Experiments in Radiant Heat

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May 10, 2018 by lucieromarin

A mix-up between two energy companies left me without power for a little over twenty-four hours last winter.

Thirty-two Lents had never stripped my soul bare as those hours did, and I learned that calling the renunciation of cake for forty days a spiritual discipline was the ascetical equivalent of keeping a pot-plant alive and then proclaiming oneself connected to nature and a saviour of the planet. During that time, I stopped thinking about social justice and turned my thoughts to how I could be less cold. The desire for tea nearly drove me mad. My dependence upon a third party to turn up at my place at his leisure overturned any concept I had of myself as possessed of agency or control. I was annoyed by what seemed a failure of my religious practices to teach me to this degree. Was there really any virtue to praying the Rosary in comfort, if it was only in the absence of electricity that my weaknesses were disclosed? I did not like what I was learning about myself, and I was irritated by the apparent necessity of upset or trauma for revealing the truth to us, whether that truth is ‘what your husband really is’, or ‘who’s really there for you when you get fired,’ or ‘what your real place is in the Church.’

There was also nothing to do. My flat was not in dire need of cleaning, so I could not spend the whole day cleaning it. Neither could I spend the whole day on crochet. Reading was entirely dependent on cloud cover, and by two pm, the natural light in my flat was too dim for it. Once the sun went down, I lit some candles, realised that I could neither read nor sew by candlelight, extinguished the candles, and went to bed. (The sun goes down pretty early in winter).

How was it that I had prayed and fasted and studied and given to the poor and read holy books and listened to sermons for thirty years, and then been undone by an absence of tea? My thoughts moved from myself to the collective; I realised how changed we are by artificial light and warmth. Ideas about what we ought to be able to achieve, either individually or collectively, are very different once it becomes possible to travel, meet, fundraise, perform, compete, socialise or study after dark, yet none of these possibilities change the body that is programmed to slow down at dusk and sleep at night. Who has time to fight injustice when all your efforts must be turned towards not freezing to death in winter? (More on that topic here.)

The restoration of power made me determined that this would never happen again. I began my experiments.

My best success was a little frypan, 12cm x 12 cm, and 3cm in depth, and lined with aluminium foil. It fit nine tealights, which together created a surprising heat. I could carry it from room to room, and, left in my shower, it actually warmed it. The problems with this device? I only had paraffin-based tealights at the time, which smelled (and were) toxic. You don’t smell one tea-light burning before a holy image. You do smell nine of them burning in your shower for ten minutes. The warmth was pleasant to have to hand; the smell was not. Also, the heat travelled upwards – I had no way to direct that heat outwards.

I was able to fry two eggs over three candle stubs, but it took over an hour. (This was partly because I had not yet cottoned-on to the need to trap and direct the heat. A true urban-dweller, I really thought that Things would do what I wanted just because that’s what Things are for.) After using various lids to create three walls around my ‘oven’ I was able to reduce this problem somewhat, but it still took almost an hour to warm a lentil patty and chopped capsicum, and the results tasted like paraffin. This was horrible.

If I were to try the same thing with beeswax tealights, the heat would be greater and the scent healthy. I imagine it might make my food taste like…honey? I recently spent a day sorting, cleaning and filtering wax-leftovers; I’m now making them into lights. Last week, I burned one tealight made of a blended beeswax and palm wax, and the heat was extraordinary; I could hold my hand over forty centimetres above the flame and find the heat uncomfortable. But, of course, that heat still only travelled upwards. To use such tealights for warmth the heat would still need some kind of incentive to travel in my direction. The cost, too, would be enormous.

I thought I should wait till summer to try solar cooking. Now, as I type, the sun is shining clearly onto my balcony, and I’m annoyed that I didn’t build a solar oven a month ago. There’s an hour of electricity-use-avoidance being wasted on my balcony, and a whole dinner not being solar-cooked. Last winter I was annoyed because it was cold and I had no electricity; now I’m annoyed because it’s warm, and I have no solar oven. The spirit of detachment is a work in progress.

It’s encouraging to see that off-grid living in Sydney is achievable – but, of course, you need to own your home first. Surely no one paid off a mortgage in Sydney while living off-grid.

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