Weathering the storm: making it through a natural-gas crisis

The gas situation in a number of places world-wide isn't looking good.  Britain especially has storm clouds looming; as production from the North Sea declines and imports fail to make up the difference, something has to give.  The island cannot switch back to heating homes with coal; that door was closed some time ago.  Cutting industry or commerce can easily make problems worse.  If electric power generation loses, everything else collapses.  This leaves home heating, but if people get too cold or damp, many will get sick and quite a few will die.

Spot the logical error in that last sentence?

I'll repeat it for those who missed it:  "This leaves home heating, but if people get too cold or damp, many will get sick and quite a few will die."

People need to be kept warm and dry.  Heating homes is the favored method in the West, but it's only one way to accomplish this.  And having broken through that particular mental box, it's time to explore outside it just a bit.

Lessons from elsewhere

anorakOther cultures have invented many ways of dealing with cold.  The Inuit in particular mastered the art of living with dwellings that stayed around freezing at most.  Their innovations were primarily in their clothing, which we can do just as well if we try.  Polypropylene fleece, Thinsulate and other materials are up to the job of keeping people warm in extreme conditions outdoors, let alone houses heated to a lesser degree than we are currently used to.  But I'm not going to suggest that we accept igloo-like conditions in the winter; we can do much better than that.

kotatsuThe Japanese kotatsu is another example.  Dating to Imperial Japan, it warms a small area beneath a table and people sit with their legs under the quilted covering.  Originally heated by a small hibachi burning charcoal, the modern version uses electric heat.  The kotatsu minimizes energy requirements by reducing the area for heat loss; even if the quilt doesn't have a particularly high R-value compared to 6 inches of fiberglass, the area is small enough that little heat is required to keep the people warm while they're sitting still.  I gather that heavy robes suffice while moving around and being active.

Kotatsu probably aren't a solution for western societies; people who aren't used to sitting cross-legged on futons will likely not adapt to them well, especially not if they are old and arthritic.  Further, a Western dwelling which is already somewhat insulated and in a wetter winter climate needs more than just heat; it needs reduced humidity, to keep the water vapor produced by occupants and activities from leading to condensation and mold.  What could we do about this?

Lessons from our own past

canopy bedIn days past, homes were heated much less than we are used to.  Upper floors had low ceilings to keep heat close to the people, and winter bedding was much warmer.  People were often less comfortable, but they got by.

Another invention that's fallen by the wayside is the canopy bed.  A canopy over the bed helps hold in body heat above the covers, helping to keep the exposed parts of the head warmer as well.  Humidity and the need for fresh air limit how well heat can be held, but every bit helps.

What can we do with modern technology?

Suppose that there was broad knowledge, from the grassroots to the top of political leadership, that a natural-gas crisis was not yet here, but coming soon.  To keep the economy and electrical grid running, priority would have to be given to those uses.  Much of the difference would have to come from home heating.  What could be done about it?

Suppose that a 2-bedroom condominium requires 7 GJ of gas per month to heat to 68 F (20 C), but only 3.5 GJ/month to heat to 50 F (10 C).  This is sufficient to keep the pipes thawed.  The remaining 3.5 GJ/month is 1350 watts of energy, 24/7!  What could we do with a fraction of that?

First:  remember the past.  Some advances, like cogenerating furnaces, would take many years to retrofit widely.  But how about canopy beds?  Heck, how about plain old sweaters?  Fingerless gloves?  These responses range from inexpensive to close to free.

Second:  deal with people, not dwellings.  Instead of heating a whole house, heat one room.  Instead of heating an entire room, just heat the people.  If humidity is a problem, dehumidify (and recover the latent heat) but don't add extra heat.

electric clothesThird:  pick appropriate technologies.  Kotatsu are bound to run into acceptance problems.  But how about electric clothing?  Widely used by motorcyclists and snowmobilers today, electrically-heated pants and vests can keep people warm even under very severe conditions.  Fifty watts is a substantial amount of power for electric clothes, particularly if used indoors.  Modern solid-state sensors and electronic controls can provide great flexibility and comfort at very reasonable cost in mass production.  Even lower-tech:  update the old canopy bed with aluminized Mylar "space blankets" to make it more effective.

Fourth:  address the problems specifically.  If the problem is cold bedrooms, maybe one solution is dropped ceilings with blown-in insulation and vapor barriers.  If the problem is condensation on the bedroom windows because of the occupants breathing, maybe the solution is a canopy bed with a dehumidifier under it.  Some heat from the condenser coil is required to keep the exhaust above its dew point, but the recovered latent heat could pre-heat air going under the canopy.  A 10 pint/day dehumidifier could probably be run on less than 80 watts, using less than 1 kWh/day for the time it's actually in use.

Fifth:  make systems failure-tolerant.  For example, electric clothing that runs on 12 volts can be powered by the lighter jack in the car, a small transformer from the wall, or an emergency battery for power failures; people with electric clothing and a battery might be in better shape during power failures than people with central heat.  This is not difficult or expensive to do, it just takes forethought.  Failure tolerance makes problems escalate and cascade much more slowly, if at all.

How much would this cost?  Probably not too much.  A decent set of electric pants and vest appears to be $200-$300.  Sweaters are much cheaper, and gloves can be had for under $10; right now I am experimenting with a pair of cutoff gardening gloves which I got for under two bucks.  I'm typing this paragraph while wearing them..  Adding canopies to beds and building custom dehumidifiers to work with them (or dehumidifier armoires to dry outdoor clothing like coats and umbrellas) would cost more and require some new design, but 50 pint/day dehumidifiers are selling today for under $200.  These measures could probably pay for themselves with the savings in fuel alone in a couple of heating seasons even at today's US prices.  Would they be affordable in a nation in the grips of a natural-gas crisis?  More to the point, could people afford not to use them?  The ultimate "fix" is to retrofit everything to Passivhaus standards, but measures such as these would be a stopgap while the more expensive and time-consuming solutions proceeded as resources permitted.

What could we save?  If half of all heating fuel is saved at a power expense of 50 watts per occupant, the hypothetical condominium with 4 occupants would save roughly 43% of its heating energy.  If the electricity for the clothing and other equipment came from cogenerators, the savings would be approximately that much; if the electricity came from generating stations, it would be somewhat less.  But any improvement in a crisis would help matters.


While there are natural-gas crises looming around the globe, the problems do not appear insurmountable.  Our ancestors lived without amenities like central heat, and didn't have the materials or manufacturing capabilities we have today.  Taking a few hints from the past to shape our own response, we can probably use cheap countermeasures to get through tight spells while we come up with something that works for the longer term.

Cutting industry or commerce can easily make problems worse. If electric power generation loses, everything else collapses. This leaves home heating, but if people get too cold or damp, many will get sick and quite a few will die.

My understanding, and what has been reported on TOD before, is that homes are the last to see their gas shut off in an emergency. This is due to the issue of pilot lights going out and the resulting explosions when the gas service is resumes. Industry and other big users will see the first shut offs when a gas crisis emerges.

Heading out wrote
In a shortage, businesses lose gas before homes

So what does this mean, that "If electric power generation loses, everything else collapses."?

I think E-P is proposing a reduction, not a shut-off. The reduction would come from sharply higher prices, I presume.

I believe the UK's residential heat is mostly electrical.

That makes sense, I guess my brain is just too binary and I missed it. But what is to keep people from outbidding industry for gas useage?

The logical thing would be for people to use a kotatsu but we end up seeing things like this:

Julie Guthrie said she had left the oven in her duplex on to help heat her house, but it set the home on fire with two of her children inside.

Obviously, she shouldn't have left her children in the oven.  Had she taken them out when they were done, they would not have caught fire!

That reply rates quite high on the Asperger's chart.

From another topper of that chart, what else from someone whose handle is Engineer-Poet?

