Heating is essential for much of the population. Consider yourself fortunate if you don’t need to plan for off-grid-capable heat!
But having off-grid-capable heating is easy, right? You just start a fire!
Whoa… timeout. Don’t get ahead of yourself!
As with most plans for being off-grid-capable, you need a plan for staying warm that is multi-faceted, resilient (to a degree, no pun intended), and will work in your current home. Where possible, having more than one source is preferred. “Two is one and one is none” as the saying goes.
First things first
Before you begin to think about the majors, think about the minors. Start with your feet. How can you keep your feet warm without ‘the grid’? Sound dumb? It’s not, because it will lead your thought process logically toward the more complex issues.
The first obvious answer is footwear – socks, boots, shoes, etc. Most of us aren’t our own cobblers, so we will need some plan for obtaining and maintaining our footwear. We won’t focus on that much other than to say, buy quality and buy quantity – both in whatever measure you’re able.
How about keeping your tootsies warm at night, when they’re not in your footwear? Wear your boots to bed? Without grid power, a simple approach is to heat up water, fill up an appropriate bottle (Nalgene bottles work great here) with the hot water and put that hot water bottle in a sock. Place that whole hot-water-bottle-in-a-sock package in your bed, under your covers, which hopefully you have, and sleep well. Add extra bottle for extra warmth. When on-grid, this can be a money saving approach as well, just use these bottle and lower your thermostat at night, relying on the radiant heat of the bottles instead of your furnace.
Are you in hot water?
“But how do I heat the water up?” you ask. Good question!
To heat water, we need a heat source. How can we do that in an off-grid-capable manner? Without electricity for an electric stove, kettle, or microwave, the next easiest approach would be to use a propane or natural gas burner, if available.
If you don’t have such, consider purchasing a small camp stove that can burn multiple fuels such as propane, gasoline, white gas, or several fuels. Do not use such a stove indoors!
If you want a longer-term option, consider a small (or not) ‘rocket stove’ that can burn small pieces of scrap wood. Or, learn to make one. Do not use these indoors either.
A medium-sized rocket stove can provide a lot of cooking heat.
In every case, fire requires fuel, so having access to an ongoing, sustainable fuel source is a good idea. For short durations, fuel for small stoves can be stored, but have a plan for how and where you might obtain fuel for a longer duration.
You’re getting warmer
Okay, so now you have warm feet, warm water… now what? How do you heat larger spaces? This is where some more thought should be given. The answer is not necessarily simple.
First, start by considering how to minimize the loss of the heat you hope to produce. As you’re able, considering making improvements to the energy efficiency of your home. This could mean additional insulation, newer windows, window treatments, or more. If you’re on a budget, consider stowing away some weatherizing window film that helps keep drafty windows buttoned up. The better you can insulate the spaces you intend to heat, the less energy it will require to heat those spaces. This translates to less cost and less labor.
No, we’re not encouraging you to attend religious services – but to employ physics! Consider how you can add ‘thermal mass’ to your spaces. If you intend on building an off-grid capable house, now is the time to consider this – before you start building. Thermal mass is any mass that absorbs heat from the air when the air is warmer than the mass itself. Then, the heat returns that heat to the air when the mass is warmer than the air. In other words, thermal mass is like a heat battery. Nearly any mass added to a living space can act as thermal mass, however, one can build their homes with this in mind and receive added benefit.
Don’t forget the Sun
There are two forms of solar heating – active and passive. ‘Passive’ solar heating is non-mechanical and is done by orienting a living space (when building a structure) to optimally capture the sun’s energy during the winter months, but not capture such in the summer months. When matched with thermal mass (above), this can provide a natural way to heat the mass using only the sun, and will reduce your overall energy demands.
‘Active’ solar heating would be using mechanical means to capture the suns’ heat and direct it into a living space. There are commercial products that heat air or water and direct the heat into a living space, or you can build your own simple or complex devices to do so.
Ok, you’ve done all you can to create a maximally efficient space to place heat into – now you need to heat it with some sort of fuel. Consider what heat sources you are able to add to your home. To be off-grid-capable, these sources need to be something you can obtain on an ongoing basis on your own or with the help of your family and neighbors. Unless you own a coal mine, or a gas plant, the most common option (in North America) is wood.
I great option for providing heat is an appropriate wood stove, and if possible, a wood cook stove will add additional usefulness. Woodstoves utilize the stored energy in wood more efficiently than open fireplaces because they heat the stove, rather than losing the heat to the open air. Wood stoves provide more radiant heat than an open fire. If you already have a fireplace, consider a wood-burning insert that can be fit into your open fireplace. This will increase the efficiency substantially. If you don’t have either, consider a standalone wood cook stove that can serve as both a heat source and a means to cook and heat hot water (one more way to keep those feet warm!).
What about coal and wood pellets?
Coal and wood pellets are a great heat source, but if you can’t get them or make them on an ongoing basis, they are not suitable for being grid-independent for long periods of time. Nevertheless, “a bird-in-hand is better than two in the bush,” so if that is what you have, make use of it until you’re able to consider other alternatives. If you’ve not yet purchased a fuel-burning stove, consider looking at stoves that are ‘multi-fuel’ and might burn multiple sources of heat such as corn, pellets, coal, cherry pits, biomass, etc.
There are potentially many more ways of capturing and using heat that we’ve not mentioned here. Study what interest you and apply your resources as you see fit. The world is your furnace!