The concept may come as a surprise to some, but the notion is an old and venerable one. In Medieval times, hovels were usually heated with people, animals and a small fire.
The lack of chimneys held heat in effectively for those still breathing. The combination of poultry, sheep, children and old people in a 180 square foot clay and wattle smokehouse made for many a cozy evening. The subsequent invention of convent schools, assisted-living huts, and craft guilds, however, during the Italian Renaissance signaled the early break-up of the family and created the first severe energy shortage.
The invention of the flue by François Chimbley in Normandy relieved many huts of smoke, but also of heat generated by closely knit families and animals living largely on legumes. The removal of smoke and stench from living quarters extended life expectancy well into the 20s and even 30s, but like many environmental advances, created a new problem – heat loss.
With recent social upheavals in the Middle East now driving the price of oil up towards $4.00 a gallon, we face a similar crisis today here in New England, where the winters can be severe. As farming decreased in the last century, so did the reason for large families. Various alternative heat sources have since been tried, but with limited success.
For example, the brief experiment with indoor composting in the 60s worked well enough as long as everyone huddled around a wet, smelly pile in the living room. This modest heat source was plagued with problems like carpet stains and rodents.
The Clivus Multrum composting toilet was a popular outgrowth of this technology using both human excreta and kitchen vegetable scraps as fuel. Early models, however, generated very little heat and delivered insalubrious bathroom odors to food preparation areas in the kitchen.
New Englanders have counted for years on firewood to heat their homes, but when the cost of a woodstove approached that of a late model used car and cordwood climbed to $300 a cord, many reattached old thermostats to their walls.
Today’s innovative back-to-the-landers are refining the medieval art of heating with animals while maintaining a low carbon foot print. Chickens seem particularly well suited to this endeavor.
I recently visited the straw-bale home of Sunrise and Reefer LeBoeuf in East Fairfield. Their 1200 square foot bale-house was warm and comfortable. Reefer explained the novel heating system as he shooed away a herd of buff cochins curious to see if I was carrying any grain on me.
“We recommend .6 hens per square foot. This captures optimum body heat output,” he explained.
Curious about the hen’s other two outputs, I asked about hygiene and eggs.
“As Sunrise and me learned early on, hen’s is incontinent and no amount of effort can train ‘em. We tried various gimmicks, but nothing worked ‘cept what you see over there.”
Reefer pointed to a flock of Roomba robot vacuum cleaners darting in and out among the hens.
“Very effective these li’l units,” Reefer said. “We have six and they go all day and night. As to the eggs, we give ‘em away. The hard part is finding ‘em. The girls lay’em all over the house. They ‘specially like bookshelves and clothes closets.”
I asked if the house stayed warm when the temperature dropped below zero. Reefer explained that their neighbors raised meat birds, and they simply borrow a couple of dozen from them during a cold snap. Having read about the price of grain rising as more of it was diverted to making biofuels, I asked about the economy of feed.
“A problem…” admitted Reefer, “but we feed the girls more table scraps and day-old bakery goods.”
Impressed with this new passive poultry heating technology, I said my farewells to Sunrise and Reefer and headed home with a gift basket of twelve dozen eggs and a new article for the Chronicles of Alternative Energy.