Surviving Off-grid: Hot Water From Your Wood Stove

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Whether we’re talking about off-grid survival or just having the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of living in the 21st century in our cabin in the woods, having hot water for taking a shower, shaving, or taking a nice long bath is one of the yardsticks of well-being.

What can be nicer than enjoying a hot shower after working all day outside in the cold? And even better, if that hot water is completely free of charge? It doesn’t sound bad, does it?

Moreover, it would be pretty nice to have hot water at your disposal without being dependent upon a utilities company, whether we’re talking about electricity or gas.

We’re Reviving Ancient Techniques

What I am trying to tell you is that nowadays, heating water is one of the most overlooked functions when it comes to the archaic wood stove.

Just a few decades ago, many wood stoves were built with a water tank (it was called a range boiler) behind/beside the respective wood stove, for producing free and virtually limitless amounts of hot water. A two for the price of one kind of a deal.

Basically, whether you’re looking to save some dollars on your utility bills or get hot water in some place remote without breaking the piggy bank, the main idea is that you can use your wood stove for more than warming your homestead, cooking and whatever else wood stoves are usually good for.

Truth be told, domestic wood stove-based water heating systems are not new; they were invented centuries ago.

The Romans constructed incredibly clever central heating systems for public buildings (and the rich also had them, because they were too expensive for plebes) in an era sans electricity, and we’re talking 2000+ years ago. I know it sounds incredible, but yes, they actually had central heating through the floors 2 millennia ago; that’s how smart Romans were.

The Roman system was called Hypocaust and it worked by producing and circulating hot air below the floors (even walls in some cases) using a network of pipes. Hot air passed through those pipes and heated the floors/walls and obviously, the air was heated via furnaces burning wood and/or coal, because there was no electricity or piped gas back in the day.

In the event of a grid-down situation, how many of you are planning on heating their home with wood?

Learn from our forefathers how to install an emergency wood-burning stove!

How the Heater Works

Hence, getting hot water using a wood stove uses the same basic principle as a Hypocaust, but with a twist: water is used in our case instead of air, because it’s difficult to take a shower without water, right? I know – there’s an invention called dry cleaning, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Joking aside, to keep it simple: a regular water heater is nothing more than a tank of sorts, sitting on top or next to your wooden stove. As water rises when heated, hot water is drawn from the top and cold water is piped at the bottom via a piping system, obviously.

How does it work, you may ask? Well, it’s pretty straightforward: the stove water heater uses heat exchangers for transferring heat from the stove to the water. Depending on the design, the heat exchangers can be mounted inside of the stove, on the outside of the stove, or in the stovepipe.

Water is circulated through the heat exchanger when a fire is burning in two ways: naturally, via the thermosiphon principle which relies on water rising when heated or by using a pump.

The heat exchanger device is available in 3 main varieties:

  • a serpentine coil made of, in most cases, copper pipe
  • a small absorber, like a solar-collector
  • a box-like mini-tank. Most heat exchangers are mini-tanks or coils mounted inside the stove.

The heat exchanger can be built using copper, stainless steel, or galvanized iron, and they’re commercially available or they can be built in local shops or DIY-ed depending on your skills. For our intents and purposes, we’ll have to rely on the thermosiphon system, because this system works wonderfully off the grid and it doesn’t require fancy stuff like pumps and all that jazz.

The Tips that Lead to Success

“Keep it simple stupid” is the name of the game in a survival situation. As things get complicated, the probability of something failing rises exponentially.

Whenever the stove is used, water must circulate through the heat exchanger in order to prevent it from boiling. The storage tank must always be located higher than the heat exchanger and as close as possible to the stove.

Thermosiphoning-based systems are better than electrical-pumped ones not only because of their simplicity and availability, but also because in the eventuality of a power outage, the pump will stop working, leading to overheating the water in the heat exchanger.

