Surviving Winter with a wood stove for heat and cooking
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It’s Survival Diva on a mission to make sure none of us becomes frozen, flesh-eating popsicles when winter comes post SHTF. When it comes to prepping, I can’t stress enough the importance of choosing appliances that run off a renewable fuel source, but just recently I discovered some of us might not be given a choice!
Just after Obama’s re-election, the EPA announced new restrictions on soot produced by industry smokestacks, diesel trucks and even ordinary sources like wood-burning stoves. The new standard reduces the legal limit for airborne fine-particle matter from 15 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 12 micrograms, which threatens the use of some woodstoves. If you are in the market for a wood stove, the news won’t be as devastating. You’ll be able to look for a model that meets this stringent standard. But if you, like multitudes of others, are using a wood stove that doesn’t adhere to this new regulation, it may cost you.
Let’s hope clearer heads prevail, and people who are barely scraping by—99% of the populace–will be allowed to heat our homes.
At the moment, most of us depend upon electricity or natural gas for heating and cooking. Those living rurally may use propane. There’s an intrinsic problem when depending on any of these sources. If the grid crashes, so may your ability to cook or heat your home.
In the case of propane, you will have a bit of wriggle room, but even then eventually the propane tank will empty and where will you turn? For some, it may mean cooking over an open fire pit. That’s not ideal when hungry neighbors will be following the tantalizing smell of beans right to your front door.
The Reality of Propane
The following is an example of why even those with propane must have a backup plan. Let’s say you plan to heat a 1,200 sq. ft. home with propane. If you’re using a 70,000 BTU high efficiency (93%) furnace and the furnace runs only 40% of the time (based upon heating your home at 64 degrees), propane experts say you’ll consume approximately 1 gallon of propane per hour, which equals to 200 gallons a month. In regions that experience harsh winters, propane consumption will be higher. Now let’s say you’ve decided to conserve your propane and you turn off the propane hot water heater and don’t use the dryer, but plan to cook with a propane stove. It’s estimated cooking with a propane stove will consume approximately six gallons of propane a month, at least. Should you have a 500 gallon propane tank and plan to use it for heating and cooking you will be out of propane in just under 2 ½ months.
It should be noted that in a crunch, you might be able to heat at least a portion of your home with a propane cook stove. But make sure you have a reliable CO detector if this happens to be your backup plan.
For those who live where trees are plentiful, I highly recommend a wood cook and a wood heat stove. Actually, if your square footage is small enough, it may be possible to heat your home or cabin with a wood cook stove alone.
We’ll get to the appliance portion of alternative heating and cooking in a moment, but first we should discuss the essentials: fire wood and the tools of the trade.
Firewood needs to be seasoned for six months to one year for it to burn properly. To tell whether wood is seasoned, knock two logs together. Well-seasoned logs make a sharp ringing sound and will be cracked on the ends and will not be reddish or golden in color and it will not have a strong woody smell. Sap is another tell-tale sign of unseasoned wood.
Seasoned hardwood has approximately twice the burning potential per volume than does soft wood, so if you can find it and you can afford to buy it, purchase hardwood.
Always have two to three days’ worth of wood stored indoors at a time, as cold firewood brought in from outdoors cools the fire and prevents proper combustion.
When storing wood, keep it at least 10 feet away from your home and it should be stored at least 6 inches off the ground to avoid attracting bugs that can be brought into your home. Stack the wood bark side up to keep it from absorbing moisture, or better yet, store it covered—a secure tarp is enough, but a wood storage shed with a roof is ideal. If you get firewood in rounds, split it before stacking—this helps with the drying process.
Have at least one winter’s worth of firewood that is seasoned and ready so you’ll be prepared for a crisis.
(David’s notes: We heat our house with wood…whether it’s 50 outside or zero, our fireplace is running most of the year. The moisture content of the wood that you burn is going to be one of the biggest factors in whether or not you have a good wood burning experience.
We use a moisture tester and avoid wood that is wet to the feel and/or under 20% moisture content. There are a few reasons for this…
1. Mold, fungus, and other “funk”. Dry wood is normally cleaner wood and wood that you can bring into your house without introducing air contaminants that may irritate or infect your respiratory system.
2. Creosote. Creosote is a tar-like substance that builds up on the inside of chimney flues when the temperature drops below 250 degrees. It is flammable and is the main cause of chimney fires. When you burn wet wood, a lot of the BTUs from the fire get spent converting the water to steam at 212 degrees. What this means is that the smoke going up the chimney is cooler and more creosote will build up. This is one of the big reasons why you should NOT load up your firebox with wet wood at night to get an all-night burn.
3. Time. Burning with wood takes time. Time to saw, load, haul, unload split, stack, haul again, feed the fire, clean out the ash, and clean the flue. Even if you buy your wood, it takes time to make the money to buy it, and you still have to do more work than setting a thermostat. That being said, I LOVE heating with wood. I love the physical labor involved, I love sitting in front of a fire that I built, and it’s rewarding knowing that when it’s zero outside and 70+ inside that it’s warm because of the fire I built. It’s also nice to know that our family can easily stay warm, even in the absence of electricity or gas.
