RENEWING AN OLD FLAME
"...a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!"
In 2006 I purchased this fine looking new cast iron wood stove manufactured by Vermont Castings. This model (called the Dutchwest Large) is one of the newer EPA phase II certified clean burning non-catalytic designs (click here to see my detailed review of this particular stove). My goal is to heat my house exclusively using free renewable fuel (wood!). I have been able to do this with only a handful of exception days (exceptions were the few days I was sick and did not feel like messing with the wood). It is great to not have any bill for home heating, but I must admit, I would not do this for the money savings alone, it is simply too much work. I do it for a long list of reasons, some of which are nicely summarized by John Gulland of woodheat.org:
The Argument In Favour of Wood Heating
Excerpt from the executive summary:
Heating with wood is about a lot more than home heating. It is a tangible expression of self- reliance, of the courage to buck the trends and to resist the appeal of sedentary, push-button convenience. Heating with wood reinforces links to the land and is a willing submission to the cycle of the seasons. It provides stability and security in a turbulent world.
To its owner, the woodlot is a living community in constant evolution, while to the urban observer it may be seen as a museum in which the removal of a tree exhibit render it diminished. The woodlot owner watches its quality improve over the years, even as it yields products and creates employment. The owner’s household earns part of its income by being a fuel supplier to the neighbors. It is a gentle way to produce energy compared to open pit uranium mines and nuclear reactors.
Fuelwood is the ultimate populist energy resource, the most easily accessed and affordable of all renewable energies. The major environmental impact of wood heating is visible for all to see in the form of smoke emissions, making everyone who uses it instantly accountable for their actions. The families that heat with wood and those that supply them with fuel do so privately, without fanfare or acknowledgment. It seems they wouldn’t want it any other way. Heating with wood is its own reward.
Most people I talk to are not aware of modern wood stove technology and have a generally negative opinion on wood burning due to a lack of knowledge (a nicer way of saying "ignorance"). I was in the same boat until doing the research myself.
I am not a big peak oil fanatic, I have no idea when we might run out of oil, if ever. But it certainly seems prudent to at least start moving in the direction of sustainable/renewable alternatives. That is one reason (among many) that I finally pulled the trigger on this inflation beater. Obviously I also believe the stove will pay for itself rather quickly, and I'm fond of saving money. But there are other benefits. My home is more comfortable in the winter than it has been in the past. You see I have always turned down the thermostat in the winter and turned it up in the summer, this saves a lot of energy at the cost of some comfort. It is nice to have a warmer house, and the wood stove does that for me (keeps the whole house a comfortable 70+ all winter long). The wood stove also provides some free humidification (by placing a kettle of water on top) which also adds to the comfort of my home and allows for quick preparation of any food or drink requiring hot water.
I wanted to share my research on wood stoves with others who can hopefully benefit from it.
First of all, a wood stove is NOT the same as having a "fireplace". We are talking >70% efficiency verses about 20% or worse for a fireplace. My goal is to heat my house as much as possible with this appliance, sticking it to da man, becoming more self-sufficient, saving money, making my home more comfortable, getting some much needed exercise, and using a renewable resource for a change instead of depending on volatile energy markets and paying anything an oil or gas company can charge.
Anyway, the first thing I realized when I started my research is that modern stoves are NOTHING like the old models which were smokey and inefficient (not to mention unregulated and dangerous in many cases). So DO NOT buy a used stove until you look up its EPA rating -- if it's not on the list, it's not worth buying!
So far I have been able to scrounge all of my wood for free (more on this later) but buying wood, if necessary, is still about half the cost of natural gas or oil heating. See this fuel cost comparison calculator.
After doing a lot of research I ended up buying this Vermont Castings Dutchwest Cast Iron Non-Catalytic Large Wood Stove [My review].
