Wood stoves in the desert?


Peak Oil Hausfrau has a very good analysis of the impact of using woodstoves to keep warm; I have recently read James Howard Kunstler’s analysis of the impact as well, in his book The Long Emergency.  Both point out that we can’t ALL go back to using wood, unless we have our own woodlots that we tend and maintain, and maybe not even then — you can’t really coppice an oak, for example, and have it continue to grow — and you can’t just plant another one this year and expect to harvest it two years later.  These points are especially important when you live in a forested high desert area, as I do.

Here in Northern Arizona (well ok it’s more north central as located on the map) the general altitude is 3800-5500 ft.  We do get 4 seasons, we just generally get our snow in March and April.  The forest 39 miles from me, in Prescott, is pinion – juniper with scrub oak and manzanita; here 1/4 mile from me on the state land, it’s mostly juniper with sycamore and aspen at water’s edge, and scrub oak.  In fact, we have two scrub oaks in our back yard which sadly will be dug out to make room for fruit trees; the acorns are much too small to try to harvest.  Oh, and we also have our share of mesquite trees in this area generally.

All of these trees with the exception of the aspen and the manzanita (OK, bush) grow rather slowly, and only the mesquite and aspen can reasonably be coppiced. So what does that mean here? Our rainfall is low, and we have been in drought conditions for at least the last 7 years. So for one thing it means that the trees are growing VERY slowly. Even more slowly than their normal growth rate.

As well, the fact that we actually do get four seasons means it does get cold here; it’s been in the upper 20’s overnight at least twice that I know of so far, and although it’s been mostly a balmy November the cold days of winter are coming, with daytime temps no higher than 40 (and I know those of you who live in colder climes are laughing at the thought that 40 might be cold).  At the higher elevations 4400-4700 it’s prairie and the wind chill is wicked this time of year.  Over 5000 when I am getting rain they are getting snow, but they also have the benefit of being more protected by the trees, and the snow doesn’t stay on the ground generally; the weather stays cold enough but the ground doesn’t freeze.

One thing the drought and subsequent bark beetle infestation has provided in recent years is a surplus of trees that are dead. The Forest Service burns large swaths of these every year in order to prevent more devastating forest fires, but I cringe at the amount of firewood that is burning up for no reason but management. Even still, I could harvest probably 4 cords of wood from the dead growth I see just on my way to work every day. This however brings up the issue of air pollution — how many people using this resource does it take to make the air quality that much worse than it is? Even here in the ‘wide wide west’ our air quality has gone down markedly in recent years.

Our population is much larger than this area can support, water wise and fire wood wise.  Before the economic crisis hit we were facing water crises and these will continue I’m sure — Chino Valley has instituted laws prohibiting home gardens due to the water shortage.  Why they don’t mandate rainwater and greywater catchment instead of prohibitions is beyond me but I’m just glad I don’t live there.  I DO worry about the possibility here in my county area, but that’s why I have a rainwater catchment system already mostly in place. I’m less prepared on the heating/cooking basis, but I have been researching that as well.

If I run out of propane on a permanent basis, what would I do?  Well I have started keeping scrap wood and tree cuttings. I have a couple of options for heating — for instance I could make a solar powered space heater out of recycled cans and PVC pipe; I already have used black plastic pinned to my curtains to create a venturi heater in my south facing windows; for us though we have HOT temperatures much more often than cold and so my main focus has been in keeping us relatively cool without the use of AC.

For cooking though options are more limited. I have made my own solar oven and my results have been mixed. I am really not that crazy about solar ovens, but I haven’t had a commercially manufactured one yet, either. I may change my mind if I did — but since I work so many hours it would require using every one of my days off to make meals. I do know that next canning season I will be canning outside over my fire pit! When it’s 100 outside the last thing I ever want to be doing again is canning at 10 pm to avoid the worst of the day’s heat.

One of the dual purpose tools I would like to explore in more detail is the rocket stove. Vavrek has a very simple, very doable small model that he demonstrates how to make in this video:

I have not yet amassed all the things I will need to make this yet but it is most definitely on my list of things to try for several reasons:

  1. It can be made cheaply from mostly recycled materials. This alone makes it worth trying as if I hate it, I am not out a lot of money, only my time.
  2. It burns nearly 100% efficiently. It uses smaller twigs that are mostly useless in a larger wood stove. This means I can bring it inside and and keep the air pollution in my house to a minimum
  3. It is portable; this with reason #2 mean that I can bring it inside the house and use it in my kitchen either on the oven door or on a couple of bricks set on the kitchen island. I can get dual purpose from it this way – I can cook on it and get heat from it. It also means I can use it outside for canning and cooking in the hot parts of the year. And, I can take it camping!
  4. If I wanted to also use it for heating as a main use, I could fill the interior of the unit between inside pipe and outside walls with a heat resistant perlite. This would hold and radiate the heat for quite some time after using it, and would also keep the indoor air pollution down simply because I am burning less fuel for a longer heat.

This is not an ideal solution, but larger versions of rocket stoves have been used with great success in experimental cob houses both here and in Europe; I have explored the possibility of building one in my own home but the retrofit would be prohibitively expensive. I do think however smaller scale ones such as the above model can be used extensively by even urban dwellers for basic heating and cooking without devastating the urban tree landscape too much, or contributing too much to air pollution – with the following caveat:

People must get used to the idea of being colder. People must use time tested methods of keeping warm such as eating hearty foods like soups and stews; they must learn to dress in layers, warmly; they must give up the idea of being able to walk around in shorts in December; they must use cheap insulating methods on windows and walls; and maybe they will need to sleep in the same room, if not together, to keep warm.

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