Prepare, Sustain, Thrive and Survive Simply
The style of woodstove you select to keep from freezing to death is one of the most important tactical decisions to be made when embarking on a life of radical simplicity in the country. Don’t underestimate the impact a woodstove can have on your quality of life
The following is excerpted from the ebook, The Truth About Simple Unhooked Living, which recounts tactics for successful resourceful living and delves into a growing number of regulations which stand in the way of simply surviving. (This was written before I learned about rocket stoves and will include a section on that when the book is updated for print version).
Soothing Wood Heat and its Complications
When the sun isn’t shining and temperatures dip, a good woodstove is indispensable in the simple unhooked home. All one needs to stay cozy is the stove, a saw, ax, and some dead wood. No power company run by executives that make $1 million a year need be involved in your personal struggle to stave off winter’s chill. You do need the oil company, however, unless you make your own fuel, or plan to cut all your firewood by hand and haul it home in a horse-drawn wagon.
Wood fires are essential to rural folks pursuing self-reliance. Burning wood provides penetrating and soothing warmth, and the sale of cordwood can be an important source of income. Unfortunately, this is another area where the powers that be make things difficult for the little guy trying to survive.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been busy promulgating rules about residential wood smoke. To aid that effort, EPA says it needs to know how many woodstoves are in existence and exactly how much wood is being burned across our land. Local air quality agents are expected to collect this data, according to the report, Strategies for Reducing Residential Wood Smoke, published by the EPA in 2009. EPA uses the data to continue developing wood smoke reduction programs that include education, incentives, burn bans, and ultimately, more laws. As part of its national smoke reduction strategy, the agency encourages the use of pellet stoves, which require electricity to operate. Wood heat is a big blessing when there is no power, but if you buy any stove that takes electricity to run right, you’re in for a cold and frustrating experience when trying to take care of yourself during an outage.
The State of Washington was one of the first to jump on the EPA anti-smoke bandwagon, and the states’ emission limits for solid fuel burning devices are more stringent than EPAs. In the mid 90s, Washington began to regulate exactly how much smoke, at what density, can come out of a stovepipe at any given moment. If a qualified “opacity reader” drives by and spots wood smoke that is too thick coming from your chimney, you can get a ticket. The law says: “A person shall not cause or allow emission of a smoke plume from any solid fuel burning device to exceed an average of 20 percent opacity for six consecutive minutes in any one hour period.” I expected to hear the smoke police tromping around on the roof measuring my smoke, but they never did show up.
The state has a long list of things you cannot burn in a woodstove, such as garbage of any kind, including junk mail. Paper that is not junk mail can be used to start a fire, as long as it’s not a paper towel used to wipe dirty plates off before putting them in your dishwater. Also, mill ends or any wood scraps from building projects, (a source of hot dry fuel), cannot be burned, either in the stove or outside of it.
It is mandatory in Washington, and some other states, to burn wood with moisture content of less than 20 percent. Some states make the homeowner check the moisture level of cordwood with a moisture meter. In others, the onus is on the woodcutter, who can get in trouble for selling, advertising, or supplying wood that is too wet. Finally, your hopes of setting up a little self-sufficient place in the country may be dashed because more states require a heat source other than wood in all new construction.
The EPA obviously considers wood smoke a great threat to society, and you the citizens must spend your hard-earned money supporting the regulatory bureaucracy. Other entities that have also been studying the heck out of wood burning, don’t consider the home hearth a big problem. According to an article on the appropriate technology website, Journey to Forever—a good site for exploring nitty-gritty information on the chemistry and technology of various simple living projects—wood is a renewable resource, and burning it is much more eco-friendly than natural gas or kerosene. Natural gas emits 15 times more carbon dioxide per kilogram and kerosene nearly ten times as much. The amount of CO2 emissions from home fires burning can recycle back into growing more trees. Washington’s Department of Ecology promotes natural gas heat over wood, saying it pollutes less. So, who is correct? It doesn’t matter. You just have to obey whatever they say.
Journey to Forever points out that studies since the 70s have shown burning wood for household needs is not a major cause of deforestation. The reason for that, it seems, is that forests aren’t generally cut down for firewood. Instead, dead trees and downed logs are used. Somebody has been studying that for forty years?
So, who has been cutting down green forests like crazy to the detriment of society? The dangerous deforestation culprits are big commercial logging and agricultural operations, according to the article. It seems reasonable, therefore, for the government to go after the big boys rather than families trying to stay warm in the woods. This would enable the little guy to fight global warming by low-impact simple living. But common citizens without armies of high-paid attorneys and lobbyists, and career politicians sitting on their boards of directors, make a much easier target.
Draconian Woodstove Laws
Given the desirability of using wood for heat, it’s a good thing when affordable stoves are available to all who need them. Used woodstoves that cost under $200 were widely available in Washington before the state passed a law against buying, selling, giving away, bartering, or otherwise exchanging them. Moreover, collection centers were set up for people to drop off their offending appliances so they could be melted down.
Other jurisdictions also have laws to get the old stoves “off-line.” Communities in California, Nevada, and Oregon require the removal and destruction of old wood stoves upon the sale of homes. In Oregon, you’re allowed to keep your old stove as long as you don’t sell your house, but you can’t legally move it from its original spot. Building inspectors are expected to help enforce that law.
Lincoln County, Montana, helped families afford the new thousand-dollar EPA certified stoves with a cash incentive to “change out” their old ones. Folks who rejected the government carrot were out of luck because the county’s next move was to declare all non-certified stoves illegal. Then they required everyone who burns wood to get a permit from the health department. This causes the smoke police to drive around and look for thick smoke, knock on doors and demand to see permits, and issue tickets.
Property owners in Pendleton, Oregon, were offered the option of upgrading to EPA approved stoves with interest-free loans that trigger a lien on their properties. A few agencies provide new stoves in conjunction with charitable weatherization programs for the poor. But what do poor people do when they’re hanging on by a thread in areas that don’t offer such programs? And what about those who work hard to stay warm without government assistance? They may have to migrate to a more lenient jurisdiction where brave leaders refuse to sell, barter, give away, or otherwise exchange the people’s liberties for carrots offered from above.
The EPA believes more than nine million wood stoves still need to be rounded up and melted down. Has anybody calculated the carbon footprint of that strategy? Is there an audit of the environmental impact of bringing all those stoves to market in the first place? How much energy did it take to mine the ore, smelt the metals, manufacture the stoves and distribute them? How much will it take to destroy them and make something new from the molten metal, then distribute that? You’d think the honorable thing to do would be to get as much use out of the old stoves as possible before they rust back into the ground. Since industry spews a mind-boggling magnitude of pollutants into the air, why not hound them rather than taking woodstoves from people of modest means struggling along on the financial edge?
To clarify, I would naturally prefer a style of stove that makes optimal use of wood I work hard to cut. Remember, successful simple living is efficient. However, if circumstances require me to do whatever I can afford to keep from freezing, a ticket is obviously the last thing I need.
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