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Good tidings from a boat

by: Paul Kando

"... The sides of the ship are lined with tarred felt, then comes a space with cork padding, next a deal paneling, then a thick layer of felt, next air-tight linoleum, and last of all an inner paneling. The ceiling of the saloon and cabins ... give a total thickness of about 15 inches. ...The skylight which is most exposed to the cold is protected by three panes of glass one within the other, and in various other ways. ... The Fram is a comfortable abode. Whether the thermometer stands at 22° above zero or at 22° below it, we have no fire in the stove. The ventilation is excellent, especially since we rigged up the air sail, which sends a whole winter's cold in through the ventilator; yet in spite of this we sit here warm and comfortable, with only a lamp burning. I am thinking of having the stove removed altogether; it is only in the way".

The Fram
photo credit: Fram Museum, Oslo

That's an excerpt from Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen's 1897 book Farthest North about his 1893-1896 Arctic expedition to validate the theory that an east to west ocean current flows beneath the Arctic ice sheet. To do this, his ship had to survive being frozen into the ice off Siberia, without being crushed, float with it for up to five years, and emerge unscathed in the North Atlantic. All the while the ship had to provide a warm home for the crew, without being re-supplied. Nansen commissioned shipwright Colin Archer to construct such a vessel. The result was Fram ("Forward" in Norwegian), the first wooden ship not to rely on pure strength to avoid being crushed, but on the shape of its hull that made the ice push it upward and out of harm's way. After several Arctic and Antarctic expeditions, Fram is now preserved in a museum outside Oslo.

It strikes me that Nansen and Archer built Fram using information we can all access by simple observation; the same basic science we need to construct a comfortable, energy efficient house. Here is a summary in ten points:

  1. Freezing water expands -- pipes burst, ships frozen into ice get crushed.
  2. Because heat is energy subject to the laws of thermodynamics, it is conserved (cannot be destroyed) -- warm air leaking into an attic can melt snow on the roof, even cause ice dams as it cools. The capacity of energy to do work decreases (entropy) -- things cool because heat spontaneously travels only from high temperature to low).
  3. Heat, air and moisture interact, so we must control all three.
  4. Heat travels by conduction, radiation and convection -- we must block all three, using insulation, and an air/moisture barrier.
  5. Heated air expands, becomes lighter, rises and carries with it the energy it absorbed - this is convection.
  6. A heated structure is pressurized like a balloon by the expanding warm air. Even the smallest leak deflates a balloon until the pressure is neutralized -- the air/moisture barrier must be continuous and sealed.
  7. When water is heated, it evaporates.
  8. Air absorbs water vapor; the warmer it is, the more it absorbs -- relative humidity.
  9. When warm air transfers its heat to cooler surroundings, it gives up moisture it can no longer hold.
  10. When heated matter (air, water, etc.) cools, it releases energy; when water vapor cools, it condenses into liquid water (causing mold, mildew and rot) and gives up its heat of evaporation (melting snow, causing ice dams, robbing the house of heat).

All this is common knowledge. The key to Fran's success was its builder's ability to apply it. Floating on polar ice, Fram traveled farther north and farther south than any other wooden ship. Carefully sealed, insulated and ventilated to allow it crew to live onboard for up to five years, the ship even had a wind-driven generator to provide power for its electric arc lamps.

Bringing the economic system in line with this knowledge will secure a comfortabl climate. Place Fram on dry land and we have a zero energy house. Our houses don't need to float on Arctic ice incommunicado for years; they need only to keep us comfortable one winter at a time. We have access to far better materials and technology than was available in Nansen's days. (Imagine doing all the calculations for Fram's design using only pencil and paper!) Worldwide, 40% of our carbon emissions come from the buildings sector. We could collectively reduce this by 6 gigatons per year at no cost, by cutting our energy waste. What is stopping us from applying the same body of knowledge to make our houses perform as well as Fram, keeping us comfortable all winter long while saving our planet? How about the number of jobs we could create and finance by spending the $1.6 Billion a year Mainers collectively spend on imported heating fuels, here at home?

How about the energy, emissions and money each of us could save? A group of us, local folk, have figured out how to make our houses more comfortable, yet less costly to heat, spending less money to do so than we now spend on heating. Our ideas will be presented at a workshop coming up in January. Details will be announced soon, in a future column right here.