This is a DIY project that can provide you with endless hot water without requiring electricity, as it’s based on the thermosiphoning process. This one uses a therma coil – a homemade unit – which consists of a serpentine made of copper, which is put inside the wood stove and connected via plumbing to a water tank.

This is a hot water-on-demand heater which can help you in a variety of situations. And best of all, everything is made using scrap materials, more or less (except for the copper piping, I guess).

Video first seen on engineer775 Practical Preppers

As a general rule of thumb, for best results, you should isolate all your hot water lines more than 3 feet away from the wood stove using slip-on foam insulation, which is designed for temperatures up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

Don’t forget to spend 10 bucks on a thermometer; it’s well worth the investment and it will help you with eliminating all guesswork with regard to determining water temperature.

Copper is one of the best piping materials out there, as it’s very easy to work with when building coils (the heat exchanger gizmo), but remember that when used with iron, the latter will corrode.

The second DIY job is made by the same guy but this time, instead of a copper serpentine placed inside the wood stove, he uses a simpler water coil made of stainless steel. The rest is basically the same, check out the video.

Video first seen on engineer775 Practical Preppers

The third project also uses the thermosiphoning principle (hot water rises) and copper tubing for making the serpentines, but this is a “larger scale job” compared to the previous two, and more complex.

Video first seen on convectioncoil.com.

The fourth and last DIY project uses an interesting design, i.e. a double-walled water heater (a double-walled 6-inch pipe, basically) and between the walls there’s copper water pipe circling the inner wall, thus transferring the heat from the wood stove to the water circulating through the piping.

Video first seen on thenewsurvivalist.

That about sums it up for today folks. There are still many lessons to be learned.

Remember that knowledge is everything in a survival situation and take our ancestors’ example – they survived when there was no electricity.

Click the banner below to uncover their lost secrets!

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This article has been written by Chris Black for Survivopedia. 

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Surviving Off-grid: 5 Ways to Manage Chimney Creosote

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Manage Chimney Creosote

The government is doing everything it can to deter people from burning wood, it still remains popular with home owners that don’t want to use oil or other more expensive fuels. Wood is also very popular with off gridders, preppers, and homesteaders because it can be harvested from natural resources or grown for this purpose.

Many people that burn wood are plagued by creosote that builds up in chimneys. As dangerous as this problem can become, preventing or reducing creosote buildup is not as hard as it seems to be.

Here are five ways you can reduce or prevent creosote buildup in your chimneys.

Do not forget to inspect your chimneys on a regular basis and clean them even if the creosote only looks like it is in the early stages of buildup.

How Does Creosote Form?

Have you ever blown on a mirror or piece of glass so that some of the water vapor from your lungs condenses on the glass? If so, then you may also know that condensation occurs because the glass is cooler than the air exiting your mouth.

In a similar way, when hot gas and smoke enter the chimney, they are hotter than the stove pipe. If the pipe is not hot enough, then creosote will condense out of the smoke and be deposited in the chimney.

Video first seen on Corey Binford.

The Three Degrees of Creosote Buildup

As with many other situations in life, creosote build up may not be especially dangerous at first. However, if it is left unchecked, or not taken care of soon enough, it can become a very expensive problem. As you review the three degrees of creosote buildup, bear in mind that simply cleaning up the mess is only part of the problem. You will still need to take active steps to prevent or at least slow down further creosote buildup.

1st Degree

Just about every chimney will build up layers of soft black material known as soot. If you can easily brush the black layer of material out of the chimney, chances are there is actually very little creosote in it.

Many people consider this a good sign because it means the fire is burning hot enough to reduce the amount of temperature difference between the smoke and the chimney. While this stage isn’t especially dangerous, you will still need to clean out the chimney on a routine basis in order to keep good air flow.

2nd Degree

At this level, you will start to see more creosote in the soot. There will be quite a few shiny black flakes of material that can still be removed if you put some effort into it. If you see this kind of soot, it is very important to increase the air flow in the burning area.

