Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wood Burning for Ethical Rich People

Warning: I am now going to pontificate about religion, and personal finances, and possibly about race, sex, and your mother. Also about playing with fire.
My mother warned me these were topics to avoid if I did not want to offend people. If you are a person who pays no heed to such warnings, and you are offended by anything you read here, perhaps you are not the person you thought you were.

A client pointed me toward an anti-religion blog where burning wood was cited as an example of unethical things people do in defiance of scientific reason.

Surprisingly, I agree with the author's general point that wealthy Westerners who burn a smoky, recreational fire in a poorly-designed fireplace built of expensive materials, are poisoning their neighbors to no good purpose.
Responsible rich people heat with smokeless methods, burn smokeless beeswax or bayberry candles for nostalgia value, and indulge in other pleasures that do not poison their fellow citizens.

But by claiming that burning wood is unethical, and that a fossil fuel should be used instead, the author reveals a deeply troubling attitude toward the larger world. Making ethical arguments that poor people should live like rich people is morally indefensible.
(Making ethical arguments that people should stop ANY traditional behavior with proven ancestral survival value, when you are ignorant of its origins or current best practice, is a risky business. But taking risks is part of growing up.)

Responsible rich people also drive carefully, pay workers fairly, and are troubled at heart by the world's current dependence on finite supplies of fossil fuels... fuels produced from deadly mines where humans toil, and drilling rigs where 24-hour natural gas flares (which are far from smokeless) poison local air supplies; and whose processing and handling contaminates the water, air, soils, and people for miles around the refineries and power stations; giving the Gulf region a new industry to offset its devastated shrimp production: cancer research.
It's worst in the wild places where the oil companies are the biggest gorilla in town, and it is legal to ask the town drunk to sign away his tribe's rights to clean-anything-ever-again. But every community has its own toxic rainbow badge of service-station tank leaks and parking-lot oil slicks, working their way slowly into our groundwater and the circle of life on earth.

Roughly half the world's population would be considered poor by global standards - and more by US standards. Of those, most have a choice between local biofuels, or a local monopoly which supplies such things as Butagas cannisters, propane tanks, fuel oil, or utilities. Utilities only come in pipes to urban or wealthy populations. What does "smokeless" fossil fuel look like in under-developed areas?

Rural places are the 'undeveloped' US, and our latest euphemism for the rest of the world is 'underdeveloped.' If you have never been there, it's an abstraction. A lot of people who spend time reading random blogs have never been there. (Apologies if you live there already.)
Let's flesh it out. This is not a pity party, just some quaint details of life elsewhere.

In my rural US county (which is not entirely undeveloped), the local public utility District charges a minimum of $30 per month regardless of how much electricity is used - which means that my disabled father-in-law has a minimum $90 electric bill regardless of whether he is home, out fishing, or in the hospital. His 3 electric meters cover his well-pumps, his house, the barn with chickens and retired horses and the extension cord for warming up the snowplow, and the separate in-law unit where we now live. He could have the farthest wells' meter turned off, and save one power bill, but in case of water problems he would have to wait for the power company to re-start service before switching on his back-up well. The added fees for a shutoff and re-start would add up to around $90 additional. At home and using propane for hot water, the winter total comes to around $140/mo.
We pay our line's share, usually around $30. About half the time, we use enough electricity to make it past that minimum to $30.47, or $40.62. But we pay the base fee regardless of usage. Otherwise, I wouldn't be writing to you in this way.
This is very reasonable by American norms, the previous tenants paid similar amounts in our urban apartment, without the wells or barn. But it gets scary for disabled/retired folks when someone suddenly has to move out, the same year you have to get surgery, and you get stuck with all 3 lines and additional expenses on a fixed income. Now that we are weathered in and working together, we are doing fine: we pay a little rent, buy Ron a little diesel, Ron cuts a little firewood, Ernie can build backyard boats or come home with a second-hand table saw without incurring spousal wrath. (Pictured is not actually Ernie's big boat, it's Ron and John's 26-foot fishing sled, getting its first fairing of the frames.)

