Sunday, March 1, 2009

Praxis: Alternative Energy, Part One by Fred the Fireplace Guy.

This is the first in a series of articles about alternative energy, written from the perspective of preparedness. I'm honored by Mike's request to write on this topic. In this first installment I'll be covering alternate heat sources for space heating and cooking, in descending order starting with the most preferred fuel.

First, a bit about me: I've been serious about preparedness for two decades, and I'm a three percenter. It was on the issue of gun rights that I awoke to the cancer in our country at the tender age of 12. I took an interest in shooting and started to read gun magazines, which of course talked about efforts to disarm us, and about how gun owners were misrepresented in the press. To my logical little brain, it seemed impossible that a nation of gun owners would sit still for that, but I started reading the newspaper just to see for myself. Turns out the press was lying about a lot of things, and that gun owners and other Liberty loving Americans have been backing up for a long time.

Long story short, here I am: A three percenter. Until recently, I didn't have a very good name for my outlook (other than "pissed" which isn't all that eloquent) and I thank Mike for letting me know what to call myself. A three percenter. I like that! I'm fairly well prepared for whatever may come, both physically and mentally. Obviously, I plan for all eventualities, but I rather expect to make my stand at home and I have prepared accordingly. Too many Americans have been dragged, run or burned out of their homes and I suspect we're about to see a lot more of that. The idea angers me, and a price needs to be paid for such behavior. My home is my castle, and my preparations reflect that fact. Much of what I will talk about in this series is a component of my personal preparations, but I do alternate energy for a living as well. I won't present anything that I haven't either tried personally or on behalf of a client, and everything I'll discuss has actually worked in the real world.

OK - What to do for alternative heat? For preparedness, the goal is to have a source of heat that is entirely under your own control - one that is not subject to interruption by any kind of natural or man made disaster. Control of fuel is the key to this, and my first choice is obvious - the wood burning stove. Wood stoves produce heat without electricity, and that heat is the most luxurious heat on earth. They are great for cooking as well. I started heating with wood in the 90's and can vouch that having an independent (and luxurious) source of heat is very comforting, even in good times.

These days it's priceless.

America has a thriving stove industry and the quality and performance of American made stoves is uniformly high. Thus, I generally advise clients to pick out the stove they most like the look of. However, in the context of preparedness, stove construction makes a real difference. Hands down the most durable stoves available are built of welded steel plate, which is the material least likely to warp or crack when accidentally over-fired.

Next in line are stoves made of cast iron. These are prettier than plate steel but easier to crack or warp by over-firing, and they will likely need more maintenance over the years. Cast iron stoves are assembled from several separate castings, and rather than being welded together they are either cemented or bolted together, the latter with gaskets to seal the joints. With each heat cycle, cement will slowly fail. When enough cracks form the cement falls out of the joints and the firebox will no longer be sealed. Gaskets last longer, but not as long as welds. Eventually the gaps between the cast parts open up, and the resulting inability to control airflow (and therefore burn rate) will lead to constant over-firing and require a rebuild. A welded steel stove will still be going strong long after you've had to rebuild a cast stove, on nothing more than an occasional fresh door gasket.

For years I heated a large old house with two wood stoves - a big steel plate stove in the basement and a smaller cast iron stove sitting on the hearth in the living room. By virtue of working long hours in the winter, I over-fired both stoves on several occasions when I arrived home tired and fell asleep on the couch waiting for the fire to get going. (You don't need to be sleepy! It's easy to get distracted while the fire's getting going, and with the air control left wide open they can get hot enough to glow dull red.) This is entirely my fault, mind you, and I abused the stoves.

That's not what matters. The lesson is that the steel plate stove held up fine but the top plate of the cast iron stove cracked and had to be replaced. In a survival situation we'll all be operating under a lot more stress, bigger distractions and greater fatigue than I ever was during my busy season. I plan accordingly with the stoutest preparations I can make. That would be steel plate stoves!

