Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Upside of Down, & Longterm Plan Musings

Well, things do not look at all encouraging in the markets or the economy as a whole. The one silver lining that I can find right now is that the price of oil has dropped to around $96 a barrel as I write this. How quickly we rejigger our ideas about "good" oil prices! Like many people in the northeastern US, we heat our home with oil. So right now feels like a "good" time to top off our fuel supply for the winter.

We're equipped with only one smallish oil tank, giving us just a 275 gallon capacity. Right now our one tank is at 3/8 full. Our delivery service hits us with an extra delivery charge if we don't have at least 175 gallons delivered. In other words, we have to get down to about 1/4 of a tank before we can dodge that extra fee, which of course we want to do. They never completely top off the tank when they deliver. I guess they don't want to risk overfilling and causing a spill. Even if we start the winter with a full tank, we'll almost certainly need another delivery to get us through 'til spring. Of course, I pull out the stops as far as frugal tricks go to save money on heating expenses (on which, more to come soon). All the same, at today's prices we're looking at a cost of at least $1200 to make it through the winter. Ouch.

Our backup heating system is a propane fireplace insert in the new addition of our home. It would do for us in a power loss of short duration, say five days at the outside. Our stovetop runs on propane from the same tank, so we can cook and heat part of our house at least for a little while without electricity. We're very close to a major hospital, and I'm pretty sure we're on the same electrical grid, because we've never lost power for more than a few seconds, when others not all that far away have gone without for several hours. So chances are that things would have to be very bad before we would go without electricity for any significant length of time. Still, our propane supply is in small tanks we have to refill ourselves, and propane is a fossil fuel, which means it too will be problematic in the years ahead.

Even if we get a "deal" on our heating fuel oil this month, I look ahead and know with certainty that we need to find some other way to keep ourselves warm through the many winters to come. Our home is not well situated for an outdoor wood furnace; the neighbor's houses are too close in most directions to easily meet code with one of these. We could put in an indoor wood stove, but we have no significant supply of our own wood. So that would mean buying wood, which I expect to go up in price through the years. And then we'd have the mess of an indoor fire. Regionally, we're in a marginal area for solar power, especially in winter, and our micro-region isn't all that great for wind either.

Given all these imperfect solutions, I'm thinking about the outdoor furnace for the long term. I've seen one of these at work in the home of an acquaintance, and they seem quite manageable for our current lifestyle of two healthy, reasonably active, youngish adults, with at least one person home most of the day. Getting one would involve some retrofitting of the house, which I know would not be cheap. In fact, I'm sure it would be downright expensive. And it would lock us in to buying our fuel no less than we need to buy oil. Perhaps most worrisome is that the furnace still needs some electricity to pump heated water to and from the house. In the very long view, I can imagine a world where that's a problem. But at least it offers the prospect of clean heat (both in terms of pollution and indoor mess) and a renewable fuel source. We could work on generating a little electricity with solar power, and sourcing cheap or free firewood too, though I imagine through the years that market will become much tighter. Another downside is that I'll never be able to cook on an outdoor furnace.

There just aren't any perfect options for us. Long term we'd like to build a home on our land. The plan is to build a masonry heater into the core of our home, as the house goes up. The advantages are several. Masonry heaters are incredibly clean and efficient, they can be built to include a cookstove, they don't need any electricity to run, and our land is very well situated to take advantage of plentiful hardwood to burn. Alas, we aren't in that house yet. And truthfully, with the way things are going, I'm not confident we ever will be in that house. But we can hope and plan.

What are your plans for your longterm energy needs?


It's me said...

I have none. No, I just don't. We have two fireplaces in the house (basement and main floor) and it's plumbed for an oil furnace thing (extra chimney), but plans... none. I'm totally stumped. We have access to firewood and a pickup to haul it in, but could we heat our house with it? I just don't know. Not enough sunlight for solar (dang juniper and ponderosa trees on neighbor's property) so I'm just lost.

I think I'm in the "overwhelmed" stage. :)

trish said...

Kate, it's funny, we're on the hospital and fire department grid too. We were just talking about not needing to buy a back-up generator for the freezer full of meat because we've never lost power for more than about an hour. I sure would love to install solar panels but the cost is outta sight right now.
We'll be working on a rocket stove soon. It's small but you could cook food on it and it uses twigs and small bits of wood instead of relying on big whole trees for fuel.
best, trish

Kate said...

Meadowlark, I can relate. I really can. It is overwhelming to contemplate the inexorable changes that are going to happen. Life as our and our parents' generation has taken for granted *is* going to change dramatically in our life times on the down slope of oil production. That's scary. I fight the deer-in-the-headlights thing all the time. Most of the time, I don't win.

Trish, I just bought a few items for an outdoor rocket stove. I'm hoping to build one this fall before winter sets in. I hope you'll report on your stove as and when you build it.


It's me said...

You know, I was doing well for quite awhile. In fact, I even made it a point to talk to my husband's family and make sure they were taking steps to prepare. I learned to can and got started. I THOUGHT about all sorts of things, but with having to almost argue with Husband over every bit of it, I've just lost so much steam.

We have paid an extraordinary amount of debt off this year, so I'll have to be happy with that I suppose.

Tracy said...

We also heavily admire a friends outside wood heat supply. But, as you say, it requires electricity to run and circulate the water, and we'd like to move toward living off-grid. In addition, they put theirs in when they built the house, so were able to plumb all the water pipes in as they went, etc. It's much harder to "convert" a 100+ year old house to such a thing. This is a dilemma we've been mulling over for some time, with no resolution so far.

Said friend also has a "deal" with a local tree trimming agency to get all their wood they are hired to cut -- doesn't matter the type - to put in his stove. You might think of that. He doesn't cut his own wood, and said he spent only $200 on all heating wood last year, I think.

They just filled my propane tank yesterday, the first load of winter. It was $600 :(

Kate said...

Tracy, that sounds like some sweet deal your friend has. I recognize the difficulties in transitioning an existing house from conventional to off-grid energy supply. I wish there were better options. But wishes aren't likely to get me anywhere. I just hope we're not past the point where building a new home is a real possibility for us. We're looking at either investing at an expensive retrofit to give us a system with many drawbacks, or building from scratch and trying to incorporate better solutions.