Tuesday, September 26, 2023

A question of heat

A couple days ago, our home's forced-air heating system died.

This heating system was in place when we bought the house (there was also a pellet stove, which we de-installed and sold when we installed our wood cookstove). It was a convenient heating system when the temperature was cool-but-not-cold in the house, usually the transition times in spring and fall, and occasionally on those winter days where the temperature spikes.

When the heating system died, it died suddenly. You know Don. He can fix just about anything. He studied the system's owner's manual, did some research online, watched YouTube videos, and concluded it needed an HVAC expert. When he draws a conclusion like that, I'm not inclined to doubt him.

We were never overly crazy about the forced-air heating system anyway. It was NOISY, and it used a lot of electricity. Our electric bill would always spike in cooler months when we used it. So ... we decided not to go through the expense of getting it repaired immediately. There are other options.

Today, Don ordered a ventless propane wall heating unit similar to one we had in our old house, and we'll install that when it arrives in a few days. Fortunately, last year we put in a much larger propane tank, so we have plenty of propane.

But for the next few days, with the weather getting cooler, we're down to a single heating system: our wood cookstove. Time to get it ready for use.

Don climbed up on the roof and used the chimney brushes to scrub the stove pipe.

This is the brush with its detachable rods. They're stored in the barn between uses.

Then I cleaned the stove itself. Tools of the trade include a metal (never plastic! or wood!) bucket, as well as a flashlight.

Other tools were an ash scraper and a handle for turning firebricks (which I'll demonstrate shortly). Both these tools were custom-made and came with the stove.

The first thing to do is remove this little plate from the front of the stove, held on with wing nuts.

This reveals a little hole into the lower portion of the stove below the oven box, where ash tends to accumulate.

I tried to get a flash photo of the ash accumulation, but it didn't turn out too well. Still, you get the idea.

Anyway, the ash scraper is designed to fit right inside this hole. It allows me to reach alllll the way to the back of the stove and scrape the ash toward the opening.

Must have gotten a good quart of ash from this area. It's exceptionally fine stuff.

After that portion was done, I turned my attention to the firebox. First I scraped off the ash from the top of the oven box.

Next, the firebox itself needed cleaning. Notice the gap in the center floor of the firebox? Keep that in mind a moment.

The floor of the firebox consists of two fire bricks that rotate for easier cleaning. To rotate them, notice the square knobs below the firebox, above the ash box.

That's where this other tool comes in. It fits over the square knobs.

Like this.

Rotating the firebrick above drops ash from the firebox into the ash box below. Notice the left-hand firebrick is turned on its side.

I use the ash scraper to pull all the ash through into the ash box below, leaving the firebox reasonably clean.

My hands were pretty dirty by this point, so I didn't want to soil my camera for every step of the process. Let's just say this ash box was quite full. I pulled both it and the bucket outside, and dumped all the ash into the bucket.

Then I scraped any overflow ash out of the box into the bucket as well.

After that, I laid kindling in the firebox, ready to start a fire.

The very last thing we did was lean this piece of green sheet metal against the right-hand wall as a heat guard. Originally we were going to install a permanent heat guard, but somehow we never did, and this sheet metal works perfectly. We simply tuck it away in the barn each spring when not in use.

Now we're set for the winter. Even if we didn't have the propane wall heater, we can use the woodstove just during the chilly hours (say, early morning or late afternoon) and then let the fire go out.

And you know the lingering thought in my mind after the forced-air heating system died and we prepared the woodstove for the season? I thought how much better low-tech is than high-tech. Our cookstove can never die.


  1. Can your model of cook stove handle pea coal?

    My deer camp stove does, and a nice bed of pea coal kept the deep chill off all night. Better than doing the "Your Turn" to get out of the warm bed to feed the wood stove.

  2. I used to have a nice Jotul wood stove and had to go through a similar cleaning process. The result was well worth the effort though. I miss that stove.

  3. A small word about that piece of green sheet metal, if I may.

    Our homeowner's insurance did not raise our rates upon the installation of our wood stove, but the company did mandate a professional installation or they would drop our coverage.