3rd Degree

This type of creosote buildup forms layers of a tar like coating on inner surfaces of the chimney. If you think about how cholesterol builds up in arteries, then you have a pretty good picture of what I mean.

3rd Degree creosote also contains a good bit of unburned fuel. As a result, when it does catch fire, it can be quite dangerous. The third degree of creosote buildup is caused by cool burning fires with inadequate ventilation, or by a flue that is too large.

Here are five ways to resolve this type of buildup. You may need a combination of answers in order to reduce the level of creosote buildup as much as possible.

1. Keep a Robust Airflow

Have you ever lit a candle, and then put it in a glass cup? If so, then you have also probably seen soot build up on the sides of the glass.

When a fire burns under any kind of restricted air flow, the soot from the fire will also concentrate and condense into smaller areas. Typically, fireplaces that have glass doors, or are otherwise closed off will have the most problems with airflow.

Here’s what you can do to remedy this problem:

  • Keep the ash bin and grate area as clean as possible. Open the damper so that more air gets into the fireplace.
  • If you cannot get enough air moving in the fireplace, try using a fan or blower to push more air in through the damper. Make sure that the fan is made of metal or some other non-flammable material. Aside from purchasing a new model, you may also find some old, or vintage blowers at a flea market for a much lower price. Never underestimate the power or durability of these old, but incredibly durable blowers and fans!
  • In some cases, downdrafts from the outside can also cause poor air circulation inside the stove. You can try adding a partial cover to the top of outer pipe. Alternatively, add an insert with an inward curve that will also reduce the amount of downdraft that can get down the chimney.

2. Keep the Fire Hot

Even though you may think of a piece of wood as a single object, it is actually made up of all kinds of molecules. This, in turn, means that some molecules will have a higher kindling point than others.

If the fire is not hot enough, some of the molecules that require a hotter temperature will escape into the chimney and form a layer of creosote if the conditions are right. Later on, if the temperature inside the chimney gets hot enough, these particles will catch fire and burn.

The hotter the fire is, the better chance there is of these molecules being reduced to heat and ash in the fireplace. In addition, the hotter the fire is, the hotter the chimney will be. When the chimney is hot enough, all the gunk that forms creosote cannot collect.

Here are some ways to increase the heat output from a wood fire:

  • add a few handfuls of coal to the wood fire. Coal burns at a higher temperature and will also last longer. Without a question, anyone that has used a coal fire on a freezing winter night can tell you just how delightful they are!
  • install heat retaining bricks in the fireplace. This will increase the temperature inside the burn area and help keep the temperature steadier.
  • insulate the chimney pipe with bricks. This is especially important if you are using a metal chimney, as they will always be cooler on the inner surface. The insulation will help, however it will not entirely solve the problem if it is caused by using a metal chimney.

3. Check the Size of the Flue

Consider a situation where you want to heat up a cup of coffee over a campfire. Chances are it will only take a few minutes to achieve this goal. Now let’s say you want to heat up a gallon of water over the exact same campfire.

Heating up a gallon of water will take longer than a cup because there are more atoms to deal with. In a similar way, when the flue is too large, there is simply too much material for the fire to contend with. A wood stove should not have a flue larger than six inches.

When you reduce the size of the flue, it allows less heat to escape. Some people have noticed a 20% or better increase in heat produced by fireplaces that have an optimally sized flue. Therefore, you will be reducing creosote problems and get more heat at the same time.

Depending on the construction of the stove and chimney system, you may not be able to simply rip the whole thing out and start over again. Your best option will be to insert a sleeve into the chimney so that it has a smaller internal diameter. Even though these sleeves are usually made of metal, the surrounding brick in the chimney should keep it warm enough to reduce the risk of creosote build up. If you still get too much creosote, focus on increasing the heat produced by the fire and the amount of air flow going up into the chimney.