The best price I could find (and I did a LOT of shopping around) was $1139 from this place (who specializes in "products for simple self-sufficient living" and apparently have been supplying the Amish for decades.) 9% for shipping isn't bad considering it weighs 500 lbs. Although what I did was get the local stove shop to match this price, which should work out well if I ever need service (it did have a limited lifetime warranty). This stove seemed like a good value. Important key factors for me were that it takes big logs via side load door, has long burn times and low EPA tested emissions. Oh, and it looks good too. But before you rush out and buy the same model I did, you should do some research yourself and read my full review, because I now believe there are better stoves out there that are more user friendly to operate and able to achieve secondary combustion on a more consistent basis. This assessment is confirmed by the many user reports on hearth.com and hearthtalk.com.
The total cheapskate could buy the wood stove Lowe's sells (The Englander) which also has good EPA ratings. I don't really like the look or the lack of side loading, but I believe it performs very well and achieves easy clean burns with excellent heat output. Based on what was reported on fatwallet.com, they clearance these up to 75% off starting in February so some real bargains can be had. It has also been available online at a discount price with free shipping and no tax from overstockstoves.com. For the money, and considering the specs on the 30-NC (1.6 EPA emissions, big 3.5 cu ft firebox) it's possibly the best value stove you can buy right now. Another option to consider for value stoves is the Drolet which can also be ordered online, shipping is pretty reasonable, and it has good specs (3.8 EPA emissions, 72% efficiency, big firebox and BTU output, lifetime warranty). A friend of mine recently bought this model and is quite pleased with it (he didn't care for the look so much, but it works well, and he replaced the gold trim himself, I think it looks fine now). On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can buy absolutely beautiful soapstone or porcelain finished stoves from various manufacturers with excellent reviews and specs that can cost thousands of dollars. Your payoff time would be extended but perhaps it would be worth it for some people (Woodstock, Hearthstone, Jotul, and Pacific Energy stoves have all received favorable reviews on hearth.com just to name a few).
If you are shopping for a new stove, consider the "Stoves Hall of Fame" table from this article which appeared in Hearth & Home. But also know that the EPA grams per hour number can be a little misleading so don't rely on that alone to make your decision. Real world performance is a much more important consideration (so try to find independent reviews and talk to serious wood burners before making a choice). If clean burning is an important factor, try to talk to someone that has actually measured or observed this aspect of the stoves operation because many reviewers don't pay serious attention to emissions. You also want to know if and how emissions might change over the life of the stove and how maintenance affects the stove in this regard.
The chimney materials can be special ordered from Lowes (and you may also find a 10% off coupon). They have a really slick online interface for this (installation planner and how-to guide) that asks you about your installation and generates a parts list for you. The link is no longer working, I hope they did not remove this feature permanently, but it was here: Lowes Chimney Page
The estimate to have someone build the chimney for me was $1800 ($800 parts + $1000 labor), versus doing it myself = $400. I also built my own hearth pad for about $100 which consists of fire proof micore 300 fiberboard sandwiched between cement backer board with tiles on top (see above picture). All of this required a permit (cost was $37) and inspection. My insurance company also wanted to inspect the installation and measure clearances (no charge).
Anyway, it should pay for itself within a few seasons. You can cook right on top of these stoves (this particular model is very functional with a nice big cooking surface). I bought a cast iron waffle iron, a couple cast iron skillets, a cast iron dutch oven, a popcorn popper, a stainless steel hot dog roller, a cast iron wok, and a stainless steel kettle. Maybe I've gone overboard, woodstove crazy, but I can't wait to use all of these things!
Obviously if everyone did this, the more populated areas couldn't support it - wood prices would probably go through the roof and the wood harvest might not be sustainable. You also need a place to store the wood. But lets face it, hardly anyone is going to make this switch even if they could. Most people don't want the hassle of dealing with wood, building fires, etc. It's a lifestyle choice - either you love it or you don't. At a minimum, someone in your family is going to have to walk from your wood pile to the stove and load it 2-3 times a day if you are heating full time with the appliance. So if you don't think you want to "work for your heat" then you probably shouldn't get a woodstove (you might still consider a pellet stove however, which is less work but higher cost).
