This morning the temperature in Hartland, VT is 18 degrees below zero … yes -18 on my thermometer right now … mid-morning.
As I sit in the warmth of my home here at Cobb Hill, the sun is beating in the south facing windows as the temperature soars in my little abode. I think the sweater has to go.
When I awoke this morning, I could tell that the outside air was crisp. It was cool in my bedroom and I snuggled under the covers knowing that one of my community members – ah yes, it was Susie – was on her way to the “garn” to stoke the fires.
What is the garn you are thinking? Well it is a wood fired boiler system (the brand name is Garn) that, when fed wood, will heat water that is then pumped into pipes that circulate throughout the homes at Cobb Hill. We either have radiant floor heating in our homes, or the more typical baseboard heaters. The heated water circulates throughout the community and then returns to the garn to be re-heated for another round. We must closely monitor the temperature in the garn throughout the day so that it does not overheat and boil over. That means sometimes you are filling it with lots of wood, other times you are not. Depends on the day … the temps outside, the sun, the time of year etc. It is a science for sure and most at Cobb Hill have come to understand it well.
This heating infrastructure required careful planning in the design phase, the system relies on the wood as its renewable energy source. Of course electricity is needed to run the pumps. We are not net zero, but we certainly have made a dent in our carbon footprint. I am quite amazed that to heat 20 homes and a large Common House we use approximately 45 cords of wood a year. One New England home that heats with wood can use 5-10 cords of wood a year. Here at Cobb Hill we get by on two cords a home.
When I was first introduced to the Garn system, I was told that I would be taking my turn in the weekly rotation in stoking the fires. Walking into the Garn room can be a bit overwhelming.
All those meters, directions, forms to fill out, hints for understanding the system. I did my walk through with Jesse, one of the maintenance gurus here at Cobb Hill. I was completely intimidated. When we finally started the garn fires in late October, I needed a support system to get me going my first few times in the rotation.
Today is Friday. I am on the Friday team. We have five to six people on a team and we each sign up according to our schedules and what works for each of us. My shift today is 9:00 tonight. Sometimes I do the midnight shift. One morning last week I forgot I had the first shift – 6:00am. Fortunately for me, a close neighbor to the garn building realized when his house wasn’t getting warm that someone had forgotten and he made his way over and started the morning fires. (We have two boilers.) It happens about once a week that someone forgets … with temperatures as we have had, it doesn’t take long for the village to know. Another time I was sitting in the movie theater when I realized that I had forgotten my 6:00 pm shift. Thank goodness for cell phones as a quick text got someone over to the garn to stoke it immediately. Indeed it takes a village.
Oftentimes people ask, what is the glue that holds your community together? One of the first answers that pops up is “the garn”. To heat with wood means we must gather often in the spring and summer months to stack the 45-50 cords of wood. The good cheer and conversation is always fun.
This happens often and spontaneously as someone announces that a load of wood has arrived. The teamwork, the responsibility to keep everyone warm, is a deep connection. Knowing that this morning Susie got up early, made her way to the garn in the bitter cold so that by the time I arose from my bed, my home was toasty … . I am just appreciating her as I type. I get to appreciate everyone in turn. The sun shining in all morning has given the garn a rest … not so much wood is required when we can count on the passive heat from the sun.
Yes it takes a village to heat our village and it is a brilliant system in that it creates the heat we need to enjoy the Vermont winters, but it also creates the camaraderie and community that we moved here to experience. Depending on each other in this way is having the desired effect – our community is warm in more ways than one.