I strongly recommend modern EPA approved stoves manufactured since 1990. These meet EPA Phase II emissions standards, which has two great benefits: 1) The clean burning stoves put a lot less soot in the chimney which reduces the chance of chimney fires, and they put a lot less soot in the air, saving your lungs from working overtime as smokestack scrubbers! 2) due to the higher efficiency, you'll get the heat you need from about 1/3 less wood.

There are two main methods of meeting these EPA requirements - 1) secondary burn and 2) catalytic combustors. With secondary burn, additional fresh air is introduced through perforated tubes at the top of the firebox, re-igniting the smoke and burning the particulates out of the combustion gases before they leave the firebox. Due to the simplicity, durability and low maintenance cost/complexity, this is the preferred technology. A set of spare tubes costs less than $50 for most stoves.

With a catalytic combustor, particulates are also burned out of the smoke, but by way of a superheated catalyst material. The honeycomb structure of the cat breaks down over several years and will require replacement after 6-8 years at a cost of $150-200. The cat can also be destroyed rather quickly by burning materials other than clean firewood, such as galvanized nails you didn't notice in scrap wood. At least one spare cat should be stocked at all times if you go this route.

Proper installation using quality pipe is extremely important. I'm all for good deals, but cheap used pipe from Craigslist is penny wise. Skimping on clearances when installing the stove is even less responsible. The concern here is pyrolysis, which is the thermal decomposition of combustible materials near the stove or chimney. Pyrolysis is a slow process, and an improperly installed stove can be in service for years before a structure fire results. Testing protocols and installation standards are fairly good these days, but a few manufacturers still condone installation practices that are decidedly unsafe. (Mike has graciously allowed me to link back to my blog and preparedness forum where I'll be happy to advise my fellow three percenters on their installations on a case by case basis.)

Also important is the fuel itself, and only clean dry wood should be burned. Hardwood is preferred, but a lot of folks in my neck of the woods (the Rockies) burn pine and stay perfectly warm. As cleanly as modern stoves burn, burning wet wood is one of the few ways left to fill a chimney with creosote. Wood should season for a year before you burn it, and for the sake of your preps I'd recommend having at least two years of wood split, stacked and secured - you'll never regret having an extra year's fuel in "savings" even in normal times - as if much of that were left.

Next fuel is the wood pellet. Pellet stoves are convenient, but the stoves themselves are mechanically complex and they really need grid power to run. Regardless of the brand, all pellet stoves share a common design with three motors and a circuit board to control combustion. Two of the three motors drive fans - one for combustion air, the other for circulating heated air throught the heat exchanger. The combustion air blowers are rather noisy, too. Pellet stoves typically draw 100-200 watts/hr, 24 hours a day when it's cold - that's a 2.4 to 4.8 kilowatt daily load in the depth of winter when PV solar output is lowest. I'll be covering PV solar in depth, but suffice it to say that this much power can handily run an entire off-grid household, which is why I think pellet stoves are more suited to yesterday's reliable grid power than to tomorrow's likely collapsing empire/civil war scenarios.

For me, another issue with pellet stoves is the fuel itself. Pellets are manufactured - from sawdust, which is bound together using heat and pressure - making you dependent on a long supply chain for your heating fuel. One can always stock up, but pellets must be kept dry or they will explode back into sawdust and be useless. In many regions of the country, demand for pellet fuel far outstrips production. In those regions, demand is met by trucking pellets in from as far as half the country away. Between high demand and trucking costs, pellet fuel is far from the bargain it was just 4-5 years ago. Commercial sawmills have been a major source of the clean fresh sawdust needed to make pellets, and it will be interesting to see what happens to pellet prices next winter with construction activity and lumber demand at rock bottom.

Pellet stoves generally do not put enough radiant heat that the stove top can be used for cooking.

