Prepper Basics – Priority #1: Heat

Burning wood has provided heat for thousands of years

If you live anywhere that gets cold in the winter, then you need to think about heat when you think about prepping for a possible disaster.  Even in states like Texas and New Mexico the temperature can get to zero at times, with arctic air pushing south.  I remember trying to escape that in my RV, and being stuck in southern Arizona, waiting until the New Mexico temperatures went well above zero so I could go to Texas.  Of course, if you live in the north, you know all about freezing weather and how fast you can be in danger without heat.  In a matter of hours, you can be in a life-threatening situation.  For this reason, if you are in such a location, as I am in northern Idaho, heat is your #1 concern.

Most homes these days are heated with natural gas, oil, or electricity.  In a rural situation, it might be propane.

Trying to heat your home with electricity when off-grid is not going to work, unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on a huge battery bank, large solar panel arrays, and perhaps wind or hydro power.  This would be an extremely unusual situation.  So electric heat generally is out for a grid down situation.

Natural gas lines will be under pressure for a few days, until they run out of fuel for their generators.  Then the pressure will drop, and no heat can be generated.  Of course you will get no heat even if you have gas pressure if you don’t have a backup power system, as most natural gas systems operate on forced air furnaces, which require electricity.  They can, however, be powered from a backup system if it has sufficient capacity.

Oil is a similar situation – deliveries of oil when you run out are unlikely, and again, you need electricity to circulate either hot air or hot water.  The same goes for propane:  you will have heat as long as you have backup electricity.  Propane deliveries will also likely no longer be available, so a large propane tank is a must.  If you plan to heat with propane, a minimum of 1000 gallons, better yet 2500 gallons is likely required to last a year.  Note that there are some propane heaters that don’t require electricity, but use convection instead.  Naturally, these will work just fine without electricity.  Unfortunately, they are also pretty inefficient.

So the point of all that is to say this:  your “normal” heating system will not provide heat in the long term in a grid down situation, unless you are essentially already off the grid.  So you need to consider adding a backup system… or two.  If you are already using propane, a backup might be a larger tank plus enough of a backup power system to ensure you can run whatever fans or motors the heaters require.

In my case, we have forced air natural gas heat and A/C.  Naturally, A/C is out – way too much juice for any reasonable backup power system to supply (nearly as bad as electric heat).  The forced-air heater only uses a few amps for the fan and controls, so it can be easily powered by my backup power system (more on that in a future blog).  Until the gas runs out, that is.  At that point, the natural gas heater gets shut down, and I am looking to my first level backup for heat:  a wood-burning stove.

I chose wood-burning rather than a pellet stove, because no electricity is required to operate, unlike a pellet stove.  Also, no complex mechanical system to break down.  There was no place to put such a stove, so we did a small addition to our dining area for the stove, and we used it for two winters to get used to how to use it properly.  We also built a woodshed and placed covered wood stands around the house, and put in paver walkways that can be snow blown or shoveled to make it easy to access in deep snow.  We bought 4 of the 8-foot versions, and 4 of the 4-foot versions, totaling 2 cords of wood storage.  The coverings protect the wood from rain and snow so it is ready to burn.

Finally, we bought a wheeled carrier for wood to move it from various locations (front porch, back deck, side of house, and woodshed) into the small 3-foot storage rack beside the stove.  The stove heats the entire home – not evenly, of course, but nice and warm in the living/dining/kitchen side, cooler on the bedroom end of the house.

There was already a natural gas fireplace in the house, which the previous owner said would keep you warm in an emergency.  Since we were installing a 1000 gallon propane tank, a propane cook-top in the kitchen, and a propane generator to charge batteries when there was no sun, we had the fireplace modified for propane burning, as well.  We view it as an emergency use only – the propane is primarily for the generator and cook-top, but if the fire goes out in the stove, we can turn on the fireplace for a couple of hours while the stove heats up.  So, the fireplace is our second level backup heating source, where our first level backup is the wood-burning stove.

Unless you own a lot of land, have lots of trees, know how to cut them down (and have plenty of gas stored for the gas-powered saws) and turn them into firewood and age them correctly to burn properly, you will have to depend on buying wood from other sources.  We decided to add storage for 7 cords of wood on our property – 5 in the woodshed we had built, and 2 on the wood storage racks around the house.  This is enough to last at least a full winter season, probably more like 1.5, even 2 seasons.  It is not likely that we would be able to buy more wood once an emergency strikes, but if you live near someone who cuts and sells wood for heat, then you can take advantage of that in your planning.

They say that – after a year – things will begin to get to a stable situation after a severe emergency, such as grid down.  Of course that is a great guess, who really knows?  My planning is to make sure I have enough to last at least a year, preferably two.  If I can do that, and protect what I have stored, then perhaps some trading and economic activity will begin again, unfortunately with perhaps only 10% of the population remaining.

Download for yourself a chart that shows what kind of wood gives what kind of burn time and heat.  Not all wood burns hot and long.  There are many resources out there (but download NOW and print NOW).  Here is one example:  wood burning quality list

Having kindling wood and paper is a good thing as well, making it easy to start a fire.  You can store up old newspapers for that purpose, and purchase stacks of kindling already prepared.  Alternatively, you can cut up small slivers of kindling from your main wood source.  You cannot start a fire with a log!  Make sure you have lots of matches!

Get a thermometer to attach to your stove!  Monitoring the temperature is important.  You should hit at least 400 degrees at least once a day to ensure you are not coating your chimney with a fire hazard in the future.  Here is an example of a wood stove thermometer: Magnetic Stove Thermometer.  Make sure you know where to place it on the stove to give accurate readings:  do not place it over an area where air is coming into the stove!

Another option to increase the distribution of heat is a heat-operated fan, such as this one from Woodland Direct.  This is also available from Amazon and other sources.  This fan will operate from the heat of your stove, and distribute hot air into your home, along with the convection heating.  The fan requires at least 300 degrees on the top of the stove before it will operate.  The hotter the stove, the faster the fan runs.

If you do choose to go pellet, consider a year’s supply or more of the fuel, and how to store it properly.  Also, consider a spare parts kit for the stove, and make sure you have complete instructions that you can understand on how to repair it.  The electricity usage is not high, so if you have a backup power system, the stove should work just fine.  Just be prepared to handle “mechanical failure” situations.  And, have a secondary backup heating system to run while you are taking the stove apart (after it cools) and fixing it.  It could take hours, especially if you have not done it before!

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