calcifer the waterstove

Two years ago, we ran across an old Taylor Waterstove for sale (great heater, really awful website). Heating with propane that first winter in the yurt broke the bank and we were looking for a wood burning option that didn’t put a wood stove in the yurt. (The reasons for that were (1) we didn’t want to cut a hole in the yurt skin for a chimney, (2) we had little kids running around, (3) a wood stove, and the buffer around it, would take a very large portion of our very small amount of floor space.) We had an indoor wood stove at the farm house we lived in before the yurt, and while we liked wood heat, we did not like the smoke or dirt a wood stove brings in. The waterstove was a perfect solution.

So, what the heck is a waterstove? Here’s ours, sitting in the woods near the yurt.

Ugly, ain’t it? Like a furnace for burning bodies or something. To get a sense of the scale, look at the right side of the photo for the Narnia-style lamppost, which is about six feet tall. This heater is BIG.

So how does a giant, ugly, wood burner, sitting out in the trees, heat the yurt?

It’s pretty nifty, actually.

The fire box is in the center of that hulking metal thing and is surrounded by a 100+ gallons of water. You build a fire in it and the fire heats the water. A temperature gauge notices when the water temp is too low and turns on a fan that blows air into the fire, stoking it up and keeping the water around 170 degrees. That’s the first part.

The second part is inside the yurt, where a thermostat reads the room temp. When the air temp drops below whatever we have set it for, the thermostat turns on a water pump on the stove that pumps the hot water through an underground pipe, up through the floor of the yurt, and into this radiator.

It looks a little pitiful doesn’t it? Paul got it off the side of the road somewhere, no kidding. Someone was throwing it away. Let’s hear it for FREE! Paul keeps meaning to paint the poor thing, but honestly, that’s so low on the list of tasks it may never happen. Works great, though, so I’m happy.

Anyway, the radiator gets full of hot water which makes it…um…hot. The fan we’ve got tucked behind it blows the heat into the yurt. We can get about a 30 degree lift off this one, small radiator, which is surprising, given the volume of space in the yurt (16 foot tall ceiling!). The water then passes through the radiator and back to the tank—minus the heat it has left in the yurt—and this, cooler, water lowers the water temp in the tank. Which turns the fan on. Which stokes the fire. All in this endless feedback loop. See? Nifty.

Here’s the best part: when it’s cold and we’re keeping a fire going night and day, Paul loads the fire box once in the morning and once in the evening, and that’s it. The heater does the rest. Anyone who has lived with a wood stove knows the endless rounds of tending and feeding the fire, night and day. TIn comparison, twice in 24 hours is like a miracle.

One of the properties of water is that it takes a long time to change temperature, which is both good and bad for a waterstove. On one hand, it means that it takes a long time, several hours, for the radiator to start feeling warm if we’re starting from cold water. So heating takes a little planning. On the other hand, it also means that once you have heated all that water, you can save wood by letting the fire go out during the day (unless it’s really cold) and the radiator will continue putting out heat all day long, and even into the next day, because it takes so long for the water to cool back down. Which is really, really nice.

Honestly, we’re under using the stove—with another radiator we could get a lot more heat out of that water and into the yurt. A 30 degree lift is usually plenty for our mild climate, and we have the propane back-up to kick in if we need it, say on really cold nights. But, if we were to do it again, I would have scraped harder to find the money to put in the tubing under the floor that would have given us radiant floor heating, which we could have heated with the waterstove. With the whole floor as a heat transfer point, instead of one little radiator, we could get a lot more than a 30 degree lift when we wanted it. The stove could totally handle it. But at the time we had no idea we would get a waterstove, so I try to be easy on myself about it. House building is full of regrets. Oh well.

As it is, though, we can run pipes to the bathhouse, and to the new Noah House, and to any other buildings we put up that need heat, putting a small radiator in each, and heat all three structures with one fire. That’s cool. I mean, warm. In theory, we could heat our water with it, too. A waterstove-heated hot tub would be awesome.

Of course, entropy and the list of tasks being what it is, the heater might rust out by the time we get to any of that.

Although, we could always get another (used) stove when this one kicks it, and use the piping we’ve already laid, so we’re probably good either way. Given how happy we are with it, I’d be surprised if we didn’t replace this one. We call it Calcifer. What? You haven’t seen Miazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle? Go see it! It’s great. Or read Diana Wynn Jone’s book of the same title. It’s great, too!

In the interests of fair reporting, here’s one more downside to the heater: it uses a small amount of electricity to power the fan and the pump, so when the power goes out, without a generator or a battery set up, there’s no way to get the heat from the stove to the yurt. Which is one reason we keep our propane heater. (It’s also better for instant shots of heat, say when the mornings are chilly, but the day is going to be warm and we don’t need to fire up the whole heater.) So if the power comes and goes where you are, this may not be the best option, unless you hook it up to a solar panel or something, which we would love to do. So many projects, so little time.

But on the whole, we love it. Paul loads it up and we’re good for twelve hours. I don’t have to tend a wood stove during the day (or night, which we had to do at the farm house or the fire went out—that sucked), and we have no smoke, dirt, or wood in the house, just clean, radiant heat, bringing our propane bill down to very small, manageable amount. Highly recommended as an alternative to an in-house wood stove.

3 thoughts on “calcifer the waterstove

  1. Ted

    It sounds like you have a great system. In the winter, I often pay (am extorted by NISPCO to the tune of) two or three hundred dollars a month just to heat and electrify my house. I really, really hate writing that check. I often develope plans (fantasies) on how I could live off the grid, but as yet, none have been feasible.

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  2. Amar Ashworth

    Just don’t fool yourself into thinking this is kind on the environment or anything. It isn’t, not only are you killing carbon filters to heat your home you also burn those things(trees) that filter co2 and turning them into more co2. Want proof, look at the tailpipe of your car… that burns oil, big bad nasty oil, and it leaves very little soot. Now look at the stove pipe, the increase is directly proportunate to the amount of carbon released into the environment. They are kinda cool though, we had a natural gas powered version heating our colonial townhouse in the winters in Virginia. Now we use super efficient electric heat, lowest bill yet, seriously.

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  3. Sara W

    Wood definitely has emissions, but my honest opinion, very humbly and without having been solicited, is that as long as trees and forests are utilized locally, and are replenished and managed as perpetual forests, following accepted “best management practices” to maintain water quality, habitat, and other values across the landscape, (rather than being cleared for agriculture or development of buildings and pavement, etc), then wood as fuel is a much friendlier option than an electricity- or petroleum-based option. Electricity, I’ve heard, is only super-efficient when it hits your meter, and not during the generation process. I personally hate relying on nuclear energy, and the potential for problems with nuclear waste. Electricity from burning coal is really just a long-delayed method of burning trees, when you think of it. Ancient, decomposed trees and other organic matter, that must be extracted and transported to the electric plant, and subsequently release carbon stored eons ago rather than within the last few centuries. Same with natural gas – and the potential for environmental catastrophe with the extraction and transport of hydrocarbons is huge. If you have a local renewable product (ie. trees, in this specific example) that can be removed, utilized, and replaced in a matter of years, you are so much closer to carbon neutral than many other “extractive” option out there. Electricity produced from solar/hydro/wind, etc, obviously falls outside of the realm covered this comment!

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