insulation and such formaldehyde-linked illnesses as respiratory difficulties, eye and skin irritations, headaches, vomiting and severe irritation to the mucous membranes.” Massachusetts estimates that some 7,000 houses in the state—and many more across the country—are insulated with formaldehyde. The cost of removing the stuff, where it can be removed, might run from $14,000 to $20,000 per house. The foam industry has filed suit protesting the ban and the requirement that manufacturers must remove the foam on homeowners’ request.

In the meantime, independent thinkers are busy hatching schemes to beat the system. “A great learning process is going on,” says Madison Draftsman Dan Greco, who describes himself as a “lay expert” in conservation. On Block Island, R.I., where the last sizable stands of trees were cut and sent up the chimney decades ago, some residents are experimenting with drying and burning peat. Mantle kerosene lamps are in fashion through the Northeast: not only is their light soft and pleasant, but the heat they radiate is equal to almost half that of a small electric space heater.

In Minnesota, farmers sometimes stack bales of straw or garbage bags full of leaves against the outside of drafty house foundations. Cora Lee McKnight, 68, a Decatur, Mich., grandmother tells of Depression-era schemes to beat the cold: smearing a paste of flour and water into cracks, stuffing thickly folded newspapers between window and screen. “And we usually put hot-water bottles into our beds to keep our feet warm,” she says. Other sug gestions: wrapping water heaters in blankets, insulating windows with corrugated cardboard and placing old carpets under new ones.

In Alaska, where thinking hard to stay warm can be a requirement for survival, 258 residents—one out of every 2,000 souls, a rate higher than anywhere else in the U.S.—submitted ideas to a Department of Energy small grants program. Elizabeth Hart of Galena won $13,800 to build a solar greenhouse that will use the body heat of chickens as a source of warmth. R. Charles Vowell of Unalaska got $12,000 for a 10,000-gal. bio-gas generator that uses crab wastes from canneries to produce a burnable methane. Craig Anderson of Kenny Lake received $400 to build a passive solar system that features collectors made of used beer and soft drink bottles. Kyle Green of Wasilla got $49,300 to build a demon-stration solar house suitable for northern latitudes.

It is easy to dismiss such tiny projects as tinkering—as it is easy to dismiss the wood-stove phenomenon. Crab wastes and the body heat of chickens are not going to save postindustrial America (though Ecologist Barry Com-moner believes that methane, generated from a wide variety of wastes and especially grown crops, could stretch declining natural gas supplies and help the U.S. bridge the 50-year period before it can achieve what he thinks possible: a completely solar-powered society). But the Department of Energy does not dismiss such ideas—and there may be wisdom here. What the woodburners and the backyard inventors are expressing is more than flabby “life-style” preening; it is an exceedingly determined kind of self-reliance: “I am going to stay warm, damn the Arabs, and damn the oil companies, and damn the damned Government!”

There are drawbacks to this unbudgeable stubbornness, of course. Despite the inventiveness that it accompanies, it is at its roots a resistance to change. And the changes that the society has shown itself willing to make so far are small ones. They do not inconvenience in serious ways. Yes to insulation, no to public transportation. Write to the nice people at Vermont Castings for a Defiant wood stove brochure, set aside, for the moment, the necessity to think through a profound unease about nuclear power and a disbelief in the quick fix of synthetic fuels. Get through the winter, and make the tough decisions later.

This season of makeshift and grumbling, however, may turn out to have been the period in which the U.S., without really noticing that its attitudes have shifted, passed a balance point toward the acceptance of solar energy. A principle of architecture’s postmodern school is that architecture is not an instrument of social change; it reflects social change. If that is true, then the solar age may be on its way. In San Diego County, all new residences built after Jan. 1, 1980, must have solar hot-water heaters. In Santa Fe, solar-home builders Wayne and Susan Nichols estimate that a combination of air-lock entries, good insulation and solar heat radiating from a green house and rockbed system houses could reduce heating costs by up to 90%. When the town fathers of Soldiers Grove, Wis., voted to rebuild their often flooded town well above the Kickapoo River, they instructed the architects to design a thermally efficient community, with solar heat in municipal faculties, a supermarket and housing project for the elderly. In Middletown, R.I., a 2,700-sq.-ft. dwelling gets its heat from a passive solar design incorporating a solarium and uses no conventional heating system whatsoever. Its architect, Lee Porter Butler of San Francisco, has built 14 other similar houses, has 95 more in the planning and construction stages, and guarantees that if his heating ideas do not work satisfactorily, he will install a conventional furnace. Across the country, some 200 houses have been built incorpo-rating the heat-saving features —heavy insulation and windows that face south—of the Illnois LoCal house, designed in the mid-’70s by University of Illinois ar chitects and engineers.

Engineer-Architect Fred Dubin, who considers conservation “a national security issue,” is currently engaged in 75 energy-conserving projects involving new and existing buildings. He is developing an integrated energy system for large buildings that uses wind and photovoltaic cells for generating electricity, then recaptures waste heat from the cells for heating water. The imaginative Dubin has also conceived a vast underground heating and cooling system for Washington’s Market Square Development complex.

He proposes that heat pumps be employed to warm the building in winter, simultaneously making ice that will be stored in huge underground bunkers until sum mer, when it can be used to cool the structures without consuming electricity. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architectural firm renowned for its skyscrapers, is constructing an energy-efficient cube-shaped building for Draper and Kramer in Chicago that features three sunlit atriums. Architect Gunnar Birkerts’ 14-story IBM building in Detroit is black on its north and east sides, to absorb heat, and silver on its south and west sides, to reflect it. A combination of tilted windows and curved stainless steel windowsill reflectors bounce natural light into the interior. The building requires only a mod erate 50 footcandles of artificial lighting and uses a thrifty 42,000 B.T.U.s of heat per sq. ft. per year (vs. up to 200,000 B.T.U.s for a glass-and-steel office building of similar size).

Perhaps most remarkable, considering recent taxpayer resistance to any expenditure at all for schools, the Boise school board accepted the most expensive ($3.1 million) of four designs for its Amity Elementary School. It uses solar panels to heat its hot water, but this is the least of its innovations. The greater part of the 26-room school is underground. Heating and lighting costs are about 60% of what would be expected for a conventional school of the same size. The kids seem to love what is now known as the “Idaho potato cellar.”

And in New Hampshire, the countrified city man has thrown a day’s accumulation of junk mail and the sports section of the Boston Globe, fine sources of energy, into his antique Glenwood woodburning cookstove, along with some dry birch kindling and some twelve-inch splits of coarse grained red oak. He has watched the ancient oven thermometer, as reliable as the day it was made 80 years ago, climb to 425° F. That’s a little high. Fiddle with the damper. Now pop in three bread pans full of cracked-wheat dough.

The city man has been working out side, and his feet are cold. He takes off his boots, leans back in his chair, and props up his feet on the Glenwood’s footrest. Yeast works in the bread and in the city man’s mind. He decides to build a solar house. He’s going to out-Dubin Dubin. Out-Butler Butler. When he’s a very old man, too creaky to cut and split eight cords of wood a year, he’s going to stay warm. Damn them all! −John Skow

*Which express numerically a material’s ability to retard the flow of heat.

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