In many areas you can get free fuel: tree services, utility companies, construction companies, and municipalities all remove trees throughout the year. Municipal dumps can be an excellent place to find free wood. I've also heard of some people getting on a list with local landscapers to have unwanted trees left on their property. Not to mention just about any patch of woods will have downed trees you may be allowed to take (a permit may be required from state land, and permission from private land). Once you get good with a chainsaw, you also have an instant double side business - people will pay you to remove fallen trees from their property AND you get free wood. Where I live, every time there is a big storm plenty of free wood becomes available.
Splitting your own wood with axe/maul assumes you want or need exercise (both of which apply to me right now). I know people that spend a lot of money on gym memberships (I used to be one of them). I now say "bump dat", if you are going to work out, you might as well do something that puts money in YOUR pocket at the same time. Splitting wood makes me feel great, I was out of shape but now I've regained my muscle tone. It really is an enjoyable activity and a great stress reliever. If you do some searching around you will find that I'm not the only one who likes splitting wood. This has actually become one of the major reasons I want to keep heating with wood, I know I need exercise, and this has become a big source of it. Lives can and are literally being saved and extended because of the health benefits from frequent exercise, on a discussion forum one man talked about how his cholesterol level plummeted after he began regularly processing (collecting, splitting, stacking, moving) wood.
As for basic technique, I really enjoyed and learned from this article: How to Split Wood.
Of course you can also buy/rent a log splitter or just have pre-split wood delivered to you (the cost per BTU of heat should be about half what you would pay for natural gas or oil). In most areas you can buy a cord of split hardwood for between $120-$200 and not have to worry about scrounging or splitting your own supply. Either way you will still save money and be more self-sufficient. It's easy enough to call some local stove shops to inquire about wood availability and pricing in your area. Buy in the spring when prices are lower, and let it sit and dry until next winter.
Please see An environmentalist's guide to responsible wood heating, Clean Heat and Air Emissions from Residential Heating: The Wood Heating Option Put into Environmental Perspective
This reminds me of the diesel fuel issue. Many people assume diesel vehicles are big polluters - probably because everyone has seen a big old bus or tractor trailer spewing black stinky smoke. But new diesel technology is very clean and can be more efficient than gas. Diesel is big in Europe, and soon more manufacturers (including Honda) will be selling diesel vehicles in the United States. Most importantly, these vehicles can use biodiesel fuel - a renewable fuel we can grow, that is much better than ethanol (more efficient, easier and cheaper to make, better for engines, etc).
For those who do not think we can grow enough wood, please see google earth. We have PLENTY of room. Here's a little factoid for you - did you know we could give EVERY SINGLE family in America a full acre of land in Texas and not only would there be lots of land leftover in Texas, but the rest of the country would be completely uninhabited by people? America is mostly open space! Trees = Solar Energy. We keep killing cows, and yet there is no shortage of burgers. We keep killing wheat, yet there is no shortage of bread. We have plenty of room for sustainable food and fuel production in this country. I like to think globally and act locally so I am growing my own fuel. I have planted dozens of trees. I can heat my house for the entire winter on just 2-5 trees depending on diameter and species. But as mentioned, I have not had to cut down a single live tree so far, and I probably never will! I'm the ultimate recycler, using trees that have fallen over on their own to heat my house.
