Thursday, February 3, 2011

not a crazy idea

The storm didn't deliver the snow that was predicted. Instead, it dropped an angry layer of heavy slush on the farm. It made shoveling the equivalent of moving wet flour in bulk. (You know it's bad when the guy you hire to plow gets stuck in your driveway.) But a few stuck trucks aside: I was grateful for the lack of snow. The piles on the sides of my driveway are easily 5 feet tall now, that's enough.

This winter is changing how I see the roles of a functioning home. The only way my place stays warm (and has hot water) is if I keep pouring oil into it's parched maw. I'm not too thrilled about buying another hundred gallons of fossil fuel every few weeks for the rest of my winters... I was recently informed about these piggyback wood stoves that hook up to your oil furnace. They use wood to heat your water and home, and when the wood fire goes out, it switches to the back-up oil. I love the idea of switching to 90% wood heat, and still having the same water system and the back-up of oil if I need to get away for a few days. Does anyone have any experience with these things? I don't think it's in the budget for this year, but it is something to consider in the future. When you live on a woodlot, a wood-heated home isn't a crazy idea.


Blogger Paula said...

I haven't Jenna, but are you actively managing your woodlot? From my research, I understand that to keep a woodlot going sustainably, they have to be managed. I don't think it's a lot of work (like taking care of animals) but it's something that you'll want to husband properly. You might also look into coppicing, which I think is a good idea for sustainable wood harvesting. There are a few good books out there on the woodlot management- not so much about coppicing, unfortunately.

And I don't think it's a crazy idea at all.

February 3, 2011 at 2:28 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

It's not a crazy idea. My Pop has something like gerry-rigged at their place. I'm not sure how it works, but I do know it helps reduce how much oil they are sucking down.
Might also be worth investigating the insulation situation in the house - if it's not that efficient, you might be paying to heat the great outdoors.

February 3, 2011 at 2:30 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

My Fiance's parents have one. It seems to work really nice. They actually didn't even use the oil until two weeks ago with the very cold weather they got down there. They live a few towns over from Bennington, so the weather's not that different.

But they do go through 5 cord of wood through the winter for a two story, 3 bedroom house.

February 3, 2011 at 2:38 PM  
Blogger stace41971 said...

I had one in the house we just moved out of....I loved it...and I miss it.

February 3, 2011 at 2:42 PM  
Blogger Amigo van Helical said...

We heat mostly with wood here on the Edge. I have a fire going in the stove as eye type this. We're in a different situation here, however: ultra insulated home w/ passive solar design.

I agree with Sarah: one thing that is almost a "for sure:" It'll be less expensive to insulate and winterize your place than it will to be to purchase any active system. There are lots of things you can do to keep the heat inside where you want it. Heck. There are little foam gasket things that you can put inside exterior wall electrical outlets. They cost about a dollar and about a minute each to install. Put your hand down by an outlet on one of your exterior walls. If you can feel a draft, that's money wasted.

Good luck with it.

February 3, 2011 at 2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up with one of those and agree that it was a great way to keep costs down, but also to have a backup system. There are apparently also some nifty ones where the burning part of the furnace is outside (as in right beside the woodpile).

February 3, 2011 at 3:03 PM  
Blogger Robyn M. said...

How independently do these furnaces work from the oil & grid source? Will it still work if you don't have any oil? What about if you have no electricity? If it patches through your existing ductwork, it might require a blower, which would in turn require additional power. So, if your electricity is out, for example, it wouldn't be useful to you. Let me be clear, I know NOTHING about the woodstoves you're talking about, these are just some of my initial concerns--it might not be the case at all.

February 3, 2011 at 3:04 PM  
Blogger Jo said...

I don't think your idea is crazy at all. What does sound crazy to me is thinking of doing it while you have a full time job. Heating with the wood from your own woodlot takes a tremendous amount of time and work. We do it but the operative word here is "we". Cutting down your own trees, skidding them to where you cut them to length and split them is not something that can be done alone.
Find someone with experience (lots)and equipment. Maybe workbees, we do that, more of a multiple family affair along with sugaring.
This is one area where you need to be safe.

