The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Cutting our fuel bills

chimney plate in wallSomehow the first chilly nights of Autumn feel colder than the hard frosts of January. By midnight I’m freezing and in need of a plump hot water bottle and all three Min Pins to heat up the far side of the bed.

Yesterday, I woke hoping for rain. This would mean a much needed day off and the chance to repair the wood burning stove in the kitchen. It has lounged in the kitchen for four years unused. Our central heating is efficient. But now the cost of the two winter oil tank fill ups (£1,200) has made us think again.

Four years of happy Jackdaw domestic bliss had filled the chimney with twigs and discarded nests.
“I’m happy to help but it might take some time to find my chimney clearing gauntlets.”
Danny drifted across the kitchen and poked aimlessly amongst the carrier bags beside the cold stove.

Within seconds I had located them and he was unscrewing the plate on the wall that gives us easy access to the chimney.  This reveals a small cave in the 400 year old chimney breast, about three feet wide, two feet deep and two feet high. The chimney stack terminates at the top of this cavity and the flue from the stove below emerges from the cavity floor.

We faced a thicket of twigs that would have made The Wicker Man smile. We took turns to drag the debris out from the chimney using a child’s garden rake, the claw tool from the vegetable patch and our versatile drain rods. Each time we cleared a layer, the next few feet of the vertical column was cajoled down and fell with a gruff rumble. After four endless hours of these dusty thuds we finally saw daylight on our hands. As Danny swept the remains into the fifth bulging refuse sack, I located the chimney sweep’s brush in the barn. Twenty minutes later our trusty Dyson was vacuuming the darker recesses around the metal shelf above the stove.

The master plan for this winter is to keep the wood burning stove just ticking over during the day to warm the ground floor of the cottage. At the moment it’s going to be lit when I get home from work – so we can play with it and get the damping down just right.

Needing some cleaner air, I set off immediately to John Grundy’s horse sanctuary in the Tuddenham woods. We have unseasoned logs in the garden but we needed some good seasoned wood for the wood burning stove. I turned into the drive softened by pine needles just as the early evening sun was filtering through the trees. The place was silent as I packed the car with bags of wood and kindling.

On my return, the repairs were a doddle. Fire cement needs heat to set so I struck a jubilant match. Then I examined the beast very carefully, tweaking and resetting the damping down devices.

Initially the dogs were curious, watching me oil the hinges and fill small gaps between the wood burner’s flue and the stove. Eventually they settled in baskets beside the wood burner, stretching out to savour the radiant heat. For the first time in weeks I’m not wearing my outdoor jacket as I type this post.

The stove has burned just four smallish logs in nine hours. It’s not one of those new super efficient stoves that have a small appetite and will heat a house on a handful of fuel. But this stove is far more fuel efficient than the open fireplace in the sitting room.  The chimney breast is warm and the bedroom no longer has a chill.

We’re planning to minimise our use of oil this winter. We can supplement the horse sanctuary supplies with windfall wood. We also know a local builder who is happy to dump his offcuts in our driveway. The hot water has to be heated by the oil fired boiler as we have no gas in the village.

With a bit of canny ducking and diving we can be warm this winter for less cost. We are lucky, we live in the country where we can gather alternatives or negotiate swaps. But what will happen to those in the cities on a fixed income, with no wood burning stoves or fireplaces?

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  1. lush! i bet your cottage is sooo snuggly! our house is heated only by two wood burning stoves (just one until the end of last winter when we found the second one dumped next to a bin on the roadside!!!). they really are fabulous things, great for reducing heating bills as you say, also we use it to cook on in the winter, to boil water for hot drinks, for washing the dishes and to fill up the hotwater bottles to warm up the bed. and we use the ashes, once cold, as cat litter rather than the grit stuff you can buy – it absorbs the odours really well and the cats seem to like it! if you get a spoke-type thing that attaches onto the metal chimney tube of your stove it also becomes great for drying off tea towels, hanging socks to dry etc.! and if it has little compartments then it is great for leaving your bread to rise and then for baking it in the oven!

    have fun!!!

  2. Fiona Nevile

    Hello Rachel

    I’d miss our stove too, if we had to move.