I will keep track of my actual costs and savings as it relates to the woodstove. So far for costs I have:
$1240 Stove (local stove shop)
$400 Chimney (Lowes - SuperVent)
$90 Flue pipe (online store, 22 gauge HeatFab Saf-T pipe - consider going with stainless steel for just a little more $ should last 3 or 4 times longer)
$325 Husqvarna 455 Rancher chainsaw + 3 chains (eBay new. NOTE: I bought a cheaper 42cc craftsman first, which was a mistake - it works but the husky cuts twice as fast and has no vibration)
$100 Hearth pad materials (4x8 micore 300, two 4x8 durock - local lumber yard. Ceramic tiles, thinset, grout, float, sealer - Home Depot)
$200 Utility cart to haul wood (harbor freight - and yes, even a silly little car like a toyota echo can pull 2000 lbs, a truck would be nice but not necessary)
$180 Hitch, tongue, & ball for car to pull cart
$50 Wood & bolts for cart cage not included with cart
$80 To register the cart - required by dept of transportation in my state
$20 Maul (harbor freight - for splitting wood. Bought a lighter one first which was another mistake, get a 6 or 8 lbs. model)
$7 Splitting wedge (WalMart-mistake get the harbor freight one it's better)
$10 Twist design splitting wedge (Harbor Freight)
$5 Chainsaw bar oil and fuel additive (WalMart)
$3 Gas for the chainsaw
$40 Two carbon monoxide alarms with peak level digital display (one for each floor of the house - eBay new)
$10 Two extra fire extinguishers (Walmart clearance)
$7 Fireplace tools (poker, shovel, kindling tub - yard sale)
$5 Metal ash bucket (Lowes)
$37 Building permit and inspection (don't skip!)
$50 Fire Retardant for curtains and surrounding areas
$110 HEPA filter with ionizer, UV lamp + replacement filter & lamp (new on eBay)
$2,969 GRAND TOTAL FIRST YEAR EXPENSES
-= UPDATED TO ADD YEAR 2 expenses =-
$180 20x10 Carport (Costco) to use as a woodshed (worked for two years, build a real shed instead!)
$75 Electric Hoist for building a crane to lift wood from ground to window next to stove (Harbor Freight)
$63 Gorilla Wagon rated for 1000 lbs w/ 13" tires to move wood from woodpile, hooks directly to crane for hoist to stove (Tractor Supply)
$25 Misc Hardware (bolts, nuts, steel plates) for building the crane (Tractor Supply, steel poles were trash picked)
$14 Case of wax firelogs to make a 6 year supply of firestarters (Clearance at Home Depot)
$3 More gas for the chainsaw
$30 Two spare chains for the saw for future use/convenience (nice to have sharp chains on hand when you are out cutting)
$12 Two 132 foot spools of rutland graphite impregnated fiberglass gasket rope. Won't need to buy gaskets for about 30 years. (price mistake? internet deal now gone)
-= UPDATED TO ADD YEAR 4 expenses (there were no significant year 3 expenses) =-
$20 Just when you thought I had a lifetime supply of chains, I decided to buy a Super 70 after using one, its a very good aggressive chain better than what I had been using. Again learn from my mistakes, get an aggressive chain from the start! (Oregon saw chain 72LPX, 3/8 .050 - 68 links)
$180 Built a new wood shed, its NICE! To cut down costs I used some scrap wood (posts) and architectural shingles I already had (they were basically free, litterally $1 for a full pallet, a home depot clearance), and clearance quikrete for footers. Bought 2x4s to build trusses, flakeboard for the roof, tar paper, roofing nails. Carport woodshed worked for two years then started tearing, so once again learn from my mistakes, build a proper, durable woodshed from the start, its worth its weight in wood! New shed was literally built over top of the carport so its about the same dimensions, can hold 10 cords if totally packed.
$3,571 GRAND TOTAL ALL EXPENSES TO DATE (4 years)
So obviously this is not cheap when you add it all up, but worth the investment to me (and a lot cheaper than some other alternative energy investments such as solar panels). Expenses should be very limited going forward now that I have everything setup and have added the conveniences of a woodshed and a crane.
Payoff time for me will be several years. I have friends that spend almost $2000 a year heating their homes, so for them the payoff time would be just 2 seasons! Of course if you are just buying wood it will still pay for itself but you won't have a lot of my expenses (the saw and utility cart account for a very big portion of the total).