  • Remember, the more air flow you have going up the chimney, the harder it will be for particles to stay still long enough to attach to inner surfaces.
  • You may also want to let the wood season longer than a few months, and choose some type of wood other than pine. Look for wood that has less resin or sap in it.
  • It is also very important to stay away from pellets or other types of pre-manufactured wood because they may be designed to burn at lower temperatures than what you will need to heat up an over sized chimney.

4. Make Sure the Wood is Fully Seasoned and Dry

Wood

Have you ever tried to start a fire during or after it rains? If you are camping, chances are you use a number of methods to dry the wood out as much as possible so that it produces more heat than smoke.

In a similar way, when wood is not fully seasoned and dried out, it will produce more creosote. Fires that produce a lot of smoke also have the following problems:

  • there is less airflow, which reduces the amount of oxygen available to the fire
  • the fire will burn cooler because water impedes combustion
  • smoke is also a sign that more fuel is escaping into the air than you would get from a cleaner burning fire.

There is no substitute for time when it comes to seasoning wood. You can try keeping logs closer to the fire place for a few days before you actually burn them. Just remember to rotate them often so that the log dries out more evenly.

Chopping the log into smaller pieces might help too. This will increase surface area, which in turn will speed up water evaporation. You will still need to rotate the wood around to ensure the fastest possible drying.

When it comes to seasoning wood, many people make the mistake of covering the wood with a waterproof, air tight tarp. The wood will release water vapor, however it will fall right back onto the wood and be absorbed all over again.

You will be better served by keeping the wood loosely covered and in a warm, sunny spot while it is drying. As with drying the wood out indoors, do not forget to rotate the woodpile every few days so that the pieces dry out as much and as evenly as possible.

If the weather is especially damp, humid, or rainy, it may be of some help to cut the wood into smaller pieces. No matter how you look at it, increasing surface area always speeds up evaporation. It may seem like a lot of extra work, however it will pay off when you have hotter fires during the winter months and fewer problems with creosote.

5. Do Not Overload the Stove With Wood

When you have had a long, hard day, it is tempting to load the stove with as much wood as possible so you won’t have to add more through the night. On the other side of the equation, when you put too much wood in the stove, it reduces air flow.

Aside from this, when fires burn, they also release some water vapor. When there is too much wood in the stove, some of that vapor may just land on the wood and increase its moisture level. No matter how well seasoned the wood is, that increased moisture will cause the fire to burn poorly.

Here are some ways to resolve this problem:

  • start off by adding just one piece at a time to the fire. If the fire burns well, try adding a second piece. Keep adding more pieces as long as the fire burns cleanly. Do not forget that you may not be able to add as many pieces at one time on rainy days or ones where it is impossible to prevent a downdraft from the chimney.
  • install an automatic wood feeder. Even thought a wood feeder can take up a good bit of space, it may be a better solution than trying to manually feed the stove.
  • Use coal and other materials that might burn longer during times when you won’t be available to feed the stove more wood.

Wherever you live in (an apartment or a house), chances are the building will have a chimney, and there will also be a stove available for burning wood. Getting started with wood burning is not especially difficult, but avoiding creosote buildup in the chimney can be challenge.

Be careful about the condition of the fire, the wood, and ventilation issues that may lead to creosote buildup. Once you find a way to reduce the speed of creosote buildup, do not forget to inspect the chimney on a regular basis.

A clean chimney is not just a safe one, it is a valuable asset that will help you burn wood efficiently and get the most from it.

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This article has been written by Carmela Tyrell for Survivopedia.

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DIY Projects: 4 Ways To Heat A Greenhouse 

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Heat greenhouseIn one of my recent articles I thoroughly discussed the “how to’s” of DIY-ing your own greenhouse.

Now, let’s address another issue: how to heat a greenhouse during the harsh winter months, because even if a greenhouse is an excellent environment for growing plants and veggies, stabilizing the temperature inside is of major importance to your crops.

