Your home’s heating is an essential part of your survival in cold weather. Even if your house is insulated well, it will eventually get dangerously cold if your heating system is off or the power grid goes down.
Many homesteaders have fireplaces or wood-burning stoves in their homes, an idea that has plenty of merit, considering that wood has been the most common heating fuel throughout history.
On the plus side, wood is a renewable resource that one can harvest on their own. On the minus side, a fireplace or wood-burning stove is limited as to the area that it covers. You can’t heat an entire home with a fireplace.
Our ancestors solved this problem in a variety of ways — many of which we can adapt to our own use. Knowing what they did and why they did it gives us some insight into how to keep our own homes warm without electricity, even in the midst of a winter storm.
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American homes have grown through the two centuries of our country’s existence. The average home size now is 2,600 square feet, which is large enough to be considered the home of someone wealthy 200 years ago. Wealthy people could afford more than one fireplace and many of their homes had them. Some even had a fireplace in every room.
It’s difficult to retroactively install a fireplace in every room of your home, even if you have the money to do so. It probably would be easier to build a new home designed for all-wood heating. But if that’s not an option, then we need to look at other options.
If we look at our country’s Colonial period and the westward expansion of the pioneers, we see that homes were much smaller. A one-room home was much easier to heat and a single fireplace was enough to do the job. So most people lived in one-room homes.
The fireplace became the focal point of the home, much like the television set is today. People would sit around the fire, talking and working on small tasks. Much of the handicrafts of the day were done sitting around the fire in the evening.
As homes grew, one of the first rooms added was a separate kitchen. This helped keep the rest of the home warm, as well as providing a larger work area for processing food. It also helped to keep the rest of the home cooler in summertime, as the main fireplace would not have to be lit. Kitchens always had their own fireplace or a wood-burning cooking stove.
Many homes had a loft where the children slept. Since heat rises, the loft would be the warmest part of the home. Mom and dad’s bed would often be located below the loft, so that they could have some privacy from the prying eyes of the children.
Here are a few “forgotten” ways our ancestors kept warm that we can borrow, either now or in the future when the electricity is out:
1. Thick bedding and curtains
The classic down comforter was intended to allow families to sleep in comfort, holding in their body heat. Beds were piled high with quilts and comforters in an attempt to keep warm.
Quilts and comforters weren’t the only thing that beds were piled high with; they were piled high with bodies, as well. While mom and dad usually had a bed to themselves, the children often slept all together. As the family grew, there might be a boy’s bed and a girl’s bed to provide more room.
Warm night clothing was common as an additional layer of insulation against the cold. Most people even slept with stocking caps on, to protect themselves from losing heat through the tops of their heads.
The idea of bed curtains also traces its roots to trying to keep warm in cold weather. The extra layer of fabric used for the curtains would help hold a person’s body heat in the bed area.
2. Bed warmers
Before retiring for the night it was always a good idea to warm up the bed. This was done with a bed warmer. These are covered copper or brass pans, with a long handle. Holes would be punched in the lid, forming a design. The pan was filled with rocks that had been heated at the edge of the fire and then slid between layers of bedding using the long handle. This would warm the bed quite effectively.
3. Foot warmers
Foot warmers are both similar to and different than bed warmers. Typically, they were a wood-framed tin box with a wire handle on it. Like the bed warmer, heated rocks were placed inside the foot warmer, which could then be placed by the feet, under a blanket.
This was most commonly used as a heater in the family wagon, when going to the store or church. Wealthier churches had boxed-in pews, which allowed the families to bring in their foot warmer and lap blankets to keep warm in church. In many churches, this was the only heat to be found on a cold Sunday morning.
An alternative to the bed and foot warmer was a soapstone. Soapstones would be placed in the fire to heat and used directly, often wrapped in rags to prevent anyone from burning themselves on the hot stone. They could be used as bed warmers or foot warmers.
Due to their mass, soapstones were often more effective than a foot warmer. The more massive the stone, the more heat it can hold.
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