8. The pink stuff is safe to drink, but I wouldn’t.

Upstairs brick chimney remnant, sealed but still standingIt’s been cold here (Jan 31-Feb 1 2019), but we didn’t make the news with our temps. It’s Montana. Bitter cold is normal. We were hardly mentioned in the news of the Polar Vortex, which sounded like a made-up marketing term to me anyway. I create marketing campaigns for a living. I recognize shorthand buzz-speak when I hear it.

This old drafty house is a challenge to keep warm. My great-grandparents and grandparents did it, so it should be doable. Right? I know they had a wood and coal cookstove in the kitchen, and in later years a fuel-oil burner, and in the main room a furnace of some sort with a stovepipe that fed through the ceiling to the upstairs bedrooms and chimney.

The chimney was dismantled when I got a new, metal roof in 2007. The hole for the pipe had been long-since sealed, but it is still visible, mostly because a couple of years ago I ripped the horrible pressboard panels out from the living room ceiling. (They were falling on my head one day as I was trying to work on my laptop.)

Upstairs, about three feet of the bottom of the deprecated brick chimney is still fastened to the wall. It’s a prominent unmovable fixture, painted a tired shade of mint green to match the walls. Which continue to separate as the house shifts on its unstable gumbo foundation.

I was doing fine with the cold, even though my propane and electric bills were sky-high. I also have a beautiful, efficient Jotul 602 woodstove which keeps the kitchen toasty warm as long as I keep the fire going. It’s got a cooktop in case the power goes out, so I’m all set. The situation changed when the temperatures started plunging into negative double-digits Fahrenheit overnight. Miraculously, my indoor worm farm survived. The first such night was not even -10F. I think it was -8F, but it was still cold!

A kitchen bright spot, my jotul stove with a cooktop, and my non-electric eco fan

Next morning, I got up and flushed the toilet. No water filled the tank. I moved my little ceramic space heater (of which I have many!) closer to the uninsulated south wall of the bathroom. Hot water wasn’t working in the kitchen sink – same pipe. I lit a fire in the woodstove. A little while later, I heard the welcome sound of water running again, except that it was spraying out underneath the kitchen sink. I figured the PVC trap had cracked. Wouldn’t be the first, or last time. But closer inspection revealed the pipe had pulled apart at the slip joint. A big relief. A huge relief.

When the pieces were pushed back together, no more spray. I learned my lesson and put the bathroom heater right next to the pipes the next night. Before the freeze, I’d had it a couple feet away, and thought it would do the job since the bathroom was so small. Like I say, lesson learned.

I tried to wash a load of clothes, and ended up bailing out a whole washing machine tub of water. Fortunately, I was able to use my amazing, life-changing Underhill Gulp Ultra manual siphon pump. Emptied the water into a galvanized pail, then slogged outside into deep snow a dozen times or so to dump the water. About 15 minutes total. Disconnected the hoses after an inspection revealed ice in the tub. The motor wouldn’t turn by hand, and due to the floor slope, the whole machine was angled severely downward, so I decided it would go offline till spring. I would just use my trusty hand-cranked WonderWash. There’s a lot to be said for having grid-independent backups when your essential electrical appliances are unusable.

I went out to one of my camper trailers to grab a jug of RV antifreeze to pour in the washing machine. Years ago, when my dad winterized before we left at summer’s end, we used regular full-strength poisonous antifreeze in the water lines. I don’t know if RV antifreeze wasn’t a thing yet, or if there was another reason not to use it. Now, I wouldn’t use anything but the RV stuff. It’s non-toxic, drinkable without fatal repercussions I suppose, rated for -50F “burst protection,” and pink. Very pink.

By now, the daytime low was -23F, so I needed to act fast, if it wasn’t already too late to save the washing machine. I had no idea that antifreeze could, well, freeze. The fine print, which I’d never bothered to read, said the stuff would get “slushy” below zero. Mine was beyond slushy. My antifreeze was frozen.

I’m beginning to come around to the idea that I may actually need a new house. A real house. Preferably a tiny house. A friend once unfavorably compared my Southern California ranch home to other people’s “real” houses. To this day, I don’t know quite what he meant, but it made me feel like a societal impostor. I mean I had decent furniture and all the normal appliances, and the darn thing was worth over $750K at the time. I never did want to be part of what we used to call The Establishment, so maybe it was a backhanded compliment. He wasn’t exactly the poster child for the mainstream himself.

My new goal is to learn all I can about tiny homes and figure out how to buy or build one here. Meanwhile, I’ve got to keep this house standing and survivable in all weather. I said to a friend recently that no one ever said Montana winters were easy. No one. As long as I have heat, I’m OK. But when black goopy creosote started dripping from the seams in my woodstove pipe onto the floor, it was sadly clear that my stove was likely not safe to burn until the chimney was cleaned out. I accomplished that with the help of a friend, but not immediately. So I had to rely on space heaters for a few days. Lesson learned there? Don’t burn pine. Don’t burn old telephone poles (for many reasons!). Burn cottonwood.

Okey dokey. Guess I have an axe to grind.


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