Last on the list come the gas stoves, which can burn either natural gas or propane. They are hands down the most convenient, but natural gas can be cut off at any time, and there are limits to how much propane can be economically stored. Natural gas is probably the ultimate "peacetime" fuel, and thanks to the success of the shale gas projects it looks like gas will remain a bargain for a few years. This is a far cry from the outlook this time last year. The price of propane is tied to the price of oil, and it's not very likely that will remain at it's present lows for long.

I do like a small propane heater as backup for wood heat. It can be thermostatically controlled to kick in when the wood fire dies down, which will keep pipes from freezing if you're away. I strongly recommend direct-vent models over the vent-free type. With direct venting, combustion air is drawn from outside and the exhaust exits through the same co-axial pipe. The stove is sealed off from the rest of the room. With vent-free heaters, room air is burned and the exhaust goes directly back into the room. This can deplete oxygen and elevate CO (carbon monoxide) levels in the house, and it adds enough extra humidity to sometimes cause mold problems. (Everyone's metabolism and body chemistry works a little differently. If you have a vent-free heater and someone in your family suffers from any chronic health problem - particularly headaches or lethargy - get rid of the heater!)

A propane-fired heater used in a back-up role stretches out the fuel supply long enough that cost and storage become less of a concern - typically the convenience outweighs those considerations. Decorative gas stoves generally do not put out intense enough heat to be useful for cooking, but having propane already on hand for the backup heater makes for an easy solution to that.

For my money, a wood stove backed up by propane heat is the ultimate setup - that's two independent heat sources under your own control.

I'm deliberately not going into brand names here, but I reiterate that we have a thriving stove industry right here in America. We desperately need to maintain what's left of our industrial capacity, so I'd strongly suggest supporting an American manufacturer. You'll find that doesn't limit your choices much at all. 'Nuff said!

Summary: if you have no alternative source of heat, get one now. The industry is coming off a rough sales season and deals abound. Twice now I've seen panics empty the pipeline of stoves and result in back orders measured in months. (First in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and again this season due to last years high heating oil prices.) There is clearly not adequate manufacturing capacity to cope with a panic, so don't wait! A shortage of stoves could develop within a week in the face of a disruption of imported oil. And, redundancy rules: once you establish your primary alternative heat source, go to work on your backup!

Next: More on heating and cooking, and an overview of off-grid electricity. I post at - and the link to my new preparedness forum can be found there as well. Thanks!

Godspeed in your preps -

Fred the Fireplaceguy.


drjim said...

Looking forward to the "electrical" part of it. I've been doing solar stuff for a few years, and have enough installed at my apartment to keep my radio gear and some minimal computer stuff running indefinitely. It's not terribly expensive, but you have to do it right to be safe.

Loren said...

Our stove is soapstone. The big claim is the large amount of heat the stone will hold over iron or steel. This thing will stay warm with just a few logs a night, and if kept warm, will eventually heat the whole house. The house was designed for central heat, and it takes a while for the heat to circulate. This also means that the room with the stove is much warmer than the rest of the house.

This stove though, will still be warm to the touch 12 hours after you leave a log and coals in it, and it probably did 20 hours last night while leaving enough coals in the bottom to restart the fire with minimal effort. I'd say this should go on your list to look into. They're expensive, but supposedly the soapstone makes it even more efficient.

CorbinKale said...

I bought a cast iron woodstove with the catalytic combustor. I have been using it for three years, and I love it. Like Fred said, though, the combustor does not last forever. If the top plate cracked in a survival situation, it would be devastating. I will continue to use it as long as I can, but I am going to buy a welded steel plate stove to have as a replacement.

Wood heat, if you have a reliable supply of fuel, can't be beat!

Ken said...

I'd be interested in the gentleman's thoughts on coal. Coal does present some supply-chain issues, but here in coal country I suspect they could be worked around, with motivated effort.

fireplaceguy said...

Loren - Soapstone is marvelous stuff, and it makes for a beautiful stove. Exactly as you noted, it holds heat and releases it very slowly after the fire goes out - but it's just a rumor that it makes the stove more efficient, as you suspected. (Combustion efficiency is a function of the design, not the materials used. Soapstone just radiates heat along a much longer time curve than metal, that's all.)

