Heat for the Homestead

A reliable, sustainable heat source is a concern of all homesteaders. Wood is a top choice for many off-grid homesteading families. Other sources of heating include gases, solar, geothermal, and masonry heat. Still, many homesteaders continue to rely on the electric power-grid.

To be clear, “homesteading” does not mean that you are completely independent from other sources of power, heat, and water. Nor does it mean that you abstain from using a telephone, cell, phone, the internet, or watching television. Yes, there are homesteaders that will define their success by that measure. Yet many other successful homesteaders take advantage of the comforts that this modern age avails. So is the case with our homestead.

While we continue to work towards become more independently sustainable, including reducing our reliance on outside sources of power and heat, our home is currently connected to “the grid”. While I may run disaster preparedness tests to confirm my assumptions that we can survive without an external power source for hours, days, or weeks, I have not set cutting the cord completely as a goal. Neither is it  a definition of my success as a homesteader. Being in control of that reliance does, however.

How do we heat our home today?

In one of three ways – and that’s what’s important for the prepper/homesteader in us – having multiple sources of heat to keep ourselves warm when the weather cools. In Minnesota, that’s many months during the year.

At the homestead we have radiant baseboard heat (hydronic heating) controlled with an electric boiler, reliant on connectivity to the power company.

In line with that, however, we have a low-voltage (millivolt) propane fueled boiler. It is not reliant on the power grid. Our 500 gallon propane tank sits outside the home, discretely tucked behind some short trees and brush. I can operate whichever boiler I want, and do so depending on the cost of electric therms as compared to the cost of a gallon of propane. Usually it’s more cost effective to run the electric boiler. Our power company offers a discount to dual-source heated homes, and so we take advantage of that credit.

What that means to us is that each day in the winter whenever the power company determines it to be a peak usage for the rest of its customers it will cut the power to our electric boiler. Which they do daily, usually in the evening for several hours, and longer during really cold snaps. At that time our low-voltage propane boiler kicks in without any interaction from us and keeps our home a toasty 68 degrees.

While modern 24 volt low-voltage thermostats and heaters can do the same thing, when they are stripped of power, as would be the case during a power outage, a common 24 volt system will not kick in and you may find yourselves getting a little bit chilly. Don’t worry though, someone has thought of a solution to that and so most heaters will come with a battery backup for such instances.

What heats your home?

If you’re wondering about what you have in your home, either a millivolt or 24 volt system, look at your gas, propane, or otherwise fueled heater pilot light. If it is always lit, it is likely that it is a millivolt system. These are not popular today due to the inherent risk of fire if your furnace room is not kept clean, but they are still commonly found in stand alone gas fireplaces. If you look and the flame is not a standing pilot light (not always burning), you may have a modern 24v system.

splitting wood for heat

Our other source of heat is from the renewable resource firewood. Upstairs in the home are two fireplaces, inefficient and soon to be upgraded. In the basement, a newly installed, high efficiency, wood burning fireplace insert installed where a third fireplace once was. All three fireplace chimneys channel through the center of the home. We can keep toasty, even on cold January days, with just the basement unit burning. The chimney construction gives thought to maximum heat exchange to the core of the living area.

We choose to heat with firewood because we also control the property from which the trees are harvested. As we have a vested, long term interest in the land, we participate in a best management practices, also known as BMP strategies, for timber harvesting. We select for harvest first the already dead, diseased, or dangerously leaning trees. There are still plenty of those categories of trees on our parcel. Therefore, we haven’t had move into the next phase of BMP timber harvest strategies. BMP includes thinning for better growth, considering watershed effects, or the age of trees and usefulness of particular varieties.

Heating the homestead – an ongoing topic

Future posts will discuss this topic further as it relates to best varieties for burning, and chopping, cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood. Then there’s fireplace, chimney, and flu maintenance, as well as useful tools of the trade to consider.

If you’ve already begun your homesteading adventures, or are thinking of branching out to become more self-sufficient, consider your heat source(s), and your ability to maintain those sources should one method or another be compromised. You don’t want to be left out in the cold next winter!

How do you heat your homestead? Do you have plans to convert to a more sustainable alternative source in the near future?