Cookstove Profit, Energy Intentionality, and Quality of Life

In my last post I quoted David Holmgren, a co-founder of Permaculture, who says we should think about what is worth investing in by asking ourselves whether an investment will benefit our children and grandchildren. That perspective was common to our ancestors just 2 and 3 generations ago, before we became so highly dependent upon meeting our needs through the modern consumption economy where, rather than produce the quality of life we desire – customized to our unique personalities and interests – we buy it in a standardized form, from others, in an ongoing, just-in-time basis, at inflated prices.

The 100-Year “Profit” Horizon

I am recovering those older, self-reliant, resilient ways of living, and adopt those that improve my life and lifestyle. One thing that means is that I am focusing on building and buying things that last. Increasingly, I think in terms of 100 years. I can’t say that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will still be living on this piece of land at the end of the century, but I can say that whoever lives here will have a functioning food, shelter, and water infrastructure. On that foundation they will be able to build a life that expresses their unique spirits.

All of my development decisions are now based on the twin critera of (a) minimizing my ongoing maintenance time and expense, and (b) maximizing my future return on current investments. Fulfilling these criteria isn’t always possible, but it is always on my checklist. Ideally, every expense on infrastructure will pay for itself in a short period of time, and generate “profit” for a century. “Profit” means that they continue to serve their intended purpose so well that I am able to bank the money I would otherwise spend in the consumer economy to achieve the same ends.

Heartland "Oval" Stove

Our Heartland “Oval” waiting to be connected.

One example of our strategy is the purchase of this wood-fired cookstove. The Heartland “Oval” was rather expensive to buy and install; the combined cost came in at $9000. But it features the largest firebox manufactured, weighs in at 640 cast iron pounds, and accomodates a circulating water heating element that I will hook up in the next year or two at the cost of $1000. The resulting system will heat 40 gallons of water an hour when fully fired up, using passive thermal convection to direct the water into a pressure tank, from which I will be able to run it into the house hot water system. That means we will have hot showers and be able to wash our dishes in the sink with running water heated by the wood stove – which will simultaneously be able to heat up to 1200 square feet of living space, bake a pie, and cook dinner at no additional cost.

This winter we are getting accustomed to our new stove, and learning how to work with it. We are primarily using it for heat at this point, although we have cooked several meals on it. It heats one of our two primary living spaces – a 800 square foot area that makes up our open concept kitchen/dining room and family room. We also have a separate 400 square foot self-contained studio-bedroom-bathroom suite that we heat with a small Irish-made wood stove. The rest of the house is closed off, with the oil heat making sure it doesn’t get cold enough to freeze pipes.

The stove is keeping this part of the house at a more-than-adequate 72 degrees this morning. Thermal curtains close off the living room beyond the fireplace. The temp out there is 48.

The stove is keeping this part of the house at a more-than-adequate 72 degrees this morning. Thermal winter curtains separate the living room. The temp out there: 48. Outside it’s 17 degrees.

It is too early to know what our profit will be this year, but we do have an indication. Our first oil refill (for the month of November) totalled 4.4 gallons. That’s a significant savings over last year’s November oil consumption of more than 60 gallons – even though this November was colder. So, already we can see that the stove is doing its job. I am eagerly waiting to see what our consumption will be for December, because that will include much colder temperatures and a week of heating the whole house while 8 guests stayed with us for an extended Thanksgiving get-together.

If we meet our original goal of reducing our seasonal oil bill by half, we will pay for the stove and its installation in 6 years on that savings alone, based on this year’s oil price. Higher future oil costs and lower-than-expected oil consumption could both cause a faster recovery. After that, every year’s use will produce pure profit.

Energy Intentionality

Wood for fuel is the other major expense, of course. At this point we have no idea how many cord we need – figuring that out is part of this year’s experiment. However, I bought an old, well-maintained gas-powered log splitter a year ago, and used it to split 2 cord from a cherry tree we had to take down 2 years ago; plus, my father-in-law left us almost 3 cord of nicely seasoned, sheltered wood. The log splitter cost $500. A cord of wood runs anywhere from $100 at a farm that has taken in a couple guys with diminished mental capacity who run the wood operation as a kind of sheltered workshop, to around $250. At the high end, I’ve paid for my wood splitter, at the low end, I need to split 3 more cord to break even. For the foreseeable future, the raw logs will come from my land – partly from trees I will have to take down to implement my permaculture plan, and partly from properly grooming my forestland, which has been neglected for decades. Over the long term – thinking 100 years out – the permaculture food forest will include hardwoods grown specifically for firewood, posts, beams, siding and shingles.

