If you’re going to make it through the winter in a cold climate, you’re going to need heat. Now if you plan to make it living off the grid without gas, propane, fuel oil, or electricity, you’re going to need a pretty darn good wood stove. I know, I know—it’s summertime and hot as can be outside, which is exactly the time to be thinking about the coming cold winter!
There are a few things that you want from a stove. Mainly, you want heat—and if it’s got a good top for cooking, so much the better. There are some things you don’t want though. You don’t want to get asphyxiated and wake up dead, and you don’t want to burn down your house or cabin. You also don’t want to go broke buying expensive cords of wood or spend your whole day chopping and splitting. So listen up, and I’ll share some things with you that I learned last winter.
First off, I’m going to tell you to get an old stove, not a new one. You might be able to find a great deal on Craigslist or in the newspaper. They’re going to be a lot cheaper, not to mention a lot better. They don’t make those things like they used to. You want something made of good plate metal, without a lot of modern crapola. I like the earth and green things as much as anybody; it’s just government green requirements and regulations that irritate the heck out of me. You don’t need something with a 92% Energy Star efficiency rating. We’ll take care of the efficiency a little later.
Just get a good solid stove. If it’s got a few cracks, you can patch them with refractory cement. Make sure they’re patched right if you don’t want to get a room full of smoke. Just because you’ve grown a beard doesn’t mean that you’re Grizzly Adams or that guy who fixes up those old houses on PBS. Test it out and make sure it’s solid.
Before you buy, you need to figure out if you want a big stove or a small one. There are pros and cons to both. A small stove is going to heat a smaller area, but you can make up for that by not going in and out of your door all day so that it gets a chance to warm up the whole place, including the walls and furniture. You’re going to have to get up once or twice during the night to stoke the fire, but you aren’t going to go broke buying cordwood. For me, it was one cord a month with my small stove, and four cords a month when I got the big one. (At first, anyway.) At $150 a cord, that’s a pretty big sting that might be worth getting out of bed for.
A big stove is awesome and makes you smile just to look at it. But mine was a hungry little puppy until I made some adjustments. (It sent a lot more heat out the chimney than I liked.) It makes a good hot fire and has a damper for the air intake that I can adjust for a fast, hot burn or a warm, slow burn. It even has a metal coil to act like a thermostat. I can set it on low at night, and as the fire burns down and gets cooler, it will open the damper to raise the heat output, keeping a pretty even temperature. I can set it for high or medium too. If your stove doesn’t have one, it wouldn’t be too hard to rig one up.
I told you we’d get to the efficiency part, so here goes. No way I was going to spend $600 a month to heat my 550 square foot cabin, so the first thing I figured out was that whole logs burned a lot longer than ones that were spilt. Once the fire was strong and hot, I would throw in a couple of whole logs an hour or two before bedtime. I probably saved a couple logs a day.
The next thing that I looked at was my stove pipe. My stack was a dual-wall pipe, which was keeping a lot of heat inside the pipe and sending it right outside. Well, it was pretty far from the wall, and since I don’t have kids that are going to burn themselves on a hot pipe, I switched it to a single-wall pipe for the stack. (I hope I don’t have to tell you that you still need double-wall starting a couple feet before it goes through the wall or roof so you don’t burn the house down or create an ice dam on the roof. Just make sure to keep it 18 inches away from any combustibles.) Then I got about a dozen flange rings that fit around the outside of the single pipe and screwed them on every few inches to act like radiator fins to distribute the heat better. I saved a cord of wood right away, and the heat was more even throughout the place too. The downside of this is that the inside of the pipe is cooler, so more creosote builds up in it. I’ll need to clean it a couple times a winter, or maybe I’ll just make another pipe with fins and switch it out every month so I’ll have plenty of time to clean the dirty one and no down time without heat.
Next thing I did was build a “thermal mass” around the stove. I happened to have a lot of red brick left over from an old project that I never finished, so I stacked them up like Legos around the back and sides of the stove. They soak up a lot of heat and radiate it back out so that it doesn’t just go to the ceiling or out the chimney. I angled the sides out a little to push the heat into the room instead of right back at the stove. The bricks stay warm for quite a while, so I don’t always throw logs in for the first couple of hours after the sun comes up. If you have some river rock or stones around you, they work just as well. I’ve heard that soapstone holds a lot of heat, so you might want to try that. Sometimes I cheat and put a little electric fan behind the stove to circulate the heat and keep more of it in the house.
Before next winter I plan on taking a tip from a buddy of mine. He wrapped some copper pipe around his stove a few times, and then ran the copper into a couple 55-gallon drums he dug in under his floor boards. The drums have big stones (almost like bowling ball size) with a lot of room for water around them. Then he ran more copper out of the drums to a radiator on the other side of the room, with aluminum fins on the copper along the way. Toasty and efficient. The hot water keeps things circulating well, and plenty warm too.
Well, sweet dreams and stay warm. And, oh yeah—you’re still going to want to keep some blankets around.
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