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.

The dog proof compost pile

We recently harvested broilers and turkeys.  What doesn’t go into the freezer goes into the compost pile, such as innards, feathers, etc.  I bury this stuff in a large pile of wood chips.  The wood chips do a great job of absorbing everything during the decomposition process and we humans never smell anything.  But the dogs obviously do and they would love to get their paws on some three week old rotted chicken heads.

Our german shepherd especially enjoys these treats.  He’ll dig into that compost pile like it is a big birthday present.  I decided to head this one off at the pass this year, by piling up some large heavy firewood pieces all around the compost pile once it was constructed.

The Dog Proof Compost Pile

I was not all that surprised the next morning to find that our pup had found the smallest, lightest piece and pulled it away to expose the pile.  He was able to score a delectable turkey foot.  I raked everything in again, and replaced the piece of wood with a larger, heavier one.  So, despite that small setback, I still stand by this idea.

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.

Mangel beets for our pigs

We’ve got six pigs in the backyard that are getting pretty big.  We’ve been feeding them since May and plan on keeping one for ourselves and are selling the rest to friends.  This is being done as part of our larger overall goal of being able to raise as much of our own food as possible.  And we love bacon, ham, sausage, etc.

They receive a standard feed ration from the local grain elevator of 18% protein, that is made from corn, soybeans, etc.  We supplement this as much as possible with things we grow or glean.  This summer I grew about 30 double row feet of mangel beets.  I learned from the Deliberate Agrarian website that they are an old fashioned livestock feedstuff.  These puppies grow really big, up to 24″ in length.  And the pigs love them!  When these beets are thrown into the pen the pigs literally spin around in circles like a helicopter rotor!

Pigs love to eat freshly picked mangel beets

Pigs love to eat freshly picked mangel beets

Why pigs and not cows?  Some of you know that I grew up on a farm raising beef cattle and so that would be the natural progression for me.  A steer, when raised properly will take one and a half to two years to finish its journey to slaughter weight, where a pig only takes six to eight months.  Feed conversion ratios are also very important.  A beef steer has a feed conversion ratio of something like 13:1.  (this will vary widely depending on the system/style of feeding) That is 13 pounds of feed to one pound of meat gain.  They have very large frames and therefore have a much higher ‘maintenance requirement’ and an animal must meet its maintenance requirements before it will ever make gains.  Pigs, on the other hand, have a feed conversion ratio closer to 4:1 or less.

In other words, it is way less expensive to raise a hog than a steer, when combining the above ratio and the timeline.  That is why pigs and chickens have traditionally been called the mortgage lifters – they’re more profitable!

Thanks, Robert.

Starting the Fall Garden

Last winter I built a greenhouse out back.  By the time it was finished it was too late to be starting seeds for the summer garden because it was already getting warm outside.

A few days ago I whitewashed the greenhouse using some hydrated lime mixed with water and applied with a broom.  This provides some shade so that it doesn’t get too hot in there.  Each rainstorm will wash away a little bit of that whitewash and so as weather cools, the ‘greenhouse effect’ will be stronger.

Inside I prepared some beds and planted kale, spinach, mache, lettuce, arugula, beets, kohlrabi and radishes.  I moved in a few kale transplants that we started outside a month ago, too.  This way we have a succession planting of kale.  As we plan better in future years we will do more of this.

According to some of the Eliot Coleman books we’ve read, we are a little late in doing this planting.  Better late than never!  I’ll let you know how it turns out.



Eat your crust!

Yes, it’s been a while since we’ve written, but this couldn’t wait.  A few days ago we were sitting around the table at mealtime and I was encouraging our son to eat the crust from his toast.  I told him that the crust is where all the nutrition is, and that it will also put hair on his chest.

And that is just when the bombshell was dropped.  Courtney spoke up with an “actually.”  Actually, that is probably not true, she said.  Think about it, the composition of that crust is not any different than the rest of the bread.  Nothing gets concentrated there.   If anything the vitamins and minerals become broken, denatured, less useful, etc due to the higher heat that is experienced in the crust.  A flood of emotions came over me as I realized I had been lied to my whole life.  I was troubled.  I was bothered.  But then, I became elated.  Thank you, Mrs. Food Scientist for enlightening us and opening our eyes to the truth once again.

For the record: there was no disputing that eating crust puts hair on your chest.

Thanks, Robert.