Big Ticket Conundrum

Looking forward into 2008 at some of the Big Ticket items I would like to purchase, and frankly I am struggling.   One item would significantly decrease our personal footprint, and increase the joy I have in our home, the other would potentially make me a greater asset to helping our community become more sustainable, and would complete a goal I have had for several years.  I fully realize how blessed we are to be in the position to even have this discussion.

We bought our home 3 years ago out of depseration-the farmette we had money down on failed its home inspection and the owners were being jerks about the needed repairs so we backed out.  But our then current home was sold and we had no interest in living in a temporary apartment with 2 children under 3.  So after a month of feverish viewings of every home remotely in our range on more than an acre of land, we admitted defeat with less than 3 weeks until close and began to look in town.  Our current Spec Home (on virgin farm land) is the result.  The guilt inherent in that choice was a huge driver in my Getting Real about sustainability.  One thing that has always bugged me about the home is the natural gas fireplace.


It looks fine, and the stone is actually a decent heat sink for the south facing windows on the opposite wall, but the fireplace is worse than useless: it is so ineffecient it costs $1.25/hr to run and barely heats the room.  My dream would be a Tulikvi stove with bakeoven, but I don’t have $15k laying around right now. 


My parents have this stove from Hearthstone which is also shrouded in soapstone.  The stone helps to mitigate the heat, taking much longer to heat up, and holding the heat for hours after the fire is out.  At their home one full load of wood (4 sticks) will heat for 10-12 hours, and the stove is rated to about 60,000 btu’s so it is no slouch. It wouldn’t heat my entire home on the coldest nights, but it would take 75% of the load off our NG furnace. My cousins run a small saw mill north of us and could keep us in slab wood forever, and my father also has 20 acres of woodland we could esily sustainably harvest a cord a year from .  Installed with sweat equity it would be about $3k and take a huge bite out of our annual carbon emissions while helping to insulate our family from rising energy costs.
The second item is actually a two part workshop that would allow me to become certified as a Permaculture Designer with Midwest Permaculture.  They have a Design Course this May, but are also offering a new Advanced Course in late summer that would offer the attendees the chance to actually design the site plan for the MREA grounds.  Completing one or both would allow me to offer Permaculture Design services through our business, and being on the books as a designer for MREA would be a great resume builder.  Given that the workshops are over a week long, they do not come cheap: $1200 each.   The learnings from one or both of the courses would be legion, and assuming I could market the design services the ROI would be better than the Stove.
Like I said, I am torn and also slightly embarrassed by the wealth that allows me to even be considering these items.  But the side business selling rain barrels and ecological landscaping services is allowing us some wiggle room in our finances that I would like to see spent on things that will prepare us for the future, whether it is knowledge or the ability to heat our home without being so dependent on the grid.
Thoughts and advice are very welcome!

17 Responses

  1. Tough call. Not unlike the hydra of similar decisions we struggle with.

    I have a slight bias, because I’ve met two of the three main guys behind Midwest Permaculture, and heard an awesome presentation by one of them. I think they do amazing stuff. But here’s my line of thinking: The stove will help you as long as you live in that house. The design course will help you as long as you have breath in your lungs. The stove you can pass on to the next homeowner. The knowledge you can pass on to anybody and everybody who’s interested.

  2. Wisdom.

    And thanks again E4-You were one of the first to tip me off to Mark and Wayne.

  3. I’ll raise more questions than I will answers.

    Is the ecological landscaping business cash flowing enough to pay for the permaculture classes? If so and you had that business pay for them they are a tax write off. Then your personal funds would be free for the stove.

    Or maybe you mingle together all the funds so they aren’t really seperate? No matter what the permaculture classes are a tax write off for education expenses for the ecological business. Keep that in mind.

    Can you sell more rain barrels to pay for both? With the farmette and your other businesses maybe this year isn’t the right year for a permaculture class? You have to think about time constraints also.

    Would the savings in NG bills pay for the stove? So in essence you are using the savings on your heating bills to pay for the stove? And would your parents be willing to let you pay them each month from these savings? The savings on NG almost pay for my corn stove so I’m using a similar strategy.

