You Know, It Gets Cold in Maine

"You know, it gets cold in Maine," is something I must've heard a hundred times when I announced that we had bought a farm and were all moving to Downeast Maine. I would feign surprise, because, duh, the northernmost New England state and it's COLD? You're kidding! Who knew?! 

Yeah. It gets cold. And our 1827 uninsulated, breezes-blowin'-through-the-walls farmhouse didn't even get indoor plumbing until 2001, but we figured Humans had survived in it since it was built, so how bad could it be?  

The first year, when only Frank and Maddrey had moved in, they installed a small wood burning stove in the living room... and spent a good part of winter huddled in front of it, hoping the toilet bowl wouldn't freeze. It was a rough winter. The previous owners had apparently closed off the upstairs completely along with a couple of the downstairs rooms and lived pretty much the same way - huddled in front of a fire.

Year One Heat 

Year One Heat 

The next year, we went about insulating where we could (basically the only place accessible was under the roof in the attic), bought a second wood burning stove for the kitchen, pulled the living room stove out and installed a larger wood burning stove in the basement.

Maddrey actually cooked an entire Thanksgiving dinner on this stove

Maddrey actually cooked an entire Thanksgiving dinner on this stove

The house was tolerable, but my office was an icebox and someone was checking the fires constantly (Maddrey often got up in the middle of the night to stoke fires - she was getting up anyway, because she was pregnant, but it made the job no more pleasant). I slept in flannel pajamas, a sweater, a wool beanie and wool socks, under a down comforter doubled over with a quilt on top... And we all dressed in two or three layers even if we weren't going outside. I had to admit it was quite a change from 30 years in Southern California where I was excited if I got to wear a jacket.

Last winter, we scored a gorgeous hybrid stove for the kitchen. The right side has an electric oven and four electric burners. The left side has wood burning firebox and got the kitchen so warm it was almost uncomfortable, but the perfect place to hang out on the super cold 10 below zero days - and when we lost power (like you do in Maine), we were still toasty. We also added a small electric radiator upstairs for the babies. I bought a little space heater for the bathroom and my bedroom - but we ran them sparingly. The rule was: only if you were actually standing in front of it could it be turned on. We shivered through another winter. And it was a spectacularly dismal winter, if you'll recall. It crushed me.

This year, we got some serious heat going. Maddrey and Frank have some kind of magical CraigsList karma and they found an almost-new outdoor wood boiler for a price we could afford. Maddrey jumped on it, Frank went and picked it up and they both set about figuring out how to install the thing. It is NOT a simple project, from my point of view but these two will take on anything.

If you've never heard of an outdoor wood boiler - I hadn't - it's this big thing.

It lives outside, in its own little house. Which was another project in itself as you can see.

Wood boiler house foundation

Once we had the concrete pad done, and the wood boiler in place, installation involved digging a big trench from the boiler to the barn, running some fancy insulated pipes in the trench to the basement.

Digging the trench

Digging the trench

This is the weird insulated pipe

This is the weird insulated pipe

The wood boiler itself will be wrapped in insulation as soon as we get to that part of the project. It has a huge firebox that heats water to about 180 degrees and then sends it through insulated pipes into the house, where Frank has installed two Modine heaters in the basement (like a radiator, but with a fan) and a couple of baseboard radiators on the first floor.

You can burn pretty much anything in a wood boiler - our nice neighbor Marcia said, "You can burn in a mattress in that thing" - so Frank is saved from cutting and splitting a lot of firewood. He simply chainsaws everything down to about 4 feet in length and throws it in. Green wood, wet wood, trash... we haven't tried a mattress yet, but I don't doubt Marcia's words.

It took dozens of man-hours and trips to Home Depot and online purchases of things that I only barely know the names of. It weren't cheap to install either. There was quite of bit of plumbing involved... and math... lots of math. But the result: no one is checking fires twenty-seven times a day (Frank loads the boiler twice a day, checks it a third time just for fun), no cutting and splitting firewood, no mud and dirt from lugging in firewood, no nagging the house teenager Max to remember to lug in firewood, the entire house is toasty, we don't pay for oil or electric and while we haven't had enough super cold days to really test it, it's snowing and 18 degrees outside today and I'm walking around in a lightweight sweater and my summer house slippers. And pants, of course.

There will be enough heat to warm the attached barn, where Frank is setting up his new workshop, and there are discussions about heating a greenhouse as well. So, yes, it gets cold in Maine... but we're ready this year.