What? Are you another of those neurotypicals!? You venomous snake, you! :-)

I think somebody needs to re-read Grimm's Fairy Tales.

I believe the UK's residential heat is mostly electrical.

Hi Nick,

Actually, natural gas dominates the residential space heating market with approximately a two-third share; electricity accounts for about 16 per cent.


I live in London UK in a 120 apartment block and we moved from oil to gas for the central boiler about 15 years ago.

We now get our gas at wholesale (Industrial) rates which are about 50% less than residential rates. There are, however, some potential downsides to this that we have yet to experiance.

My understanding is that since margins are much greater for residential it is the last portion of supply to be reduced. So we get a lower rate but we increase our risk of supply disruption...

There is a small movement within the block that wishes to move to individual gas boilers in each apartment -I aim to resist this move if it ever gains traction as I still believe the communal system gives advantages. It would be almost impossible to supplement individual systems with renewable solar for example.

Regards, Nick.

Hi Nick,

The cost and logistics of installing one hundred and twenty condensing boilers should hopefully keep this from happening. If the primary motivation is to encourage the more efficient use of energy and ensure greater fairness (i.e., each tenant pays for only what they use), there are sub-metering systems that permit these costs to be charged back on a unit by unit basis.



That's good to know.

What about home cooking? I had the particular impression that electric stoves were the norm. I remember someone talking about the UK grid being challenged when everyone put a kettle on during a television commercial (advert?) break.

Hi Nick,

Digging a little further, in 2006, 87 per cent of UK homes with central heating are fuelled by gas (non centrally heated homes represent less than nine percent of all housing stock). With respect to cooking, natural gas and electric are fairly equal, with natural gas holding a slight lead in fuel use (53 versus 46 per cent).

Electric kettles and commercial breaks in a country that loves its tea can certainly wreck havoc, considering your basic Russell Hobbs can draw 3,000-watts.




I can't imagine why you think that the UK's residential heat is mostly electrical - although there is some electrical, the vast majority is either gas or oil fired with some LPG.

I do wonder which fuel might be best for current new installations - I am inclining towards thinking that electrical would be best, but there are clear issues with the necessary increase in electrical generating capacity if we switch over to using it for heating in a big way (as well as the additional amount potentially needed for charging vehicles too).

Solid fuel (specifically wood) also has really significant capacity issues, plus the problems with air pollution that would come with a large amount of wood being burnt. I have heard that the UK could not support more than 10% of its population from wood fuel assuming it were managed properly.

Although most UK residential heating is gas fired, almost all these systems use mains electricity to control the system. Without electricity, it doesn't work. Cutting electricity drastically cuts UK residential gas consumption as a side effect.

I am trying to set up a PV/mains powered battery backup supply. I will need to rewire the heating controls to switch between the mains supply and the backup supply when the lights go out, but at least I will keep warm as my neighbours freeze.

I might even become popular !

Buy a standard computer 110w UPS from any office supply/electronics shop (maplin) and supply your heating system trough it as per normal. Problem solved

Hi Rib,

A 110-watt UPS may be a little on the light side. My oil-fired boiler, Tekmar control system and main circulation pump draw a total of 247-watts and if the second pump that feeds two additional zones kicks on, that jumps to 327-watts. Also note that a light-duty UPS generally provides only enough juice to allow for an orderly shutdown of the PC; the runtime is not likely to be more than ten to fifteen minutes.


If you're heating with oil, you can use diesel for backup power.

That's one possibility. Our boiler is wired to a small, fuel efficient gas generator and whilst a diesel set would be nice, this low-cost solution has served us well thus far. Under normal circumstances, the bulk of our space heating needs are met by the ductless heat pumps with the boiler providing additional support when temperatures fall below -15C or -20C (there's some electric in-floor radiant heat as well, but it's seldom used).

With the aid of the generator, the boiler and indirect water heater are our primary source of heat and domestic hot water during extended power outages. I keep a minimum of 500-litres of heating oil on hand at all times and enough gasoline to fuel the generator for two to three months, assuming one to two hours use per day; that should be sufficient to bump up temperatures so that the pipes don't free. If the generator should break down or we exhaust our fuel reserves, there are four propane fireplaces that can used for spot heating. Propane is the fuel of last resort, as it would be used for cooking purposes as well (we try to keep the main tank topped up and a couple BBQ tanks as spares).

We've also worked hard to reduce our space heating requirements so that a larger percentage of our needs can be met through passive solar; over the past seven years, we've cut our home's energy usage by over 90 per cent -- whereas the previous home owners used 5,700 litres of fuel oil and 14,000 kWh of electricity per year, we're now down to 350 litres and 12,000 kWh, plus some 50 to 70 litres of propane (the latter mostly for clothes drying and the BBQ). This has reduced our household expenses considerably and, most importantly, allows us to stretch our fuel supplies to the greatest extent possible should the need arise.


I have two Rinnai room ventless gas heaters that require zero electricity (an optional fan on one to spread heat evenly around the room, it works fine without the fan on).

Small (because of ventless), 6,000 BTU (1.75 kW) in bathroom and 10,000 BTU (3 kW) in one bedroom. They will keep pipes (and you) from freezing !

I have two more advanced Rinnai ventless has room heaters that do require electricity to operate.

Choice of natural gas or propane units.

Best Hopes for staying warm !


Most UK domestic heating is gas fired or Oil very little electric. All newer gas heaters have spark ignition and no pliot light hence no electricty No Heat! Same goes for newer Gas Hobs they have a electric solenoid to cut of gas.

Hi Rib,

I can't speak for all gas cookers, but mine has electronic ignition and I can still light the hobs with a match or BBQ lighter. In fact, I use an induction hob for everyday cooking and gas only in the event of an extended power cut.


My understanding, and what has been reported on TOD before, is that homes are the last to see their gas shut off in an emergency. This is due to the issue of pilot lights going out and the resulting explosions when the gas service is resumes.

Ideally, home heating consumption would be cut back by efficiency measures.  There is no simple way to discriminate between over-heating spaces vs. heating water or cooking.

So what does this mean, that "If electric power generation loses, everything else collapses."?

If the electric grid runs out of fuel or is overloaded, almost every central-heating system goes down in the blackout.  This turns one failure into two failures, plus serious impairment of commerce (can't handle refrigerated food without fridges, most businesses can't run without electronic cash registers), etc.  Short-term fuel shortages can be dealt with by shutting down business, but over the long term this brings down everything else with it.

We can cut back a lot more on space heat than we can on electricity.

We can cut back a lot more on space heat than we can on electricity.

I understand this.

What I don't understand is with what mechanism will you bring this about?

Nick mentioned rationing by price. But that leads to the question how do you keep people from out bidding industry for the gas?

Or do you have another mechanism in mind?

You'll note that I specifically did not talk about mechanisms, just methods.  Incentives and such are policy matters.  There are all kinds of ways to push people to do the right thing, from lifeline rates for minimal usage with steep escalation afterwards, to PSAs, to free fittings for electric clothes and surveys of house insulation, to going around neighborhoods with thermal scanners.

There is also the option of "do nothing, and let the system fail."  A policy of doing nothing is still a policy.

The UK also has the worst insulated housing stock in northern Europe. The three most cost effective methods of conserving UK gas supply are insulation, insulation and insulation. Recent improvements in regulations means that new build housing in the future should be mediocre instead of dreadful, but low build quality and an almost total lack of enforcement of the regulations in practice means new build is still dreadful.

At current rate of new build, 80% of the existing housing stock will still be occupied in 2050...

And phase change materials PCM's


Pilot lights is not the only reason. Gas is usually cut off to the biggest users first because they result in the biggest cuts in demand in the shortest time, and putting them back on is quicker. Less manpower and less persuasion (by force?) of reluctant users is required to achieve it. Also for political reasons, more users equals more votes.