    If I had to say you do just one it has to be the Permaculture classes because the extra income from those classes and work you do with that knowledge would probably allow you to earn enough to pay for the stove in the next year.

    May I take just a moment to admonish you for not having a liquid emergency savings account for these types of things? Given our view of the future having ready cash might be a good thing to have on hand. Bad Rob. 😉

  4. Interesting, Onestraw, but the decision doesn’t have to ‘all or nothing’, does it?

    What if you pulled out the gas fireplace, all of which are economic disasters, and put in a humble welded or cast iron stove in the interm.

    They burn anything, cost little, use fuel that might otherwise be landfill bait, and will tell you a very great deal about directly heating your house. Later, if prudence dictates it, the humble Bart or Batcave stove could be replaced with the glitzy soapstone stove. Or not.

    A similar alternate route exists for the workshops as well.


  5. I’ll play devil’s advocate here.

    Buy the stove. Seems to me that you are practicing many of the facets of the permaculture ethic already.

    If the shit hits the fan, and you have a stove and a bunch of land that you can pull a cord or two of wood off of, you’ll be much better off.

    Don’t you already provide “ecological landscaping services”? Do you really need to pay someone $1200 to be able to say that you provide “Permaculture Design service”?

    Sorry to come across so negative on “permaculture”, I think that the concept is the only truly “sustainable” answer that I’ve seen to the problems we face. That said, I guess I missed the part in the Mollison books where it says that you have to pay a lot of money to someone to learn how to do it, in order to turn around and charge people a lot of money for you to teach them how to do it.


  6. Hmmm, neither of these expenses would be appropriate expenses for emergency funds. Really, they are both “luxuries”. Definitely not emergencies.

    The stove is not something that has to happen now. We virtually never use the gas fireplace, it’s just there kind of taunting Rob to the fact that he could have his dream stove there. An alternative heating source there would be great, but it doesn’t HAVE to happen now. Cheaper alternatives aren’t an option right now because I don’t know of any that are quite as safe for a household that has two still very young kids around.

    I agree with Steve on the permaculture design course. Frankly, I think Rob would walk away invigorated by the communion with like-minded people, but I have seen the hours upon hours of book research and hands on, in the dirt, dig until you drop, if it’s doesn’t work try again research. I don’t think he needs a 7 day, IMHO overpriced course to teach him how to do what he’s doing. I think the market out there for people who want a ceritified permaculture designer is miniscule, and we can do much more with that money through simply strengthening the operations we already have in place. I think Rob has to give himself credit for how much he already knows, and build on that.

  7. FGLB, the tax considerations of the workshops are part of the allure-taking some of the bite out of the tuition-essentially making them a two for one deal. Selling more is a consideration, but I don’t want to bank on it. We have only one year’s history so sales estimates are slim.

    Eleutheros, my wife has already expressed our concerns with a cast iron stove, but it is something I have kicked around.

    Steve, Mollison copyrighted the “Permaculture” term several years after the books due to a myriad of people hosting training seminars without an understanding of the concepts and he wanted to retain some control by implementing a set program. The price has been, and continues to be, a very real deterrent to myself and others who want to attend a course. As Mia said, they seem overpriced.

    Mia, thanks for your confidence and encouragement. In all honesty, besides adding to my knowledge, the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) would stroke my insecure need for some legitimacy. As we’ve discussed, I struggle at times in initial conversations with soil scientists, landscape experts, and even some farmers because I have no bona fides to speak of: I live in a HOA and have a Philosophy degree. To Mia’s point, within a conversation or two it becomes apparent that I have gained at least a decent amount of working knowledge, but this is what I meant by “resume” builder.

    To FGLB’s point about the economy, we will most likely see how the year holds up- rain barrels sales might dry up in a recession, and $1200 would pay for some really nice tools for the commercial gardens and signing and stand for the farmers market stand, while still leaving enough money to attend some smaller, weekend courses. Midwest Permaculture does offer the option to “test in” to the Advanced course without a PDC-speaking to some that are PDC trained they seem to think I could pass. That may be an option.

    Choices are never, easy especially when we are discussing the one Big Ticket of the year, thank you all for your input!