I bring this up not because I think you should track my personal finances, but because they are different now than they were in Portland or Aloha. It is cold here, and it is cold in mountains all over the world. We keep the outside freezer unplugged for weeks at a time, it stays colder that way. What is scary to a person on a fixed income in the USA, is simply unthinkable to someone living on $2 per day.

In Portland or Corvallis or Pittsburgh, utilities are largely already in place when you buy a house or improved suburban lot. Streets are hooked up to new municipal services in batches, so residents pay a small share of the total cost of the project (which admittedly can still be steep, and it's generally not optional: cities must charge everyone at the same time, to install services like sewer which are a public health concern).
Rural lot owners often must pay individually for a utility to run lines to their home from miles away. Think how many blocks are in a mile, and how much it costs to dig up sidewalks vs. roots and rocks, and guess what the price might be if you were in the other guy's shoes.
Residents here, and in Maine, and in rural Mexico, and all over Africa, and most of the tropics, will run an old truck down to the gas station to buy propane cannisters, or kerosene, or diesel for engines and generators, or have an on-site tank that they call a local micro-business owner to bring a few more gallons of heating oil. Here and in Maine it's a 5-gallon tank, and you feel poor if you only put in 4 gallons; in Africa, that would make you a dealer to people who buy from you in reused pop-bottles. What happens if you can't afford heat anymore, or your truck breaks down? Poor people don't eat out when the power fails. Poor people fix the power, or light a lantern they saved from their grandaddy.

Wood fuel is a lifesaver in places where fire means not cheerful entertainment, but protection from hypothermia, purification of water, cooked food; balanced against the energy and security that must be sacrificed to get fuel. I grant there are many areas where wood does not grow fast enough to meet the needs of everyone.
There are few wood shortages in the temperate US, and few people who bother to burn their firewood efficiently despite years of practice. This is partly because in the US, to legally burn firewood you must install an approved wood-burning device, and the most affordable of these is the (relatively inefficient, no matter how well designed) woodstove. Rural people in India can build a more efficient stove out of mud brick, but we don't live that way here. The closest we come is the dangerous, and inefficient, home-built woodstoves welded together by scrappers who emulate what they know.
The poor in cities may have it worse; and they burn things only as a last gesture of defiance. The poor who move to the country are often those who worked all their lives but never quite got their big break. Or got it, and lost it.
Unimproved lots cost roughly a third of what a house does; and the price drops with the difficulty of access. If you can't afford city prices, insurance, or a mortgage (which adds about half again to the price of the house, not counting the insurance premiums it requires you to pay), you buy rural. If you can't afford that, you buy deep rural. That is, if you have the skills to live on it with the limited income you can expect to earn in a place where an hour drive gets you to a public internet terminal, and the job postings on Craislist are mostly 3 hours away.
Yes, this means poor people are out there 'consuming' more land.
No, it's not an unethical choice, necessarily. Compare to working in an economy that daily destroys vast tracts of land elsewhere, but you need to earn that money to buy a living space whose formerly-fertile land is buried deep in concrete sidewalks and asphalt driveways, other hidden costs tastefully externalized through underground pipes and overhead wires.

Small towns with buildings 3 or 4 stories high support optimal densities of humans, leaving wildlife corridors. (Another TED talk.) This is an ethical choice for people who can afford to build 4-story buildings. Project managers will tell you this height of building falls right into the weird little cost bracket where you need the expensive foundations but can't rent out enough floors to make back the extra costs. People build up to 2 stories, or skyscrapers, unless the law forces them to stay below a certain height and drives up rents. Poor people can't afford to live where regulation is driving up rents. Also, many of the poor (who often have military enlisted experience, and other experiences where there is a lot of shouting, shooting, or exploitative mind games) tend to need a little space. These poor can't afford condos, and they didn't do so well in the Chicago Projects either.

Oil prices continue to go up; natural gas too; and the oil industry is far from clean when it comes to particulate emissions. If you have a clean local source like geothermal or passive solar available, by all means use it. If you have to choose between paying the oil company a premium for kerosene, or buying local firewood, I would question Mr. Harris' ethical stance.

