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Need to heat historic house without electricity

We have an historic small cabin with basement and two floors that we want to heat.  There are no utilities (i.e. electric) available.   We don't want to install a woodstove inside the structure because it is historic and we don't want to take the chance on burning it down.  Is it feasible to install an exterior wood burning boiler that can supply a gravity hot water system?  We would also like to use a radiant floor heating arrangement to keep the system as invisible as possible.

Any thoughts and any suppliers/installers of such a system would be welcomed.  Thanks.


  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,576
    historic cabin heating

    what is your location?

    wood burning boilers are certainly available, but can you be sure of always having someone around to feed the boiler? a period of occasional shutdown would require the use of an antifreeze solution in the system, which can add to the complication. 

    a fuel oil, or propane boiler would be more guaranteed. some boiler controls are still available which need no electricity, [millivolt/power-pile].

    is there water in the cabin? --nbc
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 22,949

    This really should be on the main wall -- you'd get a wider variety of guys looking at it.

    There certainly are wood burning boilers available which could provide the heat required.  However... I would be very much inclined to give up on the radiant floor idea, attractive as it might be, because I very much doubt that you could get enough circulation by gravity.  Gravity hot water -- which works fine -- requires very large pipes (relatively speaking) to do its thing; the driving head from the hot water alone is very small in comparison with any pump.

    Where is this cabin located?  If it is in a sunny climate, you should also at least consider solar collectors, a storage tank, and gravity hot water.  It will require some thought to get it plumbed right, for the gravity to work.  If it's in the east or pacific northwest, though, forget that idea.

    If the temperatures do get below freezing for a winter day, though, you must use an antifreeze (glycol) and water mix.  Sooner or later, the boiler will go down or something will happen, and you don't want the pipes to freeze, never mind your radiation.
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Charlie from wmass
    Charlie from wmass Member Posts: 4,314
    wood fired

    steam boiler. I would just use several good quality wood stoves
    Cost is what you spend , value is what you get.

    cell # 413-841-6726
  • An idea

    Probably your best bet would be to use a simple propane fired atmospheric steam boiler with powerpile controls.  Steam would allow the use of much smaller and less obtrusive heating units and as long as there is propane the boiler would fire (unless you have excessive system leaks).   Also, should a heating failure occur, all the water drains down to the boiler, helping avoid alot of water damage should the home drop below freezing.
    The Steam Whisperer (Formerly Boilerpro)

    Chicago's Steam Heating Expert

    Noisy Radiators are a Cry for Help
  • Safetyman
    Safetyman Member Posts: 3
    More Information

    Thanks for the replies so far and I will also post it on the main board as well.

    The historic cabin is located in a federal park in Maryland.  The house runs east to west with 18" thick stone walls and heavy timber flooring/framing.  It is also in a flood area to make things more interesting.  The house is not occupied full-time but is rented to interested persons on a daily basis.  It is used primarily in the summer, but we would like to use it in the winter as well, hence the desire to install heating.  Open flames are prohibited within the structure due to the historic significance. 
  • nicholas bonham-carter
    nicholas bonham-carter Member Posts: 8,576
    chilly cabin

    what about a small water-cooled diesel generator some distance away, supplying heat from its coolant circuit to some underfloor pipes. that would give the additional option of having a limited amount of electricity to the occasional occupants.

    the antifreeze solution in the cooling/heating system would not be a problem, and the generator would be set up to start either on a call for heat or a call for electricity.

    it could be installed in a small structure similar in appearance to the main cabin [outhouse-maybe there is one?].

    in order to be as quiet as possible, i would suggest the exhaust be re-piped correctly in threaded steel pipe, in a "drop-header" configuration. the last thing you want in the wilderness would be noise, interfering with nature. after all, we all want to hear what the bears are doing in the woods!--nbc
  • tim smith
    tim smith Member Posts: 2,743
    What about Freewatt on Propane

    That way you get a little power supply along with heat???? Just an off the cuff idea.
  • Dave in QCA
    Dave in QCA Member Posts: 1,785
    A Quandary

    It seems as thought you have a situation with no good answers.

    So, first of all, I would have to ask what are the priorities of the historic cabin building in the federal park.  It surely has a good amount of research and writing that relate to its historic significance, and to what its preservation plan and use plan shall be.  Strict preservation is often in conflict with current use.  To acurately use the structure as it was used during its period of significance, would require the omission of modern utilities and the use of candles or oil lamps and a fireplace or iron stove for heating and cooking.

    You mention that no open flames are allowed, does that apply to candles and lamps too?  I do certainly understand the policy of not allowing open flames when you are allowing unsupervised public use, because the average person may not know how to appropriately and safely use open fire.  However open fire is pretty important part of the historic experience of what it would have been like to live in that cabin, and to prohibit it seems to limit or falsify the historic accuracy of the experience for the temporary inhabitants.  Around 20 years ago, I attended and evening candelight tour of the Old Capitol in Springfield, Illinois.  This is an early 1840s structure and the experience was magical in its ability to let the visitor expericence "time and place".  However, this was closely supervised, and the general public was not in control of the fire.  I suppose that is the big difference.

    As to your complex set issues to consider for heating this cabin without electricity and open fire, there is a long list of things that will not work.  The following items require electricity:  forced air, hydronic (baseboards, radiant floors, etc.), outdoor boilers.  If you have a basement, which I assume that you don't, your could install a steam or hot water boiler, and possibly obtain a gas train configuration that uses a millivolt powerpile to operate.  However, this would require installation of radiators of some sort, piping, and drilling a lot of holes, which I assume would not be acceptable in the preservation plan of the cabin. 

    As I sort through the possibilities, about the only thing that I can come up with is the possibility of using a gas space heater stove.  In many historic houses accross the united states that were either heated by fireplaces or cast iron stoves in the mid 1800s, the wood/coal stoves gave way to oil stoves and eventually to gas stoves, vented into the same chimneys.  I know of several examples of this in Iowa.  These ranged from small to significantly sized homes, and one that I know of, with five heaters on the first floor, did not get central heating until 1992.

    Of course, the appearance of a gas space heater stove may not be acceptable in the environment of the cabin, and you'd also have to install a propane tank and conceal it someplace on the site.   Here is a link to Dearborn Heaters.  They are a very high quality appliance and still in demand.  http://www.eastwaysales.com/heaters-Dearborn.html 
    Dave in Quad Cities, America
    Weil-McLain 680 with Riello 2-stage burner, December 2012. Firing rate=375MBH Low, 690MBH Hi.
    System = Early Dunham 2-pipe Vacuo-Vapor (inlet and outlet both at bottom of radiators) Traps are Dunham #2 rebuilt w. Barnes-Jones Cage Units, Dunham-Bush 1E, Mepco 1E, and Armstrong TS-2. All valves haveTunstall orifices sized at 8 oz.
    Current connected load EDR= 1,259 sq ft, Original system EDR = 2,100 sq ft Vaporstat, 13 oz cutout, 4 oz cutin - Temp. control Tekmar 279.
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