Rob's Blog Archive

December 8, 2013

Deep Cold










The temperature dropped below -20 F at Silly Lake for the first time in nearly three years. Actually, we’ve had a deep cold snap five of the nine previous winters I've lived here and three of those have had temps below -20 F. With this season, we go to six out of ten with four hitting the sub -20 F range.  We may not be Alaska, but it still cools off at night. 

0F, the storied lowest temperature in Fahrenheit's home town during the year that he developed his scale, is the threshold for cold for people living in places that get winter.  At that temperature freshwater has become hard as rock.  Ice is also much stickier than it is at 32 F.  Ice forms a microscopic layer of water between it and everything from tires to skis, and that’s what makes it slick.  The colder it gets, the harder it is to form any layer of water, and ice becomes like any other solid.  You can slip on ice at 0 F, but it doesn’t happen often.

0 F is also the temperature at which fluorescent bulbs stop firing.  If I remember to turn them on before the cold hits, they’ll stay on through any temperature I’ve seen here, but they won’t turn on after it gets cold.

I can stoke the woodstove well enough so that, if the temperature is at or above zero all night, I don’t have to re-stoke it and the house will not drop below 60 F.  I pay attention to how I run the stove---I always pay some attention to this---but I’m not that concerned about efficiency. 

At -10 F, I start to pay attention to my clothes even for short excursions outside.  I’m sure I could walk out naked, but I’d be shivering hard in less than a minute, and that would continue after I got back in regardless of what the house temperature was.  At this temperature, I really do have to re-stoke the stove in the middle of the night to keep the house from dropping below 60 F.  It’s easy to put enough wood into the stove before I go to bed for there to be coals in the morning with which to get a fire going, so sometimes I don’t bother restoking the stove and just deal with a cold house in the morning. 

When the temperature drops below -20 F, I hear trees crack when I’m walking outside---I don’t know if it’s dead standing or living trees, but it’s there.  The truck gets plugged in.  I monitor the temperature in my utility room carefully. I run the wood stove as efficiently as I can.  I still run it wide open once or twice a day to keep my stove-pipe and chimney clean, but I’m much more attentive to controlling the air intake.  With it wide open, the stove pulls in a lot of very cold air from the outside and sends some of the warm air out the chimney.  With it being freestanding as well as having a single walled stovepipe, it still kicks out much more heat than it loses by pulling in cold air, but it’s not as efficient as when I close the intake a little.  With this, the stove itself gets hotter and the stovepipe stays cooler, particularly where it enters the chimney.  And, the stove needs much less air so the amount it pulls in from outside is much lower.

The dogs started getting extra food when nights drop below zero. At -20 F they get extra extra food. Still, first thing in the morning when the temperature is usually lowest, I see one or two laying out in the snow rather than in their doghouses.  About the only thing that happens for the dogs, aside from getting more food and burning it to stay warm, is they start getting minor ice-balls on their footpads.   Being Siberian Huskies, these usually fall off quickly, and a dog who was holding a paw off of the ground and subsequently was distracted, a full food bowl generally works, will again walk comfortably on all four feet.  

The coldest temperatures I’ve experienced were while driving the Alcan during the winter of 2008.  I dropped and fed dogs in temperatures that ranged from -45 F to -55 F.  It was before I had my hip replaced, I had a severe limp, and I was alone---it took a while to handle my twenty dogs.  Additionally, the dogs had chewed through my block heater cable and I had failed at my effort to reconnect it.  This meant that I had to get up every couple of hours to run the engine and warm up the truck.  Finally, my engine lost almost all of its oil---happily, there was a place along the highway that was open and sold engine oil.  I found out later that that was probably a PCV valve freezing up.  Strange things happen to vehicles when it gets that cold. 

The fourth night on the Alcan, the temperature dropped only down to -28 F.  It felt balmy.  It was also safe to let the truck stand idle through the night.  Life was good.

Right now, the cold snap has ended.  I can again do whatever I want with my wood stove and not worry about it.  I’ve unplugged the heater I use to keep the utility room at 40 F or so.  I’ll put away the extension cord I used to plug in the truck before the night is over.  It’s 10 F and snowing---definitely balmy.  Actually, life is good for me in the really cold temperatures, but much more challenging.  I like challenges, but I don’t mind relaxing, either. 

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