Taking Control of My Home Heating

Reader Contribution by Cam Mather

Let’s pretend that it’s a January night, it’s 20 below outside, the wind is howling and the power goes out. How long will your house stay warm? The natural gas will keep flowing to your furnace, but your furnace blower fan needs electricity. Lets say that the power stays on, but you hear a loud clunk in the basement, and when you go down to check, the furnace isn’t working. Would you know how to fix it? Most of us have lost the basic skills that allowed us to be in control, and we are now at the mercy of “an expert”. Hope they’re available to come out and fix your furnace tonight. If you’ve got a 24/7 One Hour Response contract on your furnace, how many hours a year do you have to work to pay for it in after tax dollars?

I couldn’t fix my furnace in the city, but I’m in complete control of my woodstove. I cut the wood that heats it, I keep it going, and I clean it. There are very few moving parts and I can replace anything that does wear out or break. It’s a nice feeling. I’m in control. My house will never get cold. If some tree takes down a power line or if the gas company doesn’t store enough gas some winter to meet demand, I’ll still be toasty.

According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, more than 10 million U.S. households will not be able to afford to heat their homes this winter without assistance, which would be a new all-time record.

We designated one day this past September as woodstove cleaning day here and it wasn’t too bad. It took a little longer than usual because we filmed it to post on YouTube  and to use in upcoming DVDs. The process is pretty straightforward. I removed the section of stovepipe on the main floor. This allowed me to clean the chimney from the inside. I took one section of pipe outside to clean it. Inside I used a trick I’ve learned from professional chimney sweepers. I taped a green garbage bag to the upper section of the stovepipe, and put a small hole in the bag so that the chimney cleaning fiberglass rod could fit through. This way as ash and debris get swept out of the chimney it ends up in the bag, rather than on top of the woodstove or in the air.

Attaching the pieces of the chimney sweeping brush

The garbage bag trick to catch debris…

Our woodstove is Pacific Energy and is a non-catalytic type. The first generation of efficient woodstoves used a catalytic combustor to clean the smoke. They had a primary combustion in the main stove and when you put the stove into airtight mode the smoke was redirected through a honeycomb of refractory material that got very hot. As the smoke passed through this superheated honeycomb any particulate and unburned materials were burned off. So you got fewer emissions and a better burn and more heat from your wood.

Our stove uses secondary combustion instead of the catalytic combustor, which is nice because I don’t have to replace anything (we used to have to replace the combustor in our old stove about every 2nd year at a cost of $200 or so.) This newer stove has a steel baffle on the top, which brings air into the stove and introduces oxygen to burn off the particulate. This is a fabulous system and once the stove is burning well and you dampen it down, you can see sheets of blue flame coming from the baffle, as it’s introducing oxygen for the secondary burn. This stove requires far less wood than our previous one with the combustor. One thing that I love about this stove is that there is only one accessible place for air to get into the stove, which is the door. It has a fabulous gasket, which you see me replacing here. Our old stove had an ash door, a side door, and a trap door to put it into airtight mode. Air leaked in everywhere so it didn’t burn very efficiently. If I load our new stove with good hardwood, I can get a good 12-hour burn out of it. It’s great!

This is what the baffle looks like when removed.

This year I removed the gasket and reinstalled a new one with gasket cement. This was the first time I’d had to do this in five years. I also replaced one of the ceramic bricks inside. The only tricky part is reinserting the baffle and getting the opening on top of the pipe that it fits onto. Other than that it’s a pretty easy job. It’s a little dirty, but I was done in less than 2 hours. The stove is clean and will burn efficiently and I saved $100 that the professionals would have charged us to do the job.

Replacing the gasket

Replacing a brick

I can tell that this stove burns efficiently because all I get when I clean it is a bit of ash that has built up on the inside of the stove pipe. With our previous stove I’d get a lot of creosote. This black oily material results from the inefficient burning of wood or coal. If you get enough of it can catch fire and cause a chimney fire. I always found it disconcerting to see this when I cleaned the stovepipe. It’s a huge relief to clean it and not have any. Sometimes technology moving forward is a good thing, and with this woodstove I’m a huge believer in how heating wood is an environmentally responsible thing to do, as long as you are using a good quality, EPA certified woodstove.

In our guesthouse where the Aztext Press office is, the stovepipe is on the outside of the building. This makes it easy to access. My only complaint about this stovepipe is that it isn’t a straight run. That slight jog to the left is a pain to clean. The fiberglass rod and brush handle it all right on the way up, but they can get fussy on the way down. In fact, it usually gets stuck, which really freaks me out. I basically hang onto the rod and it won’t budge. I end up having to jiggle it up and down to free it up.

Cleaning the outside stovepipe

One of the reasons that I don’t like flying is because I don’t like the idea of my life being in the hands of someone else. I don’t like the idea of my house staying warm on the whim of a gas company or an oil company. I like being in control. I like a simple technology like a woodstove that I can cut the wood for, that I can fix, and that I can clean and keep working optimally. I guess that makes me a control freak. I think we all need to start taking a more active role in controlling the systems in our homes that make them comfortable. The technology is there, all that’s missing with most people is the gumption to get cracking. Believe me, regardless of what they say in their commercials; oil and gas companies aren’t ultimately concerned about you. You need to start looking out for number one. A clean burning, carbon neutral woodstove is a good place to start.

Plus, if you get any soot on your face you can do your best impression of Dick Van Dyke singing and dancing to “Step In Time” from the movie “Mary Poppins.” He played a chimney sweep in the movie. He was the happiest guy you’ll ever see even though his fate was cleaning chimneys. I can see why. It’s a good thing.

The Happy Chimney Sweeper

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All photos by Cam Mather.

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