We live in a drafty, 50-year-old house. Despite having a good furnace in our basement, the ductwork was done in such a crazy way that what little air gets to the second floor couldn’t begin to be called warm. We’ve explored various options with multiple HVAC vendors over the years and have come to the conclusion that it can’t be fixed. So our furnace doesn’t do a great job of heating our whole house. We’ve tolerated the situation by supplementing our heat with space heaters in the three mostly commonly used rooms. Not a great option and an expensive one.
Also, if we get hit with a power outage of any duration, we have no heat at all. Our forced air natural gas furnace requires electricity. That means we need something that would become our primary heating solution in a power outage situation. So last year we started to think about installing a wood-burning stove.
Wood-Burning Stoves Are Great!
Wood stoves are the darlings of the prepper crowd. They’re simple, durable, affordable, and about as old-school as you can get. And now there are also catalytic wood-burners that are much more efficient than basic models. As it turns out, nearly half of what makes up a log is smoke and creosote, both of which are merely wasted byproducts when you burn logs in a conventional wood-burner. A catalytic wood stove gets so hot that it burns the smoke and creosote too, making your wood-burner almost twice as efficient. If you have an adequate source of free timber, a wood stove becomes a no-brainer. Sign me up!
So why don’t we have one yet? Why did we spend all of last winter living out of a bedroom with a space heater to try to save the cost of heating the whole house? What was the deal breaker for us?
Our Problems with Wood Stoves
With a wood-burning stove, you are required to have a substantial chimney that can sustain a lot of heat. The chimney has to extend above your roof. Since we live in a two-story house, the new chimney would cost as much as the stove itself, doubling the price of the new heating system. The affordable wood stove was no longer affordable for us. We don’t have deep pockets. The addition of the chimney requirement knocked the wood stove out of our price range. We made do without, and hoped for no power outages. But the need was still there, and so was the desire.
OK, we could take a little time and save some money to build the chimney that we would need, but there are other downsides to a wood burner for our set of circumstances. We may decide to move elsewhere. We could presumably take our wood stove with us, but the chimney is staying put. That money is gone. If we took the wood stove with us, we would most likely have to pay to construct a new one at the new location. More money.
Any other problems? Yes, at least for us.Wood stoves put out inconsistent heat. They’re cold until you start a fire in them, then they get blazing hot for a while, then they burn with a steady heat for number of hours, but they eventually burn down and get cold again. A moderate-sized stove would need to be stoked about three times a day to keep the house from getting cold. Call me lazy (it’s been done before), but that’s a bit high-maintenance for me.
What else? For the time being, we live in a rural area, but we’re “townies.” We live on an unwooded quarter-acre lot. We don’t have any friends that own acres of forest that would give us wood for free. That means that we would have to buy firewood and have it delivered to our home (because we don’t own a truck, either). Yes, we want a truck. (At least I do. Sandy isn’t sold on buying one yet.) Yes, we want to live on land that has a lot of trees. But right now we just aren’t there and we need to do something that will meet our current needs within our current limitations.
For all these reasons, we abandoned our pursuit of a wood-burning stove last year and just decided to wait things out a bit longer.
Pellets for Preppers?
Being city kids and fairly new preppers, we didn’t know anything about wood stoves until we started shopping for them last year. We visited a couple of dealerships and found that there was another alternative to wood stoves that is pretty popular now — the pellet-burning stove.
Pellet stoves are high-tech wonders dressed in wood stove clothing. They look like a wood stove, but they don’t work like a wood stove. Instead of burning logs, pellet stoves burn pellets made of compressed sawdust. Pellets come in 40-pound bags, like buying a big bag of dog food. Dump a bag in the hopper and a motor feeds a small quantity of pellets to the burn pan. Pellet stoves are more efficient than wood-burners and need to be cleaned less frequently.
Pellet stoves are popular because they are a blend of the time-honored effectiveness of a wood stove with modern technology. Many pellet stoves are thermostatically controlled to maintain a consistent temperature in your home. The thermostat on a pellet stove controls the rate that the pellets are fed into the burn pan. If no more burn is needed for a while, the thermostat will shut the stove off and then electronically reignite itself when a new burn is required, keeping the heat consistent all day and night. And you only need to fill the hopper once a day. Pellet stoves are a cleaner and more efficient alternative to wood stoves, which is why they’re so popular these days. At least with the non-prepper crowd.
