Alternative Home Heating — On the Grid, or Off

cast iron box stove

Add stove caulking, firebrick and a grate and you have a good stove.

Gazing into the local future I don’t see any signs of cheap heating oil making a comeback in my lifetime, unless we find a way to squeeze it out of extra teenagers, so I’m looking into other options for next winter — alternatives that might let me raise the temperature of the house above 60 degrees on occasion. I had the good fortune to grow up in fairly primitive circumstances, so I have realistic memories to compare the current situation to. When I was little, we lived in a tiny house cobbled together from two even smaller cabins. My father hired a neighbor to drag one next to the other with a team of mules and he cut a hole through the abutting walls for convenience. A little creative carpentry filled in the gaps and produced a fairly weather-tight two-room house.

Most of my life might be foggy and unimportant in memory but I remember the heater in that tiny house in detail. The only heat we had was a butane stove about 18 inches wide. Through the glass front you could see a double row of blue flames licking up from one burner tube, and that kept us from freezing to death on winter nights that now and then dropped to -20 degrees. We all slept in the front room near the stove on the worst nights and I recall that my parents both looked seriously scared.

In contrast, when we visited our neighbors across the hollow, their two-room cabin was toasty warm. Henry and Onie were genuine old-timers burdened with nothing more than lack of money and generous amounts of common sense and stubbornness. Henry refused to go modern, instead plowed his garden with a horse team and cut all his firewood by hand, hauling it up from the deep hollows where the horses couldn’t go by carrying sections of trees upslope on his shoulder. When I think now of the Arab fellow who said his father rode a camel, his son flies a jet plane, and his grandson will ride a camel, I always think of Henry, able to live at both ends of that prophecy without any problems.

Remembering that house, it’s remarkable that it was warm. The wood plank floor had half-inch gaps between the boards and the front door was just one layer of oak lumber nailed together with a Z-brace. The only thing between the inside and the outside was a wooden wall and an outer sheath of clapboards, but an energetic fire in the cast iron box stove kept things warm enough to warm the immigrant neighbor’s children temporarily, and boil a pot of beans at the same time. They seemed like wealthy people to me, because they had heat.

h45 space heater

The Type II H45 Space Heater, designed to burn liquid fuel including kerosene and diesel.

Looking back to that, I feel like I should have paid more attention. This house is far better than a clapboard cabin, but it was built for richer times than I’m experiencing at present, and I miss that old wood stove. Never mind that I remember all the work it takes to run one, there’s still something extremely cheery about a wood stove and a fire that you can operate without a credit card. There are all sorts of ways to get firewood if you’re willing to put some sweat and creative thought into it, and you can back up that fuel with firewood from a local dealer. If you’re gutsy, you can even haggle.

I tend to get into new projects based on what I have on hand, which often isn’t the ideal solution. Currently I have a nice air-tight wood stove in storage and a chimney to hook it up to. Both will take some work to put in working order, and I’ve considered other options, but the wood stove is here already. Just suppose, though, that I didn’t have that firebrick-lined stove sitting there hoping I will use it. What would I actually invest in, for my energy crisis?

Box Stoves, Barrel Stoves and Military Space Heaters

Box Stoves

Most wood heaters today are 90 percent flash. For a heater that looks good in the front room you pay hundreds of dollars extra, and you don’t necessarily get a stove that works better than the purely functional alternatives. On the other hand, if you buy an economical cast iron potbelly stove or box stove, you won’t be happy with it as it comes from the factory. I actually inherited the box stove that heated a cabin nearly identical to Henry’s — a neighbor gave it to me because no one else wanted it. I did heat my living space with it, but a fire takes about half an hour to get going good, and lasts about half an hour, so tending a box stove in factory condition is pretty much a full time effort. I read on Amazon that a Vogelzang Boxwood Cast Iron Wood Stove puts out 63,800 BTU’s. From my experience with the same stove design I’d say 20 percent of that is calories you burn tending it, and 55 percent goes up the flue. With some firebrick stacked along the insides of the firebox and a good bed of ashes in the bottom of the stove, a box stove puts out more stable heat. Sealing joints with stove caulking makes the stove air-tight for more control and longer-lasting fires, and a box stove can wind up working pretty well if you tinker with the design. Vogelzang sells a cast iron fire grate that fits the stove but I’ve not seen any cast iron grate that lasts long in a wood stove. I managed without one by stirring the fire as needed, just put a layer of sand or thin firebrick down when you start a new stove and don’t have old ashes to protect the casting.

