Journal: January 16-19

January 17th

It feels good to be back on my property. I got back yesterday shortly before sunset, after a month-long absence. If I’m not mistaken, it’s the longest I’ve been away from Serenity Valley since my return last Spring. As is usual after such a long time away, I felt slightly anxious to find what kind of condition my camp would be in. Would both huts still be up, despite the snow? How much snow would there be on the ground, in the first place? Would vandals or animals have caused any damage? Would I find a squatter in my camp?

Fortunately, my camp survived my absence (again) with few ill effects, excluding a couple of minor exceptions. I found a trash bag I’d left behind torn apart, with its contents strewn and blown about. And I did indeed find a squatter in Hut 1.0, or at least the signs of one. The squatter, likely a puff of fur no larger than the palm of my hand, had gotten into some of my food stores, leaving in exchange black grainy droppings all over the place. He likely slept in a nest he had made in a folded blanket on my chair, complete with his own tiny stash of food scraps. This squatter, though, seems to have been polite enough to vacate my home before I returned, or perhaps more likely, himself became dinner for a hungry coyote.

I decided to give myself a day off to get re-acclimatized, after spending weeks in the cities. The weather cooperated for once, blessing me with 50-degree temperatures and even some sunlight, instead of the frigid darkness that I’d left behind in December. After a late breakfast of greens, eggs, tortillas, and coffee, I spent some time doing chores around camp. I started by getting my 100W solar panel out of my hut, where I’d locked it up while away, and got it re-mounted on my tracker and wired to my batteries. I then spent some time gathering the trash, some of which had been blown nearly a 100 yards away. I also cleaned up some of my cups and bowls, which contained tiny black gifts left behind by my rodent squatter. Later in the afternoon, I went for a long walk circling roughly half my property. I headed east from my cabin, then south along the western boundary, then south-east down a ravine that cuts across my property, and back north along the eastern border. Most of the ground is exposed at this point, the snow having melted away in relatively warm temperatures, though the surface is so full of moisture that the mud noticeably compresses under each step. The rough terrain and effects of altitude had me breathing pretty hard, and with the air cool but not too cold, I found myself enjoying the unexpectedly rigorous stroll through the woods. It was nice to be alone, finally, among my trees.


January 19th

Today, I came out to the City for a supply run. Things I have in my car right now: four 2x4s, four 1x4s, two cinder blocks, 10lb of charcoal, one 4’x8′ rigid foam insulation board, one tube of silicone caulk, two 12ft coils of 10-gauge wire, a deadbolt, a can of foam insulation, wood-cutting blades for a reciprocating saw, one 24″x24″ window, two 115Ah deep-cycle batteries, 15lb canister of propane, 45W solar panel kit, a mouse trap, some targets, and a bag of groceries (carrots, mushrooms, mixed greens, a lemon, tortillas, sausage, eggs, chunk-o-pork, ready-to-eat indian food, a bar of chocolate, dried milk).

With the exception of shooting targets, everything I bought today relates in one way or another to the essentials of life: food, water, and warmth (and electricity). These days, I hardly ever buy anything that doesn’t relate to one of those essentials, though, that still adds up to a lot of money…

The last few days — or, my first few days back on Serenity Valley in 2011 — have been great. The weather continues to be gorgeous, with highs up in the 50s, and lows in the high 20s. In fact, the weather’s been so nice that I’ve been having a hard time working on Hut 2.1 during the day. Instead, I find myself wandering in the woods for hours on end, futzing with my solar panels, or doing anything that would keep me outside and among trees. But then, the whole reason I left behind my desk-job for this life was precisely so that I could wander around in the woods when the weather’s nice. So, in some ways, I’m doing exactly what I should be doing, though by other measures, what I should be doing is finishing Hut 2.1…