Your post does point out the one minor drawback of a steel plate stove - since they have the least mass they cool off faster than any other kind of stove once the fire dies down. I just don't think that matters much in this context, where durability rules.

As you also noted, they're expensive, and cost is a pretty big factor for most of us. I'd likewise point out that they're heavier than ....! Even with my equipment, installing them is no fun - particularly where there are stairs involved - and they could be a real for a do-it-yourselfer.

I'm REALLY glad I had a few installations under my belt before I installed one! (This higher mass is a bit of a factor in the heating characteristics, too.)

Once they're in place (!) I like them a lot. I thought about mentioning soapstone but the article was plenty long anyway. Even though the soapstone panels are usually mounted in a cast iron framework, I don't hear of the same warping and cracking problems that we see in solid cast iron plates. (This implies that soapstone doesn't expand and contract at anywhere near the rate of cast iron, although I've never verified that.)

I've NEVER heard of soapstone cracking or warping, although the same eventual sealing problems can develop at the joints. I'd recommend you stock a tube or two of stove cement (or gaskets, if the joints are gasketed) for that possibility, and you should seal those tubes up in something airtight to keep them from drying out over time.

Tom Austin said...

Interested in anyone's experience with Four Dog Stoves. I'm considering one for a temporary structure, as they're light enough to move with one man.

They even have titanium stoves, but I don't need it that light!

Anonymous said...

I'd like to know as well about the Four Dog Stove idea. Could something like that possibly be used as a short-term heat/cooking source for someone living in a city? Could a pipe/flue be run outside a window?

Just trying to consider all options; I realize this may not be optimal by any means.

fireplaceguy said...

CorbinKale - Is your stove a Vermont Castings? That is what I cracked, but they're a fine stove and I don't want you unduly concerned. Which model is it? It did take multiple overfirings to crack it and mine is an Aspen. It's design is very different than the catalytic stoves, which are actually harder to damage than mine.

fireplaceguy said...

Ken - Coal makes great heat. I didn't mention it because of the supply chain problems. If you live near surface coal and are sure you can get to it if you run out in an emergency, then go for it!

If I lived anywhere near anthracite I'd burn it myself, but trucking it from Pennsylvania to me in Colorado is cost prohibitive.

CorbinKale said...

My stove is the Vermont Castings Dutchwest model 2461, the mid-sized stove. Since it has the combustor, the flames don't have the direct contact with the top plate.

I am spooked about a house fire, so I keep a close eye on it.

Some Guy said...

fireplaceguy - I got a smoking deal on a newish house in the burbs last year. Here's the thing. There is no fireplace or woodstove. It has a gas "fireplace" and the furnace runs on gas as well.

The gas "fireplace" has a unit that juts out from the side of the house about 2' and is approx. 5' tall. There is a cylindrical vent at the top. My house is two stories high, and the top of the vent is no higher than the ceiling of the first height of the first floor.

All this means that I am not sure that this could be retrofitted for a wood stove and chimney arrangement, though my in-laws have a free-standing wood stove that vents out the side of their first floor and isn't terribly high.

My fence is only a few feet out from that side of the house, and something tells me that there are potential code or fire safety issues associated with putting a wood stove's chimney there... though it could easily be managed safely.

I know that as a professional you'd have to give it a look-see to be accurate in your assessment, but in general, do you know if this type of construction would rule out the installation of a wood stove in this location? If it does, I would have to find some other place to put it, and the options aren't great.

The house is in a great area that we chose as it is likely to be sustainable in a social crap-out. I have a job that is damn near recession proof, and though unemployment is at almost 10% in my state, my company is growing by leaps and bounds, and I have been continually promoted and taking on more responsibility all the time.

Any feedback is much appreciated. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Fred the Fireplace Guy is a disreputable dealer, and does not deliver on promises, and fails to return calls regarding non-delivery of products purchased. Stay AWAY!