Future proofing a home
October 10, 2021 6:34 AM   Subscribe

We live in California and expect the regular power shutoffs to continue. We heat our home with an electric heat pump aided by a pellet stove (which requires electricity to run). We are thinking about replacing the pellet stove with a wood burning stove to help in "future proofing" our home. Project will be at least 6k- is this a good idea or would we be better suited saving our 6k for solar panels or something else?
posted by arnicae to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would definitely get solar panels and a battery instead (partly because burning wood contributes to climate change, but if you're somewhere with 'spare the air' days those also often coincide with power shutoff times). Also, don't you need a backup source of electricity for everything else?
posted by pinochiette at 6:46 AM on October 10, 2021 [9 favorites]

A Generac home backup natural gas generator will help all year, not just winter. It seems like outages are most common in summer and fall.
posted by spork at 6:58 AM on October 10, 2021

Where in California are you? The feasibility of solar varies quite a bit.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:05 AM on October 10, 2021

Solar is a wise investment right now in particular in California because the utilities are currently pushing Net Electric Metering 3, which will likely be significantly worse for consumers than NEM2. But if you hook up before NEM3 is accepted, you'll be included in the NEM2 rate plan for 25 years from when your solar installation is approved.
posted by kdar at 7:28 AM on October 10, 2021 [7 favorites]

New wood-burning stoves are all but illegal in California. While it's location-dependent, you probably shouldn't expect to be able to install one in your home.
posted by Hatashran at 7:30 AM on October 10, 2021 [9 favorites]

If your concern is just heating, certainly a battery is a better investment than switching to a wood stove, for environmental reasons (wood stoves are bad!), cost reasons (a 36 A-h battery can probably run your pellet stove for 24 hours and costs $70), and flexibility reasons (a battery can charge your phone too).
posted by goingonit at 8:27 AM on October 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

Regarding solar, around me (Bay Area) a new solar installation runs around $2.95-$3.95 per W, which is the all-in price (design, permits, installation) -- but that includes a discount (basically everyone around me is trying to sell sell sell so prices are 10-15% lower now than they were just a couple of years ago).

...but remember, solar without a battery system will not be able to power you if there's an outage, and batteries are fricking expensive ($13K to $16K, all-in price for 10kWh to 16kWh).

So, instead, consider a dual or tri-fuel 10,000W generator (I got one for about $1K delivered), a transfer switch (another grand roughly for electrician and permit), and a few tanks of propane ($40 each, new [not exchanged]). If your jurisdiction allows it, this can power your house at around 2-3 gallons of propane per hour. This can carry your fridge for a number of days if you cycle on/off every few hours. If you're rural, you can get a bigass installed tank that'll last for like a week straight.

You can get automatic-start permanently installed generators, but they're more of a pain in the ass to get permitted around here so I went for a portable and individual tanks of propane (rather than a gas line that'll shut off in an earthquake).
posted by aramaic at 8:52 AM on October 10, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've done the automatic whole-house version of this and it's expensive. $20k for a whole house generator with a transfer switch (including installation). More for a solar system with a battery backup: a single Tesla Powerwall is $7500 and you probably need two or more. Plus the panels. On the flip side the panels do pay for themselves over the years, but the battery won't.

But that's whole-house automated solutions. It's way, way cheaper if you only need to supply power to your pellet stove. A small portable generator or a battery designed to work with your pellet stove is much much cheaper, maybe $1000 to start. And you don't need an installer. aramaic's generator suggestion is a middle ground towards a fancier system.

I sure wish California had a first world power infrastructure. Everyone I know living in rural areas has some complex solution for handling multi-day power outages. My power was out for 4 hours yesterday for no clear reason at all, another PG&E maintenance failure presumably.
posted by Nelson at 8:56 AM on October 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

You may live in a part of California where it's actually dangerous rather than just uncomfortable to go without heat and so some kind of heating solution bears consideration, but I don't think any solution approaches "future proof" if it won't keep a fridge and freezer running.