February 3, 2011 at 3:06 PM  
Blogger Claire Boyles said...

We heat our house with just our woodstove, but have a furnace with a back up propane tank for traveling. With super warm pajamas and lots of comforters and quilts, it works great for us, but our house is single level and only 1200 sq. ft.
We didn't even have to turn on the heat when the temps were -24 last night. . .no frozen pipes or anything, so I guess I think the wood idea should work just fine for you too.

It's just the splitting wood that can get you. . .

February 3, 2011 at 3:23 PM  
Blogger Siberian said...

I don't know much about wood-heat, but is it truly considered a viable and sustainable alternative to oil? It's renewable at least, but I was under the impression all that woodsmoke creates its own share of pollutants. Have I been misled? I might have to take a second look at it if so!

February 3, 2011 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Lilly said...

My house, built in 1916, was retrofitted with an outdoor woodburner like the ones you describe. Ours is a boiler system, in that it heats water that then circulates through both the hot water heater and the furnace. The hot water pre-heats the air before the furnace has to use it. They go through a lot of wood. We had probably 2.5-3 cords of wood for the winter and are already out and onto straight LP. I'm not sure how much LP it was saving when we were using wood consistently, as it's my first winter in the house. But, half the time the LP would still kick on even with the wood burner running. They're expensive - probably at least $3500, plus installation, which would require reworking your hot water heater, furnace, or both. Ours does require electricity to run the fan that circulates the water and keeps the outdoor stove running correctly. I agree with what some others said - make sure your house is leak-proof and well insulated before worrying about how to heat it.

February 3, 2011 at 3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have a wood burning fireplace & use it a lot. I like the idea that wood is at least "sustainable", whether it comes from you or not. My hubby puts a non-split log on the fire at night to keep the heat going up so the cold doesn't come down the flue. (If we close the flue, it smokes up the house.) You could do that while you're at work & come home to hot coals.

February 3, 2011 at 3:56 PM  
Blogger windhaven farm said...

Is there any way that you can "turn off" parts of your house in winter? Lots of people used to move downstairs and sleep and eat and live in just one smaller area of their home during the cold times, so that they could save a lot of their heating effort (oil, coal, wood, etc)

Seems to me that since you work a full time job, perhaps you could condense your living space to a small cozy area when you are home, and then have a super serious go at insulating that core area. WInterize the upstairs, and turn off the water up there, if you have upstairs bath, and then really heat wrap the pipes below, stuff like that.

I think it would be lovely cozy for the dogs through the day and you could warm it up good as soon as you got home and through the night. Shower at work as you've said you can and all, save on water too! (gg) Since it's just you, and the pooches, seems that you could easily reduce the over all heating area considerably. Just thinking outloud...


February 3, 2011 at 4:04 PM  
Blogger Velma Bolyard said...

although i can't speak to today's models, i loved my kodiak add on. (30 years ago) i lived in the adirondacks and it kept us at about 70 degrees--a touch warm, but the steam system in our old house worked most efficiently at that temp. had to feed it once in the night, but it was a big house. oil backup worked well.

February 3, 2011 at 4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My house used to have one - but it was dismantled when we bought it. Apparently there's a law (in vermont) that you can't have two different kinds of fuel using the same chimney. Apparently it's not safe? I don't make the rules...

If I were looking at different heat sources I'd consider a wood furnace with hot water hookup - and a solar hot water system for summer. It makes perfect sense as you'll either have sun or fire most times of year!

February 3, 2011 at 4:30 PM  
Blogger Margaret said...

We blew in insulation into our 1880's house, and it made a tremendous difference. Check the attic and see if there is sufficient insulation there. I think the recommendation is something like 12 inches of the standard stuff. We added several rolls in our current 1960's house and it helps keep it toasty. The plastic you shrinkwrap on your windows is another cheap insulation, but I have heard a layer of bubble wrap on windows works great. (I haven't tried it though) We put weatherstripping on double hung windows and sealed the cracks as best we could, it helped keep the heating bills more reasonable.

As others have said I wouldn't invest in new equipment until working on tightening the house. We had a wood stove in a solid well insulated house in Idaho, and it kept the house sufficiently warm we sometimes had to open the front door to cool the house off. I love chopping wood, but I wouldn't want to go to that effort only to have the heat lost to poor insulation.

