I have a farm in Shrewsbury with 14 horses and an assortment of other furry quadrupeds in residence. All the horses, including the tough sturdy Quarter Horses from the western plains and the hot blooded thoroughbreds rescued from the racetrack, live outside all winter. A big part of my winter ritual is reassuring passersby and people I meet at Pierce’s Store that the horses aren’t cold. And that is because they’re "winterized" naturally. It’s an ingenious system that starts to kick in early in the fall. As the days get shorter and light is reduced, the horse’s retina sends a message to the brain to produce more melatonin to start growing a winter coat. The winter coat has essentially two parts that achieve, of all things, air sealing and insulation. There are the longer hairs that in cold weather stand up to trap warm air against the horse’s body and there is a layer of downy fur close to the skin that provides the actual insulation, keeping the body warmth in.
Often during a snowstorm you can see my horses standing out in the weather for many hours with several inches of snow resting on their butts. On the surface the temperature is 32 degrees or the snow would melt, but no more than an inch away the temperature is about 100 degrees, the normal body temperature of the horse. That layer of fur is preventing the warm air from escaping his body.
Horses have their own central heating system that is just as simple and effective. When horses digest long stem fiber or hay, fermentation occurs in their very long gut and heat is created. In cold weather the fiber is digested slowly and heat is sustained for quite a long time. Corn and other grains are useful as calories but it’s the fiber that actually cooks up the heat they need to stay warm. If all else is right with the horse, he has enough warm water (not snow) and is in good health, his body is most efficient and most comfortable when the temperature is about freezing outside. By that I mean, that at 32 degrees he is at ‘net zero’ -- his body has to expend almost no additional energy to stay warm.
So the horses have it right. We never have to worry about them again, but have we done as much for ourselves as they have done for their own comfort and efficiency. If you are not likely to spontaneously grow an air sealing system, you might consider applying one to your home to keep the cold air out and the warm air from escaping since you have paid dearly to create that warm air.
The places this happens are not obvious to us or we would have taken care of them a long time ago. These days experts are using new tools such as infrared cameras and the strange and funny looking blower door test which is as simple as a box fan set in your door to find the hidden leaks behind light fixtures, around the rim joists where the basement meets the house or under the kitchen sink where the plumbing exits the house. And once the air sealing is applied there are ways to upgrade your insulation to keep even more heat inside where you want it. The old pink insulation we all know might have an R-value (Resistance to heat flow) up to about R-49. Adding insulation, these days usually blown-in cellulose, easily increases your R value to R-60, the new energy code.
Over 830 homeowners in southern Vermont have made home energy improvements through the NeighborWorks H.E.A.T. Squad program in the last three years -- including many ‘do it yourselfers.’ They took advantage of incentives from Efficiency Vermont up to $2,000 and they will save an average of 200-300 gallons of heating fuel or, at present fuel costs, about $770-$1,150 this winter and every winter hereafter. They did it just by adding air sealing and insulation to stop the warm air from escaping their home.
Call the NeighborWorks H.E.A.T. Squad toll free at 877-205-1147 x 227: We are your one-stop-shop for home energy efficiency in Addison, Rutland, Bennington, Windham and Windsor counties. We help customers of all income levels every step of the way to a comfortable and affordable home -- from education and engagement, to scheduling an energy audit, to managing and even financing energy efficiency improvements (single family residences and apartments up to four units). We offer discounted audit prices and support from our professional energy advisors. We work with a hand-selected team of dependable, independent, Building Performance Institute-certified local contractors. Our flexible financing options are open to qualified customers of all income levels and include construction management.
We would love to see you as comfy as my horses with a fluffy pile of snow on your roof just inches away from a warm and toasty room inside. We would love to see your central heating system expending far less energy to stay warm just as my horses expend almost no energy at 32 degrees and only need a little more hay when the temperature drops from there.
Ludy Biddle is executive director of NeighborWorks of Western Vermont.