Friday, December 28, 2007

How To Heat Your House

There are three viable heating sources for a sustainist. Wood, passive solar and diesel are the only heat sources that do not rely on external production and delivery systems. Viable in this sense means that you can gather or produce the raw material to heat your home without relying on electric or petroleum based products. A good reliable heating system will incorporate at least two of the three methods listed.

Wood Heating

Bear Ridge is heated with a small wood stove. I love heating with wood, it is relative cheap, renewable and gives off a good quality of heat. Wood can be gathered from anywhere including scrap piles for nothing except a little work on your part. Unlike petroleum based fuels, which are expensive and have long unreliable supply lines, wood is everywhere.

The ash is a great cover for your composting toilet and a wonderful nitrogen supplement for the garden. Anything cooked on an oven can be prepared on a wood stove including bread. The heat is great for drying cloths and the flames produce useful light in the evenings.

On the downside you have to cut the wood which can be tremendous work especially in cold weather. Wood stoves need filling every few hours. My stove can hold heat for about two hours on one filling. Not a problem during the day but at night it get really tedious. Every hour and a half my alarm gets me up to fill the box. Also you can't leave the house for an extend amount of time without the fire going out and it can take a few hours to completely get the house warmed up when starting a fire.

A good secondary heat source addresses the above problems without creating an unnecessary reliance on petroleum based fuels. Water heating and cooking need to be addressed with the secondary heat source if possible.

Passive Solar Heating

If possible orient you house to the south and put it on a thick concrete slab. Passive solar heating is free and very effective. A think slab of concrete exposed to the southern sun with glass windows will keep your home pleasantly warm throughout the coldest winter night.

Water can also be warmed in the slab and stored in a preheat collection tank for showers and laundry. Specially designed solar collectors can easily heat water to scalding temperatures during the day.

For centuries people have been preparing a large variety of foods in solar ovens. These cookers are inexpensive and can be purchased or built with relatively ease.

My problem is that the cabins design does not allow for easy retrofit to passive solar. And although I have added large southern windows there is no thermal mass to store the heat through the night. It does quickly warm the house in the mornings and keeps it nice throughout the day.

Diesel Heating

Fuel oil is another name for diesel fuel. This petroleum distillate has been heating homes for years. It heats well but is expensive and has all the baggage associated with other oil/gas based products. BUT here's the cool part, diesel fuel can be made from any organic oil heavy plant product. This is called BioDiesel and with some inexpensive equipment and training it can be made easily by anyone.

The military has been using small diesel units for years to heat tents and temporary shelters. Homes across America have been heated for the last sixty years on diesel. This fuel can be expensive but unlike propane or kerosene it is readily available at any gas station. It is easily purchased until you can start producing your own.

Diesel units can quickly warm a room, heat for extended periods of time unattended and with large fuel storage tanks can last all winter on a single filling. Diesel is not free like passive solar but you can easily retrofit a home to utilize this heat source.

There are on demand water heating unit that run on diesel. These run from high end equipment designed for large homes to small less expensive units made for RV's and yachts.

You can also purchase diesel cooking stoves designed for yachts that can prepare food and heat a small home.

Diesel will be the back up heating source for Bear Ridge. Although I like passive solar better it will be easier to retrofit the cabin for diesel. And when I start producing biodiesel it can be traded or used in diesel fueled trucks and generators.

Other Heating Sources

At this time propane is a tempting choice because it is cheap and the heating hardware inexpensive. This will change as natural gas passes it peak production. There is a reason utility companies are spending billions to build thirty some off shore natural gas terminals. America is running out of domestic natural gas so cheap propane's time is also running out. As we start importing natural gas from overseas the price of domestic heating and electricity will skyrocket. You cannot produce propane on your own and it should never be used for heating your home.

Electric is out of the question for heating. A large percentage of domestic electricity is produced with natural gas turbines. As natural gas goes up in price so will electricity.

Pellet and corn burning stoves make great heat but you are relying on external supply sources out of your control. For this reason I can not recommend them.


The primary heating system should be either wood or passive solar with diesel used only for backup. These recommendation only apply to rural homes. City living creates its own unique set of heating problems that will be discussed at a later time.


Future Farmer said...


I have been looking into fuel oil heaters and this is a good one


It is direct vent and needs 120 volt ac but not much once it is running.

A small inverter (an old computer ups would work )

BigBear said...

Here is what I am looking at

I like the price and it does not require any power.

Grant Wagner said...

A couple of other options: Active solar in the form of evacuated tube collectors and a radiant floor heating sysytem makes for one of the more expensive, but most comfortable heating systems. A wood stove can be used as a backup water heater as well. Evacuated tube collectors don't loose their effectiveness as the outside temperature drops.

Also, I think there is something to be said for propane in the same way that you consider disiel. Methane has much of the same properties and supposidly can be generated easily for single family house holds. Perhaps not for everyone, but not a bad solution. Especially give the large number of propane or natural gas appliances that can use Methane with little or no modification.