To appease my socially-instilled compulsion towards productivity, I redirected some of my woods-wandering energies towards wood gathering. Days of sunny warm weather have melted away almost all the snow, leaving relatively dry tinder exposed for collection. My stove is technically a coal stove, so the opening for feeding fuel is only about 3 inches high, meaning, it would be most convenient for me to gather wood that’s about 3-inches wide. Fortunately, there’s a lot of dry dead tinder in the surrounding woods that fit that criteria. The easiest to collect, is this unidentified shrub/tree (close-up of leaves) which seems to keel over and die when it reaches a certain size. That size, conveniently enough, is when the main branches are roughly 2-3inches in diameter. For what looks like a shrub, the wood is surprisingly dense and hard, so I’m hoping I’ll get decent BTUs out of those. Also readily available are dead Juniper branches, which are also fairly dense, though they tend to give off a black smoke when not completely seasoned. I also have a lot of Oregon white oak, which burns easily and quickly, making for good kindling but with relatively low energy density. About the only other trees I have are ponderosa pines, which I hear are prized as lumber, but isn’t readily accessible to me as firewood as they grow tall and straight, and have relatively few low-hanging branches (unlike Junipers, which have branches, usually dead, starting at the ground up).

That’s not to say that I haven’t made any progress on Hut 2.1 either. I finished getting the North-facing wall completely insulated, and the the South-face is also mostly insulated. But, that’s about it, and there’s much more to do…

Last night, as I was inside Hut 2.1, my mind wandered back to the issue of the chimney…. again. If you’ve been following my progress, you probably remember that the chimney issue has been plaguing me for months. Well, last night, it came back to haunt me again. There I was, looking around inside the still-empty interior of Hut 2.1, when I suddenly realized that I could’ve put the stove on the south-west corner after all, if I’d only thought of having the chimney go up the south-facing wall instead of the west-facing wall. But, I’d since decided to put the toilet in that corner, and installed a window on the south-facing wall of that window. On the other hand, it’s not like I’m happy with the new location for the stove in the extension on the north-east corner of the structure. Putting the stove in that corner is suboptimal for a number of reasons. For one, the chimney would be precariously close to a tree, posing a potential fire hazard. Also, the extension’s ceiling is only a bit over 6ft high, so some of the chimney support structures would have to be placed just a few feet above the stove, which could also be a potential fire hazard. Since the stove is tiny and I don’t plan on getting it too hot, I don’t think the risks are unmanageable, but there’s still the simple fact that having the stove in that corner simply doesn’t feel right, perhaps because the stove would be competing for space with the kitchen, which is also supposed to go in the extension.

As these thoughts criss-crossed my mind, I came to a flustering impasse. To move the stove & chimney back to the south-west corner, I’d have to rip out that window, then shell out over $700 in chimney supplies. Putting the stove & chimney in the north-east corner in the extension would only cost $400 and won’t require me to rip out any windows, as long as I could live with the other concerns.

Then, I became frustrated with the whole thing. I became annoyed at myself for not having thought through this whole chimney issue in the initial design phase. But then, I realized that a book I’d referred to hadn’t even mentioned chimneys (the word “chimney” doesn’t even appear in the index), even though it seems like a rather crucial component of a stove-heated home, and one which also heavily influences the general design. Besides, this is only my second structure ever, and the first to include (potentially) a chimney. The whole point of this crazy exercise is to make mistakes and learn. Once I remembered that, I felt better.

Then, another question popped into my head: how much do I really need a stupid stove? I’ve done fine so far without any heating, even when it got down into the low-20s. Sure, I might want some additional heat if it got colder, but I have a 1500BTU catalytic propane heater. The only reason I’m trying to get this stove going is so that I could burn wood instead of propane for heating and cooking. As much as I like the idea of using local wood, is it really practical? Does it really make sense to sacrifice 10% of my total living space to a stove, when I don’t even need it most of the time? Is it really rational to spend $700 on a chimney, when the same amount of money would buy me 600lb of propane — enough to keep me warm through many winters?