There are of course non-financial benefits. From the words of John Gulland: "our lives are somehow enriched when we spend time in the warm glow of the hearth." I really enjoy the ambiance of wood fires, the extra toasty family room, the extra humidity, the ability to cook on the stove or just walk over for some hot water for instant hot chocolate, etc. And of course there is the fact that you are using a renewable resource that does not release any net carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or line the pockets of politicians and multi-billion dollar corporations.
So far I've gathered most of my wood from trees that blew down in storms. I can collect enough wood in a few evenings and weekends (less than 10 part time days/evenings) to have enough for an entire heating season. In most cases I actually got to help someone out by removing the unwanted trees from their property. Wood that might have otherwise been wasted will now be put to good use.
HOW MUCH WOOD DO I NEED?
To estimate out how much wood I'd need I had to first figure out how many BTUs I used last season (needed to do this anyway to calculate how much money I'd be saving). This is pretty easy for anyone that heats with natural gas or oil because the amount of fuel you used should be on your bills or your meter. You also need to know the efficiency rating of your furnace, which should be listed on the furnace itself or you can estimate it based on a little searching.
I used 535 Ccf of natural gas during the heating season before installing the woodstove. My furnace is 80% efficient. I also had to figure with my wife staying home we use about 50% more BTUs (to heat during the day and to keep the house generally warmer for the sake of the baby). Interestingly enough, when you factor in the 80% efficiency figure on the furnace AND consider a probable 25% efficiency loss to the duct work, I end up basically right where I started - I need the wood equivalent of 535 Ccf natural gas when all offsets are considered. There are about 100,000 BTU per Ccf natural gas, so I need 53,500,000 BTUs.
On the wood side - the BTUs per cord is really hard to know since I don't know the species of all of my wood. Worst case would be to use the figure for the lowest BTU wood I know I have, which is yellow poplar. If all my wood was yellow poplar I would get 18,000,000 BTUs per cord. Also I don't really know the efficiency of my stove, I can't find a published number, so I'm guessing 72% (which seems reasonable based on the other stats for the stove compared with stoves of known efficiency ratings). [As an aside, the 63% efficiency rating you sometimes see is just an "EPA Default" - it is a pretty meaningless number (rough estimate based on all models) that does NOT tell you the actual tested efficiency of any particular stove. The EPA NEEDS to start testing for efficiency and hopefully they will in the future. They have even provided specific methodology for testing efficiency, however they do not require it. The only explanation I could find for the lack of efficiency testing was this brief comment : "Opinions among experts were split regarding the appropriateness of testing efficiency. Some felt that a requirement to test efficiency would add additional and unacceptable costs for appliances that have a small market, plus many of the manufacturers feel they are already over regulated. Others felt that adding efficiency to the emission testing would only add a very small incremental cost to certification testing since most of the information needed for efficiency calculations is already obtained during the NSPS certification process as it now stands."]
That means I would need 53.5/(18*.72)=4.13 Cords of yellow poplar to heat my house this winter.
Now if I had a good mix of hardwoods, the top range could be nearly 30 million BTUs per cord, average that with the 18 from the poplar, and we are talking possibly 24 million BTUs per cord. In that case, I would need 53.5/(24*.72)=3.1 Cords. There are many charts like this one on the internet to help you figure out how many BTUs can be expected from a given species of wood. I have yet to find a real comprehensive chart, so I usually google on "tree species" and "BTU" to find what I'm looking for. I have a lot of hickory and black walnut, so I think my average BTU/cord right now is around 22M.
