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Monday, February 6, 2012

When is it too cold to stay home?

Original Article

How low can you go?

- lyrics to "Limbo Rock"
I was asked yesterday, "If a house is without heat, at what temperature does it become unsafe to stay?" Or to put it another way, "At what temperature should one evacuate a home?"

I've searched the Internet and found nothing useful so I'm hoping that some reader can provide an answer. One site said that temperatures below 70 F can be dangerous (to the elderly perhaps???) if no protection is taken (like a sweater?). That seems way too extreme. At my home in winter, I'm lucky if I can convince the wife to set the thermostat up to 63 F. It's often 60 by day and 55 at night. For me 63 F is tolerable with layered clothing but below that my fingers become chilled.

When we lost power with the Halloween Nor'Easter we put on coats and hats and did OK for awhile as the temperature fell over several days. At 40 F we were becoming concerned but then the power was restored.

A site on wind chill said that -20 F was "dangerous". It may be true that even brief exposure to -20 F is dangerous but what about prolonged exposure? Someplace else warned about 30 F and below.  At that temperature you must to take active precautions to prevent your extremities from freezing with frostbite but it is survivable. When I attended an igloo making class the instructor warned against overheating the inside of the igloo. If the temperature got above 32 F the igloo would melt from the inside-out. So igloo dwellers must cope with the 30-32 F range.

Bottom Line

There might not be one simple answer. Temperature tolerance does depend on age and health and body fat. Still it would be nice to know how low is safe?


  1. A perfect question for me today. I live in a log cabin in the middle of a pine forest. I heat with wood and do not have a fire burning overnight (a safety thing). Every morning the temp in the house is between 37 and 44 degrees in the winter. I sleep naked and put on a sweater and sweat pants when I get up and then start the fire. The radiant heat makes me feel warmer quickly but the room does not reach 60 for at least an hour. 60 is the temp I prefer for my shower. The point is if I did not have the woodstove then I would put on warmer clothing. It would be far better to do that then to bug out in the winter. I grew up in a house with little heat. I slept in the attic where the temp got below freezing in the winter. My little goldfish bowl would get ice on it but strangely never seemed to harm the goldfish. The good news is that no matter how cold it gets outdoors the house never gets below freezing. I admit there is a small electric hot water heater in the kitchen so that might help. I think you can adapt to the cold. Not that you still don't need warm clothing but more that you accept and still be comfortable with a cold house. Well, time to put another log in the stove.

  2. My question would be, "And go where?" If it is too cold to stay in your home, it is almost certainly too cold to attempt pitching a tent and staying outside. Even if it were below freezing, surely I could find extra clothes, blankets, candles, people to huddle with...(And, don't call me Shirley.)

  3. I think the point here has to be what can you do today to make sure you can have heat (and even the ability to cook) if in the future utilities are shut off. Maybe the question should be posed "what will you do when your home is too cold to live in?". Buy and install a woodstove. Pick a room that could allow for the entire family to eat, gather and sleep in it. Also plan for some way to block off the room from the rest of the house so that the heated room would not require mountains of fuel to heat it.

  4. You have to realize that there are outdoorsey people,(backpackers, c.c. skiers, Eskimos) who thrive in the cold all the time. I'm one of them. Those people do well because of thier knowledge. They know how to dress,where to sleep and what to eat. Your house is a perfect shelter even without heat. It's dry and wind proof. I agree with the others to isolate your activities to one room and close off that room to conserve heat. A smaller room can be kept above freezing with a few people in it. Be sure your room is reasonably ventilated. You will also have to consider in freezing temps that your pipes may be prone to freezing and subsequent bursting. Learn how to drain your pipes if the power is going to be out for a while. Also read up on winter camping to learn how to dress properly. In layers and with a wicking layer against your skin. And keep a gas grill or camp stove to cook on if you have an electric stove in the house. My family and I have weathered a few outages this very same way. Good luck

  5. In the dead of winter guys are living/working outdoors along the Korean DMZ.. It gets pretty chilly.

    After spending a few weeks on the line. my buddy and I got a break and were able to get back to one of the main camps a few miles south of the Imjim River.near Munsan..

    Someone said we could use one of the empty tin buildings. (They sort of look like half a storm drain, round made from corrugated steel. Quonset Huts you've seen in old WWII movies of the Pacific Campaign.

    There was no heat but THERE WAS NO WIND!!! and it was flat and even.

    As we laid our 3/8ths thick sleeping pads on the frozen Concrete and jumped in our bags for some sleep my buddy looked at me and with me nodding said.. "This is nice" You could have hung meat in there and it would have stayed frozen solid.. but it really was nice relative to what we were used too.

    We both laughed.

    Stay in your house, retreat to one room with a door for everyone, get friendly.

    I have seen 20 ROK troops all piled beside each other on a little wooden platform in a bunker like puppies for warmth. (Our bags were warmer than theirs).

    Look at each other, look outside.. then say in unison.. "This is nice"

    Cause it is a hell of lot better than any tent or in some cases tent.

    Trust me.