I ended with more questions than answers. But it seemed that I had enough questions to defer the chimney issue, yet again. One thing that did become clear to me, though, was that I didn’t want to put the stove in the north-east corner. I’d rather put the bathroom there, and if I do decide to keep the stove, I’ll figure out a way to put it in the south-west corner, even if it means I have to rip out a window and even if I have to shell out extra cash. If the stove is worth it, it’s worth doing right and putting it where I want to. If it’s not, then it’s not worth half-assing either.

In the mean time, I will continue to investigate alternatives. One idea I had was to use a hibachi like they used to in Japan. A hibachi is basically a giant ceramic pot filled with ash, in which people used to burn charcoal for heat. While burning charcoal indoors could kill you if you don’t have adequate ventilation, decent ventilation backed up with carbon monoxide detectors shoulder render this option reasonably safe. Though, when I tested it out (see pic below) with charcoal briquets, I got a lot of acrid smoke. For this to work, I need to turn the entire structure into a chimney, allowing smoke to rise and exit out through vents in the gables. I also need real charcoal that doesn’t release noxious fumes. I bought some hickory charcoal today to continue the experiment, and if that works, I’ll look into making charcoal myself, which would allow me to burn local wood without using a stove. It’s a long shot, but we’ll see.

26 thoughts on “Journal: January 16-19

  1. Hey Ryo. Been reading and catching up on your blog and I enjoy following your progress as you figure things out for yourself.

    After reading this post on the stove I have to say that I would continue the wood fire route.

    Wood burning has one of the highest EROI of any energy source, is close carbon neutral when utilizing the wood on your land as it is releasing the carbon it absorbed when it was growing, and finally you have already paid for your fuel source by owning your land. Your stove costs would eventually be recouped by utilizing your own natural renewable resource whereas your propane would be an indefinite expense, providing that it remains readily available and inexpensive (not likely). Wood provides you the autonomy that seems to be what you are seeking in your life.

    I also have some other thoughts on the expense side of the problem. I understand the stove pipe is an expense that can not be avoided, but the stove might be an item that you could recoup the costs. I haven’t read all your posts so forgive me if I am repeating something obvious to you, but have you looked into rock stoves as a wood burning solution?

    A quick google search for rocket mass heaters will yield a plethora of resources on the subject. It might be something that could work quite well for you.

    It is extremely efficient in its burn. It is inexpensive and it can be built by the DIY builder such as yourself as it uses materials that are quite common. It could be built using all or mostly salvaged components.

    Good luck and keep up the good fight.

  2. How about using radiant floor heating or just a large storage tank. If you heated the water up during the day it would keep your hut warm at night. You can build a outdoor stove (or barbeque/smoker/oven) and then put a heat exchanger on it. Just pipe the water to a big storage tank inside. If you put the water tank upstairs then thermal siphoning would circulate the hot water. If you had a large enough tank it would hold the heat for a long time. You could burn wood outside in your stove and then have hot water inside for heat and have hot water as a bonus. I bet you could get most of the parts for free or very cheap from craigslist. This would eliminate the need to have a indoor stove. You could also look into an old solar hot water heater. Also if you have don’t want to worry about the pipes freezing you can either put in drain valves and drain the outdoor section every evening or use two heat exchangers and fill the loop with antifreeze. This would make it so you need a small solar circulation pump.

  3. As I wrote earlier, a chimney needs to be 16 feet high (minimum) from the highest opening in the fire to the top of the pipe. It needs to be insulated, a warm chimney will burn better, the fire will be easier to light, after all the warmth from the fire has to lift 16 feet of cold air up the chimney before it gets going. The chimney should be as much a possible inside the cabin, to help keep the cabin warm and the chimney warm, at the same time there must be a minimum of three feet of chimney projecting above the highest part of the roof.
    These requirements, along with an air supply in a pipe from the outside to as close to the fire as possible, will give you a fire that is easy to light, a fire that will burn well when the fire is low and most of all a fire that will not fill the cabin with smoke when there is no wind and an area of high pressure.
    Recommend. Get this right and build everything else round it.

