Welcoming winter and heating with wood

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By Lee Einer

It’s winter again, cold, and there’s snow on the ground.

But I LIKE snow on the ground. 

Every time we get snow on the ground, it is a prime opportunity to go outside and do some basic observation.

First, get out and look at the roof of your home. If the snow is melting off your roof faster than it is off other homes in the neighborhood, chances are its because you have poor insulation in your ceiling and your heat is escaping through your roof. That’s not good. It’s costing you money. Make a plan to get insulated, so you can save on your heating bills.

And while we’re on that subject, if you are a low-income senior, there may be USDA funding available to winterize your home. You can call the local USDA rural development office at 425-3594 to find out if you qualify.

Moving on from the rooftop, this is also a good time to have a look at your front and back yards. Where is the snow melting off? These are areas of your yard that stay warmer in the winter. If you plan to plant anything which might have a hard time with the cold, these are the places where you will want to plant them. Obviously, you won’t be planting now, but make a mental note for springtime.

And on to heating, gas, wood and our local economy.

We in Las Vegas are not living in the lap of luxury. More than a quarter of us live below the poverty level, and I would guess that most of us are either just getting by, or not.

Local governmental groups have tried to deal with this by attracting outside businesses into town, with minimal success.

Attracting outside money, though, is only one approach to easing the financial burdens of Las Vegas residents. We can also reduce the need to spend, and keep our spending local.

Every winter, we collectively pay the city six figures per month for natural gas. That money does pay the wages of a few hardworking people in our utilities department, and helps offset some general city expenses, but most that money leaves the city immediately and goes into the pockets of Zia Gas. That’s a big hole in the pocket of our little city. And it raises two questions: how far could we go toward reducing that collective expense with a thoughtful and organized weatherization program, and how much better off would we be if we transitioned from natural gas heat to wood?

Las Vegas has more homes on the historic register than any other city in the USA. The flip side of that is that we are a city made up mostly of older homes, and most of those are poorly insulated. Many still have single-pane windows. Logic suggests that an aggressive program of energy auditing and weatherization could save Las Vegas residents hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s like an instant and substantial boost in discretionary income for all Las Vegans affected, now, and for the foreseeable future. A gift that keeps on giving.

It would also be a great boon to our community if we could transition from city gas and propane to wood for our heat. Neither city gas nor propane are mined here — the money we spend for these fuels goes out of the community immediately and is lost to us. But there are plenty of people in the city who sustainably cut and harvest firewood to augment their incomes. Heating with wood that we purchase from our neighbors keeps our money local, and helps our community prosper.

The downside of wood heating is that many of the wood stoves in use don’t burn efficiently. That means not only are we not extracting the maximum possible heat from our wood, we are also unnecessarily polluting with the unburnt creosote, and putting our homes at risk of creosote fires as well.

There’s opportunity here also to fix things on the cheap.

Most wood stoves are made, ironically, to burn poorly — with dampers that limit the air intake, prolonging the burn, but making the combustion less efficient because there is less available oxygen. The problem with wood stoves is that they tend to be metal, which radiates heat quickly but also cools off quickly.  Most designs deal with this by restricting combustion, but there is a tried and true alternative, which is to burn pedal-to-the-metal hot, and store the heat in adobe, mud, stone or masonry where it will radiate at a manageable rate for hours. The top-end way to do this is with a masonry heater, otherwise known as a siberian wood stove. These are wonderful, but they must be constructed in place, and can cost as much as a new car.

A fellow named Ianto Evans has developed a sort of masonry heater for the people, though, and it is called a rocket stove. The rocket stove is constructed from firebrick, a couple of metal drums, and mud. It can be built for less than a hundred bucks, and it burns fast and clean, much as a masonry heater does.  You can read about them at www.rocketstoves.com

Lee Einer is the Optic’s features editor, and a certified permacuture designer. He can be reached at 425-6796 or features@lasvegasopticl.com