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How to Build a Safe, Effective Wood-fired Hot Water Heater...

How to Build a Safe, Effective Wood-fired Hot Water Heater...

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Published by: dojodojo on Jul 23, 2012
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 A Backwoods Home Anthology
The Best of the First Two Years
(A couple of Issues ago I touched on thissubject, but it was a surface effort and con-tained the questionable suggestion that youcould use a car radiator as a woodstove’s hotwater storage tank This is a more in-depth,more correct attempt by Don Fallick of Davenport, WA.—Dave)
 By Don Fallick 
he very simplest wood-fired hotwater “system” is a pot of water onthe back of the stove. It’s cheap, sim-ple, and safe. It’s also hard to heat upa lot of water at once that way. It’slabor intensive. And the water coolsoff fast when the fire goes out.My family lived this way for threeyears. Now we have a closed-loopsystem that provides plenty of hotwater from normal cooking andheating fires.The trade-off is in greater attentionto safety. In an open system, like a poton a stove or the hand-filled tank infigure 1, water temperature is limitedby its boiling point. Barring cloggedpipes or boiling the tank dry, there’slittle such a system can do to you.This is not to say it’s completely safe;at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, it is plentyhot enough for serious burns.But the real danger comes when youenclose the system, which can allowtemperature and pressure to rise abovenormal boiling.
Safety considerations
If you’ve ever used a pressurecooker, you know that increasing thepressure even a little allows
higher temperatures to develop, highenough to cook food in a fraction of the normal time.High temperature steam can alsocook you in a hurry. And as the tem-perature increases, so does pressure.Left unchecked, it can blow ordinarywater pipes apart. To prevent this,water heaters are built with a
temper-ature and pressure relief valve
.This device automatically opens if the temperature or pressure exceedsafe limits. For around $10 it’s cheapinsurance. I have frequently seenhome-made hot-water systems withoutsafety valves. This is folly.
Plastic, iron, & copper pipe
Preventing explosions is not the onlysafety consideration. Hot water is amuch better solvent than cold water.That’s why it cleans better. It also dis-solves chemicals in pipes better.That’s one reason for using “bone”colored plastic CPVC pipes for hotwater, instead of the cheaper, pure-white, PVC pipes. There’s also specialglue for CPVC pipes that won’t dis-solve in hot water.Iron pipes will rust fast in hot waterif not galvanized, but use plain ironwhere pipes are exposed to flame.Hot water quickly dissolves lead outof solder, too, so it pays to use only“lead-free” solder for joining copperpipes. (See BHM #8 on the danger of lead in water.)If all this seems scary, it’s meant to.It’s really not difficult to build a safe,reliable, cheap, hot water system. Butyou need to know what you’re doing.Hot water systems come in threebasic types, depending on how heatgets into the tank.
Heated directly by fire
Figure 2 shows a water tank heateddirectly by fire. I built such a systemas an experiment. It didn’t work verywell. My neighbor-Peter Hammil builta much better one. A comparisonmight be instructive.We both began with recycled
water heaters, which are designed fordirect flame on the bottom. I usedmine pretty much as it was afterremoving the gas burner. Natural gasdoesn’t produce much smoke, so the4-inch diameter stovepipe in the cen-ter of the tank works fine…for gas.For a hot wood fire, there’s just notenough room for the smoke to get out.The choice is to build small fires or letthe smoke choke the fire. Some choice!Also, the tank I used had a lot of limeand sand in the bottom, which sloweddown the water heating even more.Peter was smart. He used a torch tocut out the original smokestack,cleaned out the tank thoroughly, and
How to build a safe, effectivewood-fired hot water heater
Figure 1.Figure 2. Water tank heated directlyby fire.
 A Backwoods Home Anthology
The Best of the First Two Years
welded in a length of 6-inch diametersteel pipe. He 16ft a stub sticking out toattach a regular stovepipe to. With a properflue, Peter can heat a tank of water ashot as he likes in an hour or less.I had cut the bottom out of a leaky,old wringer washing machine, cut ahole for a door, and turned it upsidedown for a firebox. It was way too bigfor the fire I needed, and the sheetmetal door I made for it didn’t work very well. I rested my firebox on bareearth. This was not a suitable founda-tion for a 300-pound water tank. I hadto tie the tank to a post to keep it fromfalling over on someone. Even so, Inever felt comfortable around it.Peter had built a proper foundation.Then he set a short length of 18-inchdiameter iron pipe on it vertically for afire-box. The tank fit perfectly on topof it. With his torch he cut out a doorand welded on hinges and a flangearound the door. He even made ascrew-type draft control, just like on awoodstove. It’s a real thing of beauty,but more important, it works. Peter’stank is outdoors. He uses it as an opensystem, filling it before each use anddraining it afterward.
Indirect water heating
It’s more convenient to use heatfrom a woodstove to heat your water.There are three ways to get heat froma woodstove into a hot water tank.You can pipe water directly throughthe firebox, or you can run it through acoil either in or around the stovepipe.Which one you choose depends onmany factors. It may not be easy torun pipes through your particularstove’s firebox. Cast iron can be realdifficult to cut a hole in. If you mustdrill cast iron, use a
drill speed.Make sure the metal is not cold.Castings can chip or break easily andare impossible to fix. Welded steelplate is very tough to cut without atorch. Sheet metal is easier to drill, butharder to caulk safely.
Exact pipe location