  4. another unsolicited idea:

    Use solar heating with a large water tank (just take some vapor barrier and line a plywood box). I have on my bog an idea for a way to do it with gelified water, I will try to get a mofre explicit design down later. BTW what did you think of the freeze dryer?

  5. I think an outside stove with transfer might be an ideal situation for you. Even if you keep with propane, an on demand heater and some home made radiant flooring made from pex burred in about an inch of sand and covered with whatever flooring you want is a relatively easy and very comfortable to keep warm. Plus with it all outside, all you need is a bare spot of earth to put it down, and absolutely no exterior chimney.

    Once you are there, you can experiment with other methods. This even allows for a much cheaper stove models. I would recommend something like a 55 gallon drum, with a pocket rocket stove instead, liquid heat exchanger directly above ($20 of flexible copper pipe in a coil, the whole interior part buried in sand for thermal mass, and then the rest of the drum filled with purlite as a high temp insulator. That should allow for plenty of heat from short burns that are far between. It’ll only take a bit of engineering to keep access to the feed tube and cleanout.

    Crap, now you got me thinking, and all my future time and money is going into my radio hobby.

  6. Many years ago I flew into a remote Alaskan lake for a Caribou hunt. I found an old very small log cabin with a date carved above the door “1939”. Inside it was full of rat or other rodent feces, in one corner piled 4 feet high. There was a galvanized canister on the floor about the size of a small trash can that had been used by the resident to keep his food away from rodents. Looks like it was a good idea.

  7. I really don’t understand why the chimney is so expensive. Here in West Virginia we would use a mettle stove pipe. The stove pipe is indoors, which gives off more heat, and all you do is cut a hole in the ceiling and roof for it to exit. you buy a special insulated “thimble” to go where your stove pipe passes through the roof, so you don’t burn your ceiling and roof. The whole thing would cost one to two hundred at the most. I think it would be closer to 50 to one hundred, but I don’t know what your prices are like out there.
    Also your stove pipe can be in front of the window, it wont block much light.
    The top of the outside of the pipe has to be a certain distance above the highest part of the roof to draw properly. (with any chimney)
    So just sit your stove in front of your window and run a pipe up through your roof, not expensive, not difficult, very quick, one day project.

  8. Put the wood stove in and don’t beat your head about it to much. You will enjoy the warmth of it and also the nostalgia of a crackling fire to sit by at night while you read or write. Why suffer and be cold when you have a woods full of downed limbs and trees that can easily keep you warm. I can guarantee that once you have it in place you will wonder why you had not put one in sooner.

    If your worried about safety, I think you will find that they are safer than you may have been lead to believe. In our area of the world (northern MN and WI) wood stoves are very common and used in our homes, garages, ice houses and believe it or not, our hunting stands. Just use common sense and you will be fine.

    When it comes to placing one in your hut, make it the focal point rather than getting it out of the way. Like I said, in the winter when you want to be warm, your evenings can be easily enjoyed around it as you soak in the heat after being out in the cold all day. In the summer when you may be worried it is in the way it wont be, you will be to busy enjoying the great outdoors and the only time you will be in your hut is to sleep.

    Also, from your picture it looks like you are using a reciprocating saw to cut limbs for the fire pit. Invest in a good chainsaw and file to keep the chain sharp. That will save a lot of wear and tear on your reciprocating saw and expand its life span (and the amount of blades you will go through). Get yourself a good splitting maul too!

  9. Making your own charcoal. Very interesting. I’ve read accounts of how that was done in the middle ages (I think the guys who made charcoal out in the forest were called rickers or some such) would build a huge pile of wood, cover it in sod and set it alight somehow on the inside (presumably a horizontal shaft into which hot coals were inserted and then the shaft was covered.

    They had to stay up and watch the “kiln” for something like 48 hours straight in order to react to any flare-ups immediatley (to keep the burn anaerobic, I beleive).

  10. Or cut your firewood with a bow saw. You probably won’t need much and it’s much quieter than the reciprocating saw – no batteries needed either!