February 3, 2011 at 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A dual-purpose system sounds like a wonderful idea. One way to finance it may be an energy credit/incentive. If you have a low-efficiency older furnace, many of the utility companies will offer you a massive credit to replace your system with an energy efficient system. These credits are also sometimes available from your state. Go online or call your utility company and ask about these credits. Sometimes on top of the credits they also offer very low interest long-term loans to make the change. With the difference in your resulting energy bill, sometimes the change ends up costing you very very little, or even ends up as a net gain.

February 3, 2011 at 4:47 PM  
Blogger Nina said...

A friend has the system your refer to. They had it for years then something went wrong and there was a small smokey incident. The fire dept. didn't have a clue as to the workings of the furnace which didn't help the situation. Fortunately they didn't have a lot of damage other than a useless furnace (lost the oil burning part as well) but they did replace it with a newer model. Last I knew they still use it and love it. It does use a lot of wood.
I know you are concerned about leaving a wood stove going during the day but most folks I know who heat with wood (not wood/oil combo) seem to have found safe ways to keep it going all day while they are away. For fear of stating the obvious (I know you're a smart person and usually research everything very well) but are you keeping your damper closed down a bit? If it is left open you burn a lot more wood and have a lot of flame. The best heating fires are slow fires.
And to respond to a previous comment - many wood stoves now have a catalytic converter that helps with emissions and captures a lot of the heat that goes up the chimney. The worst wood polluters are those outdoor wood burning furnaces. The newer models are a bit better but some places are actually banning them because of pollution.

February 3, 2011 at 4:51 PM  
Blogger Pam said...

Jenna look into an outdoor wood furnace that connects into your existing setup. Lots of forums on them. Have you considered logging off your woods? There is money in that for the good wood, and they help you manage the woods you have standing.

February 3, 2011 at 5:03 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Glad to know you are doing OK and the idea of using more wood seems great. May save you a bunch of money. Have a great evening.

February 3, 2011 at 5:04 PM  
Blogger Daisy Driver said...

My parents have one and love it - theirs is connected to a gas forced air furnace which is more common in my area but it heats both water and house with no odor - some folks don't like the smell a wood fire can give a house, I personally like it but that said, I cannot tell the difference between now and when they used gas. Their monthly gas bill is less than $20 through the winter. I think they are on their 4th year of having it. They add wood twice a day to keep it going 1st thing in the am and late in the evening.

February 3, 2011 at 5:16 PM  
Blogger Whiffletree Farm said...

That's a great idea if you want hot water too. If you're just looking for heat, however, a large woodstove, filled in the morning, after work, and before bed, will keep your house toasty warm. We insulated our basement so that we can go for days without using the gas furnace down there and prevent everything from freezing up. It works really well and the furnace comes on if we don't use the woodstove. I suppose it depends on how much you want to spend. We do use our own woodlot but there are three of us working -- it takes a lot of time to cut, split and stack in the winter, when it is time to do so.

February 3, 2011 at 5:28 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

I'm in the camp that says check your insulation. The more the better in the attic. Check for cold air infiltration around windows, outlets, between the sill plate and sheathing and anywhere else you can. What did the disclosure for the sale of the house say about insulation?
My house is 16 years old so the furnace is not ancient but I decided that using oil to keep a huge tank of water at 120 was a waste. I had a Renai on demand propane hot water heater installed and I have a gas stove. Makes me much happier. I also had a modern clean burning wood stove installed. I burn about 1 cord per winter in it and it goes 24/7 most of the winter. I have closed off my kitchen, dining room, laundry, and family room from the hallway and that is what it heats. I keep my living room thermostat on 45 since I don't use the room in the winter and my bedroom is at 58. With this set up I use very little oil. I would suggest a pellet stove but when the electricity goes out your auger doesn't work. There are battery backups. The real negative about the pellet stove is the scenery never changes. For me, that is a major detraction.
Figuring out all of the nuances about a house takes time. I'll bet you won't have nearly as many problems next year.
For your driveway and paths to the animals, I highly recommend a snowblower. I have a Honda on tracks and it is a God send. I could never shovel all that that machine has cleared. It has even cleared my chicken pen and today removed 30+inches of snow from my deck.