The Problems with Pellets
But we didn’t even give pellet stoves a second glance last year. They just aren’t “prepper.” The big issue is that they require electricity to feed pellets into the burn chamber and to ignite them. We want to go closer to being off-grid and any major appliance that requires electricity is a step in the wrong direction.
Besides that, pellet stoves aren’t simple or old-school. They are full of moving parts and electronics (even a motherboard, for crying out loud!) that can fail and need to be replaced. Where are you going to get a new motherboard in a TEOTWAWKI situation? Very un-prepper.
You want more unprepperliness? Pellet stoves can’t burn logs. They aren’t built for it. Instead of cutting down a tree and throwing hunks of it in the stove, you have to buy pellets that are made in a factory. If (when) the grid goes down, it will be mighty hard to procure a few tons of factory-made pellets.
Not very prepperly at all. No thank you. What self-respecting prepper in his or her right mind would choose a pellet stove over a wood stove?
If you guessed us, you’d be correct.
What Were You Thinking?
Yes, we are the proud owners of a new pellet stove, just awaiting delivery and installation in a month or so. “What!?” you say. “What were you thinking? How could you possibly choose pellet stove over a wood-burner?”
This summer, we ran into one of the local wood stove dealers at our county fair. He had a pellet stove set up for a demo. We told him that we were close to buying a wood stove last year, but the cost of the chimney installation killed that plan. He told us that we should consider a pellet stove. Instead of an expensive chimney that extends above your roof, you just need to vent them out of the side of your house like a clothes dryer vent. Cheap and easy!
Yeah, but pellet stoves had one inherent drawback that we just couldn’t get past. We wanted an off-the-grid heating solution, and pellet stoves require electricity. The stove guy smiled when we said “off-the-grid” and told us that he was very like-minded himself — and that the electrical components in the pellet stove only required six watts of electricity to run. So little that we would never see it on our electricity bill if we installed one. So little that we could hook it up to a battery back-up unit to power the stove if our electricity goes down. And we could recharge the battery with solar panels. This electric appliance could do it’s thing off the grid.
It’s amazing how a little additional information can cause your train of thought to go in a radically different direction. Our objections to a wood stove were still fully in effect, but our major objections to the pellet-burner were being overcome.
OK, but what about the issue of burning logs versus manufactured pellets? In our case, that was a tie. Since we don’t have access to free firewood, we would have to buy it and truck it in, the same as we will for pellets. In our situation, neither works well in a long-term grid-down situation. But we’re not going to let the potential of the grid going down stop us from getting a supplemental heating system that meets our needs now. We’re looking into a small solar-charged battery system to serve as our electrical back-up unit. It will be my excuse to dive into the world of solar energy on a small scale with a very practical application.
Another factor is that we may decide to move to a better location someday. The pellet stove can come with us. It’s much lighter than a wood-burner, making it easier to transport. It doesn’t require an expensive chimney in the new location — just a vent out the side of the wall. It’s even safe and approved for use in a mobile home. And we won’t have to leave an expensive chimney behind when we leave this house.
Pellets are fairly cheap right now. If you keep them dry, they can be stored for years. The don’t attract pests like logs do. We can stock up on pellets and be good for a while. Just two or three tons of pellets would give us a whole year to figure out our what to do next in a true TEOTWAWKI situation.
So with much lower cost of installation, our no-power-grid objection mitigated, and the portability of the pellet stove benefit, we opted for a Harman pellet stove. Can’t wait to have it installed – our weather is already hitting 45° in the early hours of the morning.
I imagine some of you are still thinking “Dude…it’s not prepper!” Perhaps not, but what works for one prepper doesn’t work for every prepper. We’re surprised we ended up with a pellet stove, but are confident it’s the best option for us. You can’t let yourself get stuck in a single mindset. Sometimes the best solution to your needs is something that goes against the flow.
We’ll let you know how well our new pellet stove heats our drafty home in February or March.
My house isn’t very old, but it’s cold. I have furnace and ductwork problems that can’t be fixed without throwing a ton of money at them. That’s not an option. Not for me, at least. And the ductwork issue prevents me from just adding a supplemental heat source into the existing system, so I’ve been exploring other options.
Being a prepper-minded individual, I don’t just want something that will supplement my furnace right now. I’m thinking emergency heating. If my power goes out, I lose my furnace altogether and will need a new primary heat source. There must be a decent way of heating your home off the grid.