If a gas network loses supply in an unplanned way, demand will fall off as users stop using the supply, whether manually or automatically. Valves in the pipelines may shut automatically or maually. This then may result in pressures recovering/rising in parts of the network. If those automatic cut off systems are not present and pilot lights are out gas will escape and cause explosions. Air and water can also enter the pipes if gas pressure is low. Half the low pressure network in some UK cities is over 100 years old and leaks are everywhere, mostly small but many of them. Getting this air and water out of the system is a big job.

Before a gas network can be turned on again after a cut all user supplies have to be visited to make sure the meter supply valve is off. Once all users are off the gas supply has to to be checked to make sure pressures are OK and there is no air in the system. This will be done in small groups of users dependent on valve locations and network layout. Typically a few streets at a time will have this done. It may involve digging holes in the streets where valves are missing or rusty. The switch from coal gas to natural gas in the UK in the 1970's was a similar project. When thousands of users are affected this needs huge numbers of qualified staff, vehicles and materials. A city of millions could take months to switch on again. This happened in Austrailia, can't remember the city.

I expect that sometime after 2020 a person(s) in the UK will have to decide which city will get gas and which will not. Once a city/region loses supply it may stay off, becuse the logistics of switching gas on again can't be justified when supply may dissappear again soon. This will cause mass movements of people to places where there is still heat, and political stress.

In Austrailian water shortages there were similar priority issues. Farms got cut off first, and cities/homes got the water. This was a short term solution with immediate political benefits. Long term people can live without washing but not without food.

(I worked for 12 years in the UK nat gas industry)

Thanks Max, a very good explanation.


I can only speak for myself, but I can get sick just by breathing cold air for long periods, even if the rest of my body is warm. It happened last year during a vacation in Munich. I was thrilled to be in such a beautiful place, and did a lot of walking, spending most of the day outdoors. I ended up with the mother of all sinus infections and it lingered for a month. So "heat one room" is a good idea (also AC one room in the summer). And people who won't put on a sweater and drop the thermostat below 70 aren't even trying! But depending heavily on clothing may not work for some people (my clothing during the trip was quite warm).

Perhaps an electric mask to pre-heat your breathing air would help people like you.  This would require much less energy than heating the average room, let alone a house.

My wife's problem is the contrary: She has problems with the dry air of heated rooms. This is quite a dilemma as she hates cold as well.

In practice we keep the rooms quite cool and wear several layers of sweaters (like eskimos ;-). Norwegian sweaters are best! They are quite expensive but look cool and certainly pay off from the heating bill within a few months.

Of course the best solution would be a modern ventilation with heat recovery, but this is not an easy solution for our existing flat.

I ended up with the mother of all sinus infections and it lingered for a month.

I'll bet it was more likely either an allergic reaction to some foreign material or a virus infection of some sort. Not that exposure to cold and damp can't be a debilitating factor but especially in your case, you say you were actually dressed in warm clothing, something doesn't add up.

I can only speak for myself, but I can get sick just by breathing cold air for long periods, even if the rest of my body is warm

My experience (I used to live in Norther Wisconsin, and enjoyed the cold arctic blasts), was that it is not the degree of cold (temperature), but how long -or not the body has had to adapt. A sudden move to conditions considerably colder than one is used to causes a great deal of stress, but with lots of small steps a lot of people can adapt. I don't know how universal that experience is. But, I suspect that once someone has had a bad experience with cold, that psychology makes it harder to adapt to it.

I ended up with the mother of all sinus infections and it lingered for a month.

Actually, heated indoor air is much worse for sinuses than cool, moist outdoor air. You probably got sick from the dry, hot indoor air in Germany.

Excessive dryness in homes and offices from dry-air heating and air-conditioning systems can also inflame the sinuses.

From (many more sources exist).

I have chronic sinus problems. I recommend you give some form of nasal lavage a test run. It helped my sinus problems quite a bit.

but I can get sick just by breathing cold air for long periods, even if the rest of my body is warm.

The cold causes blood vessels to expand, thus viruses can enter via the nose. Try regular washing of nasal passages with a neti pot.

A 10 pint/day dehumidifier could probably be run on less than 80 watts, using less than 1 kWh/day for the time it's actually in use.

Is this truly possible? I have an Energy Star dehumidifier that runs almost constantly seven months of the year (the only time it shuts off is when the bucket is full). My power monitor tells me it consumes anywhere from 10 to 13 kWh per day, making it the second largest consumer of electricity in my home. I'm very careful to minimize the amount of humidity generated through cooking, showering, laundry and other normal household activities, but if you take a look at, you can see what I'm up against. In addition, if I don't keep my basement at 20C, I run the risk of mould and mildew damage (I discovered this the hard way).


I have a 50 pint/day dehumidifier rated at 615 watts.  A unit 1/5 the size, with the air-handling system designed for low velocity (for low noise, low pressure drop and low fan power requirements) and smart use of heat pipes for recuperation could probably hit 80 watts, maybe less.

Cross-check:  Δhfg for water vapor at 10°C is about 2.5 MJ/kg.  Condensing 10 pints/day (roughly 5 kg) of water from air at room temperature yields about 11 MJ of latent heat.  If the dehumidifier has a CoP of 4.0 and no losses, the total electric consumption should be about 2.8 MJ or 0.8 kWh/day; that's around 33 watts.  So yes, it's quite within the realm of physical possibility.

Our Kenmore is rated at 40 pints per day and draws between 480 and 485-watts on low and upwards of 530-watts on high. Compared to our previous dehumidifier, it sips electricity and works better at lower ambient air temperatures (the old one was pretty much useless when temperatures fell below 20C). Being a relatively new Energy Star model, I presume it's among the most energy efficient available; nonetheless, it still accounts for roughly 20 per cent of our annual usage and that includes an electric water heater and two air source heat pumps.


My 615-watt 50-pint Electrolux unit is "Energy Star" also.  All this means is that it's quite a bit better than the former average, not that it's anywhere near as good as it could be.

I disassembled the failed unit that was left in my house and found that the actual air-handling stuff (cores and fans) does not take up all that much of the volume.  If you wanted to add a heat-pipe recuperator system around the evaporator core to pre-chill the air, it would not be hard to fit it in the same size housing.  If you slowed the fan way down to achieve lower power and noise in a lower-capacity unit while keeping the cores the same size, you could slash the power requirements for air handling.  We should be able to get within a 2:1 ratio of the theoretical minimum without too much cost.

any nonelectric options for moisture. wife with asthma & allergies, so mold in the basement is a problem even w/ dehumidifier per her allergist.

my concern is basements will be a curse in the midwest w/o electricity.

the only solution i know is for things in basement is to seal them tightly- during low humidity.

maybe to seal off basement from 1st floor carefully when no electricity.

Dessicants are always an option.  If you can get lithium bromide solution, a solar collector to dry it and a PV-powered pump and fan to move it around, you'd be all set.  Calcium chloride is another option, though I believe chloride ion is corrosive to many metals.


Any chance you two can send your humidity here to me, where I have to have my humidifier (not De-humidifier) on for much of the time to keep up to a decent 50% (by several meters). That's even though I screen out the sun with aluminium foil (see top of nearest tower in gooogle street view from "spring hill passage uk" at junction with spring hill). I suspect that 19 floors of hypothermics' storage heaters below is party to blame. No creepy crawlies here, they all die of thirst on the way up.
PS - to keep warm all I have to do is run walk up and down the 266 steps.

Hi Robin,

Living in a maritime climate, our dehumidifier runs virtually non-stop from April through October; there's simply no way around it.

Google Streets is pretty amazing; thanks for sharing a view of your neighbourhood. We're in the backwaters, so the best I can offer you is this: (our home is behind the trees on the left).


Ahh--not the Halifax between Leeds and Manchester.