    Hello S.O.L.

    That’s a great idea. Quite often the wood on pallets is really good wood – loads of oak.

    I must investigate local sources. Thanks for the tip.

    Hi Veronica

    Brilliant idea using the top for cooking. There is space for a small casserole. Or baby kettle. Can’t wait to play with this idea. Thanks for the tip.

    Hi Steve

    Our local builder gives us quite a few old window frames. They’re great as they seem to burn for ages.

    Perhaps we should look at an immersion heater for the water.

    Hi Rosie

    We are definitely going to try cooking on the stove now. If the stove is on all day in the winter, why not?

    Lovely sunny days here at the moment but the temperature drops rapidly after dark.

    Hi Chris

    That’s interesting that the Aga useless much less oil than the central heating boiler. I’d love an Aga but it’s just a dream ATM. It’s £1200 for two fill ups! Still very expensive.

    Hello Kimberley

    Those combi boilers are very good indeed.

    We’re getting chilly in the evenings now but the woodburner seems to be doing its stuff and once it’s lit it is heating the downstairs well.

    Trying to put off odering oil for as long as possible. We need a fill up so it’s a great way of saving!

  3. Kimberley

    Hi there, your blog has popped up many a time on the searches I’ve been Googling of late so I’ve finally got around to bookmarking you! Will be reading regularly now 🙂

    Our heating and hot water are supplied by a new combi boiler, till a few months ago we had a 25 year old back boiler for the heating and hot water was heated by an immersion heater. Huge change in our electricity usage now we’re not heating water with electricity. I’m aiming not to put the heating on till mid October, or basically as late as possible! My husband keeps saying ‘It’s getting chilly, maybe we should think about putting the heating on soon’ and I keep saying ‘Not yet, just a bit longer’. It’s not exactly cold, he can put a jumper on 😉

  4. p.s. The bottom oven is perfect for the Spanish Lamb too…

  5. We have an old Aga, adapted and oil fired, but it uses such a tiny amount of oil by comparison to the heating boiler! Plus we cook on it and it heats the water too so we do not intend to use the heating this year, unless there is an amazingly cold snap, as the Aga warms the house through and residual heat from the sun through the windows, I think we’ll manage. Will have to. £1200 to fill the oil tank!

  6. We’ve not lit our woodburner this year yet (the house is retaining the daytime warmth well at the moment) but I am now quite looking forward to it being cold enough to do so. And I love cooking on it – it’s the thought of “free” cooking that I love and the smell of hearty casseroles wafting through the whole house.

  7. I would never be without our woodburner. We live in France and have plenty of wood, and a small wooded area as well.

    When we lived in the UK, I used to collect old window frames from a window comany for free, also many places have broken palletts which you can collect and are great to get a fire started and heating quickly

    We had the same problem as yourelves as our water heaing was thru the boiler, We have now installed a tank for the hot water so we do not have to use the oil for hot water

  8. Great! I love our wood burner, even though we have to pay for the wood; it heats the whole house.

    Does yours have a flat, unencumbered top? If so, you can save more fuel by cooking on it; I often do slow-simmered casseroles on it. If it’s too hot immediately on top, use a metal grid to raise the pan slightly.

  9. Oh how I wish we had a house with a chimney. I would so love a stove.

    Can you burn wooden pallets? We asked a window firm if we could have the pallets from the skip in their car park. They were really pleased when we asked. As they have to pay for the skips to be taken away.

    We wanted them for the allotment. One man up there burns them in his fire place. Could be worth a look and see if anyone is willing for you to take them away…??? save a few pennys? We are lucky that we found an old trailer someone was selling and we got it for a steal. All it need was a new hitch lock. So collecting pallets is ok with the trailer. If you dont have a trailer you could always pull them apart with a claw hammer and then put them in in to you boot in bits. Obviously taking the nails out so they dont go in the stove….

    Wood for free if you can get it… I think I may have just given a secret away??? LOL Pallets are great

  10. I miss the stove I had at my last house. Three years ago I moved to a one bed cluster home that is heated with storage heaters, and I miss that stove terribly.

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