oldhorseman (oldhorseman) wrote,

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Low-Nonsense Doomsteading: Heating.


   Not freezing to death ranks pretty high on the "to do" list when it comes to survival.  It's also pretty beneficial to be able to have water pipes and liquid stores that don't burst when Old Man Winter asserts himself.  Of course, this is a greater problem for the poor souls not fortunate enough to live in Dixie, but even here in the Uwharrie hills, we're not fully immune to the Snow Miser's wrath.

  Here on the doomstead, we have several ways to keep the chill out of the house...

Passive Solar.

   Sounds fancy, but it's really old school for the most part.  The house is surrounded with deciduous trees (primarily big fruit trees for dual purpose) which provide shade in the Summer, but shed off and let the Sun warm the place up in the Winter.  May make it look like the Addams Family or Munsters live here by Hallowe'en, but on a bright day it'll be comfortable inside even when it's a deep freeze outside.  Decent insulation, storm windows, and heavy curtains to hold the warmth in gives us a good head start on the cold nights.

Wood Stove.

   Unfortunately, ol' Sol can be a stranger in the Winter, and the nights do get long.  So we need another way to heat up the cabin.  And it's hard to beat good old fire for the job.  If your place was built with a fireplace, you're ahead of the game.  But, if not, there's still a practical alternative.

   A wood stove is basically a cast iron box that allows you to build a fire indoors without burning the house down or choking on smoke.  (Hopefully!)

   There are modern wood stoves which are airtight, super-efficient, thermostat-regulated, with built-in blowers, soapstone segments to enhance heat radiation, water coils, etc.  If you are in a position to buy one of these and have it professionally installed, by all means do so.  But, if you can't budget five figures right now, 18th Century tech can still get the job done a lot cheaper.


   I was recently a little surprised to learn that you can still buy a plain old cast iron wood stove brand new from major retailers today.  I figured the lawyers and regulators would have put a stop to that by now.  Must be an oversight on their part.  As of this writing, these cost a few hundred dollars.

   We bought ours for $30 at the antique junkyard.  A rusty mess, but all the pieces were there and intact.  Cleaned it up with an electric wire brush, put it together, built a fire in it out in the barnyard to heat it up enough to paint-on and smoke-off linseed oil to re-season the surface.

   Ours is a simple two burner stove with no oven section.  There are bigger cook stoves with multiple burners, ovens, and greater heating capacity.  There are also smaller single burner (and no burner) caboose or parlor stoves designed to take the chill off one room.  What you'll need depends on the space you need to heat and the kind of Winters your area experiences.

Stove Installation:

   Where you'll put your stove depends on which room you want the warmest, the kind of use you expect to put it to, and where it is most practical to fit it and its pipe.

   Old type wood stoves can get very hot, and radiate that intense heat upward and to all sides.  So you're going to need plenty of space between the stove and anything flammable, including most walls.  Like a few feet.  Even then, you might need to set up some reflective heat shields.  You'll want to monitor the situation closely during your first several fires to make sure that you aren't getting things around the stove too hot.

   Since heat rises, and stoves are normally on raised feet, the floor under the stove isn't likely to be cooked.  Many old cabins and country stores have had stoves burning on hardwood floors for decades without problems.  But it's safer to put thick tile (that can withstand the stove weight), brick/concrete pavers, or a fireproof pad down before putting in the stove.  This floor protection should extend well out from the stove on the sides with doors, because sparks and embers will sometimes sneak out when you open the box to tend the fire.  (I really hope I don't have to tell anyone not to install a wood stove over carpet, which has no place in a doomstead or farm house to begin with.  See the "House" chapter.)

   Then there's the exhaust...  There must be a big pipe from the stove to a point well above the peak of your house to consistently draw the smoke out.  You can do this by having the pipe run straight up through the roof, which provides the most effective draw, but allows more heat to escape with the exhaust, and requires a hole in the roof which almost always winds up leaking.

   The more common way in cabin style installation is to have an elbow pipe above the stove, a horizontal pipe out through a wall, then a T connector to a vertical smokestack pipe outside the house.  The downward-facing branch of the T pipe is capped, but can be opened for provide cleaning access.  The two bends will slightly reduce draw, but the horizontal pipe will radiate heat into the house that would have been wasted with a straight-up pipe.

   All the stove pipes will get dangerously hot in use, and cannot be positioned close to anything flammable.  Passing the stove pipe through a combustible wall or roof will require a kit that insulates the building from the hot pipe.  The vertical smokestack outside the house must be well away from the outer wall and eaves.

   If there isn't an exhaust damper built into the stove, you can easily install one in the pipe where you can reach it.  This will give you a bit more control over your burn rate.

   You'll need some sort of cap to keep the rain out of your smokestack.  A simple shanty-cap works fine, but line the openings with offset layers of chicken wire or something to keep birds from crawling down the pipe.  Those little idiots can never find their way back up, and you will seriously get a pipe full of feathered mummies over the Summer.

   We put the wood stove in our bedroom, where we can keep an eye on it.  (This does mean the bedroom door has to be kept open when a fire is going.)  There was a convenient, big window in the wall.  I removed the glass and replaced it with a double layer of corrugated steel, which is impervious to the stovepipe heat.  There is a second big window in the room, so we could afford to lose the use of one.  Running the pipe through the steel that replaced the window saved me from cutting a hole through the wall proper and made the stove installation fully reversible.

   The vertical smokestack outside the house is primarily supported by a thick steel pole driven into the ground.  This also serves to independently ground the smokestack if it is hit by lightning.   Guy wires and long stainless steel brackets help support the stack against wind.

