On a hot, humid, and rainy spring day in Kentucky, it is somewhat ironic to be writing about the sun. But the sun, even when hidden by rain and clouds, is a resource of almost infinite value. Each day the sun bombards the earth with more energy in a single hour than the planet uses in an entire year. The amount of energy that reaches the earth’s surface each year is greater than all of the non-renewable energy sources on the planet combined, including nuclear resources.1
There are many ways to take advantage of the sun and its tremendous power. Even better, many of these means don’t require tens of thousands of dollars in sophisticated and complex equipment, but instead have been used by people for ten thousand years or more.
WOOD: HUNDREDS OF YEARS OF STORED SUN
What happens to all that incoming solar energy? Much of it is used by plants for photosynthesis. And a large part of the plant kingdom is trees. Trees are a lovely form of stored solar energy, one that can be used in a variety of ways, from building materials to agricultural inputs to animal bedding to heating.
Wood heat and wood stoves have come a long way over the past few decades. Newer models are safer, more efficient and cleaner burning. With energy costs increasing and storms and other grid-related issues causing widespread outages with greater and greater regularity, more people are considering wood stoves for their versatility, beauty, affordability and reliability.
Wood is one of the most sustainable and efficient home heating options (especially using a high-efficiency wood stove with good thermal mass or to run a radiant heating system). Compared to other methods, it has advantages in terms of fuel storage, safety and infrastructure. Many other heat sources require special storage and careful handling, involve long distance transport and costly centralized storage, refining, and distribution facilities, and require complex, expensive, and environmentally invasive infrastructure. In the past decade the nearest large metropolitan area to us experienced three grid-decimating weather events, leaving many people without power for weeks at a time, and causing millions in damages.
Also, wood is the only method of home heating that heats you again and again and again: when you fell the tree, when you saw the tree into logs, when you move the logs, when you split the logs, when you stack the split wood to dry, and when you move the dried wood inside to burn. What other fuel source or heating method will warm you six or more times and nullify your need for a gym membership to boot?
The above observation also reveals the biggest drawback to heating with wood: the amount of work required. There is no doubt that using wood to heat your home is work, but it is enjoyable, physically rewarding work. It is work that helps us better understand and appreciate our role in creation. It is work that, when done well and wisely, improves and blesses our farms and woodlands.
When choosing a stove, there are a few main considerations. First, if affordable for your family and dwelling, choose a soapstone or cast-iron stove with a cook top. While these are generally two to three times more expensive than steel and fire brick-lined stones, they are far more durable, generally more beautiful, and also more efficient at heating your home. This is because they hold far more thermal mass than cheaper stoves, so that hours after the fire has died down the house still stays warm. We know several families who heat with wood, and those with the better quality stoves get more sleep at night (or get to sleep in later) than their peers and use less wood because of the greater thermal transference. It is good to realize that that greater thermal mass also means the stove does take longer to heat up and radiate heat into the surrounding environment.
Second, make sure the stove is properly installed. It is worth paying someone to do it if you lack the necessary skills and expertise. Proper installation is key to your and your loved ones’ safety. Last, make sure you inspect and when needed clean the chimney regularly. Again, if you are not able to inspect and clean it yourself, it pays to have a competent professional do it for you.
DO-IT-YOURSELF CLOTHES DRYING
An even more direct way to mine the sun is by drying laundry en plein air. Of course that method was the default choice for humans for millennia. The advent of the modern economy and the expert salesmanship of the 1960s pushed most Americans into a veritable avalanche of machines for their homes: away from the outdoors and into the TV, away from the dinner table and off to the diner and drive-thru, and away from the sunny laundry line and into the dark laundry room. Those monumental lifestyle changes came with some often unrealized costs.
ENERGY AND ELECTRICITY
Anywhere from 6 to 12 percent of a home’s total electricity usage per year is expended on drying laundry. The bigger the family, the greater the cost (and the more hands potentially available to help hang laundry to dry instead). Depending on how efficient you are at hanging laundry and your gas or electric rates, line drying in energy savings alone can equal around seven to ten dollars per hour for your labor. Another way to look at the numbers is the cost of the dryer plus electricity, which ranges from fifty to seventy cents or more per load plus any other things added to the system like dryer sheets or wool balls.