Electric clothing for motorcyclists and snowmobilers is expensive because it's marketed as specialized sports equipment. If produced for the mass market, it shouldn't be much more expensive than an electric blanket, $30-50 for a twin size.

There is a fiction book by Kim Stanley Robinson called "Fifty Degrees Below" that has lots of interesting info on keeping warm with modern clothing and arrangements.

And it's a good read! Part of a trilogy of climate change effects in the US: 40 Signs of Rain, 50 Degrees Below, and lastly 60 Days and Counting.

Really good "Out of the Box" thinking.

Yeah, these are good ideas. The canopy idea is new to me -- I have thought about ways to construct false ceilings in the winter (my ceilings are 10' high). I have also thought about using 2" foam insulation encased in fabric as winter wall panels that can be removed for the summer. So far by super-insulating my attic and using storm windows I have dropped 30% off my winter heating.

I always thought those canopies where to put the mirrors on... :o)


Correct, EP.

If we dropped the indoor temperature from 68 degrees F(20 deg C) to 50 degrees(10 degrees C) we would reduce heating energy(natural gas) by about 50%.

Of course with Passive House construction we would eliminate +90% of space heating input with no decrease in indoor temperature but the extreme effort involved is liable to bankrupt the entire cosmos (snark off). Lazy people can throw on a sweater.

Oh, agreed.  But fitting out the building stock to PassivHaus standards isn't something you can do in a few months.  Stopgap measures such as these are much quicker to roll out, and a strong policy push for them lets the public know that

  • You are serious about keeping people healthy and relatively comfortable, and
  • You actually have constructive responses.

Getting a nation retrofitted to PassivHaus is a project for a decade, not a season, but just having constructive responses for the short term will probably build the political capital and momentum to carry through on the long-term work.

Project for a decade ? Even given the funds and faciities you'd have to destroy the architectural heritage of the UK for a start. I am having trouble getting planning permission for a cast iron gate that's 20cm too tall - you would have zero chance of implementing the measures needed for even part L in anything conservation/listed.
Then the millions of solid walled houses - no chance whatsoever.

Are solid-walled houses really impossible to insulate?  It appears to me that technologies such as vacuum-insulated panels could provide excellent insulation at a minimum cost in interior space (R-50 per inch is superinsulation in < 1/3 the thickness of a 2x4 stud cavity).  Large-volume manufacturing might bring the cost down to a point competitive with foam, as there's less material involved.

Definitely a long-term project, but far from impossible.

Yes but even assuming the tech/cost is there if you insulate an older house internally you leave the external brick mass unheated which means damp isn't driven out and you lose the thermal mass benefit.
External insulation U=0.5 is feasible with various face fix / screen methods but the costs are exorbitant with questionable payback. And as we've seen with recent energy prices you can't cost benefit ahead for increasing energy costs with any confidence - it's all guesswork.

Do you know anything about the acoustical insulation these would provide (I couldn't find anything on their website)?

I'd love to find some panels like this to block a noisy neighbor...

Edit: I called them, and they suggested a different product, called barrier ultradb. A bit better for sound, and cheaper.

Sound isolation is provided by mass (sound reflects off the discontinuity in density).  An aerogel panel pumped down to vacuum with lightweight laminates on either side isn't going to do that so well.  On the other hand, laminating it to something like concrete would give you both.

It would be curious to know what sort of energy inputs went into vacuum-insulated panels manufacture. Right now the $595 for 60" x 70" panel plus more if you want one of the optional skins certainly makes it a niche product. But for a small enough space...wonder just what the panel price/fuel cost has to be to make it economical in the maritime regions?

Still this might be a very promising tech after it grows up a little, some offshoot might end up an affordable exterior product that would render the thermal mass of solid walled structures more usefull.

Yes, these are niche products, but the materials involved appear to be reasonably cheap.  Making an aerogel clear enough for a high-quality window is one thing, making something that only has to support atmospheric pressure and block radiant heat (opaque) is much easier.  These products could slash energy requirements for domestic refrigerators while increasing interior space, and if we made them by the square kilometer instead of the square foot they would certainly be much cheaper than they are now.  Cheap enough to slap up over a plaster wall?  I don't know, and I don't know how to find out... but somebody does, which is why we should be asking the question.

I agree 100%, I didn't even know this tech existed until I followed your link. Every bit of awareness helps. Thanks

Will authorities care in a real emergency?

Yes, as you can only define an emergency of that magnitude with hindsight and you'll need resources to refurbish which won't be abundant in an emergency. Catch22.
The only group to have successfully defied the planning laws on a large scale was the Luftwaffe.

Then the millions of solid walled houses - no chance whatsoever.

What about windows? As I noted in a post at the bottom, they're often more important than insulation. I suspect, in fact, that they're almost always more important than insulation.

Windows run into diminishing returns very quickly if the walls are lousy.  Fix the walls, and your high-performance windows suddenly become a much bigger part of the equation.

Well, IIRC a single pane of glass has an R-value of about 1. I should think that the UK solid walls must do substantially better than that, even without any insulation at all.

I suppose that drafts and air exchanges must be the single largest source of heat loss. I've heard very disdainful things said about drafty English houses.

Any suggestions for cheap thermal scanners?

There are a few other easy solutions for retrofitting existing structures in cold climates:

The "kotatsu" idea can be used with all sorts of existing furniture. Just put a comforter on top and an electric heater below. Put some plywood on top of the comforter to make a table surface. I like to use a 400w/800w radiant electric heater (looks like a big red lightbulb). This can be used with any desk or table.

The "kotatsu desk" can be used at indoor temperatures below freezing (don't ask me how I know this), but it might be especially useful when you have the central heat turned down to 50F or so, and use the "kotatsu" as a supplement to stay toasty at the desk or table.

Kerosene one-room heaters are very effective. The best are by Toyo, such as the L-73. This has a heat exchanger/exhaust which is passed through the wall, and can be installed by a DIY-er. No dedicated chimney necessary. Here's a good source and description:

The Toyos are 80%+ efficient and heat only one room, which by itself is far more efficient than heating a whole house. If you pick one room and paint it with thermal paint (looks like normal paint), and add a Toyo one-room heater, that would keep one room toasty for maybe 25% of the fuel cost of typical inefficient central heating. The Rinnai heaters are similar and can be used with natural gas or propane. At about $1000 each, it could pay for itself in one winter.

If you have a big house with lots of extra rooms (kids are gone etc.), I would consider making a "winter living room" out of a bedroom or similar. If you heated a 12'x15' room with a Toyo-type single room heater, it wouldn't take much at all to keep warm.

With a little more ambition, you can superinsulate a "winter living room." Leave all your existing walls in place, and add a freestanding framing "shell" within the existing room. The underfloor could be insulated from below if you have basement access. Put 12" of fiberglass insulation (R-38) behind all walls and above the ceiling, and add a layer of 1/8" foam/foil insulation beyond that. This would probably lower the ceiling to 7' or so, which also helps keep things warmer. Paint the new interior walls with thermal paint. If you don't like it, you can easily tear it out and your original room is still intact. I figure you could do a small room for $1000 in materials. This could easily be heated with a 1500W plug-in heater.

Of course, we should already be using tankless water heaters, as are common in Europe and Japan but still a novelty in the U.S. This can reduce water heating use by up to 50% and no running out!

Great idea with the DIY kotatsu (though I'd watch for fire hazards; radiant panels designed for office cubes would be preferable).  Anything which can be set up with stuff that people have lying around the house is going to be a HUGE win in a crisis that pops up with inadequate preparation.

If lots of people try setting up secondary interior walls in a hurry (how do you keep condensation from soaking the main walls behind them?), I would expect the supply of building materials to run out.  It also requires cash which is likely to be in short supply if the fuel crisis is depressing employment (another reason that commerce can't be starved).  If public policy is helping to push it, that would be less of an issue.

