Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A reader offers useful input on home heating and other matters


Following yesterday's article about choosing and buying alternative-fuel heaters for our home, reader Kevin e-mailed me about his and his wife's experiences heating their home in Massachusetts (a far colder state than Texas during much of the winter).  He generously gave me permission to share his e-mail with you, including the image below.

I am writing to you pursuant to your current article on your blog regarding shopping for an auxiliary source of heat for your home when weather and lack of electricity conspire to cause life to take on a certain sporting quality that one would prefer not having to address in the first place.  We had a small house built on 3 acres of land in the western part of the People’s Democratic Republic of Massachusetts in 1984.  The primary heat was suppose to be a coal stove in the basement and one in the living room with electric baseboard as a backup source.  After one season of burning the coal stoves we arrived at the conclusion that they were a profound mistake and switched to regular wood burning stoves as our primary heating source.  We spent approximately 23 years burning regular wood and realized that employment of that medium was not going to be particularly realistic as we became older regarding having to cut and split the timber required to heat the house.

After sufficient due diligence we bought a wood pellet stove as the main heating source in the upstairs portion of the house and a propane heater for the basement.  When the propane heater finally reached the end of its life span we bought a small stand alone [electric] heater that was filled with oil in order to heat the basement so that the temperature would remain around 55 degrees or so.  [From the photograph Kevin provided, it was similar to this current model.]

The basement is relatively small and this genre of heater has worked out well for us over the course of the last 5 years or so.

When we were both working my wife would come home at lunch and try to kindle a fire in the regular wood stove as well as attend to the needs of the horse, dog and cat who were breathlessly awaiting her arrival and the delivery of their lunch.  This became a sort of zero sum undertaking after a while and was one of the factors that prompted us to research the viability of the pellet stove as the primary heat source.  The convenience factor of the stove’s burn time combined with being able to essentially just turn it on as one would a regular home heating system has proven to be the best solution for us here in the back of beyond.

We learned very early on in our residence here that the electrical grid was in rather tenuous condition and loss of electrical power became a normal state of affair during the course of each year regardless of what the season was.  We purchased a small gas generator that could be used to power the pellet stove and the well and a few lights but its output was really too small to provide adequate electrical coverage for the house and horse barn.  After more research we decide to upgrade the generator and transfer box so that it could provide sufficient electricity for the house and barn when we lost power and needed heat and the well to work.

As luck would have it we upgraded a week before the famous October 2011 surprise storm to a new generator and transfer box which we had an electrician install for us on a Saturday.  If my memory is vaguely correct the total cost for parts and installation came to around $2,000 at that time.   We have a Generac XG-6500 generator which has held up well for us.  We ran it continuously for 8 days during that storm power outage and had heat, water and lights while the neighbors were reduced to hauling water from local streams to try to flush their toilets.

The pellet stove and well require electricity so lack thereof is more than just an inconvenience to us especially during the colder months here in New England.  I believe that you can purchase whole house generators that turn on automatically when the power goes out but I suspect the cost is quite a bit more than our set up cost us. 

The combination of the pellet stove, generator and oil filled heater have combined to provide us with the ability to provide heat, water and basic electricity as long as we are able to purchase sufficient gasoline to fill  the generator’s 9 gallon tank.  Our water heater runs off a 100 gallon propane tank so when the power is out we have warmth, water and electricity because we took a proactive approach to addressing the reality of our living conditions.  Out here one is pretty much expected to provide their own solutions to the realities and challenges that arise on a regular basis and this partial atmosphere of personal independence is rather refreshing to see and experience at first hand especially in view of the ongoing prevailing societal attitude that it is always someone else’s responsibility to solve one’s difficulties.

Kevin offered a few trenchant thoughts on our current economic mess in a follow-up e-mail.

Our income is predicated upon social security, a small university pension and a small investment portfolio.  We never leveraged our income by over extending our debt exposure in some inane effort to compete with the neighbors or anyone else for that matter.  We always lived well within our means and if we could not afford something we made due with what we had at hand.  Essentially we tailored our expectations  and dreams to the fiduciary reality that we had to work with ... I fully expect She Who Must Be Obeyed to live well into her 90s and am trying to lay the foundation for her financial security with  the expectation that she will be well and truly on her own due to the world class incompetence that is demonstrated on a daily basis by the politicians in Washington.

