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fireplace insert

Heating Your Home Off the GridMy 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.