The main issue I see with a failure of nGas -not just here in the UK- is that everyone will rush out and get an emergency electric heating unit.

Given the likely economic conditions that will persist in the this future scenario these units are unlikely to be very efficient and the users will probably not have much money to do the sort of DIY stuff that could make a difference either.

So we end up with a massive spike/drain on the electric grid -that may bring that down- while people sit around being blasted by hot air that goes straight out the cracks in their drafty houses... A lot of UK Pensioners already exist like this and they are given Govt. grants to do so.


My parents are an example. They are in their mid-eighties, live in a large, poorly insulated house with an inefficient gas boiler that has also proved unreliable. They gave away their only back-up heating, a portable butane gas stove. I have hassled them to get cavity wall insulation (which the council will fit for free) but refuse, because it would cause some cosmetic damage to the brickwork.

My father is not stupid, he is a retired heat engine designer. He knows thermodynamics, but he is stubborn.

I sit at a 2'x3' desk when using the computer at home. If I had a desktop instead of a laptop, I could stick the CPU under the desk, attach quilts around it, and have an instant kotatsu. Might as well let the computer keep you warm, right?

Interesting idea.  Would you play games with heavy use of the graphics accelerator only during cold weather?

I used to see glass-top computer desks with a tilted shelf for the monitor below.  This might allow recycling an old CRT monitor as an improvised heater, though I'd keep an LCD for the summer display - no sense in wasting power when heat isn't needed!  You could change the background brightness with the weather.

For us killjoys who pick out purpose-built stuff, a heated seat pad would eliminate the need to choose between heating ability and energy efficiency of the computer hardware.  Homedics is a brand I see often (got one as a gift years ago).

Playing games is one way, but it might cut into your productivity. You could do distributed computing like protein folding. Between a quad core processor and GPU, you could probably make 250W of heat and contribute to science at the same time!

I wanted to comment the traditional methods for heating used in Castile (Spain) since immemorial times.

There is a system like kotatsu, it´s called "faldillas", it consists in a round table covered with a thick tablecloth, you just sit there a cover your legs with de cloth. Inside it, it is put a charcoal burner "brasero". With around 1 kilo of charcoal you can have all the heat you need for a whole day, actually more than you need. Today, you can use a 200W heater to the same effect.

I have been staying (when I was a kid, 20 years ago) in houses without any other heating than the brasero and a chimney, freezing temperatures the whole day and it was pretty comfortable. Even without a chimney you can pass the day, although in that case you need a warm coat.

As for the central heating system, there is a traditional system (which it has been used since the roman times) called "gloria". The whole house can be heated burning relatively small quantities of hay, without any kind o electrical system involved. It can be adapted to heat only the bedroom in combination with the brasero for the livingroom.

Only one other person has mentioned electric blankets for beds - these are available as both a cover (over the blankets, and in my opinion a waste), or as under-blankets. It took me a couple of months to find a store with a king size under blanket. I have it underneath a mattress protector and heavy cotton sheets - so the heating elements cannot be felt. Each side of the bed has its own heating control with a scale of 1 to 20. There is also a pre-heat button and it turns itself off after 12 hours.

I bought it last fall (October'ish) and at first (on high) it seemed to be able to heat the bed really well, far more than was needed. In February I turned the gas heating off and have survived so far on just electric blankets on the bed and an electric throw blanket for sitting in chairs.

When the temperature fell below 50 it was a real challenge and not something to invite visitors to experience.

I also wore fingerless gloves and a warm cap regularly. The head is where we lose a substantial amount of heat - why no mention of a warm cap in the article?

One other poster mentioned 'several layers' - these are more important than 'sweaters'.

The main points of the article - heat the person, or heat a substantially smaller volume of air cannot be emphasized enough. There is scope for massive, undeniable savings, without excessive loss of comfort or increased risks to health.

I've thought a lot about reducing the air volume above the bed and enclosing it - I've camped in sub-zero winter conditions and know that the smaller the tent, the more comfortable it can be - because our breath can warm the air volume somewhat. Compact high-efficiency heat exchangers (not necessarily heat pumps) / dehumidifiers are no doubt part of a good solution and much needed.

Also the article did not mention water heating - in the UK a considerable amount of gas is used to heat water for bathing, washing clothes, dishes, etc.

My biggest gripe about 90% of water heaters is that they keep hot water available 24 hours a day. A timer-switch is only a minor improvement. Much better is point-of-use instant water heating (electric or gas).

In the case of electric instant water heaters (in the USA) these are rated accorded to average annual ground temperature water - a heater suited to the south will not likely be adequate in the north.

I have thought at great length about water heating and some things are obvious - instant water heating is the way to go, this should be combined with heat recovery from the waste water. Also, I see no reason why water should be heated from the base ground-temperature - why not allow water to stand in a tank in a high part of the home (in the loft and inside the buildings insulation envelope), this would allow the water to acquire average (ceiling) room temperature without specific active heating. A loft would also allow additional warming in the summer.

Also, the way of replenishing water, as it is used, is too primitive - if you have allowed a tank to sit overnight and get to average room temperature - using half the tank of water and immediately introducing a half a tank of colder ground-temp-water immediately reduces the temperature of the remaining water.

Much better would be to use all of the water as needed and not start to replace it until finished (finished using, not finished the water). This requires a more sophisticated system and more User involvement, but the savings could be considerable.

My 2 cents.

Conventional water heaters may not be the energy villains you may think. A GE 40 Imperial gallon/170 litre tank has a standby loss rating of 56-watts and the larger 60 Imperial gallon/270-litre size is rated at 72-watts -- 1.34 and 1.73 kWh/day respectively. To put this into perspective, the four satellite receivers in my home collectively chew down 3.2 kWh/day when idle, and I understand some cable TV boxes draw as much as 60-watts when powered off.

On the flip side, electric tankless units can severely stress the local distribution system and adversely impact power quality. Furthermore, some of the larger capacity models that are required in colder climates pull 90 or more amps, so even a 200-amp service would be hard pressed to drive one of these things.

Lastly, I suspect most utilities will adopt TOU pricing over time, so a storage heater that can be recharged during off-peak hours could prove to be a far more economical choice.


I have thought at great length about water heating and some things are obvious - instant water heating is the way to go, this should be combined with heat recovery from the waste water. Also, I see no reason why water should be heated from the base ground-temperature - why not allow water to stand in a tank in a high part of the home (in the loft and inside the buildings insulation envelope), this would allow the water to acquire average (ceiling) room temperature without specific active heating. A loft would also allow additional warming in the summer.

On-demand water heating has advantages in certain situations. However, letting cold water from outside come up to temperature inside the house before being heated further will not save any energy, as it just adds to the ambient heating load. However, it could reduce the power requirements for the on-demand heating.

Heat recovery of wastewater is a good idea. One simple thing to do is to let bathtub (or even shower) water sit overnight before draining it. The energy saving is more than you might expect, especially if you do keep your house at 50F. Just for simplicity, if you have 100 gallons of 100F water in the tub and the house is at 65F, letting it cool off in the house saves 28000 BTU, or 8 kwh. Even if the water out of the ground is 40F, this is still more than half that needed to heat it up.

I've plumbed in for 100+ gallon jacuzzi bathtub but have been extremely hesitant to install it and start throwing all that hot water away. I wondered if letting it cool to room temp would recover much of the heat. I doubt the recovery will be close to what it takes to heat my very cold ground water but as beat up as I am and cold as it gets here, you may have eased my conscience enough to let me put the tub in.

Are there any waste water heat exchangers that are readily available? The gravity system that moves most waste water probably makes this idea impracticle often as not.

We do this sometimes, letting hot water stay in the tub. But you do have to be careful about the humidity.