I have tried to impress upon younger acquaintances the thought that being financially conservative is a necessary behavioral  defense in view of the nonsensical behavior we see every day from the fools in Congress.  I fully expect another market correction a la 2008 in our very near future and this time thanks to the over all economic malaise exacerbated by actions of the Chinese Communist Party on the world stage and the complete demonstrative incompetence of Mr. Biden and his band of renown.  I believe that this correction is going to be of greater magnitude and pain than was the last one.  I suspect that the majority of today’s generation would not be able to survive an economic collapse bearing tones of the Great Depression of the 1930s and will be in for a rather rude awakening that spares neither the politically correct nor the incorrect in the thoroughness of its devastation.  The basic lesson to maintain at the forefront of one’s mind is that is life can be unfailingly difficult and the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth will not necessarily provide a workable solution to meeting the challenges such a situation will present without fear or favoritism to the citizens of this country.

The late Col. Jeff Cooper once said that his approach to bringing up his children was to teach them to ride, shoot straight and tell the truth.   We would be better served as a society if more individuals subscribed to that philosophy but regrettably that hope appears to have gone the way of $1.25 a gallon gasoline.

Amen to that!

Thanks for writing, Kevin, and for your permission to republish your e-mails here.  We can all learn from the life lessons you've experienced.



Dad29 said...

One can also purchase a standby generator which is convertible from gasoline to propane fuel source; you just have to 'flip a switch' so to speak.

millerized said...

Gee...too bad someone wasn't allowed to build low cost, gravity fed, no electricity required pellet stoves.... https://www.everlastgenerators.com/forums/showthread.php/5340-New-stove-in-process
Sadly, that went the way of 'continue and we'll sue you' like most things.
Pellets, unless you have a pellet mill (and extra heads) are not a long term solution for heating your house, electricity or not. Wood, cut and stacked during the summer months in quantities to get you through into the next year or more, is the only completely self-sustainable means of heating your home. (unless you're living over a hot springs or semi-dormant volcano)
Gas, great until the tank is empty. Oil, yeah, good luck with that. Pellets, until you run out of have a warehouse full of it STORED ON SITE.

Eric Wilner said...

I've been wondering for some time why pellet stoves all seem to require mains power; you'd think there'd be models available with a thermoelectric generator to run the fan and feeder and charge up a starting battery. I mean, with all that heat flow right there just asking to be used.

Cj said...

Look up wood gasification… I think tactical wood gas is one company I’ve heard of that I’d dreamed about giving my money to at one point… not without it’s own downsides of course…

Anonymous said...

When the grid goes down for more than a few months, that generator becomes useless unless you have huge fuel reserves.
The pellet stove follows the same rule. What happens when pellets become unavailable? You could make your own I suppose, but that takes time and resources.
Same with propane. It's only a finite supply.

Don't get rid of the wood stove, you'll probably be reinstalling it.

millerized said...

When I designed mine (4 different proven versions) there were 2 commercially available non-electric ones the market. One was clock-wound, the other gravity. Mine also used gravity, and that's what caused the 'legal' issue. Pure bull$h!t, and his complaint really only lasted until he sold his company to the Chinese. Cost to prove it in court isn't something I like dealing with, win/lose you still lose.

Power consumption isn't a huge deal except for start-up when the ignitor coil comes on. Usually something like 200-400W during the starting phase, and 200-300W during normal running. 2 to 4 amps, maybe 5A total. They can be run off a solar array and battery backed inverter pretty easily. It just comes down to stocking multiple tons of pellets in case that 'market' ever stops working. In the world of self-sustenance, relying on a market isn't always a smart move.

Unknown said...

Fireplaces, nice big fireplaces! And plenty of timber. I'm lucky. Your commentator touched on a real weak point though: water. Now, as it happens, the major water supplier in my state has the ability to run entirely without electricity as it is a gravity feed system with no pumps required. They are used to get suitable pressure by modern standards, but not required, and their filtration system also uses gravity. (whether anyone in the company has the balls to run it that way, I don't know)
That is a big anomaly. Most public water supplies and most wells (mine included) require electricity, a surprising amount of electricity in some cases. That is a potential problem not just for the apartment dweller that lacks heating but for all those suburban/exurbia houses out there.
Got some buckets in storage? Potable water containers? a way to filter sketchy stream water?

Stan_qaz said...

Harvesting the heat from a wood or propane stove can be useful compared to running a generator. A friend had a pellet stove with a starting battery to power the igniter and auger that worked quite well.Once the battery was full it had 5 and 12 volt outlets available for other uses. LED lights really beat candles!

Pellets are nice, well as long as they are kept completely dry, even damp they can get fuzzy and hard to feed. Look up the numbers on BTU production (factor in the losses up the chimney) and your needs to see how big a shed you'll need to store your supply.