  11. I see the tortillas and greens stuck. 🙂 Unless you were eating them before I showed up? I don’t remember, but I remember being on a big tortilla kick at the time.

  12. I second the bow saw idea, they work great and are good exercise, but from experience, I will tell you, don’t cut a while crapload of wood at once if your are not used to it. Your shoulder will hurt for a loooooong time.

    As for rodents, only metal or glass containers can be guaranteed to keep them out. I have had mice chew through the cover of heavy duty 30 gallon garbage cans to get in to eat the leftover grains of chicken feed. Of course, if something really big smells your food, all bets are off.

    Bob L

  13. I Just saw your post on tiny house blog and clicked through. Looking at your masthead, I hope you are not putting more than one of those spitzers in your marlin at a time. Given enough time one of the points will strike the primer of the round in front of it hard enough to set it off in the magazine leading to major drama. This is especially likely under recoil.

  14. Another option is a boat-type heater. The “Cozy Cabin” heater is a small propane heater that uses 1″ OD stainless steel tubing for a vent pipe–for the $700 it would cost you for the wood stove chimney, you could buy the whole “Cozy Cabin” heater setup, with vent pipe.

    These things are small compared to a woodstove, but they put out a lot of heat safely.

    • For a 120sqft cabin, I think there are a number of propane stoves that could do the job. But I’m hoping to burn wood for heat, if I could make that a reality within a reasonable budget.

  15. Lots of suggestions above, mine is simple. If your not sure about your chimney just get a black painted metal one for a fraction of the cost of stainless. It’s not going to last forever but neither is your Hut. The whole system will cost under $200 I think. $700 is ridiculous.

  16. Have you considered not placing the stove against a wall? I’m not familiar with the layout of your hut and perhaps this will not work with your design. Consider though; I was chatting with a manufacturer of stone fireplaces and wood stoves at a convention recently and he mentioned that one of modern buildings greatest flaw with fireplaces and heating stoves is placing them against a outer wall. The goal is radiant heat, right? So why would we place one face of the radiant heater against a wall, and then insulate the bejezzus out of that wall so we don’t loose the heat? He said that when they consult with clients about putting a fireplace or stove in their home, they always strongly encourage the client to not place it on an outer wall but rather centrally in the home. In this situation, you could run the chimney up a support beam or independently up to the ceiling and out, which would remove your problem of having to cut out windows you’ve all ready installed. Just a thought!

    • Hi Abi. Thanks for the inspiration. In fact, my latest plan for the stove is to place it in a more central location, and have the stove pipe go up all the way to the loft level before exiting out the gables (the continue back up to clear the ridge).

  17. If you need to store food in your cabin, look for some free buckets at grocery stores. Safeway, Sam’s, Costco, etc will give you frosting buckets for free. They are food grade and stack nicely. If you are near a pizza factory, they have free pickle and hard boiled egg buckets that are a rectangle shape and stack nicely. I get those and soak them with bleach for a few days. Then put your food in plastic bags or mylar bags and store inside the buckets. The buckets come in handy in the garden, storing other things, etc.

  18. A wood heater is so basic. It can warm you, cook your food and keep you company. It’s fuel can easily be free. And it will work when you can’t get propane (or electricity) It is in my estimation, worth the planning and the initial outlay of cash 😉

  19. Pleased to read that you are moving the location of the fire into a more central location, this will make a great difference to the spread of heat throughout the cabin.

    May I also suggest that you block in the underneath of the cabin.
    The logic of this is, the passing wind causes a down wind of the cabin area of low pressure.
    This sucks air from the cabin through any holes there may be causing the fire to smoke.
    It also drags cold air under the cabin making the floor cold.

    By sealing the perimeter of the cabin to the ground, making sure its as air tight as you can get it, you stop the air movement, encourage the wood joists to warm up, this in turn stops any condensation on the wood and avoids mold and damp rot.

    Perhaps more important it helps keep your feet warm.

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