If you’re wondering what I am talking about, consider this: even in October and  November, the temperature inside a glass-covered greenhouse can fluctuate considerably, ranging between 30 degrees F lows and 100 degrees F highs.

This massive fluctuation in temperature happens regularly in certain climate conditions. Why? Well, the glazing of a greenhouse does a great job when it comes to letting in the sunlight and therefore the heat, but it’s also very good at letting heat out. That’s because glass or plastic does a relatively poor job in terms of insulation.

Actually, almost all greenhouses tend to overheat during the day if they’re not “temperature controlled”.

During the night when the temperature drops, the greenhouse loses all the heat, causing the plants to freeze. As you can easily imagine, plants (just like people) are not very happy in these circumstances.

So, what can you do to mitigate the problem? In order to control the temperature swings, you must install either a heater or a cooler inside the greenhouse. The cooling job is easier, as it’s basically taken care of by an efficient ventilation system.

Today we’ll take care of the heating thingy; that’s the hardest part of the job.

The smartest and also most sustainable way for mitigating the temperature swings inside a greenhouse is to capture the “extra” solar energy getting in during the day, then store it and use it later during the night when the temperature drops. That’s one solution.

Another solution is to build an efficient heating system that uses renewable or cheap fuels.

When building a greenhouse, remember to design it in such way that it doesn’t require very much cooling or heating in the first place. Good design is key and I discuss that in my article about building a greenhouse.

To revisit that topic briefly, that involves properly insulating the structure, using high-quality materials for roofing, and orienting the greenhouse facing south.

Now, let’s talk about heating solutions, tips and tricks, and the whole nine yards, right after the break!

1. Additional Insulation

Let’s begin with the simplest method: additional insulation. For blocking icy winter droughts and significantly reducing heat loss during the winter, the easiest and cheapest way is to add an insulating layer of bubble wrap, attached with clips to the inside frame of your greenhouse. This trick works very well even when it comes to unheated greenhouses.

For best results, go for horticultural bubble wrap insulation, which is available at garden centers. Unlike regular bubble wrap, this one is tougher and also UV-stabilized. Remember that the bigger the bubbles, the more light they let in.

Besides bubble wrap, you may also use horticultural fleece for further insulating your greenhouse and adding a few extra degrees for your plants during extra-cold winter nights. Just remember to remove the fleece during the day to ensure that your plants and veggies receive proper light and ventilation.

2. Heating System

Now, these are temporary, palliative solutions for heating a greenhouse. A better option is to invest in a heating system. Ideally, you should use electric fan-heaters, which can be easily moved around the greenhouse, thus preventing the apparition of cold spots and reducing the risks of plant disease.

When using an electrical heating system for your greenhouse, remember to save energy and money by investing in a thermostat, which will allow you to start the heaters only when necessary, i.e. when the temperature reaches a specific value. Also, invest in a high quality thermometer and check it daily; in this way you’ll be able to use and adjust your greenhouse heater more efficiently.

Try to avoid wasting money and energy by choosing the optimal temperature inside your greenhouse. Remember that most plants will thrive at temperatures as low as 45 degrees F and some of them even below that. The idea is not to transform your greenhouse into a tropical paradise; that’s not really necessary.

Remember to position your electric heaters carefully. Place them in a central spot, out in the open, or at one end of the greenhouse at a time, and heat only the areas that you need to.

For example, if you have a big greenhouse and only a few delicate plants, you just group them together and try to partition the greenhouse into smaller areas (use bubble wrap insulation curtains for example) which can be heated easily and economically.

But, there’s a problem with electric heaters: they are relatively expensive and they require a power supply. If you don’t have electricity nearby, you can go for paraffin heaters.

3. Heat Sink/ Thermal Mass

However, if you’re a die-hard off-the-grid prepper, you should opt for building a heat sink or a thermal mass (they’re the same thing basically). The thermal mass is the smart solution I was talking about in the preamble of the article.