Military Stoves

military multi-fuel heater

The smaller Arctic heater from HDT Global burns either liquid or solid fuel.

My personal favorites for emergency backup heating are military heaters designed for use in temporary buildings and tents. These heaters are smaller than most wood heaters and take shorter pieces of fuel. That can be a problem if you buy firewood, because stove wood comes in lengths that won’t fit in a compact military stove. You’ll need to arrange next winter’s firewood purchase a year in advance and cut to order, or find fuel to cut to size yourself. If you’re looking for an emergency backup to an electrically powered or electrically controlled heating system, military heaters are economical and versatile. The “potbelly” version, the HDT Global H45 Space Heater, emits 45,000 BTU’s and doesn’t look horrible, just efficient. Only 17.5 inches in diameter and 25.5 inches tall, the H45 won’t take over your front room.

HDT Global’s H45 Space Heater comes in two versions. Type I H45 stoves include a grate, poker and ash shovel and burns wood or coal. Type II H45 stoves include a special liquid fuel burner and control valve that adapts the stove to several types of liquid fuel including diesel oil and kerosene. Civilians probably won’t have access to jet fuel, but that’s another option. You can’t run the Type II stove without the five gallon fuel tank, tank stand and connecting hoses and it does burn a lot of liquid fuel — about six/tenths of a gallon per hour. The H45 was designed to heat large tents and temporary buildings in arctic conditions, so it can put out a lot of heat. Type I H45’s take wood fuel not longer than 16 inches, and you feed the fire through a port in the top of the stove. Too much fire or a fire that just smolders can cause back-puffing and put smoke into the living area, but it’s a problem that all wood stoves supply on occasion. Coal will make a hotter fire with less fuel so you have to cut back on the fire size when you burn coal.

HDT Global’s Arctic Heater generates up to 25,000 BTU’s per hour and with the optional fuel stand and fuel tank will burn kerosene and some other liquid fuels. The basic stove comes with a liquid fuel burner and a solid fuel grate. You set the stove up for either mode of operation when cold but you can’t shift fuel types during operation. This small heater measures 17 by 17.5 by 9, so you’re limited to 16 inch lengths of firewood and you’re in a bit of a problem if you ordered a cord of firewood cut to 18 inches. If you want a backup heater for when the power goes out, and you have a stockpile of branches or hardwood lumber scraps, you’re all set with this stove. A small orchard or a good-sized yard with a few shade trees can generate a lot of limbs in the course of a year, and most people wind up burning them in a trash pile or chipping them into mulch. Those branches make perfect fuel for a military heater.

Barrel Stove Kitsbarrel stove book

If you can fit a stove the size of two 55 gallon drums into your front room, a barrel stove puts out the most heat of any of these economical choices and takes common commercial sizes of firewood. Adding some firebrick extends the stove’s lifetime and provides more stable heat. Barrel stoves qualify as airtight if you put them together correctly. People complain most often that the kits don’t allow enough air in to start the fire easily, so many owners modify the kits with extra intakes. Stacking a second drum above the first, using an optional adapter stand, routs the hot flue gases through the upper barrel and nearly doubles the heat output. One of these stoves can run you out of the house — from the heat they put out, or from the ugly. The ugly, you can’t do anything about. It’s that salvage yard motif that’s so popular in Mad Max countries. Ole Wik’s classic, How to Build an Oil Barrel Stove provides plenty of fine-tuning tips for the rugged individualist with access to tools, junk and lots of stuff to burn.

The same kits made for 55 gallon drums fit smaller 35 gallon drums and that probably is plenty for most situations.

Useful Links:

HDT Global — Non-Powered Heaters:  See all three military space heaters the company manufactures and download the instruction manual for the HD45 for free. You can also buy it for 99 cents on Kindle, but why?


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