February 3, 2011 at 5:49 PM  
Blogger Kathy P. said...

Before you invest in any kind of heating system, insulate the house. No matter your fuel, if it's heating the great outdoors, your investment will be a waste of money. Insulation isn't exciting but it's relatively cheap and can make huge cuts in your heating bills. If you can't do the whole house, at least do the attic. Warm air rises and you need to be somewhere between R-30 and R-40 in our climate. And don't get the batts - they let air through. Have the blown-in shredded newspaper stuff put in.

Judging from the photos you've posted, your windows appear to be fairly new - they're not a priority. Attic first, then walls.

NY has a number of energy efficiency incentives (rebates) available. (Go to to learn more.) Your local utility may have some incentives too. If your house is old and poorly insulated, the payback on insulating will be very short.

February 3, 2011 at 5:54 PM  
Blogger kristen said...

I support the insulation comments. Just thought I'd say that I'm a single mom/homesteader/full-time teacher who heats exclusively with wood (propane back-up died), and I pay someone to buck all my cordwood. There's no way I'd have time to do that on top of everything else. I stack it in the woodshed myself, but that's it. I love that when the power's out, I still have heat and can cook on top of the stove. My insulation needs work, though. I rent, so there's only so much I can do about that. :)

February 3, 2011 at 6:09 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Hi Jenna.
Doing your own wood is A GREAT DEAL of work. My husband and I do a little bit of the wood we burn and it is a lot of time and energy to go from a tree to a split length that goes into your stove.

As you own a woodlot, you might want to investigate having a certified person come in to harvest the trees for you. I think what happens is is that the person doing the harvesting makes the arrangements with the mill and that they are paid out of the proceeds of the sale of the wood. You could have some of the wood set aside for your own use-and use the money from the sale of the rest for a woodsplitter!!!

February 3, 2011 at 6:13 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

I don't know a lot about your house, but is it sealed up tight? Have you had a home energy audit? That might help save a lot of energy whether or not you get a new stove. Sealing up cracks, your ceiling etc can make a huge difference. I think these small changes can save you a lot of money over time without too much up front.

I hope you don't mind suggestions :)

February 3, 2011 at 6:45 PM  
Blogger Mrs. Roy said...

Jenna, we bought an old house one summer and nearly froze to death that winter. We learned what needed to be done, though. Lots of insulation, weatherstripping, pipe wrapping and wood cutting was done the following summer and the electric heat was reinforced and reconfigured. I know you will take the lessons of this summer and make next winter BETTER.

February 3, 2011 at 7:14 PM  
Blogger E said...

We supplement electric in floor with 1895 wood cookstove.
Wood is really nice. Cheap if you can get it at home.

But consider that it takes more work (fall trees, skid logs, cut and split, haul and stack firewood, clean up branches) and tools (tractor depending on your lot, chain saw, maybe a wood splitter - altho you might be able to rent the splitter). It's a lot at first - can you trade with someone to teach you or for part of the work?

A woodshed makes for dry = good wood. If you don't already have a wood shed - take a look at your property now with maximum snow and think hard about where it would work best.

Wood heat adds security and self sufficiency - but do you need another (big) chore and new skills to learn this year?

February 3, 2011 at 7:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenna, growing up we had a "free heat machine" attached to the fireplace and boy did that thing crank out the heat. My dad would FLIP if the furnace kicked on, he would say "if your cold, put another long on the fire or put on another sweater" IS possible...

February 3, 2011 at 7:28 PM  
Blogger Sewing Machine Girl said...

Jenna, check out coppice forestry:
It is harvesting the shoots that grow from logged out forests. It has been practiced in England for hundreds of years, starting back when the good trees were all claimed by the King. (nod to Paula)

I am a recovering Mechanical Engineer. On the hot water system, it can be done, just make sure someone competent installs it (especially with wood heat source since the fire temps vary widely). If you have a pressurized system it requires strategic relief valves. Steam explosions are the risk if it is not installed correctly. Think of those old cast iron radiators with the hissing steam valves! Nice and toasty!

