The “polar vortex” descends on the Sullivan House

After our New Years’ guests departed, a new unwelcome guest arrived. Michigan was enveloped in the heart of the polar vortex that descended from the north in early January, sending temperatures plunging into the danger zone. With it came more than a foot of snow, dumped over the course of three days. For a week, most of our attention was focused on finding and blocking drafts in the house, and trying to stay warm.

The month of January broke the all-time record for snowfall in Detroit, set in 1908, with over 37 inches records. On February 1st, to celebrate, it dumped another inch. A week later, another foot. Yesterday, it came down again. All the stores are out of shovels and salt, and our snowblower broke last year and cannot be resuscitated. You could sum our experience as: 5 guys, 1 shovel.

At the coldest point of the vortex, I worked next to the fire with a blanket over me to keep warm.

At the coldest point of the vortex, I worked next to the fire with a blanket over me to keep warm.

Needless to say, the boiler is having its biggest workout yet, and we’ve been talking a lot more about heating strategies. Eventually, we’d like to heat the basement, attic, and the loft of the carriage house. That would effectively double the square footage of heated space, which makes me cringe to think about.

My current thinking is that pot-bellied stoves in the basement and carriage house will handle a lot of that, and a third loop off the boiler will cover the attic. Of course, a pot-bellied stove in the basement means a chimney liner and getting a cherry-picker to open the third chimney again. So, baby steps. We’ll see.

There are some serious drafts, even after our sealing frenzy. One of the kitchen windows is covered in plastic because we removed the sashes for repair in November, not realizing it would take us 4 months to reinstall it. Oh well.

Our gas bill is actually down slightly from last year, probably due to me programming the thermostats this time around. It’s the electric bill that’s crazy painful – we currently have an electric heater warming the basement since we have a roommate sleeping down there this year. That bill made renting a cherry picker seem like a reasonable expense.

The week of the first polar vortex, we simply couldn’t keep the first floor at temperature. The first night, the thermostats went down at night and the house never made it back to anything near a reasonable temperature the next day. I put the thermostats on “hold” for the rest of the week to stop the fluctuations and huddled by the fireplace to work. I spend a lot more time on the much-warmer second floor during the day too.

It’s dangerously cold many days. The dogs don’t stay outside long. I’ve had to shovel paths for them in the backyard twice now. I tried taking Rocky for a walk around two square blocks a couple nights ago and ended up carrying him the last block on the way back – his paws hurt so bad he stopped walking and pawed at the air in the most pathetic way possible. I scooped him up and he tucked his paws into my arm and shivered the whole way home. It did little to dampen his enthusiasm for walks, of course.

We’ve been doing some minor touchup projects inside, but mostly we’re hunkered down, hoping for an early thaw so we can get a jump start on the exterior in March. So far, mother nature is not signaling her willingness to cooperate.

3 thoughts on “The “polar vortex” descends on the Sullivan House

  1. A friend of mine had a rather old house too and his house never got above 56 during the polar vortex. More insulation and plugging drafts...
  2. Unfortunately, more insulation is a tricky proposition that involves drilling holes in walls or the facade which I'm not excited about. We do have a couple nasty drafts left to deal with, especially in the office & kitchen.
  3. " I’ve had to shovel paths for them in the backyard twice now.." The best way to stay warm!

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