My house is a two-story, 2300 sq. ft. colonial. It’s rectangular, wider along the front than it is deep. I have a perfectly good wood burning fireplace in my family room, which is in the left front corner of the house. Looks like help is on the way, right? But nothing is that easy.
That’s because my living room, where we spend all of our free time, is on the right side of the house, separated from the family room by the entryway. And my bedroom, which is the coldest room in the house because of the ductwork issue, is directly above the living room. Is there a fireplace solution that would make the whole house warm?
Building a Fire in a Fireplace
It’s been widely reported that using your fireplace actually makes your house colder. How can that be? First, it should be obvious that most of the heat is going to go straight up your chimney. Heat rises and you have a big hole in your house just above the fire. The only heat that you get is radiant heat. Second, the fire requires oxygen, which it sucks from the room the fireplace is in. The fireplace room then replaces the escaping air with air from adjacent rooms. Where to do these rooms replace their air from? Outside. So while your fireplace is making your den warm and cozy, it’s causing the rest of your house to suck cold air in from the outside, causing a net loss of heat and creating drafts. Don’t believe me? According to many sources, including the Canadian government, Mother Earth News, and the cable TV show Mythbusters, it’s true. Google it for yourself.
Does that eliminate my perfectly good fireplace from consideration as an alternative heat source? Thankfully, no.
The Better Mousetrap – A Fireplace Insert
A fireplace insert corrects many of the problems caused by a standard fireplace. A fireplace insert is essentially a wood-burning stove set into a fireplace. It is much more efficient than a plain fireplace because it is a closed combustion system — heat radiates out from the insert, but it doesn’t cause your house to suck cold air in from the outside. You can also add an electric blower that will help to circulate the warm air farther.
You can buy a fireplace inserts that burns a number of types of fuel, including electricity, natural gas, propane, wood, coal, wood pellets, or corn. The type that you buy will be dependent upon what type of fuel you think will be most readily available to you during whatever emergency you are preparing for. For me, that rules out electricity, natural gas, propane, and coal right away.
The Appeal of Pellets
I’m drawn to pellet burners for a lot of reasons. While wood is the most traditional fuel and is still a leading contender, it’s messy. I don’t live on a wood farm, so I don’t have access to my own wood supply. I’m a “townie,” so I’d have to buy my wood, haul it here, and store it outside away from the house. If I were facing a long-term disaster, the acquisition and transportation of the wood would become a problem. Once here, I would have to secure it so that others didn’t steal it from me. The wood has to be split and seasoned properly (allowed to dry for a year or more). It’s heavy, attracts bugs, and has to be lugged into the house every day. Wood is nice, but all of these negatives make it less than attractive to me.
Pellets, on the other hand, come in tidy 40-pound bags. You pour a bag into the hopper of your pellet-burner and it feeds them into the fire box, burns them dumps the small amount of ash that it creates into an ash pot. They are cleaner and more efficient than a wood-burner. Very appealing.
The Problem with Pellets
Except…pellet burners only burn pellets. You can’t convert them to burn wood when your source of pellets runs out. And worst of all, they run on electricity. The pellets are fed from the hopper to the fire box by an electric-powered auger. The ignition system is electronic. The blower is electric. I could run all the electrical stuff from a generator for a short-term emergency, but I’m planning for medium to long-term. Anything electrical isn’t going to cut it. We’ve got to kick it old school. And that leaves me with wood.
The more research I did, the less I was leaning toward a fireplace insert. For starters, there is the issue with where my fireplace is located— at the opposite side in my house of where I spend most of my time. Then there’s the issue of how much heat an insert puts out. As I said, it’s essentially a wood stove that has been inserted into a fireplace opening. It’s cube shaped. A cube has six sides, but the fireplace insert is only presenting one of sides to my room. The other five are covered up.
The Old School Solution
A real freestanding wood-burning stove radiates heat from all six sides. Because of that, it has a much higher BTU rating. That means greater efficiency, which equals less cost to operate. My major gripe about going with a stove is that I will have to vent it to an insulated chimney pipe. I recently priced the cost of the pipe alone at almost $1,800. Cost of the total system installed would be in the neighborhood of $5,000. (Join me in saying, “Yikes!!!”)
But what am I supposed to do? I need something now (or at least by next fall) that will supplement my existing furnace, and I need something off-the-grid for when the lights go off.
Looks like I’m going to have to have a bake sale or something to raise the money.
More on this, plus an alternative to messy wood for a wood-burner, in a future blog.