See all that lint in the lint trap? That isn’t lint, that is your clothes, one small piece at a time. Especially if you are spending extra money to get truly natural, clean, quality clothing (organic cotton, wool, and the like), the extra wear and tear of machine drying reduces the life and look of clothing by 30 to 60 percent. So take your clothing budget and add fifty percent to it to get a feel for how much every year machine drying adds to the bill.
The sun is a powerful, safe disinfectant as well as a natural bleach. Sunlight and fresh air are a great way to remove all sorts of nasty smells and many stains from clothing naturally. (The combination of an oxygen-based bleach in the wash plus hours drying in bright sun can produce dazzling results.) Sunlight even helps kill off the dreaded MRSA bugs and other dangerous pathogens. If you are struggling with certain bugs or superbugs, essentials oils in your laundry coupled with full sun line drying can be an effective part of cleansing your environment and home.
Machine dryers present two major safety risks. First, the chemicals used to soften machine dried clothes (dryer sheets and liquid fabric softeners) are a veritable can of carcinogens and poisons that coat clothes and then migrate through your skin into your body and are inhaled by hapless passersby who are within a block of your dryer vent pipe, as well as by anyone wearing or near the dry clothes as they outgas that noxious stuff.
Thankfully, wool dryer balls are safe replacements at times when machine drying is the only option or preferable to the outdoors, such as when it’s raining for a week. You can either purchase wool balls or make your own.2 Dryers themselves also pose a significant hazard, since people often do not properly maintain and clean them. Clothes lint is an amazingly flammable substance. Dryers are one of the most common causes of home fires, accounting for just under five percent of all home fires each year; that’s around fifteen thousand fires!
SEE THE SUN
One of the best parts of hanging laundry is that it gets people outdoors, in the all-important sunshine and fresh air. The average person generally takes far too little exercise and spends too many hours indoors. When you realize that hanging clothes saves money while also providing gentle, comtemplative exercise and an opportunity to get grounded (we love to hang clothes barefoot around here!), the total benefits of clothes hanging begin to build up beyond the small environmental and economic savings.
IMPROVEMENTS IN LINE DRYING
For those who decide to go outdoors to dry their clothes, the past decade has seen some real innovations and improvements to the traditional line drying method. Rotary clothes dryers from companies such as The Breeze Dryer allow more clothes to be hung in smaller spaces more quickly, while also helping them dry faster and more evenly through their ability to spin.
WHAT TO DO IN WINTER?
One reason I am covering both wood stoves and line drying in a single article is to demonstrate how these two technologies complement each other. One drawback to wood heat is that it dries out indoor air, reducing the humidity to uncomfortably low levels. A drawback to outdoor drying in winter is uncooperative weather in many parts of the country, although it can be done. Winter weather can be bright and very dry, so while laundry may freeze into boards at first, it will dry and even soften in the wind. The bonus is clothes and bedding with a heavenly fresh scent.
For our family, wintertime dry air is addressed by moving our laundry drying operation indoors. The damp clothes provide much needed moisture to the indoor air. The heat and dry air from the stove result in laundry drying times that rival the most efficient of machines. Best of all, the newer style drying racks allow multiple loads of laundry to take up only a few square feet of floor space.
Indoor clothes drying is not recommended during warmer seasons, especially in locations with already high humidity. Indoor drying can create air quality problems unless you have a way to dehumidify the air of the excess moisture from the clothes. If not, you risk causing the proliferation of mold and other indoor air contaminants.
CLOSING IN ON CLOTHES PINS
One of the less enjoyable aspects of line drying is modern shoddy clothes pins. Generally, the plastic models don’t
work well and don’t last very long; the wood versions have weak springs that fly apart in pieces when your sheets are flapping in the wind. Henrick Kimball, who also created the Whizbang chicken plucker and a number of other innovative do-it-yourself helpful tools for farmers and homesteaders, has created REAL clothes pins, the kind that haven’t been seen in a generation or more. These are not only beautiful, but functional, made with an industrial spring and from real hard wood. You can order them online, http://classicamericanclothespins.blogspot.com/
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2014