February 3, 2011 at 7:54 PM  
Blogger Deb said...

we just moved from a house with wood fired water/oil backup. It was very warm and easy to keep going all day while we were gone. This house (heat pump, gas log backup) feels cold by comparison. I joke that my husband liked it on "nursing home". He'd crank up the stove before he left for work at noon, I'd open the windows when I got home at 4:30.

February 3, 2011 at 8:01 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

Our only heat source in a poorly-insulated 2000-square-foot cottage is a single wood stove. We have a woodlot, but not enough time to manage it, so we buy wood -- cut, split, and delivered -- for two hundred bucks a cord and go through six cords a year. Way cheaper than oil. If you're gone for eight or nine hours at your day job, the place might be cool when you get back, but if you banked your fire before you left, you should still have lots of embers and be able to get it roasting again in no time.

February 3, 2011 at 8:49 PM  
Blogger CJ said...

We've been using a wood/oil combo for about 25 years. We just had to replace the original unit this summer. The main part of our house is about 175 years old with various additions over time - the overall footprint of the house is a two story 20' X 50' with only two heat zones. We have radiator and baseboard heat and haven't used a drop of oil yet this year. We burn about 12 cords of wood a year. We get our hot water from solar panels in the summer. Everything is all plumbed into a single system of heat and hot water. We have a backup generator with gentran box in case the power goes. It will power our heat (fan and electronics), a few lights, the fridges and freezers. I'm also not a huge fan of air tight houses, they are unhealthy, stale, and more prone to carbon monoxide problems. Yes you save some energy, but if you're using a sustainable source I think it's worth the trade off.

I personally wouldn't recommend the outdoor boilers. They are actually banned in a couple towns around here because of the smoke they produce - which is unburnt fuel being wasted.

I would be happy to give you my opinion on what to look for in a wood/oil combo unit if you are interested.

February 3, 2011 at 9:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'd chime in and say insulate the house first. Not just the attic. I rehab'd a 100 yr old farm house and even though there was some fairly low R-value(but voluminous) insulation in the attic, there was nothing in the walls. There are great grant programs to weatherize a home and given what you've posted about how much wood and oil you are already using, its a good bet the house is not fully insulated.

The government sponsored crew literally poke holes in the walls and blow in some good insulation, reseal the windows, and insulate the attic with the good stuff. Might be the right project for 2011. These types of government subsidized weatherization/winterization programs are all over the country and your old place and one income household makes a great candidate. Really, really worth looking in to --I found mine through the local utility. (Just assuming you haven't already -- ignore post if you have!) :-)

February 3, 2011 at 9:06 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

So sorry to chime in late, the house is insulated. The entire downstairs was redone and the upstairs holds heat just fine. And for one house to go through 580 gallons so far this winter, is pretty good.

It's not about how I use the oil, it's the getting off it that matters to me. I don't want to buy fuel from across the globe if I can get it in my backyard.

February 3, 2011 at 9:19 PM  
Blogger Wendy said...

We have a wood/oil furnace in the basement.

It shares the same ducts and chimney for both heat sources. We keep the oil set at 60, the lowest setting on the thermostat, and it rarely kicks in at all, usually only on really cold nights when the fire goes out.

We harvest our own wood, and it is a lot of work. My four boys, (14-7) and I gather most of it, and hubby helps out when he can. It's a pretty steady endeavor, from the beginning of spring through fall. We burn about 36 cords a year. We also have a smaller air tight wood stove in our sun room, and burn another 10 cords or so there, just taking the chill off in the morning, and on the coldest days. We have our own bush, so the savings are huge. I don't work off the farm though, so I have time to get it done.

We cut mostly deadfall- already on the ground. Felling trees takes experience, and don't attempt it alone in the bush. We cut into manageable carrying sizes, and cart the wood to the house by pick up truck. We have a small electric wood splitter- check TSC, they're pretty affordable.

Use the snow you have as insulation. Shovel it up against the walls of your house to help insulate the basement & pipes from wind. You could try pop can solar heaters, with minimal cost to start, and free heat later.