Thermal mass can be defined as any type of material or structure which is able to store thermal energy. And, obviously, almost any type of material is capable of doing that; it’s a basic energy conservation principle, but some materials are better than others at storing heat.

The heat sink or thermal mass works by trapping the extra heat generated by the sun during the day and releasing it slowly when the temperature drops during the night, thus heating your greenhouse free of charge. Basically, it works like a battery, storing energy during the day and releasing it during the night.

Now, how much energy you can store in your “battery” is directly dependent upon the size of the thermal mass and also the heat capacity of its building materials.

Water is excellent at storing heat when compared to concrete or soil, having a twice the specific heat capacity volume of concrete and 4 times the heat capacity volume of soil. Hence, the best and most common method for building thermal mass/heat sinks is to use water barrels, due to the water’s excellent heat storing capacity.

The general idea is to stack 55 gallon barrels filled with water inside the greenhouse. How many you use will depend on the volume and size of your greenhouse. The barrels must be located where they receive the maximum amount of direct sunlight, i.e. near a north-facing wall.

The water inside the barrels will get warm during the day and the energy (heat) stored inside will be slowly released during the night, keeping your crop warm. Easy as pie, right? And cheap as dirt, too. Well, almost.

Remember to place the tender plants (seeding trays or warm-weather crops) near the barrels, which will be the warmest place in the greenhouse, for better results.

4. Heat Exchanger

Now, if the thermal mass idea, aka the water filled barrels, are not enough, you can go to the next level and incorporate a heat exchanger into your DIY project.

The heat exchanger is also called a Climate Battery or a SHCS (subterranean heating and cooling system) and it works by circulating the air through the heating mass.

There are lots of versions and designs for heat exchangers, but they all work using the same principles. The mechanisms of energy transfer and storage are identical: as the greenhouse heats during the day, the warm and humid air from inside the greenhouse is pumped by an electric fan via a network of underground pipes. The temperature drop produces water-vapor condensation; hence energy is released during the process (it’s called phase change).

The released energy is stored in the soil in the form of heat, thus creating a big mass of warm soil under your greenhouse, regardless of the season. During the night, when the outside temperature drops, the electric fan starts over (via a thermostat) and it circulates the air again through the underground pipes, which, this time, extract the heat stored in the soil and warm the greenhouse.

There are additional methods for building a heat exchanger, as the battery material may vary. For example some people choose to dig and backfill with stones or gravel the area underneath the greenhouse, as stone and gravel are better in terms of heat storing capacity than dirt.

It sounds a little bit complicated, but it’s actually pretty straightforward. This air-heat-exchanger system is relatively simple and time-tested for decades in homes and greenhouses all around the world.

Heat-to-air-exchangers are very efficient for two main reasons: first, the size/volume of the battery/thermal mass is huge when compared to a water-filled barrel (generally speaking, two times bigger).

Secondly, because the air is pushed actively through the thermal mass, this significantly increases the rate of heat exchange, making it more efficient when compared to “static” barrels.

Also, this system does three jobs at the same time: during the day, the greenhouse gets cooler, during the night it gets warmer and on top of that, ventilation is taken care of by design, making sure there are no cold pockets inside! Awesome, right?

You can use a thermostat to kick the fan on and off when the desired temperature is reached, offering you total control over the thermal mass, and that means it’s as smart as it gets, right?

Here’s a video which depicts how a heat sink helps with keeping the greenhouse warm during cold nights.

Video first seen on Michael Dibb

Here’s another idea about solving the problem of freezing during the winter when growing inside a greenhouse, called a Zero Energy Thermal Mass Greenhouse, which requires no power and it’s totally off the grid. It will work anywhere and it allows you to grow produce even in the winter.

Video first seen on Ted Pasternack

I hope the article helped and if you have suggestions or comments, feel free to express yourself in the dedicated section below. Also make sure to comeback on Sunday as we continue to talk about our survival gardens!

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This article has been written by Chris Black for Survivopedia.

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