Thursday, January 6, 2011


My house is cold.

Let me back that up.  My house isn't cold: my house is insufficiently warm by modern standards.

"Modern standards" would recommend I keep my house at heating cycle temperatures as high as 70 degrees.  Looking at my thermostat, I see the house is sitting at 65 degrees.  Since I've got a few layers on, it's plenty warm enough to suit me.  Same thing for cooling in the summer - recommended settings are ridiculously cool; keep your house at those levels and when you step outside, it's like you've been flung into a huge, moist oven.  72 degrees for cooling is crazy.  80 on the other hand, when it's 90 outside, isn't such a shock to the system.

I augment my ancient and noisy heat pump - one of these days, that thing is gonna go - with a wood stove.  Usually I spend a lot of time and effort cutting up blowdowns and scrap trees for firewood; I didn't do that this year.  Big mistake.  But last year I didn't do it either, and relied on the heat pump, and God help me, the heat pump's emergency heat.

Emergency heat is very expensive.  Use it only in emergencies.

So this year I'm using the wood stove more, but without firewood.  You could ask, "what are you burning?"  You've heard of pellet stoves, those highly engineered machines that run on pelletized fuel, uniformly sized little nuggets of densely compressed sawdust.  And they work pretty well.  At maximum output, a typical 40,000btu stove will go through about 40lbs of pellets in a day.  There are bigger ones to be had, all the way up to pellet furnaces intended to be hooked up to your central HVAC system.  Some stoves will burn corn, too.  You might think that's wasteful, but if you're a farmer and already generating many tons of corn or living in an agricultural region where some kinds of corn are cheap, then the economies work out and you get more heat per dollar that way.  You have to do a little math on this stuff to figure which way to go.

But what if you don't have a pellet stove?  I don't.  I've thought about getting one but the darned things are $1,000 and up.  That's a big chunk of change.  I wandered all over the Internet looking at prices, that $One Grand is the low end of the range.

But in my wanderings I did find a basket for burning pellets in a regular wood stove.  Just a simple wire affair, pour 'em in, light 'em up and you're off to the races.  Well, that can't be too difficult.

The one I read about is no longer available, but it's not a problem - this is easy!  Two pieces of expanded metal lath - some folks might call it diamond lath - one of them cut in half, form the long one into a U and the two half-pieces become ends.  Leave a little extra poking down below the U to hold the bottom up, get air all around it, and that's it.  I used copper wire to hold mine together.  You could use steel.  Whatever's lying around, but no lighter than 16ga wire - a full basket like mine is heavy, and when the fire gets going, it can soften the metals some.

So how well does mine work?  Well, my worst month last year I sent $350 to the utility for electricity.  December 2010 was one of the coldest I've ever lived through, and my bill was only $90.  Yes, the pellets cost money, but I only spent about $120 on pellets in December, so no matter how you math it up, I'm ahead.  But there's an even better bit in this whole bootstrap pellet stove conversion:

My wood stove will still burn wood.  Yank out the basket, throw some wood in, and you're off to the races.  Can't do that with a dedicated pellet stove.  I was looking at pellet stoves and looking for my credit card when Sweetie tugged on my arm and said, "What happens when the power goes out?"

The power doesn't go out very often, but when it does, well, it can be out for a while.  You can get mighty cold.  The pellet stove has to have a forced draft - a fan - to work, no power means no pellet stove.

It's not as efficient as it could be.  It demands I put in some effort, but the wood stove is staying.  I'm keeping the basket, having expanded the wood stove's capabilities is a good thing.

And it still goes through only 40 lbs of pellets per day.

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