To add injury to insult: Even if fossil fuels were sustainable, they are being produced and refined at the expense of the people who can least afford it. Ecosystem Services are the externalized costs of most industrial development which, by and large, are directly paid by the losses to peoples who subsist directly on clean air, clean water, hunting and fishing, and local produce fed by forest-born rainfall. The loss of these things, uncompensated by cash, is what earns these peoples the label 'poor'.
The cost, to these 'poor,' of a few canisters of Butagas, is often a day's trip by donkey or (leaky?) diesel outboard, to a seller who travels in turn to a distant industrial hub, where government officials are salting away their retirement funds for 'administering' the community-resource funds that are supposed to compensate for the manner in which the oil companies' activities irrevocably pollute the fabric of local life. Even if they were directly applied to the welfare of the end-user in the canoe (which never happens), the small percentage oil companies grudgingly pay to silence national-level complaints would hardly compensate for the loss of perpetually sustainable lifestyles. It's not surprising that learning to use fire effectively remains preserved in many traditional religions; people gather in small spaces where dedicated fire-keepers tend and focus the fire to provoke attention at the right moments, while making no smoke. Religions, and traditional taboos, encapsulate and preserve the essential life lessons of a particular time, place, and culture. This shared learning and belief, and the ability to transfer it in effective ways, is such an important evolutionary asset that we seem to have a compulsion for it, like our compulsions toward the high-calorie foods, or to find babies cute. In a world where starvation or exposure are real hazards, it pays to use the heart and hands as well as the head.

It is poor people, or people living with limited cash, who are responsible for the most sophisticated and smokeless wood-burning devices I know.
Ianto Evans chooses to live in the woods and sell books and workshops, instead of using his architect's license to build rich people's homes, in part because he wants to show Americans (and the wealthy international students who routinely travel to attend his classes and apprenticeships) how beautifully it is possible to live using the technologies he learned from 'poor people' and traditional cultures all over the world. Mud huts, properly designed and oriented, are a vast improvement over the cinderblock-and-tin tropical ovens he was forced to 'design' in Guatemala. People still own and maintain these cement buildings with pride - but most have built themselves a separate, natural-material outdoor kitchen and sleeping-shed because the interior temperatures make the bunkers fit only for storing non-perishable goods.

The scouts traveling the American Plains had a cook-stove they could build in minutes, using a badger-hole or fox-hole, that would boil water quickly while showing no flame or smoke to betray their location to enemies. The Dakota firepit is a primitive version of this design; for a true fox-stove, add a chimney and make the air hole bigger, fire pit smaller. Similar structures were traditionally used for tipis and kivas, to bring outside air in and produce a clean, open fire whose minimal smoke would draft properly out the built-in roof hole.

The Masai, and other tribes in Africa, have a tea-stove we call the 'jug stove' in English. It is dug into a termite mound, again in minutes, to offer tea as a peacekeeping ritual when meeting a stranger in the open savannah. If tea is not offered, it's a bad sign, and the chance meeting is more likely to degrade into suspicions or accusations of trespassing and cattle-theft. The jug stove is simply a chamber, with a narrow chimney, on top of which you set the tea pot. It can be half-open, or mostly enclosed; and if you don't have a termite mound, it can be dug into any suitably stable (and non-flammable) hillside.

An American logger in the past century might cut a narrow notch in a convenient stump, in a very similar shape, making a chimney-stove on which to heat a pot of coffee over a contained, and nearly smokeless, fire. (I suppose that they may have had similar motivations to the Plains groups, considering the probable attitudes of lumbering companies to laborers starting fires in the woods on company time.)

There are Japanese and Chinese tea-stoves, camping stoves, and a myriad of other little devices that mimic these forms and use processed industrial fuels. Some of these are doubtless based on ancestral versions which used local bio-fuels instead.

The European masonry heaters are designed to provide maximal comfort and fuel efficiency, and as a secondary benefit, produce very little smoke. Modern masonry heaters take a master mason working with pre-manufactured parts maybe a few days to build; maybe a week or two for a less-experienced mason or one who must cut masonry shapes on site. They last for centuries, and require only a cubic foot or two of wood, in a single, clean, batch burn, for a 24-hour or longer heating cycle. They cost anywhere from $5000 for a kit, outer casing required and sold separately, to $100,000 or more for a master-mason installation with beautiful soapstone or molded ceramic tiles. They are sized to the house, and in traditional models the heater is built first and the house around it.

