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« Yoga Everywhere | Main | Not All Suburbs Are Alike »

December 18, 2006

Houses and Technology

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Our Seattle house has been without power for 3 1/2 days and it might be another day or two before electricity gets restored.

Last Thursday evening Seattle got one of those hellacious windstorms that come around every 15-30 years. More than a million people were affected as trees fell across power lines and transformers got zapped.

Unlike some parts of the country, our storms come in the fall and winter, so it's fairly cold -- 30 degrees yesterday morning and 34 when I made my Starbucks run at 6:30 this morning. Fortunately, most days have been above-freezing. Nevertheless, given Newton and his entropy, the inside of the house eventually will reach the temperature on the outside.

At least we've been able to stay with friends and family, so matters are simply inconvenient and no suffering is involved.

And I now have food for thought -- my thought being that electricity-age houses are poorly equipped indeed for dealing with winter power outages.

Until the early 20th century, most houses were designed for woodfire heat. They were multi-story, rooms were small and often had fireplaces or, better yet, Franklin stoves. Post-1950 ranch-style houses are horizontal in format and might even lack a fireplace.

(I'm not a fireplace fan. The non-circulating types send most heat up the chimney. Once the fire is finished, you have to keep the flue open till the coals have burnt out, and that sucks a lot more heat outside. The benefits are more psychological than material in my opinion.)

Perhaps the so-called "green" houses are better than ranch houses when power fails. But I suspect that almost any house built since, say, 1920 is ill-suited for power-out conditions unless special precautions (auxiliary generators, Franklin stoves) are taken.

Modern technology-based civilization has many strengths, And weak-points.



posted by Donald at December 18, 2006


Donald, the problem is with the way power distributed in residential areas. I don't understand, why sewage, f.ex., is distributed centrally, with the main line under the street and branches stemming to individual houses - and the whole system underground, but the electricity, that is also coming centrally in the buildings (unlike fuel), is distributed via cables hanging in the air on trees and poles, like in 19th century.
Even in Russia (and my recollection dates about 15 yrs ago) this arrangement was considered outdated and used only temporary, and in sparcely populated places.

Posted by: Tat on December 18, 2006 4:33 PM

If I ever live in Seattle I'm going to insist on a house with a battery-operated fireplace.

Posted by: Rick Darby on December 18, 2006 5:01 PM

I don't get it. Are post-1950 houses heated by electricity, too?

Posted by: shecky on December 18, 2006 5:31 PM

I grew up in a Thirties house in Portland, OR, that heated with a big wood and coal furnace in the basement, distributed through pipes and vents and two cold air return "sinks." It was a little sooty but I loved it. My mother replaced it with an electric furnace and was never warm again except in front of the fireplace.

Now I'm in a Thirties house in Valier, MT, with a natural gas floor furnace -- convection supplying heat to four rooms. A little booster electric heater in the bathroom. The electricity gets knocked out quite a bit -- usually only for a couple of hours -- but the gas has never been interrupted. There ARE drawbacks, but so far this works. I'll eventually put a wood stove in the garage when I get it converted to a room.

People who are dependent on electricity for breathing and so on have no such alternatives unless they can afford a generator. That's what runs Baghdad -- generators.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 18, 2006 8:42 PM


Why Aren't Powergrids Underground?

Posted by: Jonathan on December 18, 2006 10:12 PM

Electricity is a weak point when there's one monopoly provider of the power grid. In the (very few) towns that legally allow competition, it's more reliable because you have the option to switch providers if one service is perceived as unreliable.

(Lubbock, Texas is one of the 20ish US towns where electric companies compete on service - one power company shares lines with the local cable company, the other shares line with the local telephone company, and FWIW, many of the lines are underground. More here.)

Posted by: Glen Raphael on December 19, 2006 5:06 AM

Interesting. Thank you, Jonathan.

A bit busy now to read all the comments there, maybe somebody already answered this: if the problem is lack of incentive for elec. utility companies to dig powergrid dawn - by analogy, how come gas utility Co's find it profitable? Or delivery lines (not the product itself) are regulated by the government?

Posted by: Tat on December 19, 2006 10:27 AM

shecky -- Many (most?) gas furnaces are activated/controlled by electrical systems, so once the power goes, so does the furnace. It seems to be diferent with gas water heaters. Or at least the one in our place. We have hot water, but the rest of the house is cold, cold, cold.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 19, 2006 12:31 PM

The big issue with modern furnaces and electricity is the fans. Electric fans are so efficient at moving warm air around that most new furnaces will have them. FWIW, the same is true of fireplace blowers, which are commonly used to raise the efficiency of heating with wood.

The only serious modern competitors to forced air that I am aware of are radiators and subfloor heat. And calling radiators "modern" is a bit of a stretch. (If you've ever lived in a house that uses radiator heat, you probably know what I mean.) Subfloor water heat is quite nice, by all accounts, but also quite expensive.

(I doubt I'm actually the right person to discuss this here, since I'm sure Tatyana could expand at length, and correct any errors I've made.)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on December 19, 2006 1:41 PM

DP: "...given Newton and his entropy, the inside of the house eventually will reach the temperature on the outside."

I hope not to come across as pedantic, but -- since this blog is a welcome resting place where the two cultures can come together, and since thermodynamics is such a fascinating and hugely important field -- may I offer a correction and a background on this topic? What you are describing is heat transfer.

While it's true that Newton (1643-1727) did discover an important empirical law of cooling, he was a century too early to understand heat and to participate in the thermodynamics revolution. I think he was closer to being a caloric man, the substance-based theory of heat that reigned until the mid 19C. The modern description of heat transfer is the work not of Newton but of early 19C figures like Fourier.

Entropy was introduced c.1867 by Clausius and Kelvin, then rigorously defined by Gibbs, Maxwell, and Boltzmann (1844-1906), who famously put the entropy equation "S=k logW" on his own tombstone. What else need a man say?

Posted by: hothead on December 20, 2006 2:46 PM

They still make non-electric gravity-powered gas furnaces that have a self-powered thermocouple thermostat.

Posted by: John Hall on December 21, 2006 11:05 AM

This post gets me into thinking aout how a house can operate without electricity. Fire place is just one of the many issues. When there is a power failure in my office, everybody stop working as computers are not working, and all the rooms are hot and dark.

A modern house lives almost entirely dependent on electricity.When power supply breaks down, a house is but a pile of useless brickwork. Some essential services and interior function must be designed to be functional even without the use of power.

look fr studio LDA

Posted by: look on December 22, 2006 12:27 PM

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