  8. To the concern about the hot stove, my kids (3&5) were sufficiently instructed to stay away from our corn stove. We built a tile floor around it (required by code, I’m sure this stove would require the same) and we told them not to get on the tile. Then we watched them like hawks.

    One time, the youngest one stepped on the tile. He won’t do it again. I think you might want to give the kids more credit on their ability to follow the rules when they know it is truly dangerous. My one concern would be rough housing around the stove where someone fell on it, but I’m sure you guys are smart enough to layout the room well enough that rough housing happens in a different area.

    The one thing that sealed this for me was all the kids who have lived through history with open fires in hearths and wood burning stoves. If they hadn’t none of us would be reading this right now.

    Just my opinion on the safety issue.

  9. Matt, I give our kids loads of credit, though I know accidents happen. The safety issue is only one concern-efficiency is a big one too. Anway, there’s a lot more involved than the stove itself: floor reinforcement, knocking out a wall, chimney installation, etc. I find it a bit condescending for you to tell us that kids have lived through centuries of far more dangerous stoves. I think you know we’re pretty intelligent people. Kids have lived through a lot (small pox, cigarette smoking moms, DDT), that doesn’t mean they need to. I’m not likening having a wood stove to any of those things, just questioning the logic of that comment. We all get to make the choices that are best for our family.

  10. I think the permaculture workshop would be great for someone who was starting from very little knowledge and wanted to increase that knowledge very quickly. Then he’d need 5 years of hands-on experience to get it to really work.

    Rob, I think you are probably at the point in the curve where you could learn “quite a bit” but not “an astonishing quantity” from these workshops. In another year or two, I bet you’ll think it’s a waste of time and money. So that’s either a vote for doing the class first, or for not doing the class at all. Whether you do the class or not, you’ll still need your 5 years in the field.

    On the stove…wow, you have read my geek brain again! I might just steal your entire post for my blog. 🙂 Our fireplace isn’t natural gas, it’s wood, and it never had a cap before we bought the house. Therefore, it’s completely rusted out and now just serves as a nice funnel for all the heat in the house. (Or at least, whatever gets past the chimney plug.) I want the same kind of stove you’ve got there, though we might go for the version without soapstone.

    A thought, though: does switching from gas to wood heat actually reduce your carbon footprint? Wood is renewable, of course, and these stoves (especially the catalytic kind) are much better about emissions than, say, a wood fireplace, but you’re still dumping more particulate matter and at least as much CO2 into the air by burning wood, right?

  11. Emily,

    Thanks for your thoughts on the PDC course. Luckily I have a few months to think about it.

    The carbon in NG is essentially sequestered from a much hotter time (think Pleistocene) where CO2 levels were higher. The carbon emitted from fossil fuels are essentially adding to our current epoch’s CO2 levels. Burning wood, or any other carbon based fuel like ethanol or methane also releases carbon. But in the case of non-cellulosic ethanol it was sequestered from the year previous, and in the case of trees from the last several decades. It is essentially still within our epoch’s carbon cycle. In the case of wood, the carbon sequestered in the wood is only part of the story, there is easily equal amounts of carbon in the root structure that is not being burned, but in a sustainably harvested woodlot, is allowed to slowly decompose and much will turn into humus and become sequestered for decades as long as the soil is not disturbed. Ethanol, especially corn based ethanol, is debatable due to the immense amount of fossil fuel needed to convert corn into fuel. Without a gasifier, you can’t run your car on pure corn without a lot of fuel intensive processing. Particulate matter is another story, but it typically pollutes locally in a biodegradable form, and this can be reduce significantly by using well seasoned wood. Plus the post 1998 stoves are MUCH better.

    That is a long way of saying that, yes, indeed wood/biomass is better!

    The main reason besides cutting surface temps in half for our little uns, is that the soap stone, while adding about 50% to the cost, improves efficiency by a factor of 4x which is very significant since I will be cutting and hauling all our own fuel. Even without the fuel savings, a cast iron stove like we used to have growing up bakes you out of a medium sized room quickly, and cools off rapidly when the fire is out. A soapstone stove mitigates those extremes to some extent-giving heat for 3-6 hours after the fire is out.