Additional cost-recovery savings come from lower electric use, primarily for water heating and cooking, but that’s something we have a hard time quantifying. I don’t know how much electricity it actually costs just to heat our water or cook our meals, I can only see our aggregate use. So our initial strategy has been to think more consciously about how we use electricity. We don’t leave lights on, for example, but we run our televisions as much as we wish. Because we tend to eat one major meal a day – lunch – with a smaller repeat portion for dinner if we’re hungry, we take the time to cook great meals. Often, we cook enough to last several days, which we will either freeze or just consume until it’s gone. We can reheat our meals on the woodstove rather than on the electric range, which saves some small bit of electricity. Also, we don’t tend to run the television late into the night, as my inlaws did; in fact, we are often in bed by 9 pm. On the other hand, we are usually up by 4 or 5 am, sometimes as early as 3, so even though we do not turn the TV on first thing, I think we’re basically just switching nighttime electricity use for morning. I doubt our sleeping habit is in itself producing a significant reduction in our energy use.

However, our little actions have cumulatively produced a significant savings. Typical monthly electricity bills were $260 when my inlaws were alive. After my mother-in-law died we didn’t see any appreciable reduction. But the first full month after my father-in-law died, our bill dropped to $131 – a 50% savings! I thought that was as good as it would get, but our last bill was just $101, another 23% reduction. Overall, we’re spending 61% less now for electricity than we were just 4 months ago. That’s pretty significant! If we break below the $100 barrier, I will consider our efforts a huge success – greater than I ever expected. However, I know that when we start heating our winter water through the cookstove, we will cut that bill even more. (We will use the electric water heater the way we use our oil furnace: to make sure our water maintains a minimum temperature, and to scale up our hot water availability when we have guests.)

As we are saving electricity expenses, we are also exploring alternative ways of keeping the winter dark at bay. We need enough light to work and read by without ruining our ageing eyes. We’re exploring oil burning lamps, but want something that will not put toxic fumes into the house; and, we don’t want to have to depend for the next 100 years on a resource (oil or gas) that we can’t control. So while lamps may be a nice supplement or interim step, they are not our 100-year solution.

Meanwhile, every dollar we save on oil heat this winter is cash flow we can redirect to other infrastructure projects next summer, which will speed up our conversion process, further reduce our expenses, and create more free cash flow. All of that makes us less reliant on jobs, which means an increasing supply of free time – the best kind of profit! – and greater security regardless of what happens to the economy.

We Put Quality of Life First

I think I should stress that we are never willing to feel like we are sacrificing our quality of life just to save a few dollars. The changes we make are based on our sense of what makes for a better quality of life. When we can maintain the same quality of life, or improve on it, while saving money and improving our self-reliance, we feel like we are winning the game we have embarked upon. We are demonstrating that it is possible to live well by modern standards without being indebted to our consumer society. We are expanding our own freedom at no expense, because we are living a good life without taking on debt – and debt, as we all know, makes the borrower a slave to the lender.

One way we are improving our standard of living while lowering our costs is to grow our own food. Last summer we produced all of the squash and potatoes we will need for this winter. We also put up enough canned zucchini and cucumber to last us several years. Because we were redirected by my father-in-law’s final decline, we didn’t grow certain key crops: cabbage, carrots, daikon radish, onions, garlic, beans and peas, and grains. We bought those bulk from local organic farms and through bulk buying coops at prices significantly below retail. We also bought a quarter cow in the fall, and last spring a half lamb, both from a near-by farmer who uses all of the best practices I would use if I were to grow cows and sheep. We also buy raw milk off a local farm, and eggs from a neighbor who uses the right bird-keeping practices. We notice that the quality of the food we eat helps to satisfy our bodies in ways commercial food does not, which contributes to our need to eat less to feel satisfied. As a result, we are not spending more on food although the food is of better quality and nutrition, and the combination of good food and moderate exercise has given us more energy and a reduction of our body weight.

However, we still buy commercial chicken meat because we are not willing to pay $40 for a 5-pound organic, free-range bird. We will resolve that dilemma next Spring by establishing our own flock of dual-purpose birds. We plan to have a permanent flock, and we will also grow two summer flocks destined for the freezer. Some portion of the summer flocks will be sold to recover the cost of raising the meat birds we put in our own freezer and the cost of keeping a permanent flock. The result should be free chicken meat and eggs for us, and at least a small cash profit that we can put back into our property transformation. We will also be able to tractor the chickens around the property to clean up harvested beds and add nitrogen to our crop land. That will add to the profitability of our soil, and to our overall quality of life.