   We've used our wood stove for primary home heating for many years.  The original galvanized pipes failed catastrophically due to rust after the first few.  We switched to black stovepipe, but they also started to rust through after a couple years.  We then upgraded to heavier stainless steel pipes.  These are harder to find, don't look very rustic, and are much more expensive.  But they've lasted twice as long as the previous pipes, and are going strong.

Fire Extinguishers:

   Every doomstead should have multiple fire extinguishers strategically placed through all the buildings.  This definitely includes placing a big one in the room with the wood stove.  A smaller, disposable aerosol can extinguisher for minor mishaps, and a simple spray bottle of water to douse the odd spark are also handy.

   Dousing the fire in the box, especially with a chemical extinguisher, will make a godawful mess and fill the house with smoke.  Don't ever do it unless you absolutely have to.


   One advantage of old-fashioned, simple wood stoves is that they can burn just about anything flammable in a pinch.  But, to avoid toxic fumes and troublesome leftovers in the fire box, you'd best stick with wood.

   Of course, the availability of wood is a factor you should consider before installing a wood stove.  Our doomstead has enough wooded acreage to allow us to cut all the firewood we need from deadfall.  If you have to truck-in wood from elsewhere and store it, a wood stove may benefit you less.

   Well dried, small sticks and splits start easily then burn fast and hot.  So does conifer wood, though it will create more creosote residue in your pipe.  Green (less cured) wood and bigger pieces burn cooler and slower.  Adjusting the kind of wood or mix of woods you use is a good way to regulate the heat of your stove and duration of your fire, especially with an old school stove that allows only limited regulation via venting and the damper.


   Being a tall guy, it's easier for me to lift the top plate off the stove so I can build the fire from above when starting with a cold box.  Of course, not all stoves have a lift-off top.

   As with a camp fire, you begin with easy to light, fast burning materials at the bottom.  Paper and cardboard are good.  Crumpled, individual sheets.  Air has to be able to get in-between them.  Intact magazines, stacks of junk mail, etc., won't burn well.  Then twigs, sticks, arranged in crosses for breathing.  Smaller splits midway up the stack.  Bigger pieces on top.  You need to make sure you can get a match to the paper at the bottom through a front or side door.  It might be wise to avoid putting heavier wood in until later, as there's a possibility your light materials will burn away before the logs get going, and they will be left on the bottom, forcing you to pull them out to start over.

   You really shouldn't need an accelerant, but I have been known to add a little used cooking oil.  Just make sure it doesn't run out the stove onto the floor.  Don't even think about gasoline.  Not only are you likely to wind up in a hospital burn ward, but it won't even work!  (Burns away too quickly, before the wood can even warm-up!)

   With the top plate (and all burner plates) in-place, I open the exhaust damper and the stove intake ports all the way.  Then I light the paper at the bottom through the front door.  (A butane BBQ lighter is handy for this.)  Then I let the blaze grow until I'm confident that wood, rather than just starter material, is burning.

   My old stove is usually able to pull enough air in through its various seams for a good heating fire, so I close the intake ports.  For a low-intensity, fuel-efficient fire, I close the exhaust damper until smoke starts to escape from the seams, then open it back up a bit.

   Once you've got a nice fire with a bed of glowing coals at the base, you just add splits or logs as needed.  It's best to just let the fire burn itself out when you no longer need it, so cease fueling accordingly.  You really shouldn't leave an old style wood stove unsupervised with much of a fire going in it.

   Wood stoves seem to pull all the moisture out of the air.  Even to the point of discomfort.  So we usually keep an old tea kettle full of water on top of the stove to act as a humidifier.
   Traditional stoves seem to work best with an inch or two of wood ash in bottom.  But it will build-up more than that pretty quickly.  Let the stove burn itself out and go completely cold before cleaning out the ashes.  It's a pretty simple matter.  Use a steel fireplace shovel and a steel bucket, just in case there are a few hot coals hiding in the mix.  Get the bucket of ashes outside the house and away from anything flammable.  Ash is a good insulator, and can keep an ember or two alive in the pile for days.

   Once cool, hardwood ash is alkaline and can be used much like slaked lime to counter acid in stall floors, latrine pits, and gardening soil.  It is also used to make traditional lye soap.

Kerosene Heater.

   This one is easy.  Modern indoor kerosene heaters are reasonably priced, widely available, easy to use, and quite effective.  No installation.  Portable.  The kerosene heater is our first back-up to the wood stove.  (The electric central heat furnace is the back-up's back-up.)

   Kerosene is a handy fuel in general.  It keeps a bit better than gasoline, especially if you use a stabilizer.  We use it to fuel our old tractor, as diesel fuel seems to break-down rather quickly these days.  (Biodiesel mixed-in?)  And old-style kerosene lamps can provide a lot of light for hours on very little fuel.  So keeping a few jerrycans of kerosene around is no problem.  It gets used.

   You'll want a few spare wicks.  They don't need to be replaced very often.  And a simple siphon pump to fill the heater's tank.  These are cheap, and prevent you dumping fuel all over everything trying to pour it directly from the can.

   Follow the directions that come with the heater.  Keep it away from flammables. Turn it off before refueling.  Don't feed it diesel fuel or vegetable oil...  (These might work, but could imbalance the burn and release carbon monoxide.)

   Ours has been working well for over twenty years.  Comes in handy when we just want to take the chill off one room, or when we get caught with an insufficient supply of dry wood when Winter suddenly decides to assert itself.

Tags: climate, dixie, doom, doomsteading, latoc, low-nonsense doomsteading

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