  12. My point with that comment is that kids followed the rules then regarding touching the stove, I’m sure they will now. I was trying to give you my thought process when I moved my stove upstairs to our living area where it was accessible to children. Speaking as someone who had similar concerns at one time.

    I was not in anyway questioning your choice as a parent.

  13. Let me echo the last comment to say that if one is uncomfortable about what’s around one’s children, that’s a powerful disincentive. But we raised a large number of little ones around a cast iron cookstove and a cast iron Franklin stove with no mishaps. It gets to be like everything else around small children, you instinctively turn the handles of the pots away from the side of the stove, put cleaning solutions on the top shelf, secure the seat restraints in the car, and your attention is like the Zylon charaters with the one rotating eye that continually and unfailingly scan any area you children are in looking for, feeling for, smelling for any danger. Stoves in the house for heating soon becomes just another one of those things with the parent’s mind, whether conscious about it or not, continually monitors the status of the stove and the whereabouts of the children and never the twain shall meet!

    As to the soapstone stove being 4x as efficient as, for example, Franklin type stove, that’s one of those ‘your mileage may vary’ sort of things. Under very ideal circumstances the stove might approach 4x efficiency. Might. But the airtight, catalytic converted, thermal mass stove is designed to use the best of the best of the best of the best ideally cured all green-cut-then-dried hardwood. Lesser fuel means lesser advantage even to the point of reversing the efficiency.

    A non-airtight stove will burn any sort of disreputable fuel, limbs, twigs, stumps, roots, bark, partially decayed, damp, green, old building wood, disassembled crates, coniferous wood, evergreens, etc. These sorts of fuels will burn inefficiently in the sort of stove you are looking at, if at all.

    Because the uber-stove operates at a lower temperature, the flue temp is lower which predisposes creosote and other condensates forming in the flue. A stove which can draw as much air as it likes does indeed send a lot of heat up the flue (hence the inefficiency), it is hard for deposits to condense. At the end of the season we rarely have more than a handful of light ash when we clean a 28ft flue.

    All in all we’ve found primitive stoves to be more sustainable because they can use fuel that otherwise is left to decay or is hauled away to the landfill while the very ‘efficient’ stoves must use wood that could be made into furniture or houses (that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not much).

  14. “Wood is renewable, of course, and these stoves (especially the catalytic kind) are much better about emissions than, say, a wood fireplace, but you’re still dumping more particulate matter and at least as much CO2 into the air by burning wood, right?”

    Espringf, the answer to that would be ‘no’. A stove with a converter due to its reburning of particulates and a primitive stove due to it’s higher heat actually give off amazing few particulates. True that you probably don’t want all wood heat in very crowded urban areas, but in most places it’s no problem.

    As to the CO2, it’s a zero sum. A piece of wood gives off exactly the same amount of C02 when it decays as when it burns.

  15. Thanks, Eleutheros! Those facts and practicalities are just the kind of information I was looking for!


  16. Hmmm. I had been digging in the dirt and reading and learning about p’culture for about a decade before commencing a PDC for myself. I would have to say that having some dirt under my nails made the course all the more beneficial, for I already had some contexts and experiences to which to ‘hang’ the theory, and I could instantly apply the learnings from the course to practical situations (past, present and future) rather than simply theorise about them.
    Just a thought…

  17. My very good friends just purchased a similar Hearthstone stove Iin the seafoam green) to replace an existing woodstove. It is beautiful, it heats well, my friend cooks on it, etc. Did I say it was beautiful?

    That stove gets HOT. Not as hot as a metal stove, but hot enough to badly burn anything touching it. Please don’t think the soapstone will be safer than a metal stove for kids.

    We have a Vermont Castings woodstove, which in my 1880s Cape, can make a huge difference in comfort. It won’t hold the heat like a soapstone stove, but it is pretty efficient and burns very cleanly. As beautiful as K’s stove is, I just cannot in my head justify the high cost of that stove. Just the delivery and installation was over $500. And they needed to add some structural reinforcement below the stove to shore up the floor.

    When we bought our house, the stove was surrounded by metal porch fencing to keep kids away, which I thought was a great idea. Not beautiful, but effective.

    Your blog is very interesting. Best of luck as you make all these tough choices.

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