Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Heat is Off

Sunday, December 28, 2008 finds me back home in Birkenfeld after being snowed-in in Portland for two weeks. The weather is warming, yet eight inches of dense “corn snow” remain. My first day consists of the usual chores associated with restoring a dormant cabin to habitability. The power failure meter has maxed out at 99 hours, 59 minutes, meaning the backup battery system had been out for 100-plus hours. The power comes on as I walk in the door, a welcome surprise. I had assumed no power and had even brought dry ice. Five hours of continuous fire in the cookstove raises the interior from 45 deg. to a more pleasant 65. The phone is still out.

Here’s a photo shot by my neighbor of the house while I was gone. The skylights are invisible and the vent pipe is just showing its top. About 18” of snow or a total weight on the roof of between 4 and 7 tons.

No skylights and vent tube barely visible. [photo: JB]

Although there remains a significant quantity of snow on the roof, and the chimney is canted a few degrees, I think little of it. Only after arising the next day, well after the morning fire has gone cold, and after going outside to do chores do I see that the snow, rather than glide off the roof, has compressed and folded up like the wrinkly skin on one of those fancy, over-bred dogs. The chimney pipe is bent at about 30 deg. Remarkable, as it is a 6 inch inner stainless pipe, 2” of insulation and an outer 10” pipe also of stainless.

Snow & ice on the move.

In an effort to melt off the snow, I put my two electric heaters in that room on full, the hot air naturally rising to the highest point, the watertight collar fitted around the chimney pipe. This has little effect and by the afternoon the chimney is bent at 45 deg.; the snow starting to roll over it in an agonizingly slow motion frozen wave. From the inside the silicone seal is distended to the point that daylight shines throug

Neighbors wondered why I didn’t have any guy-wire supports. I’d had them removed the prior year as they had slid down the roof ridges to which they had been secured and even so the chimney had never moved a single degree. But two things were different this year. The volume of snow; about 24 inches, and the fact that without power or someone to tend a fire the snow just sat. Sat accumulating rain, and compressing under numerous freeze-thaw cycles.

No true disaster had befallen me yet, but disaster loomed. How would the chimney situation resolve itself? With a violent release of pressure or ripped off in an avalanche of mass movement of the snow pack or just quietly melt away? Fortunately the forecast is for warmer, wet weather.

I begin to prepare by evacuating the room as in any event removal of part of the chimney was going to be messy. I then start to brace the chimney in preparation for possibly pulling it down myself from the inside.


I call my roofing person who thinks he can be by on Wednesday or Friday to give me an estimate.

Late in the day I sit on the sofa and contemplated the precariousness of my situation. I am now relying on electric heat. A storm is coming and outages seem unavoidable. I calculated that my battery backup will last only a day if I have to power a heater.

As if on cue, the lights flicker and die. Power is out. I lay down on the couch and sleep. It is very, very quiet.

Mercifully the power is restored in 3 hours.

Tuesday is spent watching the ice and snow melt imperceptibly on the roof. I had devised a plan to lower the bent chimney part into the house, remove it, replace the 48” section with a 24” one and push it back up. But to even attempt it I need the pressure off the pipe, meaning the snow has to melt.

New Year’s Eve morning finds little change inspite of above freezing temperatures. I spend the night monitoring the situation. The forecast is for heavy rain and high winds. We are on flood watch. The phone works.

New Year’s Day. Raining and the snow is melting away. Just as I start to contemplate a difficult repair from inside the house the cavalry arrives; my roof guy and help show up and the are ready and willing to get on the roof right now. 3 hours later I’ve got fire again.

The cavalry arrives.

Happy New Year



  1. It all sounds so exciting to hear your side of the snow story. I'm glad we were able to shovel snow off our endangered roofs and not lose any or have any real damage. One would have thought that the snow would have easily slid off your steep roof. Glad all's well. Kudos to your roof man.