Too much humidity isn't a real issue here during the extensive heating season. The open ocean is over the mountains most directions and three hundred or better miles away in all. For a couple years I had a heated addition with a dirt floor. Then water vapor was troulbesome until I had time to get all the sub slab work in (including a sealed vapor barrier and 2" Rmax foam) and pour. Now we can again air dry heavy clothes in the overheated daylight basement with no ill effects.

We will see what happens if I ever hook all the baseboard to a boiler (going to give the pellet units a look) and rest the Monitor space heater (burns #1 fuel oil). That little gem has been an amazingly dependable workhorse, now heating a three story space (evenly as you could ask of it) from its spot on the basement floor. It only uses 80 watts so it is not hard to set up and inverter/battery backup system, or just keep enough fuel around to run very small gas generator in case of a major power outage. Cold we know, we just past the 14,000 heating degree mark for this season and the end of June is still seven weeks off.

I'm going to experiment with ready made organza curtains on tracks as room dividers. Maybe flame proofed as they are really polyester. The idea is to burn less wood in the fireplace. I see on eBay there is a carbon monoxide alarm that beeps at two threshold levels.

Last July which was mostly one big sideways sleet storm I burned so much wood it was obvious that I couldn't maintain the supply if had the flu, a twisted ankle or just got too old. Funny thing about the weather these days it can get cold anytime. Even horticulture is now at risk from summer frosts with corn, tomatoes and pumpkins getting split or looking blowtorched.

If/when gas rationing occurs the allowance should be for one small room such as the one with the main TV. Inspectors ('carbon cops') should call around to check this and help if necessary. One day seniors might need wireless monitors to send an alarm if their core body temperature drops too low.

Fireplaces are purely ornamental. Their heating efficiency is about 10% -- tops, not counting the convective heat loss up the chimney. If you want to heat with wood, find a 75%+ efficient modern catalytic wood stove. Buy new, don't bother with anything old. You could get through a Vermont winter in a 3-bedroom house with two cords of wood with a modern woodstove.

There are some old fireplace flu designs (in massive masonry) where the flu gas passes through essentially a long horizontal 'room' with partial partition walls projecting alternately from opposite sides of the 'room' forcing the hot gas to take a zigzag path thus dissipating much of its heat to the surrounding masonry. These designs are substantially more efficient then 10% but I was rather disappointed when I went to the Cold Climate Housing Research Center site where I found a picture of their lobby fireplace using this old design but was unable to find any efficiency information about it.

The center is involved in a couple wood heat efficiency projects (including one on masonry systems) which are of extreme interest to us in the neighborhood, where we have sufficient biomass production to handle much of our 14,000 degree day heating load but also have major air quality issues because of thermal inversions.

Fireplaces are purely ornamental.

Tell that to your centuries of ancestors for whom they were the sole means of heating. And I guess you didn't grow up in a house with no other heating as I did.

wood pellet stoves
who is buying the grain ship loads of wood pellets from Canada
people are buying wood pellet stoves then have problem finding wood pellets

global warming is releasing methane from the arctic
alaska Canada, siberia drill more gas wells lay more pipelines
convert your car to run on compressed natural gas

I didn't burn wood but I had it on hand if the gas got cut off

Also consider the nightcap. Not something you drink before bed - the cap you wore to bed. The purpose was to minimize heat loss through the scalp and neck at night.

...Nightcaps were also used to keep warm at night. They were common in northern Europe before central heating was available, when homes were cold at night.

Women's night caps usually consisted of a long piece of cloth wrapped around the head. Men's nightcaps were traditionally pointed, with a long top, usually accompanied by a small ball of some sort, which was used similar to a scarf. It kept the neck warm while not being so long that it could wrap around and choke the person wearing it in their sleep. Most nightcaps currently produced no longer have the pointy addition. They are mainly used by people with hair loss.

The third time I lost power for several days in Atlanta it was because of an ice storm. The temperature went down to 55 degrees downstairs, where I had gas logs in the fireplace to maintain that temp. I moved the mattress in front of the gas logs to keep warm at night.

My former home, built in 1985, was fairly well insulated but had single pane windows. After the ice storm I put in double pane windows (self installed) and that improved the comfort level in winter and lowered my utility bills by about 15%.

I vowed never to be cold again so when I retired I built a massively heavy aerated autoclaved concrete home with double pane windows, and kept the window area to 15% of the floor area. I also have cellular shades on the largest windows. The house and windows are oriented to make proper seasonal use of the sun, but not quite a passive house. I have been extremely pleased with the results, both in terms of comfort and low utility bills.

If I lived in a colder climate one thing I would do differently is to use a geothermal heat pump.

If possible, people could also either build underground, live in caves, or build cob houses with thick walls--and all of these would require but a minimum amount of heat (or cooling).

But you are speaking of people living where they are living today, in more-or-less traditional "square" box homes.

All your ideas are good ones. This winter I dressed warmly, turned off (not down, off) my heat at night and used an electric blanket, and then in the daytime only heated the room I was in (this is using electric heat). My total electric and heating bills were always under $40 a month.

I am wondering why you said they cannot go back to heating with coal. Is this because of being all mined out, or because it would cost too much to import, or what? Kyoto? In other words, is this a physical, economic, or just a logical impossibility? If only logical, because outlawed, the law can always be reversed, can't it?

I think coal is blocked for several reasons:

  • There is no longer a large mining industry in Britain, and rebuilding the mines and recruiting and training miners would take far too long if it could be done at all.
  • Imports are of the wrong kind of coal.
  • Homes no longer have coal stoves (and they aren't cheap).
  • The political pushback against the air pollution would be fierce (and rightly so).
  • Less-polluting measures like conversion to "town gas" would take enough time and capital that it would probably be better to retrofit to PassivHaus instead.

When I was a kid, we didn't heat all of the rooms in winter. Only the livingroom was well heated, heat to the bedrooms was turned down, the doorway to the kitchen had a huge blanket tacked over it. We taped our windows, and tacked blankets over them. Blocked off rarely used rooms. It became a smaller house, that stayed warm well, with thick blankets, and a cold kitchen.

When my mom was a kid, the heat was the woodstove in the main room, which was the kind they could sleep on top of the ledge around!

The hardest part about being warm, is knowing just how important it is.

When I lived in Aberdeen, Scotland in 79 there was no gas, except that burning off a couple hundred feet above the derrick on the rigs I worked on. Electricity was expensive for the locals, so on shore we kept warm by sleeping under 5-6 wool blankets - very heavy. The sheets were made of polyester - yech, but the stores didn't sell cotton sheets, so I was forced to get use to it.

At first it seemed difficult, but after a while you just accept wearing lots of clothing and curling up to get warm enough to sleep. The cobblestone streets made of granite stones were frozen over in the morning, but if you had good balance you could slide on them downhill on the way to work for Halliburton.

It's amazing what people can adapt to and once the adaptation has taken place you don't even think about it - you just do what you need to do. People are spoiled by cheap energy, but they will adapt to harsher conditions.

You are right of course. I remember one time curtains stuck [frost] to the window in my bedroom!

But people died younger too. I have worked outside with fingerless gloves and sitting in a shed constructing through winter. You can work for about 1 hr then you need to warm your hands somewhere..

I have read that low circulation in the limbs pushes blood pressure up in the body core.

UK housing stock is ancient, and most will never be easily made efficient. If you don't heat stone houses in the UK climate, there will be mould growing everywhere.

Stop idiots breeding beyond replacement first.

"When I was a lad we didn't have central heating and I too remember curtains stuck to the window with the water from my breath..."

anyway, this is getting like a Monty Python sketch now so I'll stop it. The broken glass hurt like hell... :o)


I'm only 19 and never had problems with heating, but when it came to air conditioning, before we had window air conditioning in almost every room (our house is built in a way that central air is impossible), me, my brother, and my sister all slept in my den in cots that my parents bought with a heavy plastic sheet blocking the exits keeping the cold in. Never was a problem, and nobody bitched and moaned. It probably built a better relationship between us looking back on it.