February 3, 2011 at 10:02 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I lived for one year in a house that was exclusively wood heated.

You probably already know things like this but if you do this, chop and bring in wood/kindling when ever you can. Anytime you pass the woodshed, grab a few pieces. There will be times when you are too tired or sick and will be glad there is a always stockpile indoors.

February 4, 2011 at 12:02 AM  
Blogger Janet said...

Jenna: A lot of the heat lost in an old farmhouse goes out around the bottom. Next year you will want to "bank" your house. Start in the fall with stakes driven into the ground about a foor out from your foundation, then place old boards up against them and backfill with sawdust, woodchips, straw, earth or whatever you can find - here I've seen seaaweed and also animal manure with straw - you might want to put down builders plastic in the channel before you put down manure. Top this with cut spruce boughs and when it atarts to snow, using a snowblower or shovel if you have to, shovel and heap snow up high over the whole thing. Be sure to remove all this cr*p come spring or your house will start to rot out - this is a bit labour intensive, but what a differnce it makes. Haven't an oil backup but hear lots of good comments about them from people who do.
It was light here before 7 this morning and until about 6 last evening - spring is on the way!

February 4, 2011 at 6:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a system like that in the house I am renting in Rhode Island and I love it. My friend has already refilled her oil tank several times this winter and I think I still have 1/3 remaining of the tank I got in September. (Of course, I think she keeps her house warmer than I do; my thermostat is set at 60--warm enough to keep my hound/lab mix from shivering most of the time.)

February 4, 2011 at 8:34 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

I think the insulation idea is good. But have you looked into a pellet stove to see if that would work. Bags of pellets are easier to come by than wood.

February 4, 2011 at 11:08 AM  
Blogger 6512 and growing said...

Not sure what your winter sun is like in the Northeast, but is passive solar a possibility?

It was 14F degrees outside yesterday in the Southwest, where I live, and 69F inside with no additional heat, due to passive solar heating our very small house.

February 4, 2011 at 12:46 PM  
Blogger Zev said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 4, 2011 at 1:17 PM  
Blogger Zev said...

In response to Paula:
I don't think you *need* to actively manage your woodlot -- mother nature will pretty well take care of it all on her own -- but active management will allow you to get more wood out it and make it healthier in the long term. A lot of woodlots have been neglected for generations and are full of diseased trees, or simply shrimpy ones that will pass on their small-tree genetics to all of their seeds. You can get a forester to come out and take a look, and even mark some trees that ought to be cut. Some county ag extension offices have foresters that will do this for free.

I recommend the book Wild Logging: A Guide to Environmentally and Economically Sustainable Forestry by Bryan Foster. It's written in story form, with case studies from various small farms, and has a lot of good information about woodlot

I completely agree with Jo: Cutting, skidding, and splitting your own wood can easily be
its own full-time job! Cutting up dead trees that are already downed with isn't so bad to do yourself, if you can get your truck close enough to load the pieces, but eventually you'll probably want to think about cutting down standing trees. And it's a good idea to have a buddy anytime you work with a chainsaw. Maybe you can hook up with some neighbors who have lots and have a wood-cutting party travel together between each other's farms? Or, look into supporting your local horse logger! Some will take a few logs which they can sell to the mill in order to make enough money for it to be worth their time to cut the other stuff, making the whole operation basically free for you.

As far as the back-up heat source, we have a natural-gas fired giant radiator in our livingroom, near the woodstove. It doesn't require electricity, and keeps the house warm enough when we're not home to feed the stove. It also kicks on at about 4 am, right when the coals are dying down, so the place isn't frigid when we get up an hour later.

February 4, 2011 at 1:20 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

First post for me, but have really enjoyed living the farm life vicariously through you for a while. I, too, am a web site designer, and live on a farm (Virginia) in an ancient (1850's) drafty house, but only have a few chickens and a garden at this point.

About alternative heating. My husband designed and built a solar heating system that is tied into our oil furnace system. When the solar heat is used up the oil kicks in. Vermont is too far north for solar, but the controls to switch from one heat source to another are fairly simple and work great, so a wood stove/oil system should be fine.

February 6, 2011 at 7:59 AM  

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