"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Next Winter's Heat

The Insert (Promotional Photo)

I'm taking a break from the "State of the Homestead" series, which is starting to feel suspiciously like work. Instead, today I'm going to talk about one of my planned great leaps forward in self sufficiency. I've known for a long time that our heating situation is totally inadequate. We have a nearly new high-efficiency propane furnace, which is nice as far as it goes, but it is not sustainable in the long term. For one thing, it doesn't work when the power goes out. The power goes out here with predictable regularity. Usually in the middle of a winter storm, of course, when the temperatures hover around twenty degrees. We need some way to heat the house - or at least a portion of it - without electricity.

But that's only a minor consideration, really. Propane is very expensive, and only likely to get more so in the future. This winter we managed to squeak by on only about $1,500 worth of propane, but that involved extreme scrimping, and never setting the thermostat higher than 62 degrees. I know there a lot of people out there who set their thermostats even lower, but for my hothouse flower of a husband, 62 represents a real hardship. He shuffles around the house in a wool hat and mittens, sniffling pathetically. Practically martyrdom. We have already done what we can in the way of weatherproofing - last winter we got all new attic and crawlspace insulation and had all the ducts wrapped.

So partly as a matter of economy and partly as a way of reducing our dependence on externals, I decided that this is the year we will be converting to a high efficiency wood burning stove. This house has a large, lovely, stone faced open fireplace. It's a total waste of time as a heater - it sucks more heat up the flue than it can possibly produce. It is handsome, however. What I wanted to do was to remove the shelf in front of the fireplace, use the stone contained in it to build a floor-level hearth, and install a free-standing woodburning stove in front of the fireplace. Today, however, the gentleman who came over to give me an estimate patiently explained to me why that would be impossible.

All of the new EPA approved wood stoves have a pipe that exits the stove vertically, not horizontally. Therefore, we wouldn't be able to use the existing fireplace to run the stovepipe, but would have to have it rise up and then drill into the wall above the level of the fireplace. I'd lose my hearth and my mantel. Secondly, removing the masonry shelf was a much bigger job than I thought. The man said it would add at least $1,000 to the price of the project as a whole. And it wouldn't be possible to fill in the fireplace with stone to match the wall behind it. No matter what, he said, it would look patched-together. He suggested a simple sheet metal backing and said it would probably look better than anything else, no matter how much I spent.

He asked me why I wasn't considering an insert, a much more practical and frankly economical option. There are two reasons: one, I just love the aesthetic of a free-standing woodstove. That's what I grew up with. They are beautiful and romantic. Secondly, but more importantly, I wanted something I could cook on in case of emergency. All of our cooking apparatuses (apparati?) are electrical. When the power goes off, we can't even make a cup of tea. That's unacceptable.

Mr. Fireplace showed me his brochure and suggested a particular insert. I believe I have found an image of the same insert on the web, and that's it, on the top of the page. It's extremely high efficiency, clean burning, can get a 2,500 square foot house through a mild Pacific Northwest winter on three cords of wood, and has an eight-inch wide shelf for cooking. Well, it isn't designed for cooking, but it could conceivably be pressed into use in an emergency. That is, I could boil water. And if I can boil water, I can make rice, or pasta, or soup of many kinds. Also, the insert will be cheaper, because of the non-necessity of doing any masonry work, and it will preserve my mantel and the look of my hearth.

I think we will go for it. It won't be cheap, by any means. It will cost us, in fact, about three years worth of propane. Still and all, that's not a bad payback period.


Apple Jack Creek said...

Wood heat is so awesome.

I doubt you'll regret an insert ... then you can save up to add a cook stove, like the Nectre Bakers Oven which we have here and love. Small footprint, you can cook on it, bake in it, and it provides warmth as well. If you were to heat the whole house with wood, you'd need 2, right? It'd be about another 3 winter's worth of propane, but might be a long term thing to add to your list.

Or, given that you live where it's not quite as long of a winter as here, you could look at making an outdoor wood oven. Tons of info online, lots of books, etc ... and then you could cook with wood even in summer, without baking the whole house. Our summers are so short, it's not as big of a deal here ... though I want one anyway. :)

The Idiot Gardener said...

Can't you compact and dry dung and burn that? It's more sustainable than trees, and gives the room a nutty odour that smells like someone is burning dried shit!

Sunray Gardening said...

I have a woodburning stove and they are wonderful. I have mine just for emergency heat though as it is too much for me alone trying to keep the wood up for it, but it's great to have the alternative. Good luck.
Goldenray Yorkies

Aimee said...

IG great idea but I'm using all our poop as garden food.

AnyEdge said...

Enter Didactic Man:

DM: The plural of "apparatus" is either "apparatus" or "apparatuses"!

Exit, twirling cape and smashing forehead on doorjamb.

Dan said...

Your stove guy is mistaken. The Lopi Leyden is one example of an EPA certified freestading woodstove that can vent out the top or back. We installed one back in December and it has been providing 100% of our heat ever since (in an especially brutal Missouri winter). Plus, it's gorgeous!

Aimee said...

Dan thanks I'll check it out!

Anonymous said...

We love our fireplace insert. First off, it makes the house waaaaay warmer even when it's not running, because it makes a great seal between the house and the chimney flue. And, of course, it kicks out great heat (be sure to get the blower, which is electric but vastly increases the heat output - only draws 30 watts). We can't really get water to boil on ours, but it gets hot enough to steam (I'm thinking 180 degrees?). Eggs cook well on it, and you can open the door and cook over the coals. It's a pain, but possible. Using it has cut our propane use from 850 gallons/winter to around 400 (Michigan, zone 5).

Illoura said...

I'm impressed to see that there are so many new options coming on the market. We have a really fancy woodstove that came with the house- it was pretty much the reason we fell in love with the house. (Well, my reason was the huge farm sink, but you know, the stove is the only really nice finished thing). It was appraised at a value of $1500.
We were shocked our first year here to have to spend $2000. for WINTER propane. (for in-floor heating 1000 sq ft of cement floor downstairs, radiant heat upstairs 1000 sq ft(wood floor), and normal use hot water for showers and cooking. That year we didn't use the wood stove. A cord of wood here goes for about $300. for oak, sometimes more if it's mid-winter. 3 cords cost a lot less than heating with propane, but it doesn't heat anything downstairs! So is that propane use (for winter @ $2000.) equal to what this kind of appliance costs? Maybe propane costs more here.
Good luck with your choice!