Staying warm in temperate climates does not have to heat up the biosphere, and there are many moneyless solutions to heating bills out there, ranging from the simple to the technical. Which one you use will depend on your situation and needs.
Jumpers (and long johns)
It’s a lot easier to insulate yourself than a house, but I’m always amazed to see how many times I visit friends in the city who are sitting indoors, with the thermostat up high, in a T-shirt. I appreciate that we all like a little comfort, but a jumper or two in winter isn’t too much to ask of a population that lives in a temperate climate. If we had to go to the trouble of chopping wood we had to grow ourselves to heat our homes, there is no way we’d waste so much energy for the want of a warm jumper and a pair of long johns.
Gas bottle wood-burner
To heat my moneyless caravan for three years, I used a wood-burner converted from an old gas bottle. What design you will want to use depends on your circumstances, but there are a number to choose from(225) – I used a 13kg bottle.
Two pieces of advice: first, burn off all the paint and zinc from the gas bottle somewhere outside, as the fumes from both could make you very ill (I strongly recommend doing it with an experienced/qualified person the first time). Second, I would strongly advise that you consider putting a baffle plate in it. A baffle plate is a piece of metal that is usually fitted inside the stove. This baffle stops the heat going straight up the chimney, meaning that the hot gases produced have to stay in the burner longer before they find their way out. This gives the flue gases more chance to mix with the air and fully combust, meaning more heat for you. Depending on how efficiently they burn and whether or not you incorporate this into a grander design for your house, you may also be able to use this wood-burner for cooking and water heating.
Once you’ve made one yourself, and tested it out for a few months to see if it works efficiently, why not organise a local Freeskilling event and show others in your local community how to make one too?
If you want something more efficient than a gas bottle burner (which despite being potentially free to make has only an efficiency of around 50-60%), Patrick Whitefield recommends fitting a masonry stove.(226) Whereas conventional wood-burners, such as the model above, heat by convection (warming up the air as it burns), these function by burning very quickly during the day, storing it in the masonry walls and tiles which often clad it, before releasing it slowly as radiant heat throughout the rest of the day and night.
These work particularly well if installed in a passive solar house – building one of these, or converting to one, is probably the best thing you can do in terms of heating your house for free. If you are building a new house, build it with the masonry stove in the middle, as this one stove could then “heat all the rooms in a medium size house, upstairs and down”.(227) On a moderately cold winter’s day, you could get away with only needing one 45 minute burn for the entire day. If used in a passive solar house, this may also suffice for very cold weather.
Another benefit, as Whitefield points out, is that masonry stoves also allow you to “make good use of prunings, brash [and] slabwood” which you may otherwise struggle to use. And because of their efficiency, they are almost certainly fit for use in smokeless zones. The bad news is that these will not be moneyless in the first instance, and can be quite expensive.
Sources of wood
Whether you are wanting to cook dinner on a rocket stove, or fuel your fancy new wood-burner, you’re going to need a source of wood.
For kindling, I find old vegetable boxes excellent as they light very quickly, and once you break them up they are already the ideal size for this stage of the process – no need for fiddly fine wood-chopping. Wholesalers and retailers of fruit and vegetables usually have to spend time and money breaking up and dumping these, so if you ask them nicely they’ll be more than happy to give you a load.
For burning, you’re going to need something much more substantial. If you’re very lucky you’ll have some ash, hawthorn, maple or hazel growing around where you live, as all of these are very good for burning. If you are scavenging wood that has already fallen, always try to identify what type of tree it is, as each will have different qualities which will affect how well it burns – knowing someone experienced is useful, but don’t worry if you don’t as you will learn through doing it yourself. I stumbled upon this following wonderful little old poem by Lady Celia Congreve(228) (believed to have first been published in The Times on March 2nd 1930) which, if you can remember it or keep it handy, offers a brief guide to the qualities of each type of wood you may be contemplating burning.
THE FIREWOOD POEM
Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut’s only good they say,
If for logs ‘tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold
Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter’s cold
But ash wet or ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by.
As a general rule, any wood you collect should be seasoned well before burning. If you are chopping wood down, please do plant more, remembering that the next generation’s ability to live moneylessly, in terms of their heating at least, depends on you thinking many years ahead.
If you live in the city and don’t have much access to trees or fallen wood, you can approach your local joiner and carpenter’s workshops, if you have them, and ask them if they’re happy for you to come and take their off-cuts away – do not burn any painted or treated wood, chipboard or MDF. Whilst you’re there I would also recommend getting as many bags of sawdust as you can possibly transport, as this will be useful for lighting your fire. Simply stick a little sawdust in the newspaper you use as a starter and watch it catch fire very quickly, and last for much longer. If you have extra, it is also ideal for covering your poo in the compost toilet (see page 142).
One of the few things that even my more hardy friends want is hot water, at least in the winter. Which is understandable, given the climate in the UK. That desire doesn’t mean that there is a magical solution that matches both the desire for true sustainability that we pay lip-service to and the levels of comfort that our pathetically soft rear-ends have become accustomed to, but it is the reality of where we are at in terms of expectation.
There may be a middle ground. Instead of buying a solar water heater, you could build your own. Nick Rosen, in his book How to Live Off-grid, describes how some of the houses he visited at Townhead, near Sheffield, use what he describes as “the simplest form of DIY solar heater”: a system involving “old radiators painted black and fixed to their south-facing walls.” Black is used as it absorbs heat. Rosen explains that the water from “their well, or rainwater tanks on the roof, passes through the radiator, is heated by the sun,”(229) and eventually makes its way onto your skin or dishes.