If traditional peoples can build a smokeless fire in minutes, why do rich, educated Westerners need to pay a master craftsman for weeks of work?

It's not because white people are naturally dumber than brown people, because a big red-faced logger can do it too. It's not because technology makes us stupid, because the Japanese can do it too.

Is this rich-people behavior pattern related to the reason that they enjoy burning wood in inefficient fireplaces, while heating with fossil fuels? Is it that they don't care to do manual things very often, but do enjoy some of the products of manual labor?
Or maybe it's that our Western education really does train us out of 'primitive' life skills. I've watched two college-educated young people sit in front of a fireplace for a full 45 minutes, telling each other how to properly start a fire, and taking turns failing to do so with a limitless supply of newspaper and matches. (As a college-educated slightly older person, I was enjoying the meta-perspective too much to actually do anything about the problem at hand.)
On this particular occasion Ernie (who was raised among loggers) came into the room, lit the fire, and walked out again. The kindling burned steadily in a small, concentrated flame path for about 3 minutes, then the larger logs leapt into cheerful and sustained life. There was a thoughtful silence, and then the conversation moved on to other topics.
For basic wood burning information, including cool tricks you can use to impress your friends, I recommend The Sweep's Library(humorous, graphic, and accurate wood-burning advice, or dignified East Coast professional's public service site). I am working on a Fire Science page at, but at this point it's not quite doing it for me.

A wealthy person's status is reflected in how much money they are able to spend on the comforts of life, and whether they can do so in a manner that makes their friends feel exclusively indulged. High prices may even be an incentive for a rich person, who believes you get what you pay for. This is supposed to support the economy. But that economy continues to extract its wealth at the expense of the common goods that support life on earth.
A person living well in a non-cash economy gains status from being able to do the things that need to be done, better and quicker and smarter and sounder and safer and thriftier than others. Everyone's mutual survival depends on there being enough to go around, so everyone watches and learns. Failing this competence or its recognition, a person survives in a truly cash-starved economy by being dangerous, or stealthy, or both. Mastery of fire is a survival skill.

I re-learned one of the basic facts today from experience: burning punky, wet, snowy wood is inefficient, whether or not you can do it without making smoke. We had gathered a pile of dead and down logs, but only had time to cut and stack part of a cord before the snow hit. Though it's punky, it's dry punk, and burned OK in our excellent firebox. We would use 1 or 2 carriers of wood a day (about 1 cu foot per carrier) and we stayed cozy. Ron (above) cut some more off the frozen logpile for us when this ran out. Even frozen, it would burn OK in our mass heater. But Ernie wanted to get us one cord of seasoned, split, local tamarack (larch), for a price I could agree to. Lovely folks, Bonnie and Mike, who brought it over. From the single carrier-load we brought in yesterday, we had yesterday's fire, and today's, and there is still a big pile of warm, dry kindling and another big log indoors to start tomorrow's fire. I guess we are burning about 1/3 the volume of dry wood, compared to wet punky wood.

I know this about burning wood; I teach it. But when you arrive in September and the snow comes in October, there isn't time to season on-site wood. (Though we bought a harvesting permit, it too would have been green or down, wet wood).
And we could not have afforded that cord of firewood until we paid off the addition that gave us indoor plumbing. I know, suburban priorities.
At current rates, given that the punky almost-cord lasted 4 months, and the tamarack lasts twice as long, we will still have half of this cord in our woodshed for next winter. That's mid-winter rates ($170) for a full year's worth of heating.

What does it say about our culture that wealthy, informed people are willing to dedicate a few months or years of their income to an efficient biofueled heater that will last a lifetime .... and middle-income, less-informed people are willing to dedicate a similar chunk of their salary to refurbishing or installing a smoky fireplace or woodstove ... or in our case, insulated walls and electric-heated running water .... but are not willing to dedicate a few days or a few hours' earnings to getting dry firewood, or to attend a catered workshop on producing clean heat with simple tools and materials they may already own?

