Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The blizzard of ’09: Another lesson in thermodynamics.

When admissions draw to a close, vacation begins. I jumped on a plane to go visit my family in the Washington DC area (Brother Alan, Sister in Law Terry, Niece Seneca and Nephew Milo). My other brother, Rob, also managed to fly in from Chicago.

Well the visit started out fun enough, but after a few hours, dire reports started appearing on all news outlets that the blizzard of the century was about to hit the area. Now DC does not get a lot of snow most years, so like London, when it does snow, they really don’t know what to do with it. In short, it shuts down the entire city.

Usually a snow day is pretty fun. You go out for short periods of time to shovel, or play in the snow. Then you come inside again to warm up. If it only lasts a few days, no big harm done. That is, unless you don’t have heat in your house. Only a few hours before the blizzard was set to hit, the heater in my brother’s house died. It was an old heater, but it certainly picked an inconvenient time to croak. Fortunately, the heater-repair-guy was able to come by before the snow started falling. Unfortunately, he was unable to do anything to help. In short, the whole thing needed to be replaced – which they would not be able to do until after the snow stopped falling.

Thermodynamics lesson: If there is no heat source inside, the temperature of the house will fall to be the same as the temperature outside.

Before the snow started, Rob and I drove out to the local home depot and filled the trunk of Terry’s little Honda civic with a stack of Duraflame logs to burn in the fireplace. We badly underestimated how much wood we would need to burn though. [Although whether we estimated correctly or not, we more or less filled the trunk of the civic. It was dumb not to try to fill it more though].

Well, even with something to burn, the large Maryland suburbia house was not really meant to be heated from the fireplace alone, so most of the house was pretty cold. As the temperature outside dipped to 20F (-7 C), the temperature inside hovered around 50F (10C). [We measured the temperature one room away from the fireplace. In other rooms, it was probably colder]. If we really burnt wood quickly, the temperature would rise only to about 55F (13C).

We all dressed really warmly. Here’s a picture of the three brothers and the Niece and Neph sitting in the room with the fireplace (Alan is on the couch with Seneca, Rob is on the chair, and that is me and Milo on the floor. Note the Oxford sweatshirt on Milo). Surprisingly Seneca and Milo didn’t seem to mind the fact that it was cold at all. They sometimes refused to even wear sweatshirts or socks insisting they weren’t cold. I have no idea what it is about children’s metabolism that makes them generate so much heat, but I was pretty cold. In that picture I was wearing two layers of pants (“trousers” in the UK. “pants” usually means underwear), three layers on top, two layers of socks, and a hat.

In this picture is our savior: Terry… and the Duraflame logs. (Note again the oxford sweatshirt).

We had a lot of fun playing inside. We ran around the house a bit to keep the blood flowing (OK, to be honest, running around the house with Milo and Seneca is on the agenda whether or not there is heat in the house). Rob and I swung Seneca and Milo around in circles until both of us had pulled all the muscles in our backs and then some.

By the middle of the next day, we were running out of wood already. The snow was not falling as hard, so we sent out a team of hearty adventurers to try to find more snow. After clearing the driveway (one of the neighbors had a snowblower) Rob and Alan took out the all-wheel drive Subaru (For those interested, here is the difference between all-wheel and 4-wheel). Not all the roads had been plowed and those that had been plowed were not very clear. Nonetheless, they made it out to a local market that had both more Duraflames and some real wood as well. They stocked up on enough to last a few more days.

This is more or less what it looked like outside at the time. The total snowfall was about 21 inches. Yeah, I know, if you are from Montreal or any other really snowy place, this is nothing. But DC is a very warm climate. That was more snow that DC usually gets in any entire year – all in one day.

Of course, the snow was pretty fun to play in too for some of us.

The next evening Rob had to go back to Chicago, and I was supposed to fly to Rochester to visit my parents. The main roads were clear by then, so it was no problem getting to BWI airport. But the airport was a zoo. There were people I talked to in the airport who had literally been there for three consecutive days trying to get home for the holidays. Many of them were military on holiday leave who had set up a virtual camp in the airport. Our planes were somewhat delayed, but at least left that day.

The next day the repair people started work on the heater. By that time, Alan and Terry had grown exhausted of living in the cold and the family drove to Terry’s Mom’s house to stay there for a while (it is not far away – if the roads are clear). With luck, in a day or two more, they can move home again!


Loren said...

I was in DC too, in a house with a wood stove in constant use. But I was told by our host that Duraflame burns at a lower temperature than wood and thus provides less heat. True?

Steve said...

Duraflame is made mostly of wax which burns at a pretty low temperature compared to wood. That is true. But then again, it burns for a long time compared to a piece of wood. I suspect that the total energy stored in a Duraflame is actually larger than the energy stored in a piece of wood of the same weight-- it just comes out more slowly.

In fact on this website,
it says duraflame has twice the energy content of regular wood.

Nuntiya said...

Oh, Steve, you're the only person I know who could discuss the scientific merits of Duraflame and still sound interesting. :)

Steve said...

Thank you! (But of course if the temperature of your house depended on Duraflame versus wood, I'm sure any information on the relative merits would suddenly seem extremely interesting --- no matter who was discussing it).