Making Fire from Sawdust: The Quest for Heat

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I knelt by the pellet stove shaking a colander over a pot, trying to separate the pellets from the sawdust. The pot was nearly full, and I could still see sawdust, so I used a slotted spoon to shake out a few pellets at time and toss them into the hopper. Every time I tossed a few more pellets in, I got more sawdust on the floor, on me, and on the dog, who huddled close for warmth.
Sometimes I missed the hopper, and pellets scattered in all directions. I cursed and rushed to pick them up before the dog ate them. She did eat a few. Tough poops tomorrow. Over and over, I swore to get rid of this stupid pellet stove that took so much work and only went on when it felt like it. I considered selling the house just to move someplace that had a normal heating system.
For those who have always lived in homes with gas or electric heating systems that go on and off automatically, keeping the house at a comfortable 68 or 70 degrees, the idea of a house without heat is unimaginable, but for a lot of people living in rural areas, it’s a reality. Around here, wood stoves are the norm, just like in the olden days.
Usually the pellets don’t come cushioned in sawdust. I had clearly gotten a few bad bags. When I finally gave up after three bags and took the others back, the guy at the lumber yard admitted he’d given me bags from the wrong pile, ones that were supposed to be thrown away. He replaced them, with two more for my troubles. By then, I had taken pictures and prepared to argue for a refund, thinking they wouldn’t believe me. But the guy was waiting for me. He was already aware of his mistake and knew I’d be back. I just wish I’d come back three bags sooner.
Three vacuumings of the pellet stove later, it seems to be working, but there are no guarantees. I’ll do anything to avoid another visit from the serviceman who charges hundreds of dollars to spend hours in my living room, stove parts everywhere, lecturing me on how I need to clean the stove with little brushes every five minute and sift every bag of pellets for sawdust. 
This winter has been unusually cold, and I’m going through more than one 40-pound bag of pellets a day. When I was in California for a week last month, Oregon had record-setting low temperatures, down to 14 a couple nights in South Beach. It snowed, and the snow froze into a solid sheet of ice that closed down everything. It was cold. Damned cold. So cold the strings on my bandurria came unstrung. So cold a ceramic bird house outside cracked into little pieces. So cold pipes were freezing all over western Oregon.
God bless my dog sitter, who came from the Midwest and was not afraid to drive in the snow. I asked her to let the dog sleep in the house. The crate in the laundry room was too cold. She wanted to know how to turn on the heat. I explained the pellet stove. She had never seen one before, and it took a while for her to get the hang of it and to understand that when the pellets run out, there is no heat.
When it’s working, I spend half my life warming my buns by the pellet stove. I read, write, make phone calls, and ponder the world within two feet of that warm orange heat. I have the burn marks on the back of my bathrobe to prove it. My dog lies at my feet, soaking up the heat. Visitors remark on how warm and cozy it is.
Yeah, I think, when it works, when it doesn’t start to light, then fizzle out with a sigh as if it just can’t find the energy to make fire. It’s old. It’s worn out. It’s persnickety. And every time I turn around, it’s empty. I think I lose a quarter inch in height every time I carry one of those heavy bags from the garage to the house. This winter, if you put them all together, I must have lifted a couple tons of wood.
Oh, and if the power goes out, which is not uncommon around here in the coastal forest, the pellet stove doesn’t work. The fan runs on electricity. Then I have to light the wood stove in the den, which is a whole other story.
Last night I researched the cost to convert my pellet stove to gas. Apparently you can go the other way—gas to pellets–pretty easily, but pellets to gas is prohibitively expensive. Not only would I have to buy a new “insert” for about $3,000, but I’d have to install a propane tank outside and pipe the gas into the house. Not happening on my budget.
Instead, I’m taking my Christmas money to Home Depot and buying the biggest, most powerful plug-in electric heater I can find, so when it gets cold and Mr. Pellet Stove isn’t in the mood, I can turn it on and be warm. Meanwhile you’ll find me and Annie next to the pellet stove.
Dear friends, if you have a real heater in your house, give it some love. You are blessed to have it.
And if you have suggestions for how to use two buckets

of fine sawdust, let me know.

To Build a Bookshelf

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Another episode in the wake of the great water heater flood of 2013
Saturday I built a bookshelf. That statement may evoke visions of sawing, hammering, sanding, staining and lovingly polishing, of creating something unique from a few pieces of raw wood. Wow, that Sue is so talented. You can smell the sawdust, can’t you?
But no. I tore open a long heavy Home Depot box delivered by the UPS guy, removed a ton of foam rubber and cardboard packing material, laid out pieces of wood-finished pressboard and a baggie of screws, nails, dowels and brackets, and started putting it all together. Each part was lettered, and the screw holes were already drilled. I just had to follow steps one through six on the instruction sheet with the added attraction of learning how the same instructions would be translated into Spanish and French. Tools required: one hammer, one screwdriver, and two people. I made do with one human and a dog.
You may recall that my previous bookshelves got wet when my water heater gushed water all over my laundry room and den a month ago. The water damage experts sent out by my insurance company declared the shelves deceased and tossed them into the front yard, to be taken to the dump. They sat there for three weeks before my neighbor got sick of looking at them, hacked them up with an ax and burned them in his fire pit. We had a nice visit while I watched my bookshelves turn to ashes. In replacing them, the insurance company would only cover shelves that were similarly inexpensive, hence the fake-wood bookshelf kits.  
It sounds mindless, but after I carefully nailed the backing on with 22 little nails and tilted the shelf up to admire my work, I discovered the backing was on backwards. Oh no! Did I mention I’m not mechanically gifted? I had to lay the shelf back down on the throw rug on the bare concrete of my damaged den and take out 22 little nails I had hammered in good and tight.
I had brought the bookshelf components from the garage to the den one or two pieces at a time because I couldn’t lift the 75-pound box, and I couldn’t think of anywhere big enough to assemble a six-foot tall, five-shelf monster except on the floor. Oh my aching knees and back. Luckily, I had the TV to entertain me. It took a movie, “Monster-in-Law” with Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda, plus an episode of “Friends”—the one where Monica and Chandler get approved to adopt a baby—but I got it done. I got parts A, C, C1, G, G2, F, P and P1 all in the right places. Why weren’t there any B’s, D, E’s or H through O’s?
Anyway, the shelf is up. It doesn’t match much of anything. Why did I order royal cherry “wood?” But it’s pretty. I’m dying to put books on it, but I can’t until I get my carpet, which is scheduled to be installed on Oct. 2, hopefully after the water damage guys finish patching and painting the closet. The books will remain on the kitchen floor, on the guest room floor and bed, stacked in the living room, and tucked here and there in the laundry room. I’m only moving them once.
I have three more shelves to build. I find the whole process fascinating. The kits are sheer genius with all those perfectly matched parts. But yesterday, when an unemployed friend at church offered to build the rest of the shelves for me, I said yes. Why should I hog all the fun?
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