Thursday, January 27, 2011

The big problems #'s 1 and 2

So I'm sitting here thinking about what the big problems our household will have transitioning to a low/no-energy future. I'm trying to think mainly about things that will be large structural issues, and ones that we can plausibly do something about. So, for example, how we will heat our house is something we have control over, and that we don't have good solutions for. Maintaining a public school system, on the other hand, is really not something we can personally do much about (though you'd better believe I will fight for it whatever ways I can).

Big Problem #1 = heat
The first thing that comes to mind, and what was rolling around in my head and eventually turned into this blog post, is heat. Right now we have no way to heat our house without our furnace or, at least, an electric-powered infrared space heater (which is really cool [er, hot] but not relevant right now). If for any reason we don't have access to gas or electric, we will get cold. Fast. I believe our furnace relies on electric power, too, so even if we still have gas, we don't have heat. But hey, how often do we have power outages? Oh... yeah, often. Right. But not extended power outages! Surely that will never happen! Oh... um... fine.

What are our options here? Well, we have a chimney, but it's been walled over in our house. Also, the chimney itself is in fine shape, but there is no lining or anything--it's just brick. So one of the most obvious options would be to have the chimney lined ($2500), access the chimney on the first floor, and install a wood stove (woodstove = $500-1000; guestimate for the construction = $1500). Naturally, this creates some new problems:
  1. the fridge in the kitchen butts up against the wall that houses the chimney. Now, in fairness, if we're in no-electric-world, a functioning fridge won't be much of an issue. But I expect that we'll at least have electricity for some time, and that time will overlap with periods where we would like to use our stove. And even if we don't use the fridge with electricity, we might still use it as an icebox, or for "cooler" storage. So the fridge might need to be moved, or at least insulated around; that's more money/remodeling.
  2. A source of wood. Okay, now, in fairness, I personally manage over 300 acres of classified forest for my job, so I could probably kill a day or two with some friends thinning trees. But really, that should stay here on the property of my employer (even if I offered to pay, they'd probably prefer to have the wood, since they have a biomass heater themselves). We do live in a wooded area, so I expect we could find a source, but we certainly don't have one right now, and nothing particularly nearby.
  3. Type of fuel. Maybe it would be better to get a pellet stove? I mean, damn they're cheap. Except... where the #$*% would I get pellets once The End Is Nigh? Okay, maybe no pellet stove.
What other options are out there right now? There's geothermal, but that's still dependent upon some source of fuel--electricity or gas. Solar in winter sucks around here. Wind, too, ain't a great bet. If we could bank enough energy from solar in the summer to use in the winter--maybe that would work? We'd have to convert to an electric furnace, which would probably cost more than all of the work putting in a wood stove would cost anyway, and the cost of the solar installation makes my head spin. I'm not thinking of anything else. Suggestions? Blessedly, even in the absence of a heat source, our house tends to stay over 40*F, which is certainly livable, if uncomfortable. But I would loooove to purchase and tear down the house to our south! Ooo, that would make our house much warmer right there! (And would also cost more than everything else I've suggested so far, with far less return on investment; ah well, so much for dreams.)

Big Problem #2 = cooking
Okay, so the connection between problem #1 and #2 is pretty obvious. Unlike heating, we do have a few ways of cooking in the absence of gas or electric. We have a camp stove, to start with, which is a good short-term solution. We can cook for a few days or even a few weeks on that. There are also rocket stoves, which I've not made yet, but think I could, and we can cook over those. (Hey! Rocket mass heaters! That could also be a heating solution! Hmmm... will mull that over.) There are also solar ovens, which we could use in the summer and MAYBE in the winter here (big ole maybe). These are all great, but have some problems:
  1. Other than the camp stove, we don't actually have any of these things (yes yes yes, I do see those things over there on my To Do list, why thank you for noticing).
  2. The time we're most likely to lose power in a short-term fashion is the winter; all of the above cooking items must be used outside for health and safety reasons, and in some cases (solar oven) may not work for crap when it's cold. We need a way to cook when it's cold that won't cause us to get frostbite or die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
So what would be a good fit here? A wood cookstove. Duh. Did I quote $500-1000 for a woodstove? Silly me, make that $1500-3000. But still, could be worth it, yah? If we went that direction, anyway. Does anyone know if you can cook on any part of a rocket mass heater? Hmmm...