The exact location of the pipes isalso important, especially in a cook-stove. Improperly located pipes mayinterfere with the draft, catch a lot of soot, or make the stove hard to clean.Too much pipe in the small firebox of a range may leave little room for fire-wood.I wish I could be more specific, buteven books about woodstoves don’t haveroom for more than a few examples.Figure 3 shows a view of the interiorof my stove’s firebox as it wouldappear if the left end of the stovewereremoved. It’s a modern, WashingtonStove Works’ “Alaska” model cook-stove with a
roomy firebox.In it is a “W-shaped”, double loop of 1-inch diameter, plain iron pipe. Thepipes enter the firebox at the rearthrough holes drilled with a heavy-duty, 1¼-inch hole saw. The holeswere drilled through both layers of sheet metal and later caulked withstove cement. They don’t leak.The pipes were placed at the ovenside of the firebox, where the draftdraws the flames past the pipes. Theshaded part of figure 3 is the areawhere smoke travels over the top of the stove. As you can see, the top pipedoes interfere with the draft. To lessenthis interference, the pipes are placedabout an inch away from the side of the firebox, allowing the draft to cir-culate on both sides of the pipes.This further restricts the size of thefirewood we can fit in there. But thefirebox was so big originally that ithardly matters. I can still get a 6-inchby 24-inch log in! For smaller stoves,you’d probably want to use a single loopof ¾-inch or ½-inch pipe. Our stovewill heat 30 gallons of cold water tonear boiling in an hour and a half.
An Irish idea
My neighbor, Martin Palmer, livedfor many years in rural Ireland. Hesays many cookstoves there have ahollow, brass reservoir at the back of the firebox, instead of the loop of pipe, and they heat water much faster.The reservoirs are quite expensive,being made of brass. Copper is toosoft, and reacts with any iron it touch-es, causing both metals to decompose.I have a 90-year-old Home Comfortcookstove we use for canning that I’vebeen wanting to plumb for hot waterfor years, but I never could figure outhow to do it. There are a couple of covered ports in the back of the fire-box that are obviously intended forpipes, but 1 haven’t been willing todrill through the cast iron fireboxliner. Also, the diagonal placement of the ports puzzled me. Pipes runthrough these holes and connectedwith a 180 degree bend would com-pletely block the firebox.After Martin told me about Irishstoves I figured it out. The rear castingis removable, and can be replacedwith a reservoir! The diagonal place-ment of pipes is exactly what youwould want in a reservoir to promote
Figure 3. Cast iron pipe arrangement inside a firebox.
water * circulation. I’m going to seewhat it would cost to have one madeup by a local machine shop.
“Flue robbers”
An alternative to cutting holes inyour stove is to remove some of theheat from the flue with a coil of cop-per pipe, either inside it or wrappedaround the outside. There are advan-tages and disadvantages to thisapproach. Pluses include recycling of “waste” heat and no chance of damag-ing an expensive stove. Installation isthe same for all kinds of stoves, andyou don’t have to work with iron pipe,which some people find daunting.On the other hand, it’s difficult tomake a “flue-robber” work well, with-out making it work 
too well
. Heat iswhat powers a stovepipe’s draft; removetoo much and it won’t draw right.You’ll get excessive soot and creosote.Heat also dries up the water vaporand pyrolytic acid that are normalproducts of combustion. When thecreosote does dry out, it can start achimney fire and turn your house intoa blast furnace in seconds. That’s whyI don’t use a “flue-robber”. Today’sair-tight, highly efficient stoves aredesigned to emit just enough excessheat to draw properly. There just ain’tmuch to spare.If you are running a drafty, old stovethat shoots plenty of excess heat upthe chimney, it may be safe to use astovepipe coil. They’ve been around along time. One of my neighbors hasone that’s about 20 years old. It con-sists of four loops of 3/8-inch, copperpipe, coiled around the outside of thestovepipe. Coiling copper tubing per-fectly-so it touches the stovepipe at allpoints-is an art I haven’t mastered.
The thermosyphon effect
One thing all these indirect systemshave in common is they all work on thethermosyphon principle. Rising hotwater pushes previously heated waterinto the tank and draws cold waterfrom the bottom of the tank into thelower end of the heat exchanger.Figure 4 is a schematic drawing of aproperly plumbed system. Note howhigh the tank is mounted. If the tank were mounted any lower, cold waterfrom the bottom of the tank wouldhave to rise to get into the stove.A column of water exerts a down-ward pressure of about 1 psi (poundper square inch) for every 2.2 feet of rise, regardless of the pipe diameter.The thermosyphon effect is not strong.If it has to pull cold water uphill, itwon’t work. It’s OK to have the tank outlet level with, or higher than thestove inlet, though. Lots of folks puttheir tank in the attic.Let’s look at figure 4 and see how aproperly plumbed system works.Beginning near the upper left, we seecold water entering from your source.First it passes a
, so you can shutthe system down for repairs, then a
, which connects pipes the sameway garden hoses connect. Thisallows removal of parts for repair ormodification without tearing thewhole system apart. Note-that thevalve is on the
side of theunion. Next comes an
, then the
coldwater inlet
, a pipe inside thetank, extending nearly to the bottom.Some water heaters have an external coldwater inlet near the bottom of the tank. Ihave seen tanks with as many as fiveopenings on top. If you can’t tellwhich is the cold water inlet, removeall the plugs, caps, and other hardwareand shine a flashlight down each holein turn, while peering into anotherone. Light from the cold water inletwill make a small circle on the bottomof the tank. The others will illuminatethe whole bottom.At the lower right of the tank in fig-ure 4 is the
stove supply
. In its origi-nal incarnation as a gas or electricwater heater’, this was the
drain cock
(or valve). Since we still need a drain
 A Backwoods Home Anthology
The Best of the First Two Years
Figure 4. A properly plumbed system.

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