Category Archives: Energy and Alternatives

Installing your woodstove

Our Vermont Castings Vigilant was installed October 2012 and we put in a solid winter of heating with it.

Vermont Castings Vigilant

It occurred to me that the installation was rather difficult, not because of any construction or fabrication complexity, but rather because information on the topic was hard to find.  For that reason, I wanted to share with you how I went about our installation.

One of the better resources I used was the Hearth Forum.  On the message boards at that site, I was able to locate and download the original user manual and installation manual for the Vigilant.  The manual did not immediately address my unique situation, however.  My uncle probably had the best advice at this juncture, paraphrased “You’re an intelligent person.  Research it to the best of your ability and then just do it.  Try it out.  Don’t worry about explaining to a home owners insurance inspector.”

That was all I needed to hear, because I was suffering from analysis paralysis.  I’ve drawn a picture to show what my unique situation looked like:

Woodstove Installation Options

As you can see, we were starting with a chimney that contained a fireplace insert and had a 10″ stainless steel flue liner.  I removed the insert and wanted to install the wood stove.

Option A was what I considered the traditional setup, with the stovepipe exiting the stove vertically.  That is how my dad had ours set up.  This installation would have required drilling out some of the brick, installing a clay thimble (absolutely no one I talked to confirmed that these things even exist anymore) and then putting a damper below the spot in the existing chimney where the thimble connected.  I had no idea how I was going to connect the clay thimble (or even a stovepipe instead) to the liner in the chimney because it would have been near impossible to reach inside there.

Option B seemed easier and would also leave the attractive brick chimney intact.  A reducer was needed to connect the 8″ stovepipe from the stove to the 10″ chimney liner.  This also required that we shift the stove’s pipe exit to the horizontal position.  The main problem was this: the stove was too tall.  The exit pipe was taller than the fireplace opening.  I fixed this by purchasing some shorter legs for the stove and also by redesigning the hearth pad to minimum thickness.

The original plan for the hearth pad was to use the 3’x5′ Durock cement board set on some furring strips and then make a brick base to match the color of the existing chimney and also match the height of the lip in front of the chimney.  Instead, I started with the same cement board and furring strips, but laid some nice looking slate tiles down that were only 1/2″ thick.  Because I was using shorter legs on the stove I also constructed my own heat shield to sit under the stove using some 24 gauge sheet steel found at Lowes.  Now you can put your hand on the slate directly underneath the stove when you’ve got a rip roaring fire going.

Hearth Pad and Heat Shields

Starting at the bottom, you see the floor, followed by furring strips, Durock, slate, two layers of heat shields and then the bottom of the stove.

Even with this shorter hearth pad and shorter legs on the stove, the exit pipe still had a slight downward slope.  I was worried about that, because I’ve never seen smoke flow downhill.  Another chat with my uncle about this brought my confidence back.  Get those pipes hot, creating plenty of draft, and that exit pipe will never be a problem.  He was right.

That doesn’t mean we never experienced problems.  Ha!  Boy did we have problems!  Thanksgiving 2012 was very windy and we had a house full of family.  The wind came from a direction where it seemed to blow directly down our chimney, filling the house with smoke.  That made for a rather stressful day and would have been fine if it was a one time occurrence.  My quick remedy was to fill the stove with paper and small sticks to make an intense fire and get things really hot.  That definitely worked, but didn’t solve the problems at night when you shut the dampers.  Unfortunately this happened many times before I was able to fix the problem by treating the source rather than the symptoms. Dismayed at the prices of these fancy stainless steel wind proof chimney caps, I decided to make my own by tying some scrap sheet metal to my existing chimney cap with tie wire.  That, combined with filling any and all seams on the stovepipes with furnace cement meant that we didn’t have any more trouble with smoke in the house.

DIY Windproof Chimney Cap

In conclusion, I must say I’m very happy with this stove.  We only spent a couple hundred dollars on propane heating our home last winter, where our neighbors spent thousands.  Gathering firewood is a lot of work, but to me is enjoyable and part of what I call my country boy’s gym membership.  Most of the wood I have is found free by cleaning up neighboring properties.

Thanks, Robert.

