Monday, December 14, 2009

Winter Heat

Here in the Northeast, heating oil is the most common way to heat homes. Heck, I've got an oil furnace myself. That way I'm not spending all winter a slave to the woodstove. If I happen to get home late enough that the wood fire has died out, at least my pipes won't freeze. We have the freedom to hit the road for a few days. Of course, while we are away, all I can think about is that expensive heating oil going up in smoke.

There are other ways to heat a place. Propane isn't all that bad. However, it's another fossil fuel, with all the limitations that implies. Life is full of compromises. I use propane, but not for heating. In the winter, most of my cooking is on the antique wood cookstove in my kitchen. Works good most of the time, but it's not worth heating up the whole house in the summer time to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally, even in the winter, I'll cook on propane to save time or effort. Also use propane in my clothes dryer -not that we use it that much. A tank of propane can last me a couple years. I just make sure it's filled up before the snow flies. That way I don't have to shovel a trail to the tank for the delivery guy. Not sure if I'm lazy or efficient. Propane is fine, but I wouldn't want to pay to heat my house with it.

Solar heat is nice if you've got the location for it. I don't. My house sits fairly close to the south property line. The trees blocking most of the sun are on my neighbor's land. Even with a perfect location, it takes a highly engineered, expensively constructed house to get most of its heat for the sun -at least here in NH. It seems weeks can go by without much solar gain. That's why I have other ways of charging my solar electric batteries when the sun refuses to shine. My solar electric location wouldn't do me much good for solar heat. To get sun on my panels, they are located on the north border of my land on top of a tall pole. It's okay to run wire all the way back to the house -not too efficient to run heat back.

Wood pellet stoves are becoming more common. They are supposed to be more efficient than a regular wood stove. Under proper conditions, I suppose they are. In the real world, I've heard mixed results. To be fair, most complaints about them come from people with first generation pellet stoves. Pellets are generally made from the waste products of the different forest industries. They look like compressed sawdust. Pellets tend to be a local product, so that's a plus. It doesn't pay to haul a heavy, bulky, low value product too far.

I've got three issues with wood pellets for heat. Suppliers have been known to run out of them. You are dependent on a manufactured product. Pellet stoves don't work unless they have electric power.

Last winter a friend of mine over in Maine did keep his pellet stove running during an extended power outage. He used a good sized deep discharge battery hooked up with an inverter big enough to power the pellet stove. Once the battery discharged, he dropped on off at a place that had power where they charged it up for him. He was able to get the battery/inverter set back to his house before it had cooled off enough to freeze.

I do like wood heat. I've an antique cook woodstove in the kitchen and a large modern airtight in the basement. The best thing about using wood for heat -it grows on trees. After all, I am Sixbears in the woods! I've heated my house by harvesting standing deadwood within walking distance of my house. I've harvested the wood with nothing but hand tools -an ax and a 3.5 foot German crosscut saw. Most of the time my wood comes from a bit further, but at least I have emergency wood close by. In a pinch, I could got quite a few days using branches broken off with my hands.

That's what I like about wood -it's simple. (like me?) I actually enjoy splitting wood. It's one of the reasons a middle aged fat guy like myself is in pretty good condition. Over the years I've acquired a good assortment of axes, splitting mauls, sledge hammers and wedges. Beats the heck out of watching TV.



  1. I have two wood burning stoves, one in the kitchen and one in the basement. I hardly ever use them. I use propane heat in the house, cook with propane, and dry our clothes with it. I also use it for heating hot water. You are absolutely right about it being a finite commodity. I can hold 500 gallons in my big tank and 120 in my little tank. In a really severe winter, I might use 450 gallons. Right now it turns $1.87 but it was up to $2.89 last year. I do burn wood in the fireplace if I can get away with doing it instead of using the propane heat.

    If I were 20 years younger I might go the wood route 100%, but not at 57 unless some unforeseen circumstance requires me to do so. It's in the "too hard" category.

  2. I'm lucky that at 51 I can still swing a mean ax. Just finished moving another truckload of firewood.
    When my oil furnace dies, I might just get a propane heater for the basement to keep the pipes from freezing. It would be easy enough to connect. Used to have a propane water heater.

    Maybe what I need is a few younger people under my roof with strong backs.