And that's where solar falls short, still. Fridges and freezers are actually pretty efficient as appliances go, but the cost for a battery array sufficient to run even just those for several days - especially in low-solar conditions like snow or ash, so you're not really recharging during the day - is going to be expensive and absolutely not future-proof, as storage capacity technology improves constantly, along with the storage capacity of your existing batteries decreasing constantly.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:16 AM on October 10, 2021

If you're in an area that stays above freezing and heating is your primary concern, I would instead invest in some good sleeping bags and battery powered electric blankets. Or, if you have a car, an inverter that will allow its engine to power your pellet stove (a lower maintenance option IMO than purchasing a generator, since you have to keep the car maintained anyway). If you're in a place that is often sunny, adding windows or skylights to increase passive solar gain may be a nice investment.

Woodburning stoves do run without electricity, but are much more effective at heating an entire space when they have a fan running, so often don't keep an entire house comfortable without that.
posted by metasarah at 12:24 PM on October 10, 2021

(sorry, realized I was off by an order of magnitude on the size of battery needed! You're looking at $1k for a battery backup, still cheaper than the wood stove.)
posted by goingonit at 2:04 PM on October 10, 2021

You have a pellet stove, so likely an easy installation for a wood stove. Wood stoves contribute to pollution, current EPA-Certified, rebate eligible stoves much less so when properly run, a net pollution gain replacing the pellet stove, probably. They use renewable fuel, so likely a bit less contribution to carbon. In this case, less electricity use, too. You should be able to replace the pellet stove for under 2,000. I'm in Maine, use a VT Castings EPA-certified wood stove to displace some use of oil. Also, I can keep the living room at 65 - 68, and the rest of the house cooler, so I'm very comfortable with this choice. I bought my wood stove used, 500, plus installation, tbd. (old stove malfunctioned, will use existing stove pipe, under 500.) I enjoy using a wood stove, stacking wood is good exercise, bringing wood in keeps me moving in winter. I complain about stacking wood, but sort of like it. I can cook on the wood stove, keep the house warmish in an outage.

To minimize losses, keep the freezer & fridge full so stuff stays cold longer. Everybody gets generators, many of them pollute a fair bit, it's really inefficient, and I hate going outside in a power outage to the racket of noisy generators. LED lights are strong and easy on batteries.

Install solar if you can, because prices have plummeted, and we need to move away from fossil fuel as much as possible. My roof is not right for solar, sadly. I have a Prius, and there's a kit for using the Prius as a generator to keep the refrigerator, furnace and a couple lights going in an emergency.
posted by theora55 at 5:25 PM on October 10, 2021

We have decided to go full out and put in a large Generac propane generator — for which the current wait in my area is over *6 months* right now both for generators and labor, so get in line because a lot of people have decided to do this and supply chain issues are a problem. It will end up costing close to $15,000 bexause we need to redo our propane system to accommodate much larger tanks, but it will have a capacity to run for many days, instantly and automatically switch on in an outage, and power the entire house easily. It also adds to the resale value of your house, so it can be seen as an investment in ways that portable generators are not (I currently use a Champion dual fuel model that runs a lot of stuff for a day or two no problem, but would be a pain in the ass for longer than that as you need to change the oil regularly and it’s loud AF.)

We also have a wood stove that does indeed heat the entire house to a very toasty temp. Our big concern is for when we aren’t here as we live in New England and it gets cold and our oil heating system requires electricity.

Anyway we costed out the options and put a value on peace of mind, plus the long term property improvement factors, and just decided what a lot of people have lately: for less than the price of a compact car we can run the house for a couple of weeks off grid. We will eventually be adding solar power but solar in our region is not sufficient as a backup plan without massive batteries. We live in a very rural area but our place is not well sited for solar power as we are in the shadow of a mountaintop just above us to our east and surrounded by tall trees at the house.

Also our power goes out if the weatherman mentions a storm, even if it doesn’t happen. I exaggerate but it’s so common we are fed up with hauling out the portable generator and running wires everywhere.
posted by spitbull at 4:00 AM on October 11, 2021

Option 2, by the way: wait until next year and buy a new Ford F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck. I believe it can run 11KW of generator backup from its batteries for quite a while. It’s really a killer feature for some people, as the rest of the time it’s a 40+ Mpg (equivalent) plug in electrical BEV full sized truck with truly impressive capabilities for $50K or so.

I crave one.
posted by spitbull at 4:06 AM on October 11, 2021

Solar panels and backup batteries.

There are also solar water heaters that pump water to the roof to be warmed so it takes less energy to get it hot.

Depending on the local conditions, a windmill may be a possibility.
posted by kschang at 1:18 PM on October 11, 2021

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