Okay, those are some thoughts. Probably more thoughts to come. I spend a lot of my time thinking.


  1. Both of my pellet stoves require electricity. One will flip over to marine battery operation if the power goes out...but I also have two fireplaces...(I have a house and a vacation place)...I would never not have a fireplace or woodburning stove...for emergency heat and cooking...and just for plain old enjoyment. Where I'm from wood's not a problem...orchards get torn out and replaced, old oak and pine trees die.

  2. Many regular woodstoves have a surface that works well for stove-top stuff without the huge pricetag of the wood cookstove. Maybe you could build a brick oven in the backyard if you absolutely must bake when the power is out. That's on my list right after the rocket stove.

    We have lots of wood on our own property, but we buy it anyway, because turning a tree into firewood is a lot of work, and there's no way we could justify all the time and effort for the money. The secure feeling in the winter when you have a bunch of wood and a woodstove is worth the price of admission.

  3. You can cook over a candle.

    Let's say we end up in worst-case-scenario land, and you haven't installed your woodstove, yet. So, you don't have a heat source in the house. Outside, you build a firepit, and you use the fire outside to heat up things like rocks, which you use to heat a very small space in your house, just enough so that your family can huddle around the heat source and not freeze all night.

    In the summer, you use the fire pit outside and your pressure canner to can soups and broths. Over the winter, you use a candle as your heat source to warm up the soups you've canned during the summer :).

    And you don't have to have a source of "fire wood" for the fire outside. You can use brush. We boiled down 100 gallons of maple sap to syrup one year using just the branches from a tree our neighbor had cut down the previous summer. They may want to keep the "wood" from the trees they cull where you work, but they might be willing to part with the twigs and leaves, which you could use at home in your outside fire pit ;).

    All that said, I do have a woodstove. I live in Maine, and I wouldn't have a house up here that didn't have a woodstove. It is worth every penny we invested in it. In fact, for the past two winters, we've heated our house for free, because we're willing to burn pine, and a lot of older pine trees are knocked down during spring and summer storms, and people just want to someone to take those trees out of their yards ;).

  4. I'm on the woodstove bandwagon, too. Don't worry about the chimney overheating your fridge, either; most of the heat of a woodstove goes into the room, not the chimney.

    Nix solar electric for heat; you lose 75% of the solar energy converting to electricity, then you lose 50%+ of THAT converting back to heat. Instead, think passive solar: big window heats thermal mass in the house and radiates it back. Won't keep you toasty, but it's cheaper, simpler, lasts longer, and won't degrade over time.

    You have a basement, right? You might make that part of your plan. It's probably a steady 50 or 55 down there all winter. If you finished a corner of it and put your (tiny) wood stove down there, now you've got an earth-bermed room with a heat/cooking source.

    Has anyone used one of the no-motor woodstove fans Lehman's sells? I'm considering getting one, but we have a fireplace insert an supposedly they're not great for that.

    You can use a rocket stove indoors, if it has a chimney. Look up "Justa Stove" online.

  5. Here's that fan:

  6. Please factor in home insurance when thinking about fireplaces and wood stoves. Where I live in Iowa, these types of things add significantly to the price of insurance.

  7. Gawds. Have I ever mentioned how very much I love my readers? GREAT COMMENTS ALL! This is so helpful--it's like being able to have a stream-of-consciousness monologue with the wall, and then the wall actually responding in a helpful and compassionate way. Rocks.

    I'm certainly leaning wood-heat-ward, albeit not sure when or how we will afford it (maybe we can just roll the cost into our mortgage).

