04 April 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project


Spring is Here!

Along with poisoning pigeons in the park, thoughts of the end of "home heating season" with its attendant high fuel bills run rampant in my now-thawed capital unit.  Here in the Northeast the typical home is heated with oil, whose price was up by about 50% over last year.  It could have been worse - gas heating was up even more.  My own personal response to this increase was to turn the thermostats down a bit, wear a clothing item that I am told is called a "hoodie" over my T-shirt, and remit the money I have saved on gasoline for my hybrid Prius to the heating oil supplier.  Not a terribly satisfying outcome, but I survived, as did almost all of my neighbors.  To put a brighter outlook on it all, spring is here!

Looking back on "home heating season," however, I realized that the whole concept needs rethinking.  When I turned the thermostats down, the house didn't complain that it was cold.  It needed no "hoodie."  Hice, it seems, are quite stoic.  Unless you abuse them with an overabundance of snow, they are content to bear the chill as well as or better than the trees and mined refractory substances whence they came.  Unlike their occupants, they are not whiners!  Bearing in mind the squeaky wheel principle, if they're not complaining, why heat them?  Why not heat just the occupants?

Richard, that's stupid!  You have to heat the house to keep the occupants warm, don't you know that?"  (No I don't, I reply both parenthetically and petulantly.)

Consider the cup of hot chocolate in the microwave oven.  Turn on the microwave, the hot chocolate gets warm.  The microwave oven remains cool, as does the air within.  Considering my diet and the well-known percentage of water that we all are, how do I differ from a cup of hot chocolate?  Well, I'm surrounded by skin instead of a cup, and there are few solid bits in there, but there isn't that much difference.  Why not heat the "house" with microwaves?  The occupants would remain warm without wasting energy on the uncomplaining ottomen.

Richard, that's worse than stupid, it's lethal.  Don't you know that microwaves cause cancer, make your eyeballs explode, and cause your offspring to grow wings?

Sez who?  Do you know anyone whose eyeballs have exploded?  (And, just speaking aesthetically, are wings such a bad thing?  At least they'd leave the nest early!)  In fact, we (and Science, too) are largely ignorant about what would happen if we tried to heat people with microwaves.  For example, large numbers of studies have been performed to determine whether low-power (but almost touching the head) cell phone microwave energy has any deleterious effect on the brain.  Disregarding the obvious effect on the voice making it much too loud the studies have yet to find any provable dain bramage.  What about whole body microwave irradiation?  The answer is simply unknown.  By placing the microwave source far enough from the occupants so that no point received more  than "warming" energy, it might be possible to save an enormous percentage of the home-heating bill.

Of course some home heating is necessary, lest the pipes freeze or you find that you can't get up after watching The Sopranos.  But the mathematical equation that dictates the amount of energy needed to heat a home shows that even a small decrease in the temperature demanded results in a large saving.  If it's 30 degrees (F) outside, it takes much less than half the energy to heat the house to, say, 50 degrees, than it does to heat it to 70.  Can we make up the energy with microwave people warmers?  Maybe!

I'm not suggesting that you try this at home, at least not until you're beyond reproductive age.  Even so, it would be nice if there were a feasibility study, perhaps funded by the appliance folks.  People are warmed by radiation every day.  We call it sunlight.  We call it infrared*.  Sitting in front of the fireplace is nothing more than being heated by really tiny microwaves.  Let's not let our automatic panic at such seemingly bizarre notions prevent us from at least exploring the possibility of this novel home heating plan.

 *Infrared, which is almost certainly safe, is not out of the question, either.  It would require aiming, but that's fairly easy.  Maybe I should invent the "homeostat."

Richard Factor