Dec 182010


Here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we start getting snow in mid-November, though it doesn’t usually amount to much more than an inch at any given time until early December.

Then it has the look of permanent snow (the kind you deal with until March), and the cold settles in for the season. Thanks to living in an underground house, we don’t turn on our heater until that cold has fully arrived.

Living Underground

My wife, Anne, and I live with our daughter, Samantha (we call her Sam), in a 1,300-square-foot earthen home, also known as an underground house. The late date for firing up the furnace isn’t unusual for us. Early December isn’t even the latest we’ve turned on the furnace during the past decade. One year we waited until Dec. 24, and we only turned it on because we had the entire family coming for Christmas. It’s not that we enjoy shivering. Because our home is insulated by the earth around it, we simply don’t need regular heat until much later than most folks — even in the harsh, cold climate of the Upper Penninsula.

We moved to the Yoop (as most locals call it), more than a decade ago, and took a chance on an underground home. Though we had never been in an underground house before and were only familiar with them through MOTHER EARTH NEWS, it felt like the right thing to do.

If it weren’t underground, our home would be described as a ranch-style house. Picture a ranch home with three bedrooms and a sunken living room (we enjoy the fun of having a sunken living room in a sunken house) along the south wall, all with large bay windows to soak up passive solar heat. The kitchen, dining, bath and extra rooms lie along the back wall, and a woodburning stove sits in the middle of it all. That’s our house — with three sides below ground.

The house is made of concrete, glass and stone, and has wood siding and trim along the south face — on the few parts that stick out from ground level. As a result, it’s extremely well-insulated and is protected from the worst winter winds, which means it heats up nicely during the day with average sunlight, and holds heat extremely well overnight. We’ll throw a few logs in the woodstove when we get home from work and keep it going until we go to bed, just to brace the place against winter nights. That routine keeps us warm well into early December.

Even then, it doesn’t take a lot of wood. We usually burn only five or six pieces a night; any more than that and the house gets uncomfortably hot. We’ve never burned a full cord of wood in any winter. And when we finally do need to turn on the heater, we use a traditional, high-efficiency electric furnace with a programmable thermostat. We can’t use gas heat underground because there isn’t enough ventilation for safe operation, but we’re happy with electric heat. Our electricity is renewable and, in this application, inexpensive. It’s supplied by hydropower from the nearby Menominee River, instead of from a coal source. We’ve not paid much more than $150 for a month’s heat, and that was during one especially frosty January when the mercury dipped below zero degrees and stayed there for several days. In case you’re doing the math, yes, that means we heat our three-bedroom, underground ranch that sits about five miles from Lake Michigan for about $500 a year. Better yet, it’s heated solely with a renewable resource. Not bad. Not bad at all.

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