Retrofitting with double glazing were common when my grandmother were young before the second world war.

Yes, good points. Localization is key -- heat as locally as possible, clothing and internally being the most effective.

BTW, this is also true of light. One can read with a low power LED book light. I bring one to (dark) restaurants to read with, and will start doing so at home when electricity gets expensive or unreliable.

I also was advocating the residents in the condo where I live use electric room heaters to keep a single room comfy rather than ask the condo to turn up the heat for the building (central heat for whole building). But the drop in gas prices has put the kibosh on that -- for now.

Similar points can be made in regard to water if need be. One can wash with a tiny fraction of the amount we normally use -- as I found in the one or two time I've experience water outages -- by simply localizing the application of water. Still, the thing I'll miss most about the oil age is the long hot shower. Oh well.

A few years ago, such thinking would get one labeled as a nut case. Now more and more people are beginning to realize such thinking is not quite so nutty.

My wife and I have always used far less energy than our friends, and last fairly cold winter we were quite comfortable, even at -15C outside temp, by doing simple and easy things anybody could do:

wear snow pants + sweater- old moth eaten ones for normal work, and fancy nordic ones for company
use a down comforter for bed, as well as nightcap, and don't heat bedroom at all. Very cosy.
keep nice well insulated living room toasty with a good wood stove, and spend most evenings there.
Outside, wear a russian fur hat- real life saver, no matter how cold.

We did not suffer a bit, felt plenty warm, and even could have done a lot more to cut energy use. I also used a hand cranked LED flashlight, plenty of light and a little exercise- very little. Also a little noise, so wife knew I was still alive when out there in the workshop (unheated, mostly) or shutting up the chickens.

Speaking of chickens, I have noted how well-dressed foxes are, who seem to work just fine in very cold weather.

Also, not to forget, in old days, people did a LOT more work, and that kept them warmer than anything else. That was the problem with the bunny suits- if I did do some work, I could get too hot. Solved the problem of course the same way it was always done- open up torso and head covering, and watch the steam.

Unfortunately, most friends still just blast away, heating too-big houses with gas heat while they themselves run around inside wearing next to nothing. But I get to feel more virtuous.

the thing I'll miss most about the oil age is the long hot shower. Oh well.

Don't write it off just yet.  While we've used up the cheap oil and NG will go the same way, energy qua energy is quite abundant.  Wind, solar and nuclear are not going to run short of supply in several lifetimes (capture and conversion is another matter).  On sunny or windy winter days, there is no reason for your hot-water tank to be anything but full; should we get a clue about nuclear (e.g. liquid fluoride thorium reactors) the calm, cloudy days are no problem either.

I've lived the last four years in a small converted farm shack (1930's) with my young daughter. No heat, single panes, little insulation, and below the poverty line.
Mild climate here (California), and we have been ok with thermals and polertec in winter. Warm hats on the couch as well as in bed. Can normally see my breath indoors.
But the thing is, this isn't ok when you get sick, or when you come in from the bike commute soaking wet with no way to dry off.
From the perspective of affluence (likely most readers here) one losses sight of both what is acceptable and what creates real hardship. Most days we can all just dress appropriately, but when the crisis times, such as illness, there needs to be a backup.
To that end I installed a Morso wood stove this spring. With two quarter logs and some kindling I can thoroughly heat my living area, drive out the damp, dry the rain-soaked clothing, and get that physical relaxation one needs at times. This has made all the difference for us.
I bought the stove on clearance, 50% off. I heat with scrap wood and tree trimmings.

No need for high-tech, big money retrofits here. Those things are coming to an end soon, anyhow.

UK, drizzly, grey, yada yada. Elsewhere winters can be sunny, and there are many options for heating interior space with the sun, eg. Sun Lizard

I do not know much in detail about the climate in the U.K., but I recently experienced one of the most educational periods of my life, as well as one of the more traumatic.

About 5 months ago in the U.S., in the state of Kentucky, we experienced the worst ice storm in our history. It was almost mythic in its destruction, destroying trees, power lines and even structures in an hour after hour ice pile-up which moved over the state like a glacier descending from the sky.

I was made homeless, with the power to my home destroyed, the electric meter sheared from the wiring of the house, and the water frozen and bursted on the north side of the home. The house still sits dark and cold. I was forced to relocate to an apartment some 22 miles away. I left the house at 2AM, using a garbage bag and a flashlight to round up some emergency supplies. When I left the house was 22 degrees Fehrenheit (-9.4 Celsius)inside with water frozen in the kitchen sink and the pipes bursted under the home.

The most important lesson I learned was this: If you are not prepared before the event, you cannot prepare for it during the event. The damage of cold and ice occurs very fast. By the time I realized I could not endure in the extreme cold, saving the house from damage was hopeless. I had stayed under mountains of blankets and wearing a parka and ski sweater and jackets, going to my car every 6 hours or so in an attempt to warm up, but I could not cook food, had no heat and no light, so could not bath or even shave (except for "dry shaving" with a disposable razor, with no way to wash my face afterward) By the time I left the home I was dehydrated, hungry, grungy and cold to the point of it being dangerous.

I know one man who stayed with his wife in his home until his feet began to turn black. He almost lost the feet, and the doctor told him once he made it to the emergency room that he had almost lost his life.

The U.K., like the U.S. has an aging demographic, many with health issues such as high blood pressure, bad circulation, diabetes and heart conditions. A collapse in natural gas/electric production that destroys the ability to heat homes scares me FAR more than any gasoline shortage ever could. The great Kentucky ice storm only proved to me what I had already known, but had not prepared for.

The fact is, the U.S. and U.K. would see great suffering and casualities in an emergency involving major loss of home heating and it would occur VERY quickly, almost before the emergency contingency plans could even be put into play.

If we do not prepare now, we cannot prepare when it happens, it will simply be too late.


Good points made. It will be sharp and fast - maybe not as extreme as your scenario but very, very uncomfortable and indeed deadly for certain demographics.
For myself I selected a boiler that can be run from LPG bottles with just a few taps of the control panel - together with backup generator that would see almost a month long crisis off.
On the other side a power cut is more likely and since most boilers need elec as well as gas then a secondary supply, even if it is just a 500w battery/inverter good for 6 hours, might be essential.
A plan to drain down the vulnerable water system and get a warm room together would be a good start and wonder how long it might be before a goverment leaflet arrives on that point.

Does anyone sell a methane powered ICE generator set? With a manual start, this could run your electric supply eg for boilers etc.

Home generator basics
Kohler natural-gas generators
Electric Generators Direct natural gas catalog

Note that a natural-gas crisis would affect the fuel supply for these generators also.

It's worth keeping a bag with a change of clothes, a few warm layers, waterproofs, sleeping bag, wind up torch, instant food, small first aid kit and if you have it a small alcohol stove and some fuel. It might sit there for years, then again it might just come in very handy at some point.

Sounds like the Blizzard of '93 (March 1993 that is) here on Planet Georgia. I grew up on Michigan, so I didn't think much about 18" of snow on the ground, until the trees started coming down and taking power lines with them. We were similarly unprepared, but managed to stave off damage to the house by using the fireplace; we also had a gas stove that we could still cook on and we hung a lantern on a ceiling hook for light. Power was out 9-1/2 days, and our water pipes were froze for two weeks, but we managed to get through it.

When we had the January 2000 ice storm, though, we were ready: plenty of firewood, a 4200W generator, and enough gas to run it. All the in-laws came up to our place (downside!!!).

