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Idea #4 New Ways to Warm Your Bum

Forget patio heaters. Use the heat restaurants cook up.

Ruben Anderson 25 Dec

Sustainability consultant Ruben Anderson writes the Steal This Idea occasional series on environmental fixes for The Tyee.

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New ideas for the new year.

[Editor's note: Back by popular demand, the Tyee again is offering its readers a series of New Ideas for the New Year. We're publishing a new one every weekday from Dec. 22 through Jan. 2. They're intended to get everyone's problem-solving, creative thinking going for 2009. Later in January we'll be asking you to suggest your own new ideas for the new year, and publish a selection.]

I live in a nice neighbourhood. The pleasantly tattered barbershops and import food stores of Little Italy are only recently being replaced with baby boutiques and doggy bakeries. The main street practically defines café culture, which means lots of outdoor seating, and as the seasons change, lots of patio heaters.

If there was ever an example of why we do not fundamentally deserve our opposable thumbs, this has to be it. As soon as we developed grip, we started warming the planet. Let's refresh -- some of the world's leading scientists say climate change could affect rice production, the staple food of half of humanity, will eliminate half the species on the planet by 2100 and that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 100 per cent if we wish to avoid runaway warming that will kill everybody who can't make it to the Arctic fast enough.

Our response? To pinch that little knob and turn the flame up higher -- it is a little brisk out here in the middle of December.

We seem to think we deserve to be warm at all times, regardless of season or activity. So we are burning fossil fuels outdoors. Just burning them. Outdoors. We are trying to Heat The Outdoors. There is no way I can say this that makes it sound any smarter.

Maybe you need a kotatsu

The British seem to be the only place that cares about patio heaters. The environment minister was quizzed in parliament about the GHG emissions (about 300,000 tonnes per year across the United Kingdom) and Wyevale, a garden centre chain has stopped selling them.

Deliberately turning away from a half million in sales, Jim Hodkinson, Wyevale's chairman, said: "Phasing out the sale of gas powered patio heaters is not just the right thing to do, it also demonstrates our determination to establish and adhere to a meaningful green agenda in every area of Wyevale's business."

So what would be a smarter way to stay warm in the cold weather? Oh maybe being indoors, with a nice well-insulated wall and some double-pane windows between you and the cold. Or, I once enjoyed an al fresco dinner at a Vancouver restaurant that had blankets folded over each patio chair. You could also put on a hoody, a vest, a jacket, a shawl, a toque or perhaps some nice fingerless gloves.

The Japanese use a heated table, called a kotatsu, to keep warm in the winter. A quilt is draped over the table frame and the table top is placed on top. Charcoals (or an electric heater) keep you toasty underneath. They are much more efficient since only the space under the quilt is heated. As opposed to the whole outdoors.

Siphoning restaurant kitchen heat

Let's get even more imaginative, as we need to do if we want to die old and happy, and from something other than climate chaos. Restaurants have lots of waste heat, in liquid form from the incessant dishwashing, and as hot air rising from the oven and range.

Martin Air Systems, a Burlington, Ontario company, fits waste heat recovery systems. They have been able to cut restaurant gas bills by 35-40 per cent. Considering that our Kyoto reduction targets were 12 per cent, making a 35 per cent cut that pays off in one or two years seems like a pretty good idea.

How about we circulate that heat through a bench on the patio? A warm bench on a cool summer evening? You would never want to leave. Don't try to tell me this isn't possible, warm air was circulated under floors in ancient Rome.

What about the poor restaurant owners, unable to compete without the extra seating space? As a former restaurant owner, I have remarkably little sympathy, in fact this may be the only time you will hear me support the free market.

Suppose a restaurateur had a dream of a little joint that serves only dry toast. This place -- named, I am sure, White or Brown? -- doesn't even serve a glass of water to help you wash it down, just toast.

When White or Brown? encounters financial difficulty, do you think taxpayers should step in to subsidize their stupid, crumbly dream? Of course not. So why should we chip in part of our national carbon allowance for patio heaters? That would be dumb.

Throw no more on the barbie

Finally, and here is where my eyelids lose their battle and my eyeballs actually pop out of my head, what about the ardent barbequeist? You know, the one with the big stainless steel barbeque, and the stainless work surface, and the bar-size stainless refrigerator -- a whole outdoor kitchen that must be kept warm as the sun goes down with a nice stainless patio heater.

This is wrong on so many levels that I can only hope lightning is attracted to all the stainless steel. First, there are many people, not just in other countries, that don't have a kitchen, let alone an extra kitchen.

Second, your spare kitchen doesn't just spring forth, from some sort of immaculate industrial conception; the resource extraction, manufacture and transport of your extra kitchen generates GHGs. I could go on, but all I need say is: You are Heating The outdoors. With fire. The outdoors.

Your lap blanket awaits you.

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