I suppose to earn all that money and spend it on those other things... They must really like their work.

I like my work too, and my work involves teaching people to use hands-on skills and observations to expand their options for enjoying a beautiful, comfortable, non-harmful life. It's a humbling sort of work, as these skills take years of practice.

In order to entice such work-enjoying people to consider our smokeless, low-cash option, we have prototyped this Rocket Mass Heater with an attractive fieldstone finish and copper-clad heating bell. (It's a work in progress; when finished, there will be a pine mantlepiece on top to match the bench under the cushions.)

It doesn't warm me quite as quickly as the poor-person's version with the oil drum exposed, and it costs $100 in scrap copper plus the original $10 for the stout steel barrel. But it does all the other things a rocket stove mass heater is supposed to do (burn without smoke, store heat for 24 hours in a warm bench that I can sit on, cost substantially less than a woodstove or all-masonry heater). And I like its looks.

Now if you are a rich person, who likes to throw money at people who do manual things, I don't want you to get the idea that this stove costs only $100. I put a good solid two weeks of work into this, while failing to procure firewood I couldn't at that time afford. You would need to pay a master mason for their expert time, and building officials for theirs, in order to meet the terms of your homeowner's insurance policy, in order to protect the mortgage that allows you to overpay for your home at almost-comfortable monthly rates.

But if you are reasonably well-off person who would rather spend time than money, and have a willingness to apply (or learn) some physical skills to complement your mental ones, you are quite likely to get some serious advantages from the rocket heater plans or workshops we offer.

We also have a contest open for other design suggestions, and fabricators willing to produce them if we refer business, on the wood burning stoves forums at

There's a lot of other good threads there too, currently moderated by yours truly,
Ernie and Erica.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

They Do Not Quit

I learned to drive a snowplow last week.
Well, at least I learned what three of the levers do. Mostly.

Pushing the gear lever forward, backs the tractor. Pulling it back toward me puts the tractor in gear to go forward. This is apparently Japanese.
A 4-way compass-rose toggle raises, lowers, and articulates the bucket. Actually, I have only learned one point on this toggle: the NW quadrant simultaneously lowers and tucks the bucket, to lay it on the ground. Which is the most useful setting, really, as it doubles as a parking brake. All the other directions, I still have to tap it and see what it does before I push it the right direction.
Yet another lever, behind me, raises and lowers the rear snowplow, and has an odd little play of its own. There is also a throttle in case my right foot gets tired on the gas pedal.

Working these levers, one by one, I made some very wobbly stripes across the driveway. Then tidied them up into wobbly clear areas, and worked those wobbles down along the driveway into another pile. I kept at it until I could not feel my left foot, stalled, re-started, and parked the tractor. Then I went out with a snow shovel to hide the evidence. Snow shoveling warmed up my toes, but by then it was getting dark.

So approximately 20 linear feet of the banks along our 1/4 mile driveway are my doing, but I did leave it clearer than I found it.

When I awoke the next morning, the rest of the driveway was cleared into head-high banks, monuments to the ongoing artistry of Cap'n Ron Wisner, who gives the term 'disabled' a baffling irony. It's not that he is healthy, exactly; he often sprains or throws out various body parts running his snowplow. It's just that he Does Not Quit. And he is so tickled when he gets done accomplishing something tangible, tidy, and of real service to others, that I don't see him quitting anytime soon.

Ernie also Does Not Quit. After almost a year of baffled attempts, and increasingly simple advice from online friends, he triumphed this week over the lesser gods and demons of the Online Store. We now have working sales links for rocket stove plans, a cob oven booklet, and other assorted goodies at our website.

Paul Wheaton also Does Not Quit. He came to visit on his way across the frozen north, recorded a multi-hour rocket stove podcast and then held its publication until we got the online store working, with the happy result that a number of his Pod People offered enthusiastic advice for resolving all our remaining technical problems.

Well, not all our technical problems. Now we have some accounting to do, in order to properly report this new income.

Luckily, First Mate Janine Wisner happens to be a retired accountant.

It's been an exciting week at the Wisner homestead, all things considered.

-Ernie And Erica