Surprises even hit those used to cold weather. In '92 we caught a foot and a half of snow the weekend after Labor Day when the birch leaves had barely begun to fall. Those snow loaded leafy trees took down power lines in right of ways everywhere. Power was out for 3-10 days for most of the borough, and of course the snow didn't leave till May. But so many people heated with wood and hauled water anyway that those whose more modern homes were rendered helpless by power loss didn't have too go far to find a comfortable place to stay.

If enough people get prepared short term emergencies are met by the community much more readily. If relief can't arrive or be reached in a couple of weeks or so, because the disruption is too widespread, a whole different scenario starts to emerge. By midwinter about the only residue of our early snowstorm was the odd effect of living in a landscape that looked like giant, upright, unwrapped, freezer burned broccoli for as far as the eye could see. We got off with a warning.

A microwave generator in the corner of the room...mmmm...toasty warm.

I like the general gist of this, as it calls on us to be creative, and if nothing else, these tips will save many of us more $$ in the winter to come.

Some medical thoughts, as that is my "expertise":

- The way cold indoor temperatures cause a spike in the number of deaths during winter months in Britain (apparently not a huge problem anywhere else in the world, go figure) is that cold (sort of like exercise) causes stress on the cardiovascular system. This means that in order to keep warm against even 60 degree indoor temp, you need to expend energy, and the organ that works harder is the heart. While doing this, it needs more oxygen, and people presumably with inadequate coronary arteries are not up for this. This stress is cumulative. You also add on to this whatever stress you get from facing the cold outside.

- Colder ambient temperatures also cause an increase in blood pressure, causing more of the effect above (the heart has to pump against the resistance of this higher blood pressure, so is working harder, so needs more oxygen, which the coronaries have a hard time supplying - also the pressure itself can cause plaque buildup, further narrowing the coronary arteries)

- This is worse in people who are "unfit" - as in don't exercise much at all; I would guess from my own experiments with 60 degrees indoor temp last winter, that people living at that temperature are likely to get comfy under the covers and not want to move much. I agree that moving around (say, housecleaning, washing dishes, cooking) will warm you up, but your first impulse is to stay cozy reading a book. Here's another thought: CATS - when I was a student, we used to fight for who would hold the cat, as we kept the house at 59 degrees. Also the only comfortable place was studying at my desk under a (non-CFL!!) desk lamp.

- Elderly people, and probably diabetics in particular, also lose temperature sensitivity, so they don't feel cold, and have to be reminded to wear more clothes. This is also obvious for my boys, although I am not sure cold stress is bad for them.

So therefore:

- I think bringing in the Inuit and our ancestors does not help in this discussion. Obviously, people used to survive before central heating, but the details are unclear: how long did they live, how often were they sick - in other words, did the weaker ones just die off in infancy.

_ Oh, yes, infants. Some changes need to be made there, starting with "wearing" infants during colder months. At night would we bedshare? One issue is "tenting", where parents stretch covers between themselves, leading to loss of heat in the middle where the child sleeps. Of course the official word is no covers around infants. I raised my three at about 65 nighttime temperatures. They were fine, but did wear a fleece sleep sack and a small fleece baby blanket and share the bed with me (and tended to wake up every 2 hours to nurse, though did not drop body temperature).

- I think all the suggestions in the comments are helpful; I strongly agree with the need for an occasional backup system in case of illness. Also to remember that having too many square feet of house to oneself is a problem - easier for a handful of people to heat a small-ish house just by being in it.

- I am not sure what type of sinusitis can be related to cold air. The dry indoor air is supposed to be bad for colds, causing chapped mucus membranes through which viruses can gain access, but honestly, I am not sure this is proven scientific fact. Cold air can cause airways to constrict, as in asthma, if one is susceptible. The resultant coughing can last hours, or even days. There is also an uptick in respiratory infections in people who live in cold British houses, but the heart disease and strokes (from high blood pressure, I guess) are a bigger problem.

The dry indoor air is supposed to be bad for colds, causing chapped mucus membranes through which viruses can gain access, but honestly, I am not sure this is proven scientific fact.

Apparently, low absolute humidity leads to higher shedding of particles during breathing.

thanks for the info paranoid

re dry/cold/damp air.

the dry air of gas furnaces sure seems to not fit our respiratory system.

working/camping outdoors for cold we used scarfs etc. to regulate the warmth of the air- wrapping over one's mouth/face, & breathing thru one's nose as much as possible to heat the air.

the added stress of cold does increase one's load, & needs to be accounted for as a limitation.

I can't believe that there has been no mention yet of programmable thermostats! That should be basic, one of the first things that people do.

It used to be in the older days that homes were pretty much continuously inhabited by someone in the family. These days, the adults are all at work and the kids are all at school, so the house sits empty for most of the day. It makes all the sense in the world in that situation to set the thermostat WAY BACK during the daytime. A programmale thermostat makes sure that it actually gets done every day.

Temps can be lower at night because people are in bed; the bedding keeps people warm, the rest of the house can be cooler. Once again, a programmable thermostat makes sure it gets done.

Of course, this only works as long as one is relying on an automated system. Heat with wood, and the programmable thermostat is the one placed between your ears.

Some of this flies directly in the face of my own experience with winter. In both Michigan (Planet Earth) and Planet Georgia, for example, the problem isn't getting rid of the humidity — it's adding enough. Perhaps the UK is different?

For the last two winters, we've heated FAR Manor primarily with an old Earth Stove fireplace insert, and keep an old percolator pot of water on the cooking surface to put a little moisture back in the air. Given the mild winters on Planet Georgia, this simple wood-heating retrofit works fairly well. We still use the gas furnace, but only as a sort of baseline.

In my serial peak-oil novel, FAR Future (on my blog), there's a fair amount of verbiage dedicated to people staying warm, or trying to, through the winter. People would move in together and heat only one house, strip abandoned houses and burn the furniture & hang the carpeting on walls for extra insulation, and so forth.

Regarding hot water heating, I'm not a fan of "on demand" water heating in general, and most especially not when the heating provided by electrical resistance heating. Each joule of heat delivered through resistance heating requires ~three joules of fuel consumption.

Gas-fired on-demand heaters are not terrible, but the very high rate of heat transfer required to keep up with the flow of water means that the heat exchange is incomplete. A lot of energy is lost in the flue gas.

The most efficient option is a heat pump, delivering to a well-insulated hot water tank with well-insulated hot-water pipes. Second best is a compromise with on-demand water heating; multiple smallish hot water tanks with rapid recovery rates, located near the points of consumption. In practice, that most often means one tank for a pair of bathrooms located back-to-back, and a separate tank for the kitchen. Proximity means short runs of pipe, easy to insulate, with quick response and minimal waste while hot water finds its way through cold pipes.

Another good way to get by with less energy is with more efficient cooking appliances. Even if one must boil water inefficiently in a pot on the stove to start, pouring boiling water and ingredients into a wide-mouth thermos bottle can be an efficient way to prepare soups and stews.

Induction cooktop for getting up to boiling temp.

You can effectively cook stews and soups in a thermos?

A lot of people have mentioned insulation, but only a very few have mentioned windows, which are often more important.

We have thermopane windows. We added another triple layer of laminated glass (glass-plastic-glass) to most of our windows (1/2" thick for the fixed windows, 3/8" for movable windows). It wasn't terribly expensive, just a custom order for the glass, and a carpenter's installation. We also use cellular shades, which work quite nicely as window treatments, are cheaper than drapes, and have some insulating value.

Now, we can maintain a 70F temperature in the house down to 32F outside, with no use of HVAC at all - that's roughly a 40 degree difference. I suspect we could maintain a 25 degree difference with no electricity (and therefore no lights, PC's, etc).

Um, how about some insulation? I live in Northern Canada and rarely turn on my heat till 4C. Most of the UK doesn't get temps like that. They need to retro fit their homes with good insulation. Not furnaces