** NOTICE **
At least one aspect of the following post differs from that which we implemented
in the end-design and/or the actual construction of our Tiny House.
For the most accurate and up-to-date information please refer to our eBook.
If you’ve been following our blog, you’ll know that in an effort to distance ourselves from non-renewable sources of energy, we have undertaken all kinds of lifestyle modifications, many of which have been detailed in earlier posts.
For instance, we purchase about 60% or more of our food from local producers, most of it organic. This year especially, I’ve really cut back – and in fact almost completely eliminated – buying fruit from California and Florida. The exceptions to this are whole organic lemons and Fair-Trade bananas (the latter of which comprises a Central and South American product and thereby a highly transportation intensive vice I cannot yet bring myself to eliminate). We ride our bikes and walk instead of driving or busing, keep our central heat low while safely utilizing a tiny electric space heater to keep the space immediately around where we sit warm, use CFL bulbs in every possible fixture and do all kinds of other things to minimize our energy impact.
There is, however, one area of our energy consumption that still needs our attention – our use of cooking fuel.
We cook alot, so our consumption of gas for cooking fuel is and, without an alternative, will continue to be substantial. While our tiny woodstove will allow us to relieve ourselves of the “need” for natural gas heating, which here in Burlington is the norm given our connection to a major supply line that comes from far away Alberta, Canada enroute to New York City, another recent find will allow us to eliminate our use of natural gas, propane and electricity for cooking.
The Origo 6000
Enter the Swedish-designed and EU manufactured Origo 6000 Alcohol Range. Designed primarily for marine applications, this range is specially designed to burn various forms of alcohol. The form we’re most interested in is pure ethanol, better known as grain alcohol or good old fashioned ‘moonshine’. It is legal in Vermont to manufacture ethanol for fuel-only purposes and ethanol in the form of retail grain alcohol can be purchased “over the counter” as well. If you’re not a big drinker, having a bottle or two of something like Everclear (190 proof grain alcohol) around would not distract one from important life goals.
So why not propane, natural gas or electricity?
Hydraulic fracturing, a more and more widely used natural gas extraction process that has been anecdotally linked to contamination of groundwater, is used extensively in the Alberta gas fields, the source of our “local” natural gas supply. In other words, the gas we currently burn to stay warm, heat our water and cook our food is contributing to the destruction of entire aquifers. Energy companies have turned to ‘fracking’, as this practice is more commonly known, because traditional processes are no longer producing sufficient supply. All of the easy to get at energy has been used up and so now companies are exploiting unproven and highly dubious methods for getting at what’s left. We’ve seen similar desperation in the petroleum industry, most recently exemplified by the deep sea drilling techniques used in the Gulf of Mexico.
Propane is a by-product of oil refining and natural gas production. Therefore, it is no better an option, given it’s direct ties to the natural gas and petroleum industries. Beyond that, both natural gas and propane are highly explosive, expensive, and require plumbing to transport the fuel from the tank to the appliance. They also produce asphyxiation and death if allowed to leak into an enclosed space.
As far as electricity goes, it might be a good alternative if we could trust that the supply comes from 100% renewable sources. It would take a huge battery bank and a field of solar panels to produce enough latent energy to power an electric burner. Plugging into our local grid/municipally-owned electric utility would allow us to tap into a decent energy source, almost 60% of which is generated via renewable energy sources. However, its the other 40% sourced from nuclear & the burning of coal and natural gas that eliminates this as an ideal option. Plus the practical issues like AC electric load limits in the tiny house make this option tough to warrant.
So why alcohol?
First and foremost, we can make it ourselves using waste flora for the mash, and use waste biomass to fuel the process.
Secondly, the many safety advantages of cooking with alcohol that make it such an attractive fuel for use aboard ship also make it ideal in any tiny enclosed space. Amazingly, the byproducts of burning pure grain alcohol are water vapor and carbon dioxide; so there’s nothing to worry about in the way of noxious or toxic by-products of combustion. This is huge, since the simple act of firing up a propane or gas burner in a small space without adequate ventilation is asking for trouble.
Another nice feature of alcohol fuel is that once ignited, it can be easily extinguished with water. So, in the highly unlikely event that spilled alcohol catches fire, a little water is all that’s needed to put it out. Try doing that with a gasoline, diesel, propane or natural gas fueled fire (actually don’t, that would be bad).
Finally, alcohol as a fuel is not explosive and its fumes are safe – so it is not at all dangerous to leave open bottles of it lying around the place (not that we would, but you get the idea).
Finding an Affordable Origo – Be persistent
For more than a year, I scoured craigslist, eBay, Kijiji, sailing forums and retail sailing, canal boat, and caravan sites in the US, UK, Australia, and Germany, all in the hopes of finding an Origo range for less then the $1400 (US) price tag. However, like most everything made of steel (especially stainless steel), and/or imported into this country, the price of these ranges has more than doubled in recent years. In fact, only several years ago, this cooker retailed for ~$600 (US). Its current retail price makes acquiring one difficult for many, including us. And when these stoves do come up for auction or are otherwise listed for sale they tend to be well-used models and the folks selling them tend to expect today’s “new” prices for their old stove. So, as far as my search went, things were not looking good.
Then, a few weeks ago while checking recent Craigslist posts, I came across someone on the West Coast selling a brand new Origo 6000 for an incredibly affordable price. Typically when I myself prepare to sell something pre-owned, I generally kick-off my asking price at somewhere around half of what I paid for the item. To my disbelief, so too did this seller. After an exchange of emails and a phone call or two, the range was packed up and on its way to our home in the back of a UPS truck. A week or so later it arrived in perfect shape, if the photos are any indicator. I am so thankful that we were able to find a new and unused range for such a great price. This just goes to show what a little persistence can do. In the end, we ended up paying less than half what this range costs new!
My internet sleuthing produced an interesting back-story concerning Dometic, the parent company of the Origo line of alcohol-burning appliances. Apparently they are involved in a charitable program called “Project Gaia” that in part aims to put alcohol burning cook-tops in the hands of people who currently burn wood for cooking, as part of a drive to provide folks in poorer parts of the world with an alternative to scavenging wood (which contributes greatly to deforestation) to power open fires.
A component of the project is also focused upon creating local sources of ethanol produced from non-food sources to power the stoves. As we know in this country, ethanol produced from food-stuffs does nothing to combat climate change (it takes more energy in the form of petroleum inputs to produce corn-based ethanol than is contained in the final product) and much to drive up the price of certain foods (like corn). The goal is to teach folks how to use local non-food biomass as both the energy source for powering stills and as the raw material used in the production of ethanol. This provides people with the self-determination that can only come from self-reliance on locally produced energy.
It’s really good to see a corporation like Dometic putting its money where its mouth is. Here’s a link for additional information.
To find out more about “fracking”, watch the movie Gasland by Josh Fox,
or visit his site for an online tutorial.