For some time now, a very patient reader named Ann has wanted more information on heating with a woodstove. (Ann, I apologize for taking so long to tackle this subject.)
As you may know, we heat virtually exclusively with wood. I say "virtually" because we do have a ventless propane wall heater, but we use that only under two circumstances: (a) it's 15 below zero and the woodstove isn't yet putting out much heat; and (b) we have visitors who aren't used to a house as chilly as ours.
Our house isn't small - it's about 2400 square feet - with two stories. The upstairs is entirely unheated. The downstairs is heated by our antique cast iron parlor stove, inconveniently placed in a far corner of one room (as opposed to more centrally located). The stovepipe and fireproof wall backing were in that corner when we moved in. If we had installed the pipe ourselves, we would have put it more central.
This is our faithful old woodstove. It was literally given to us for free in 1997 when we still lived in Oregon. It was a rusted mess and had been sitting in someone's yard for who-knows how many years. Someone wanted to get rid of it and we happily took it.
At the time, we were heating our old house in Oregon with a pellet stove. It worked fine, though between the blower and the auger it was noisy. But we didn't like the idea that the pellet stove was entirely dependent on electricity. When the power went out, so did our heat.
The deciding moment came in December of 1997. Our youngest daughter was seven months old when we had a cold snap of 10F. By Idaho standards, that's laughably warm, but by Oregon standards - especially in an old and drafty house - it was devastating. We had the pellet stove on high day and night, burning through three bags of pellets per day, and the house never got warmer than 50F. For three days I could not put the baby down at all except in her crib to sleep - the floor was simply too cold.
So we knew we had to do something. Don took the rusted hulk of the parlor stove, wire-wheeled the rust off, and found some mica windows. We built a fireproof platform and installed triple-walled pipe through the roof. At last we were set up to try out the woodstove.
And we were stunned. The house stayed toasty warm - almost too warm (sometimes we had to crack a window to cool things down a bit) - and it was quiet as a mouse. We instantly fell in love with this woodstove, one of those "Where have you been all my life?" moments. We seldom used the pellet stove after that.
We loved our parlor stove so much that when we moved to Idaho, we took it with us. We dismantled the poorly-performing woodstove that was already in place in this house, and installed our trusty antique parlor stove instead.
Heating with wood is NOT like central heating. The heat distribution is uneven throughout the house. But here's the thing: we've grown to love it this way. The woodstove is a "point source" for heat. When we need to toast up, we go stand by the woodstove and defrost before going about our activities in the cooler parts of the house. When we get cold again, we go warm up by the woodstove.
These last couple days have been cold (zero degrees Fahrenheit in the mornings). When I got up yesterday and built a fire in the stove, it took a long, long time for the house to warm up. (Last night we kept the fire going all night and it was much more comfortable this morning.)
Yesterday morning the indoor temperature was 50F. I took this photo when things had (cough) warmed up to 52F.
During such times, we all dress warmly, drink lots of hot tea/cocoa/coffee, and stay as much as possible in the front room where the woodstove is located. When we did our schoolwork, it was too chilly in the kitchen to work on the kitchen table, so the kids sprawled on the floor while doing their math and stood by the stove to listen to their history lesson.
It's the price to pay when heating with wood. When we get our wood cookstove hooked up, we'll have a second heat source in a better, more central location which will help matters considerably.
The interesting thing is we're all so used to a cool house in the winter that a warmer house is stifling. When we visit people with central heating, we're gasping and uncomfortable. When we have visitors here and turn on the propane wall heater to make things more "normal," I gripe and complain about how durn hot it is, and can we please turn off the wall heater? Meanwhile, friends have learned to wear extra layers when they visit.
So how does a woodstove work? Here's a basic lesson. I'll add that I have no experience with the newer, more airtight snazzy models, just our antique stove.
Our stove is probably sixty or seventy years old. The front has little windows of mica (which is crystalline and so won't burn). The inside has firebrick and a grate to allow air to circulate under the logs.
The stovepipe coming up from the stove is just single-walled and thin. But then it connects to a triple-walled pipe which carries it up through the ceiling...
...through Don's and my slope-sided bedroom upstairs...
...and up through the roof. The pipe needs to be elevated above the roof enough to get sufficient "draw" through the pipe. Notice the warmer patch of roof around the pipe which melted the snow.
A triple-walled pipe is critical to keep things from catching on fire. As a result, though, the pipe going through our bedroom is not warm enough to heat the air. It's safer, though!
We keep a cast-iron kettle of water on the stove to humidify the air. We fill it daily.
We can also cook on the surface. Here I'm simmering a pot of pinto beans.
This particular model has both a front and a side door.
We seldom open the front. We load all the wood through the side. (You can see the grate below the burning logs.)
The stove pipe has a built-in damper, which regulates air flow. When the fire is getting started or when the woodstove door is open (while loading wood), the damper is open.
When the fire is nice and established and we want the wood to burn slower (and hotter), we close the damper about three-quarters closed.
At the bottom front of the stove is a grate which is usually open for additional air flow:
But on cold nights (or if we're away from home for a couple of hours), we load the stove with wood and close the grate so the fire will burn slowly for a longer period of time.
Helpful accouterments include bellows (the white plastic buckets hold kindling and newspapers for firestarter)...
...a set of fireplace tools...
...and heavy leather blacksmith's gauntlets.
A typical scene on a cold night: crumbled newspapers, kindling sticks, and larger logs for starting the fire the next morning. One of their before-bedtime chores for the girls is to crumble newspapers for the next morning's fire.
Woodstoves are not clean. Ash happens. But to my way of thinking, it's a small price to pay. You see, with a woodstove you are guaranteed heat no matter what the electricity situation may be. In a place like rural north Idaho, that can be a life-or-death situation. During power outages when our electricity-dependent neighbors are shivering in the dark, we're toasty warm. It's our responsibility to make sure we have wood to last through the winter. We're not dependent on a distant power company to provide us with heat.
What's not to love?
UPDATE: A reader's comment reminded me to mention cleaning the stovepipe. About twice a year, we clean the stovepipe to remove any creosote that has built up. (Failure to do this on a regular basis can result in a chimney fire.)
In mid-September, before the season of using the woodstove started, we remove the lower section of pipe. We poke a hole in a plastic trash bag and insert the rod of the stove brush through the plastic.
I hold the bag firmly around the base of the pipe to keep ash from falling everywhere, and Don scrubs the pipe thoroughly, up and down and up and down, but gradually up. He keeps working his way upward, attaching screw-on rods to make the pipe cleaner longer and longer until it reaches the pipe cap.
It's messy work!
Here's Younger Daughter and her friend Miss Calamity peering into the cleaned pipe with a flashlight.
We usually clean the stovepipe again in mid-Spring just to avoid trouble.
By the way, our neighbors told us how to put out a chimney fire: saturate a thick wad of folded newspaper with water and throw the soaked wad into the woodstove. The hissing steam will put out the fire. Ironically we had a chimney fire a mere week after learning this technique, and Don quickly took the dishpan, filled it with water, ran sloshing into the front room, dumped a load of newspapers into the pan until they were soaked, then threw them on the fire. Worked perfectly.
Wanna know WHY we had that chimney fire? We used one of those stupid "chimney cleaning" blocks you can buy, where you light it and it burns hot enough to burn off the creosite. NOT. Instead it burned hot enough to start a chimney fire. No thanks, from now on we'll clean the stovepipe by hand rather than using one of those newfangled cleaning blocks.