    As it happened, only one stove shop in our state carried the specific stove that we wanted. The owner of that shop, who also installed our stove thus satisfying our insurance company, is an industry expert. He is often called in as a professional consultant on fire investigations where a wood burning appliance or another type of 'fire appliance' may have been involved.

    He shared an interesting story about heat shields.

    He was called in to investigate a house fire caused by a wood stove set within close clearance parameters given by the stove owner's manual. The wall behind the stove was genuine masonry, a bona fide brick and mortar wall, ergo 'flame proof.' The homeowners felt that this non-flamable surface meant that they were safe to install the stove to the acceptable, published close clearance parameters (distance from that wall) as stated in the owner's manual.

    Here was the problem:
    The non-flamable masonry wall directly abutted/was in direct contact with a wood frame and drywall wall on the opposite side. There was no fireproof layer in between the masonry wall and the wood framed drywall.

    The masonry wall heated up and efficiently transfered that heat to the wood framed drywall, which eventually reached its flash point and spontaneously combusted. The fire started *inside* the adjacent drywall and IIRC it shot up inside the wall and into the attic. The wall and the attic were on fire before the homeowners had a clue.

    It's not enough to have a fireproof surface next to the stove. There has to be enough space in between the stove and the adjacent surface for heat dissipation, or some type of mitigating layer in between the fire proof (but not necessarily heat proof) layer and any adjacent combustables.

    This type of situation *always* catches my attention because I could see myself doing *exactly* what those homeowners did: a DIY close clearance installation in front of a masonry wall, not even considering a combustable wall on the other side.

    Our professional installation is pretty close in terms of clearance but the stove was installed with a factory heat shield on the back. We have since replaced the factory installed heat shield with a factory built, brand specific blower unit that also acts as a factory spec rear heat shield.

    Maybe your stove manufacturer makes a side heat shield for your stove?

  4. Have you plans to remove the furnace and reuse the space it uses?

  5. I think you did the right thing. One more suggestion. A single brick propane ventless heater in the bathroom is a good thing as well. Even just the pilot light on by itself can make a difference in thatsmall room during cold weather, and greatly improves bathing comfort when heater is on. A small electric heater can work ok when the power is on, but the propane is a nicer warmth and is reliably there when power is out. And when it's really cold out, that little brick helps keep icicles at bay in the bedrooms.

  6. 2003, we built our ExpeditionVehicle.
    Our interior is 12' long by 7' wide by 7' tall, about 600cf.
    Two decades full-time live-aboard, we boondock exclusively.
    We heat with one Wave 3 catalytic heater on 'LOW'.
    Without a thermostat, the Wave 3 runs at 1,700Btu continuously, so we control the interior temperature by opening windows on opposite walls... for example, a quarter-inch on one side, a half-inch on the other.
    Escaping warm air carries humidity and odors.
    A Wave 3 catalytic heater does a poor job of heating air.
    Set on the floor on its stubby legs, the Wave 3 heats the slate floor, then that gently radiates into our home.
    And the warm floor feels great on tootsies.
    Our insulation:
    * adhesive-back acoustic against the inside of the wall and ceiling, a gap, then
    * one-inch pink-board, another air-gap, then
    * two-inch foil-side poly.
    We installed 3010 (three feet wide by a foot tall) dual-pane sliders designed for a stand-still house.
    We mounted these at our eye-level standing inside, about eight feet above pavement.
    Including cooking on the Coleman two-burner, one twenty-pound five-gallon bottle of propane lasts about ten days.
    The kit -- less than us$100 fedbux, plus about one fedbux daily for propane.
    Our maintenance consists of swapping the empty bottle for a full a couple-three times a month.
    We think a small cubic space, excessively obsessively insulated, works for us.
    "But but but LM!, how do you live in such a tiny space!"
    We do not live in our ExpeditionVehicle.
    We live out of it.
    For our introduction with plenty of portraits, plus our reasons for our decisions, visit VanLiving and search for 'ExpeditionVehicle Build':

  7. Unvented propane heaters dump a huge amount of moisture into the house.

    1. People and pets breathing, and cooking, showering, and such do too. I routinely open the house up for fresh air and venting during winter, as well as occasionally run the dehumidifier. These fresh air routines aren't usually at the coldest or rainy times, and they make a great difference in atmosphere.