Outdoor wood-burning boilers offer economical heat

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If you live in the countryside with access to even a small forest and are interested in using wood to economically heat your home and outbuildings, you should consider an outdoor wood-burning boiler. I have been heating my house, my workshop and my domestic hot water this way for 12 years, and installing this system was one of the best energy decisions I have made at home. Even if you don’t plan to heat with wood, you may find the whole topic simply interesting. It’s unlike any other heating system you’ve heard of before.

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Imagine something that looks like a small metal garden shed near your house. Inside this shed is a firebox containing firewood which heats the water in the water jacket above. This hot water reaches your home and outbuildings to the radiators through insulated underground pipes, and the colder water returns to be reheated in the boiler through a neighboring pipe. This is the outdoor boiler system in a nutshell and there are three reasons why I like it.

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Lots of heat with minimal wood cutting and splitting is the first reason I like this system. My boiler’s firebox measures 34″ wide x 44″ long, so there is no need to cut or split the firewood into small pieces. Make your wood as large as you want to handle it and it will work fine. In fact, I heat during the shoulder seasons using mostly pieces of dead trees that wouldn’t normally be worth turning into firewood. And this brings me to the second reason I like my boiler.

There’s nothing better than how economical it is to heat large areas with an outdoor boiler, as long as you consider the time spent chopping and preparing firewood as an advantage and not a burden. This is especially true for those of us who live in the countryside, without access to natural gas, the cheapest source of heating energy available. Propane, electricity and oil are the main retail options for heating here, costing about four times the cost of natural gas for a given amount of heat. This is why you can save enough money by chopping your own firewood to “earn” the equivalent of at least $50 per hour if you are efficient with your wood chopping efforts.

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Installation of an outdoor boiler at Steve’s house in 2012. Two pairs of insulated water lines running up through the concrete foundation will be connected to the boiler for use. Photo by Photo Robert Maxwell

The third reason I like my boiler is because it makes it easier to handle the wood and keeps my house cleaner. Stack firewood near the boiler as you cut it, and you’ll only have to come back and collect it once. And since the fire and ashes are always outdoors, it’s cleaner than dealing with ashes from a wood stove inside your house. One big fire can replace what would otherwise require three or four wood stoves in different buildings and locations, so it’s all very convenient. I spend ten minutes twice a day emptying the ashes and adding more firewood. It’s an easy job, and cleaning the five-foot-tall chimney once or twice a season is a breeze because it’s done while standing on the ground.

When I was shopping for a boiler over a dozen years ago, I decided on a Canadian brand called Portage and main. Their units are built in a Hutterite colony in Piney, Manitoba, and after over a decade of use, I find their design and workmanship to be exceptional. I had a mechanical problem with my first unit about five years ago, but the company honored their warranty and sent me a new unit free of charge.

Another reason I like my main and transport boiler is how cleanly it burns. Some brands of outdoor boilers have tarnished the reputation of this technology by emitting a large amount of annoying smoke. But good design and proper combustion techniques can eliminate this problem, while providing homegrown heat you can rely on.

Steve Maxwell loves looking at the night sky when he goes out to fire up his wood-burning boiler for the night. Visit him at baileylineroad.com for inspiration and information about living in Canada.

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