    Jennie, good point about insurance--I'd only thought about that late yesterday after I posted already.

    Emily, I love the idea of using the basement, that completely rocks, and I never would've thought of it. Our basement isn't even close to finished right now, but it could possibly be. Thanks for the info about the fridge, too, that's very useful.

    Bev, I think I am more interested in the sort of stove you mention, mostly due to space constraints, but so far I haven't found many that aren't just as expensive as a full-sized cookstove. Do you have any particular suggestions or experience there?

    Lynda & Wendy, good points about sources of wood. We live in mid-Indiana, which has plenty of forests. And brush! OMG, the brush.

  8. Most of my doomsday scenario plans involve travel (by bicycle, probably) to warmer climates, and migrating with the seasons. I realize this runs counter to the very point of your blog, but I'd be interested in your thoughts.

  9. Hi Colin,

    Naw, that's not counter to the point of my blog, just not the same particular goal as mine. We both want to find ways to adapt to the upcoming... er... SHTF. I haven't thought carefully about the nomadic strategy myself, but it seems like an entirely reasonable response. It's not the direction we've chosen, mostly because we already own a home, we have two small children, and we've developed roots in this town. None of these facts *require* that we stay put, but they make it very compelling. I think there's also a fair amount of "been there, done that" in my own attitude, too. We spent the first decade or so of our relationship, including the first few years with children, being fairly nomadic--moving each year for jobs, never setting roots, not owning much, etc. That way of living certainly has a lot to recommend it (and I understand that your version would be far further down the nomad path that we did). But when we moved here, we planned to stay put, and developed our life accordingly.

    I suspect that adaptation to upcoming problems will require many, many different responses. Some of us will become nomads, some of us will flee the cities for homesteading, some will stay in the cities and learn to make that work. It will take lots of strategies.

    The one thing I would council you to do if you pursue your nomadic strategy is to not neglect the creation and maintenance of bonds with others. There may well come a day when you are not able to be as mobile as you'd like (and depending on what happens, that could be sooner than later) and you'll want a place to be able to stay put, even if only for a little while.

  10. Robyn,
    I heated my 4BR house in Minneapolis for two winters entirely with wood using a small woodstove insert in my fireplace. The savings on gas alone paid off the stove, installation, and trips to get wood by the end of winter #2. If you are disciplined, the ROI can be pretty fast. By disciplined I mean accepting some 50F mornings when you are too busy/lazy/sick to stock up the stove. Or when you goofed off in the fall and did not stock enough wood and have to start rationing in late Feb. :)

    I bought some wood, but mostly drove my little car around (Subaru Foresters _rock_!) and cut/picked up wood. Then I split it in the back yard with ax and maul. The trick is not to try to split a cord at a time; just a little 'workout' after work or whenever.

    My stove was inside the existing fireplace. But if I could do it again, I would tear out the fireplace and just have the stove sitting free. It had enough flat space on top for two large pots. And having more airflow around the stove would have transferred heat into the house more efficiently. Look for a non-catalytic stove! Have fun :)

  11. Hi Robyn,

    Must concur with ChrisBear, we just installed a small insert in our downstairs fireplace and it's great.

    Been reading the Archdruid Report and one project that I'd like to work on soon is building a rocket stove and using it in conjuction with a haybox or fireless cooker.


  12. P.S. Don't know if you're interested but here's a link to building a
    DIY "heat grabber".

    Have not actually made one myself so can't vouch for the results, but it's an interesting idea.


  13. I know I'm a little late to the conversation, but thought I'd throw my 2 cents in. We installed a soapstone woodstove last summer, and we love it. We have a geothermal system, but it uses a ton of electricity. This January, our geothermal electricity use was down by 50% due to the woodstove (which we only fire during the day when we're at home). I wouldn't recommend a soapstone stove for cooking though--not enough heat transfer quickly enough. We can probably finagle a better system for cooking, but most of the time it's hard to get a simmer. And there are a lot of people who chop and sell wood in a bad economy as a way to make extra money.