Chilton vs Haynes

No, we’re not talking about underwear here.  A Chilton Manual and Haynes Manual are two brands of automotive manuals that show you how to do absolutely everything on your vehicle.  Complete tear down of all parts of the vehicle are clearly documented via photograph and text.  They are an excellent resource for anyone that intends to make repairs at home.

The main point is this: pick one and get on with it.  Doesn’t matter which manual you use, just make sure you’ve got one.  I chose Haynes simply because that is what they had at Autozone on the day I decided to buy one.  I had a friend that worked on trucks with me at age 16 that always used Chilton.  I really don’t think there is much difference.

These manuals will also provide you with a better maintenance schedule that what is found in your vehicle’s owner guide and also show you how to do it all.  I was glad to have it recently, because I just got done replacing transmission fluid and filter, coolant and hoses and also the serpentine belt on my 2000 F350 Powerstroke.  We also have a 2006 Honda Odyssey and I plan on replacing the timing belt this fall.  I’ve already read over the manual for that.  It sounds a bit more involved of a project that I would normally be comfortable with, but here is the perk: Honda also knows that I should probably be doing this soon and I received a coupon in the mail.  They offered to give me a deal and replace the timing belt for $485.  A quick check at Autozone’s website revealed that a timing belt costs $29.99!  Yes, I’ll be doing this one on my own and keeping that leftover $455 in my pocket, thank you very much!

Thanks, Robert.

The chainsaw

It is firewood cutting time again.  I have such good memories of cutting firewood with my dad when I was younger, and I look forward to this time each year.  I’ve assembled a few topics on the matter, below.

The Saw – there are saws out there for all types of jobs, in all price ranges.  I grew up using a Stihl 034 AV Super.  When I began shopping, I was almost ready to buy a Husqvarna, though.  They are lower priced and seem to enjoy a good reputation from those that own and use them.  Of course I created a spreadsheet to compare all of the models I was considering.  What I discovered was that although the Stihl saws were commanding higher prices, they also had greater power.  When you divided the two to arrive at a dollars per horsepower ratio, the Stihl seemed to win every time.  Therefore it is worth it to pay more, because you’re getting a more powerful saw.  This was true on the older models for which I was searching; I don’t know that this works on new models as I never considered buying a new saw. As with the woodstove and the rototiller, I mirrored my dad’s product selection.  I actually have two now,  the 036 model and the 034 AV Super.  They are the same saw, just different model years and are both part of the 1125 series family, which allows for parts interchangeability.  I highly recommend these older saws from the late 1980’s and 1990’s compared to the current models.  Things just aren’t made the way they use to be.

Safety – I always wear glasses and earplugs when cutting.  I’ve never owned a pair of chainsaw chaps, but a pair is on order.  I was sold on them when I read a review saying that one should consider them an $80 insurance bill to protect against a $3500 ER bill or worse.  Read the manuals because they tell you a lot about how to safely operate the saw.  The manual will also tell you not to lend your saw to anyone who hasn’t also read the manual.  This is smart, not only from a personal safety/liability standpoint, but also from a mechanical point of view.  The average firewood saw runs at 13,500 rpm, and damage to you and/or the saw can happen in a hurry if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Repair and Maintenance – Regarding the maintenance schedule, you can find that in the saw’s manual.  A good alternate reference guide can be found here.  Things will go wrong with your saw and you can fix it yourself.  Doing so will save you a lot of money.  Buy a book called the illustrated parts list to help you identify what parts you need to replace and also to know how things fit together.  I buy all of my parts on eBay, used.  They are all still in good usable shape and I think are better than the aftermarket Chinese junk.  Also, it is a lot cheaper than buying factory replacement parts.  One $5 tool you should have if you plan on doing your own maintenance is a piston block which will hold your crankshaft in position to allow you to remove the clutch or flywheel.  I have found Arborist Site to be a great resource when searching about how to diagnose a problem or fix something.  There’s a lot of useful knowledge on their message boards.

Operations – Use fresh fuel in your saw.  I use Wal-Mart brand bar oil to save money, but Stihl brand 2 cycle mix in the fuel.  The mix oil is expensive but high quality and is formulated for your machine.  Mid or high grade gasoline is purchased in 5 gallon containers and immediately treated with Sta-Bil preservative.  The mix is made in a smaller 2.5 gallon can with the oil on an as needed basis.  The fuel and mix goes a long way.  In our home we almost exclusively heat with wood and only 5 gallons of gasoline and 1 gallon of bar oil were used for the entire season to provide all the wood we needed.