Some other misc factors - we had a mild winter in the year I used for my calculations, I'll need more wood in a colder winter. Also part of the 535 Ccf of natural gas used went to the hot water heater, our gas cooking stove, and gas clothes dryer - this should be excluded from the total I need (approximately 60 Ccf total should be excluded based on my summer energy bills). So these factors offset each other. I have also read that there can be up to 30-40% efficiency loss to the ductwork on a typical HVAC furnace system (this can be factored into your estimate). But I've also found that I am heating my house to a significantly higher temperature with wood which again offsets the adjustment. My best guess right now is that I'll need between 3 and 4 cords.
UPDATE: In my first season (2006/2007), I used approximately 3.5 cords which fell right into the middle of my estimated range. I only used natural gas on a few days when I was sick and didn't feel like getting wood to feed the stove. Actual savings are difficult to accurately calculate. On just a straight comparison to the prior year (which makes no sense at all in my situation) I only saved $431. However my wife used to work and we used an electronic thermostat that dropped the temperature during the day when we weren't there, and dropped it again at night while we were sleeping. We also kept the house pretty cold all winter. But now we keep the house toasty warm 24 hours a day. If we had still been using natural gas we would have kept the house warmer for the baby's sake, and would have heated during the day. It's just a guess, but I think we would have used at least 50% MORE CCFs of natural gas than we used in the prior winter. On that basis, I saved $777 dollars. But we really kept the house very warm this year, if we had done the same with natural gas the cost would have been much higher resulting in savings probably beyond $1000. But I'll be conservative and go with the $777 figure, that means my payoff time is about 4 years, which isn't too bad. And if the prices for oil and natural gas rise over time, the savings will be higher in the future.
In my second season (2007/2008), we had a colder winter, and I used more wood than the first season (probably between 4-5 cords). The estimated savings were probably in the range of $800-$1000.
In my third season (2008/2009) I think I was back in the 3.5 to 4 cords range. The price of natural gas was higher, so I probably still saved around $1000.
Interestingly enough, the price of natural gas plummeted just before the 2009/2010 season, however so far we are having a much colder season. I'm projecting savings in the $1000 range again, so the stove and all related purchases will finally be fully paid for through savings this season! I hit another milestone this season as well, instead of reverting to natural gas when I got sick, my wife continued running the stove beautifully without my help. Although I must admit she tends to keep the house closer to 80 degrees than the 70-75 I prefer :)
UPDATE 2: I created some operational videos demonstrating how I use my everburn stove:
If you've read my reviews, you know that I've been positive and negative about this particular stove. It has taken me a very long time (more than a year) to really figure out the best way to run it and how to compensate for factors that influence operation (atmospheric conditions and outside temps influence draft). This series of videos shows how the stove can perform well under the right circumstances. I may add a few more videos, but for now I think I cover a lot. There are currently 5 parts. I am using and demonstrating pretty much all of the things I've learned that work. But really this was with ideal circumstances that will not exist all the time for all users. I am using good, seasoned, dry hardwood; I have basically the perfect installation with a straight up flue/chimney; I am burning on a cold day, with a high pressure system outside -- all of this adds up to the best possible conditions for this stove. Note however that the diameter wood I use to start the initial fire is way too big, you should use much smaller pieces of wood to quickly establish the conditions favorable to dampering down this stove. Once you have a good coal bed, you can use big wood for super long burn times.
There is absolutely no editing to these videos, so they are pretty raw, but obviously also very honest, I show a clock in every video so you know exactly how much time has elapsed (not to mention I show the temps in the room, in the flue, and at various points on the stove itself). I also show the chimney at various stages in the burn (although there are no emissions to see, haha). These were all shot on the same day (it was between 20 and 25 degrees F outside at the time the video was made).
Vermont Castings Dutchwest Everburn Stove Demo 1
Vermont Castings Dutchwest Everburn Stove Demo 2
Vermont Castings Dutchwest Everburn Stove Demo 3
Vermont Castings Dutchwest Everburn Stove Demo 4
Vermont Castings Dutchwest Everburn Stove Demo 5
UPDATE 3: I created a “Do it Yourself” Guide to making custom refractory replacement parts.