Keeping warm

31 10 2008

As the leaves begin to fly off the trees and the air is filled with migrating birds, people begin to think about what needs to be done to keep warm.   The long sleeves are put in the closets while the new furnace filter is installed on the furnace.  Most of America has to think at least in some respect to being prepared for the chill of winter. 

Heating the house isn’t exactly rocket science.  Most houses have a contained fire somewhere that is designed to heat either air or water.  The heated air is blown through the house by a fan while the water is circulated by a pump through a series of radiators.  Others might use electricity to heat filaments in heaters while a rare few might utilize some form of geothermal heat.  Whatever choice we use, we are all certain that winter will come and when it does, it will be cold.  Are we prepared to keep our families warm?

There are several levels in which we must consider preparing for the winter cold.  First, there is simply the rite of examining whatever source of heat we do have and making sure the unit is able to fire up when it is needed.  Second, we must consider whether we are able to sustain the needs of the sytem that we have.  Can we pay the electric bill?  Can we afford to buy the natural gas?  Third, what will we do if something happens that disrupts our system?  For example, the loss of electrical power in an ice storm, lack of supply for fuel oil, or the untimely death of our current system could pose immediate difficulties, particular if the weather is frigid.

We heat our home primarily with wood, although we do have a natural gas furnace for backup.  While electric and kerosene space heaters can be purchased for emergency heat (and can be effective at that), I am rather convinced that making preparation for a wood stove makes good sense.  There are a variety of forms that wood can be used to produce heat.  Our stove is a fireplace insert and I have installed a makeshift fan system to help blow the heat through the house.  It does an satisfactory job in heating our home, although we could only heat a small portion of it without the aid of electricity.

In my opinion, the best solution for wood heat is a woodstove in the  middle of the house.  While this will require the stove and a chimney suitable for it, this application can heat an entire house and need not depend on electricity to do it.  Not only can you use the stove to keep warm, many models at the very least have a place for heating water or simmering soup.  Some of them even have an oven that can be used for baking.  They are heavy, sturdy things that will last generation if maintained and used properly.

Of course, you can add a woodstove in the basement and vent the heat into a forced air system.  For homes with basements, the wood can be store out of site and much of the dirt and mess is never in the living area.  In this region, outdoor wood furnaces are the rage.  They generally heat water which is circulated throughout the house, contained either in a coil in the plenum of the furnace or in a series of radiators in the house.  Some folks have tubes in the concrete in the basement that serve to warm the floor which then radiates through the house.

For houses with radiator systems, the outdoor furnace makes sense.  The wood is outside, a the fire is safely away from the house, no chimney is needed in the house, and the amount of time cutting and splitting wood is reduced.  (An outdoor unit is usually big enough to handle any piece of wood your are man enough to get intisde the fire box.)  I have a few issues with these systems, however.  First, they are really expensive.  Second, they have a lot of parts (pump etc.)  and I seriously wonder about their longevity.  They sit outside enduring massive differentials in temperature.  Third, they require electricity to operate at all.  If something happens to the power, you can chuck wood in these things to your heart’s content but to no avail. You have to have electricity to circulate the water.

For my money, I would go with the cookstove.  These things last for generations and can be bought at auctions very often for little money.  You will need a good chimney and yes, you will have a wood fire in the house.  Wood heat, while being very warm and maintaining a measure of ambiance, is very dirty.  Wood is brought in, ashes are taken out.   Every trip leaves a mess.  You will need access to wood, a way to cut, a way to haul, a way to split and so on.  But then, in a realy emergency, fire it up and you are in business.  So what if the power is out.

Maybe having a woodstove is not in your “to-do” list.  At least make sure that your current equipment is ready to work for you.  Have a kerosense heater available if the power goes out.  (Be careful!  I have heard of many homes burning due to careless operation of such things!)  Always have a good supply of blankets, not just at home, but also in your vehicles should you get stranded.  Cold weather will be here soon!  Get prepared!

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3 responses

3 11 2008
ClintDiggs

Good article. I have a woodstove with a built in blower. It is a beautiful Appalachian Stove brand with glass door. Beware of models like this: the glass never stays clear more than 2-3 hours after a cleaning and without electricity it will heat the house very little on account of the double wall design for the blower efficiency. I’d prefer a quiet, radiant woodstove with an oven. Ashland is the best brand I’ve seen the Amish have and I’m saving money for one. About $1900.

4 11 2008
Christopher

Boyd, that was a very good summary of the topic. I especially appreciate the last paragraph.

We just acquired an outdoor furnace. It made sense to me given the cost of propane, and that we’ve already got the boiler system with baseboard radiators (and in-floor radiant heat in the kitchen.) With regards to electricity, I needed that to circulate the water already, so I didn’t take a step backwards, though I need a little bit more juice now than I did before.

I have thought about getting a standalone solar unit to power just the heater, or more likely a backup generator (I want to keep my freezers on as well, until I run out of fuel anyway).

We also have a woodstove in the house, which does not keep the whole house warm (3 stories, 4,000 sq feet, built in 1906), but does keep part of it warm. So in a pinch, we’ve always got that.

4 11 2008
How Are You Preparing For Winter? « In Due Season…

[…] (Make sure you review Boyd’s post on Keeping Warm.) […]

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