That being said, I still want to heat our house as efficiently as possible, and when you burn wet wood, the fact that you’re wasting heat changing water from liquid to steam means that you get less heat in your house and have to burn more wood per day to keep the same temperatures.
If you have wood that WAS dry and got wet on the outside from getting snowed/rained on or getting dropped in the snow, simply split it so that you have some dry surface area to catch when you put the wood into your firebox. As a general rule, if you’re putting a log into a hot firebox, it should catch in less than 30 seconds if it’s properly seasoned.)
A chainsaw is convenient, but just as with propane appliances, when you run out of gas or two-stroke oil, or the chain breaks, you’re in trouble. Get back up!
(David’s note: also, make sure you have a VERY good supply of chain oil and an extra bar or two. You WILL get your bar stuck if you spend very much time cutting standing dead. And, make sure that you’re sharpening your blade regularly. Since you’re working on thousandths of an inch, it’s well worth it to pay $30 or so for the Stihl sharpening kit.
If you ever think of getting an electric chain saw, make sure you understand that they are several magnitudes of danger higher than the strongest gas powered chainsaw because of their torque. On this note, I suggest (and wear) kevlar chainsaw bib overalls when sawing. YOU might be confident of being able to contact EMS and get extracted to a hospital in a timely fashon where you cut wood. I don’t have that luxury and I doubt either of us will in the event of a total breakdown. Regardless, it’s worth developing solid self-preservation habits now that don’t depend on EMS when/if you have an accident.)
Crosscut Saw & Tree -Felling Axe: For my homestead, I invested in a two-man crosscut saw and a Gransfors Bruks, Swedish made tree-felling axe. But to get there, I had to do my homework first! When the time came to set up for tree-felling to cover cooking and heating needs, I was clueless where to go for the best tree-felling axe. The Internet can be our best friend at times like that, so I went in search of axe forums—yes, they have people who live, eat and breath axes! At each site, I kept reading about the Gransfors Bruks being the best tree-felling axe for the money. I saved up and bought one along with a replacement handle for $300.
I can’t say when it arrived I was inclined to place it on a pedestal with an up-light to better admire it. To me, it looked like a hunk of sharp forged steel at the end of a wood handle. That wasn’t true for my brother. When he saw it, he treated it like it was a holy relic and told me “Don’t let your son’s use this until they know NOT to let the blade hit the ground! It’ll ruin the edge!” I rarely advise to invest in the most expensive… anything, except when it comes to a manual wheat mill (look into Country Living Wheat Mill), a top-of-the-line manual water pump (had to get the frost proof—yeiks!), a water purifier (I’m partial to Burkey and they aren’t cheap), and the Gransfors Bruks tree-felling axe. I spent a frightening amount of money for these items and it took a long time to save up for them, but they represented life and death, so I didn’t scrimp any more than I would suggest you do. For a tight budget, comb through craigslist, garage sales and thrift stores.
Single Bit Axe
Single bit axes are safer to use for cutting limbs from trees. You’ll want to invest in a good quality one.
Keeping up with firewood is going to be a tough job for anyone. A splitting maul makes splitting wood much easier as the width widens past the blade and thus is designed to separate the wood. The 8 pound splitting maul is typically used for harder to split woods, and the 6 pound is normally used for softer, easier to split woods. Be sure to buy them with hefty handles because they tend to break–many prefer fiberglass handles for this reason.
(David’s note: One of the problems with splitting wood, especially with wet or snowy ground, is keeping your wood dry while you’re splitting. A couple of notes on this…if you use a chopping/splitting block, cover it with a blanket or a wheelbarrow when you’re not using it to keep it try. Next, to keep your wood from flying when you split it, set it inside of an old truck tire. Depending on the size of the wood that you’re splitting, you may end up putting several pieces in the tire and walking around the tire, whacking and splitting away at the different pieces. You might also want to tie a rope or thick shock cord (bungie) around the wood that you’re splitting to keep it all under control while you’re splitting it.)
Single Jack Hammer & Steel Wedges
The “single jack” hammer is designed to drive steel wedges into the wood before switching to a sledge hammer, as its broader face does less damage to a steel wedge. They come in a variety of sizes, the most popular ranging from 2 ½ pound to 8 pounds. If you’re expecting to go through a lot of firewood, they’re well worth the investment.
Think of the sledge hammer as the “single jack” hammer on steroids. It’s not uncommon for folks who split their own firewood year after year to go right to an 11 pound sledge hammer to drive a steel wedge into the wood and get the job done with less effort.
Eventually, blades must be sharpened to be effective and safe. Here’s what you will need:
A coarse crosscut file
A fine metal file OR a set of diamond hones
A sanding block
A block of buffing compound
In a time of crisis, the last thing you want is to slice through skin, tendons or bone. Consider investing in Kevlar cut proof gloves.
