Nov 8, 2010

Home heating

Our house is a bizarre mash-up of heating methods and fuel sources. We knew that when we bought the place, of course, and actually considered it to be something of a benefit.

Our furnace (forced air) is oil-fired, and roughly as old as I am. It's a fuel hog and too big for the house, so it cycles more than it should need to. It does get used, for the "shoulder seasons" - those times when the days are warm and the nights are cool - but we don't run it more than we have to.

Our water heater is also oil-fired and I would replace it with the exact same one in a heartbeat. It's a 32-gallon heater, but has a 180-gallon "first hour" rating, and 114-gallon per hour recovery (+90F). We only have one shower, so actually running out of hot water is pretty unlikely.

The cooktop and oven are both propane-fired, as is the clothes dryer. (A gas stove or gas service was one of the requirements when we were house-hunting; I detest cooking on electric ranges.)

We have a portable electric radiator in the master bedroom as well; we keep the door closed most of the time and it tends to be cooler in there than the rest of the house. A little supplemental heat goes a long way.

Last but not least, we have a coal stove as our primary winter heat source. It's a Keystoker Stoker 90, and goes like a son of a gun when you finally get it lit and dialed in. When we got things set properly for the feed, it burned about 40lb of coal a day and kept the vast majority of the house at a toasty 70-72F, while burning about 2-3/4 tons of coal over the season.

Unfortunately, coal is not proving to be ideal for our situation. It is a pain to get it lit*, and it creates a lot of ash - on the order of 2/3 weight of the fuel burned, if I had to guess. On top of that, it's dirty. The ash goes *everywhere*, and the coal itself is disgustingly dusty. MrsZ has mild asthma, and my sinuses certainly don't appreciate the extra crud in the air. We put in extra air filters in the house, and it helped but can't really solve the problem completely.

I've been looking at the options, and some kind of solid-fuel stove remains my preference. I'm leaning strongly to a pellet stove. They are easier to light, and some are even self-lighting. Pellets don't have the same heat density as coal, but are renewable (yeah, there's my hippy streak shining through), cleaner, and create FAR less ash. (Most stove manufacturers claim that pellet ash will need to emptied once a month or so, as opposed to daily for the coal stove.) Additionally, pellet ash isn't going to kill our garden if I dump it out there.

I don't believe a pellet stove is in our budget for the year - which is a shame, since there is still a hefty tax incentive on them - but it will be high on my list of improvements.

* - lighting the coal stove is a mixture of witchcraft and luck. The local stove shop (which I refuse to deal with after they refused to make good on bad coal last winter) sells magic starter bags that work about two times out of three. I used the last one I had earlier this year, and haven't bought more. I finally figured out how to get the thing lit without buying magic bags. A handful of charcoal briquettes in a basket coffee filter, tucked WAY up the burn grate. Hit it with a MAPP** torch until the briquettes are going, then put a small handful of coal over them and plug the stove in. Shut the door and hope!

** - I purchased what I thought was a MAPP torch kit from Lowes the other morning to assist in this lighting process. After the fact, I noticed that it's not MAPP, it's "MPP". MPP is a BernzOMatic product that stands for "Max Power Propylene". It burns at about 3600F, as opposed to propane's 3450F. A little digging led me to the Wiki page on MAPP, and this gem:

"On 31 April 2008 the Petromont Varennes plant closed its methylacetylene/propadiene plant. As they were the only North American plant making MAPP gas, indeed the only legal supplier of trademarked MAPP gas in the world, this caused a widescale shortage"
In other words, MAPP - with a in-air temp of about 3700F or an in-oxygen temp in excess of 5000F - is no more. If you need to do small-scale brazing, MPP/Oxy kits are available, but it almost makes more sense to cough up for an Oxy/Acetylene setup with reasonable-size cylinders.

1 comment:

mhaithaca said...

My friend Sallywent through a similar decision-making process on their coal setup a winter or two ago, and may be willing to share some of her acquired wisdom. They're still using coal, but a way more efficient setup.