DXMachina (dxmachina) wrote,

Chemistry Saved My Life...

...and other thoughts about the blizzard of '13.

It's another snowy weekend, although I don't think there's as much on the ground as they were predicting (6"). At least there's still power. I lost power in last weekend's blizzard around 9:30 Friday night. I didn't come back until around noon Sunday, so around 39 hours without heat or other conveniences. It wasn't so bad Friday night, as the house is well insulated and there was still a lot of residual heat in the house. It was getting near bedtime anyway, so I reported the outage to National Grid, and then stuck myself under the blankets around 10:30 and went to sleep.

It was quite a bit colder in the house in the morning, below 50° in the house. The snow was still coming down at that point, although the sun did peek out for a little while in the afternoon. The radio was also predicting one of the coldest nights of the winter for Saturday night. Fortunately, both the stove and hot water heater are gas, so they were working. Unfortunately, the gas safety valve prevents the oven from being lit manually when there is no power (and even if you could light it, it needs constant power to stay lit). So I had hot water at the tap and could cook, but little else. Except...

By coincidence, the night before the blizzard I was teaching my students about heat capacity and the specific heat of a substance. Specific heat is the amount of heat that must be absorbed or released by one gram of a substance to raise or lower, respectively, the temperature of the substance by 1°C. One of the things about specific heat is that the specific heat of water is the highest of any commonly encountered substance.* It's 20-40 times higher than most metals, and 4 times higher than the specific heat of air. And steam's specific heat is twice that of air.

* Liquid ammonia's specific heat is higher, but it's only commonly encountered in places like Titan. Water's high specific heat makes life as we know it possible. It's also the reason temperatures are milder near the coast than inland, and why June 21 and December 21 are not the hottest and coldest days of the year. It takes a lot of energy transfer to raise or lower the temperature of the oceans.

You can probably already see where this is going. I put pots of water on the stove and boiled them. It didn't make the house toasty, but it did raise the temperature into the fifties for the day. And as the temperature started to approach single digits outside Saturday night, I filled a couple of five-gallon jugs I use for camping with the hottest water I could fill them with without softening the plastic, and put them on the floor on either side of my bed. In the morning the bedroom was 55°, only a few degrees lower than I normally keep the house at night, while the rest of the house was 39.

The big negative in this was the humidity. The humidity outside was 20% or less; inside I had it up to around 65%, much like a miserable day in August. Now, humidity is a good thing, because it holds onto heat in the air. On the other hand, when that much moisture hits walls and windows that are pretty cold, all the vertical surfaces in the house start looking like a tall glass of iced tea on that hot August day. It got kind of gross, especially when the walls that I've never gotten around to painting (or even washing) in the not quite 13 years I've lived here started forming little rivulets of the tobacco smoke residue left behind by the previous owner. I now have a bunch of walls to clean.

P1010182 All in all we got about 18", not much by comparison with some places in the area. Central Connecticut, where I teach, got 30" or more. The college was closed on Monday, but didn't affect me since I wasn't scheduled. Despite being in better shape than a lot of the area snowfall-wise, My street never got plowed at all until mid-afternoon Saturday, and the plow never got nearer to the end of my driveway than six or seven feet. The good news was that the hurricane force winds had blown all the snow off the walk from the side door to the top of the driveway, so I didn't have to shovel that.** So late Saturday afternoon I started digging, clearing around the truck and immediately behind it.

** I had to shovel by hand since even if I'd had power, my little electric snow thrower really wouldn't have been up to all this. Fortunately, I had nowhere to go until Tuesday, so I could do it in chunks. Plus I needed the exercise.

As soon as I finished moving snow around, I moved all the food from my freezer to the back of the truck for the night. I put the refrigerated stuff up in the attic, which was holding steady at 38° (it was 32 by morning). Sunday was warmer, above freezing, but the power came back eventually, so I was able to move the food back to the refrigerator. Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to clean the interior, and toss a couple of containers of old mustard.

I also finished clearing out the driveway. We still hadn't seen a plow since the one the day before, so I figured they weren't coming back. Thirty minutes after I finished, I heard them coming. In minutes ny work was for nought. I went back out and started back in. I got about half way done, and the plow came back, and offered to plow me out. They were doing this for all the folks on the street. They even brought in a payloader to move the snow out of the way as they were doing it. Wish I'd known sooner, but it helped.

More pictures here.

In other neighborhood news, whilst doing my second shoveling of the end of my driveway, I finally had a conversation with my across the street neighbor. She's lived across from me, on and off, for 9 years, so it was probably about time. I also had my first chat with the guy who lives next door to her, so it was a very social blizzard.

The power outage bugs me more and more. I'd been lucky in previous big storms, not losing power when many others did. What is bugging me so much is that during the great blizzard of '78, which was a much worse storm, far fewer people lost power. This time around, more than 190,000 homes were without, and remember, Rhody's population ain't all that big. There's been storm after storm after storm that just clobber the infrastructure in dimensions that seem to far exceed what they used to. I wonder how much of that is due to the utilities cutting back on tree trimming in the name of profit. Blech.

Speaking of natural disasters, I am so very glad that the meteor didn't hit Russia, say, thirty or forty years ago. That could have been bad, in the crossing the streams sense.
Tags: annoyances, blizzard of '13, disasters, news, weather

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