Rob's Blog Archive

January 6, 2013

Going Nuclear










It’s not even half-past eight and the temperature is 5 F.  No clouds hide the stars and the earth is radiating out to a cold universe.  It could cloud up quickly, that sometimes happens, but more than likely we’re going sub-zero.  Not a -20F night, but still chilly.  Some might view this as a bad thing.  Not me.  For me, it’s a chance to ‘Go Nuclear.’

There are quite a few things I enjoy about Silly Lake, my home.  Being on twenty acres with a pond large enough to show up on a USGS topographic map, Silly Lake itself, is one.  Describing what stage my aspen are in, coming into leaf, turning, etc., to city dwelling friends is another.  Enjoying the stars this far from any city on a cloud free night like tonight is still another.  And, heating my house with a big modern wood stove is yet another.  And on a night like tonight, I can stoke this until some of the internal steel glows red. 

There is clearly a primal joy in being close to a warm fire.  I have just finished reading Tim Cahill’s “Pass the Butterworms, Remote Journeys Oddly Rendered.”  The book includes several pieces about his adventures in Indonesia visiting some of the aboriginal societies there.  What is clear is how important fires in the hearth are to all of these. 

After I came home from having my hip replaced, one of the things I wanted most was to make sure the fire in my woodstove was well stoked.  Just like for the people in the aboriginal tribes that Cahill met, a fire in the hearth made this house my home. 

I have heated every Montana house I’ve lived in, all two of them, with a wood stove.  I didn’t actually learn a lot my first year here, but my second year, my first year at Silly Lake, I learned a bunch.  This included Going Nuclear.  I didn’t keep track of all of the subzero nights that year like I do now, but I do remember there were a number in a row in February, clear nights like tonight, and they all got down to the -10 F range or so.  I found that if I filled every cubic inch of my woodstove, let it burn with the draft wide open for an hour, then closed it down and started the external fan that blows across its top surface, the house would stay adequately warm and there would be coals with which to build a new fire in the morning.  That first hour with the stove stuffed and the draft open was “Going Nuclear.”

What had inspired this was one of several recommendations I got from the chimney sweep I had hired the previous fall.  He said I could avoid creosote build-up by running the stove with the draft open once each day for half an hour. 

Since then, I do this at least twice a day and for an hour each time.  I’m sure I burn a little more wood this way, but unlike a lot of my friends and knock on wood, I haven’t had any chimney fires at Silly Lake (For the record, I can’t say that about the first house I lived in).  The variant to this that I do when I “Go Nuclear” is stuff the stove with as much wood as I can. 

I will add that on nights like tonight, -10F or warmer and not -20F and colder, I’ll extend the nuclear phase beyond an hour.  It’s far from as efficient as the stove can be when I close it down even a little or just turn on its fan, but it seems to kick out enough more heat to make up for the volume of cold air it is pulling in from the outside, something that changes as the temperature drops. 

My woodstove has a glass window and the fire channel is on all winter.  I have a grungy Walmart special easy chair, so worn out that a stack of books supports the side where the legs have come off.  Sometimes I sit in the chair, looking at the flames.  Sometimes I read while the whole shebang, stove and stovepipe, radiate like a bonfire.  Sometimes I just lean back and close my eyes, bare feet close enough to the woodstove to get hot, but this still not keeping me from dozing.  And with any of these, I am home. 

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