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.

It’s Still All About Keeping Warm

Annie raced out the dog door to her bowl early this morning for a drink. To her surprise, her tongue touched ice. She licked and licked, but never hit water. Luckily she has a defrosted water bowl inside.

At 6 a.m., when the restless dog woke me up, the moon was shining so bright I could see everything. Stars dotted the black sky. The deck and lawn sparkled with ice as Annie skated across to do her business.  Then, happy and ready for a new day, Annie zoomed back to me, tail wagging. I could read her mind: Give me some food and then let’s play. Nope, I replied, it’s still dark. We’re going back to bed, where it’s toasty. I still have dreams to be dreamed.

In these December days, life is about keeping warm. I go through more than a 40-pound bag of wood pellets a day keeping the pellet stove burning. I keep space heaters and baseboard heaters going in the occupied rooms. I sleep under an electric blanket. I’m wearing my flannel nightgown at night and my long underwear during the day. Annie sleeps on the old couch by the pellet stove. In her crate in the laundry room, she’d turn into a pupsicle.

In the mornings it’s in the 30s outside, the 40s in the laundry room, which has no ceiling, just a bare roof, and it’s right around 50 in the den. The living room has made it to the low 60s, but the pellet stove is empty again, and the temperature is dropping. 

I know it gets a lot colder elsewhere, but for this California-born Oregonian, it’s cold! It’s also oddly dry. We haven’t had real rain for a couple weeks. If precipitation comes now, we could have a white Christmas. Think it can’t snow at the beach? Oh yes it can. The photo is from a previous December when Annie experienced her first snow. She doesn’t look happy.

Keep warm, friends.