Cutting day – I take a fully stocked tool box to the woods with me.  This consists of the following: scrench, extra bar, extra chain, spare bar nuts, fuel, bar oil, tiny screwdriver, round files that fit your chain, an old paintbrush (for brushing away dust before opening oil and fuel tank lids), axe, splitting maul, plastic felling wedges, spare fuel, air and oil filters and also a box of various spare parts.  I bring enough parts that I could swap out a clutch in the woods if I had to.  I do this because I sometimes drive several miles from home to cut firewood and won’t want to be caught without the ability to make repairs.

Thanks, Robert.

Back up heat sources

In October 2011 our area was hit by a very large and early snowstorm.  This wet snow stuck to everything and was particularly destructive because most of the trees had still not lost all their leaves.  Branches fell on power lines causing widespread power outages (for three or more days in some instances), but luckily we were spared.

This event got me thinking about heating our home in the winter if we had no electricity for our forced air furnace.  The main motivator was that our new baby girl was less than two months old.  We purchased a kero-sun heater from Lowe’s and a few spare fuel cans.  The thing works great and I have enough fuel for several days of back up heating.

Now, I’ve one-upped myself.  I found an old cast iron wood stove on Craigslist.  It is a Vermont Castings Vigilant which was assembled and test fired on September 25, 1980.  This is the same exact stove that my father had in our house growing up and so I was very comfortable in this purchase.  A quick call to my uncle revealed that he also had the same one and said that this stove was the best one on the market for a very long time.

I’ve read online that there are lots of people that have used the Vigilant for their primary heat source for 30 years.  The owner of this stove had it sitting in their garage for the last ten years and considered it a nuisance, thought it smelled bad and was glad to part with it for the very low price of $180.  For reference, new stoves today are in the $1500 to $3000 range.

Can’t wait to install it and test it out.

Thanks, Robert.

An introduction to alternative fuels for your truck

The prices at the pump are soaring.  And I have an F-350 Powerstroke Diesel truck with the thirsty, but legendary 7.3 liter engine.  I’m very fortunate in that I work from home, though, and don’t drive it on a regular basis.  I’ve been reading about alternative fuels and wanted to share the basics with you.  In later posts I’ll tell you the specifics on what I plan to do.

I’m only sharing information relevant to diesels and specifically the 7.3 liter Ford Powerstroke, since that is what I’ve got and that is all I’ve researched.

Diesel engines are amazing, in that they are very robust and can tolerate a broad range of fuels.  In fact, they were originally designed to run on peanut oil.  A brief list of the fuels a diesel engine can utilize are 1.) #2 ULSD (thats Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel) which is the regular old stuff at the pump at most gas stations 2.) off road diesel – this is dyed red, used for farm and construction equipment and usually has better lubricating characteristics but it is illegal to use on over-the-highway trucks 3.) Bio Diesel and 4.) Waste Vegetable Oil.  Note: I’ve read that this isn’t all true for the Ford 6.0 liter and other engine sizes, so do your own research.

The difference between bio diesel and waste vegetable oil is that bio diesel has been put through a chemical process and can be run in your fuel tank in place or or with diesel.  A lot of times it is blended to a specified percentage with diesel.  Waste vegetable oil (WVO) is simply filtered and then burned in your truck.  WVO cannot be put in your diesel tank, however.  The truck must be modified so there is a completely separate fuel tank and system that runs along side your stock system.  This is necessary because WVO must be brought up to 160*F before being introduced to the engine.  Oil cooler than 160*F will stick to the cylinder walls and will result in coking, leaving behind black deposits which will build up and ruin your engine.

In a proper WVO system, the truck must be started on regular diesel and then switched over to WVO once the engine temperature is hot enough.  Extra hoses are spliced in to your engine cooling system and run through a small transmission cooler that sits in your WVO tank.  As the truck’s engine heats up, this will heat up the WVO.  An extra temperature gauge on the dash will let you know when it is safe to switch which is usually only a few miles even in cold climates.  Before getting to your destination and shutting off your engine you must purge the WVO out of the fuel rails.  I’ll go into greater detail in a later post with the specifics on my design, parts, etc.

Thanks, Robert.