Wood Heat Stoves
A good, certified stove will burn firewood more efficiently with less smoke – certified stoves were manufactured after July 1, 1990 (but remember to investigate that EPA regulation!). They cost between $1,000 to $2,000, but can be found used for as little as $200. When possible, run the pipe straight through the ceiling from the interior of your home. Stoves with piping running out and up an outside wall are less efficient and may cause excessive smoke. Make SURE to install wood heat stoves to code! That includes clearances, stove pipe and a fire proof threshold. Should your house burn down and it’s blamed on an improperly installed wood heat stove, your insurance will deny the claim.
The inside of the stovepipe needs to be cleaned annually to get rid of creosote buildup, but newer models of wood stoves burn hotter and you’ll notice less buildup than with older models.
Fireplace inserts make inefficient fireplaces that suck the heat from a room into an effective way to heat your home. They can be purchased used, but they typically require a professional installation. Just as with installing wood heat stoves and wood cook stoves, they must be installed to code or else a fire caused by incorrect installation means your homeowners policy will not pay on the insurance claim.
(David’s note: Where’s your air come from?
A HUGE consideration with wood heating is where your air comes from. Many fireplaces with blowers suck air in from outside, heat it around the firebox, and blow it into the house, increasing the air pressure in the house and pushing air OUT of any cracks/leaks in the house. This positive pressure is a great thing.
With a traditional fireplace, when the heat in your firebox rises, it causes negative pressure in your house and that air gets replaced by sucking cold air in any cracks/leaks in the house. In many cases, your entire house, other than the area directly in front of the fireplace, can actually get colder when you run your fireplace rather than warmer. If this is the case for you, your main options are to upgrade with an insert or replacing your entire firebox.)
Wood Cook Stove
Finding a working circa 1920’s wood cook stove for $200 made my whole year! You can do the same by checking craigslist, the newspaper and the Nickle’s worth. I haven’t seen many at thrift stores, but you might check them out. Antique stores nearly always have them, but you’ll usually pay a premium price. The thing about wood cook stoves is you won’t have to worry about how you’re going to cook when other fuels run dry—for those who live in a treed area, anyway.
There’s something important to watch for, though. Avoid a fixer-upper unless you are super handy and have plenty of time to look for missing parts—and those parts, when you do find them, can be very expensive. I am speaking from experience. Try to get one that is in working order and it will save you headaches on down the road.
With practice, you can home can using a wood cook stove, which is impossible with most other alternative cooking methods.
Wood Heat & Cook Stoves Can Provide Hot Water!
Both wood heat stoves and wood cook stoves can be purchased with a hot water reservoir that would come in very handy in a grid-down situation. It’s possible to retrofit an antique model, but before investing, you’ll want to check with a professional to make sure it will be possible for your application.
(David’s note: If you’re ambitious, you can even use a wood fired burner to boil water to run a steam engine and use the remnant heat for heating your home, water, and food.)
Cast Iron Cooking
A cast iron Dutch oven can be used to cook or bake just about anything in a wood heat stove, fireplace insert, or open fire pit cooking. They are inexpensive and easy to find at thrift stores. If you haven’t already, go online and do a search for recipes for cooking with cast iron cookware and you’ll be amazed.
When you’re budgeting for a wood heat stove, a wood cook stove, or a fireplace insert you need to pencil in the costs of up to code stove pipe and installation. It isn’t cheap, but if you’re handy and can do your own installation you’ll have hundreds of dollars.
Even with regular cleaning, it’s possible to have a chimney fire. Chimney fires can sound like a train or low-flying aircraft and will definitely get your attention. If you see excessive black smoke, flames, or excessive sparks from the top of the chimney, don’t waste time! To put out a chimney fire, tip a generous amount of baking soda or sand on the logs. You should keep a container of either nearby so you won’t be scrambling to find it when seconds count. If you want to be doubly sure you can follow that up by spraying the logs with a fire extinguisher to make sure any burning embers are put out. Finally, you can place a metal sheet (a cookie sheet will do it) over the logs and close the fire door to keep oxygen out.
(David’s note on urban considerations: Seasoned wood is hard to find in an urban area where everything possible gets sent to the dump as soon as possible. If you have the ability to lay in wood now, do so. If you find yourself in a situation where you HAVE to burn whatever is available, start by burning untreated, unseasoned, unpainted, unstained woods first. If you have untreated woods that are painted or stained, try to plane/scrape off as much as possible so that you’re not breathing in the toxic fumes when the chemicals get heated above 500 degrees.)
Have you planned for heating and cooking with wood? Are you prepared with enough fire wood to see you through a winter, and once it’s exhausted, do you have the tools to replenish your wood supply?
(David’s note: If you have experience with heating a home with a rocket stove configuration, please let me know.)
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God Bless and Stay Safe,
David Morris and Survival Diva
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