The Mobile Wood Stove: Our Tips on Heating a Bus Conversion Tiny Home.
There’s a lot to consider when choosing your tiny home’s source of heat. We chose to install a tiny wood stove in our bus conversion tiny home for many reasons which we’ll dig into here. We love the ambiance, the method of building and keeping a fire, and of course it has such a unique look and feel. It spoke to our design sense and desire for off-grid capabilities. Let’s dive in!
Living in our bus conversion full-time in the winter can be challenging. Our 4kw Dwarf Wood Stove turns a chilly bus into a cozy home! We chose a tiny mobile wood stove for our space for a few key reasons. We’ll share those along with several tips we’ve learned along the way here.
Wood is Worth It
There really is nothing like the warm glow from a cracking fire. The smell, the ambiance, even the chore of chopping and stacking wood seem to romance us back in time and connects us to our primal relationship that is human and fire.
From cooking to getting rid of junk mail in the most satisfying way, having a wood stove is no doubt worth the added elbow grease.
Check out our post on insulating the bus too. How well your space is insulated is a crucial part in staying warm (or cool!) in your bus or tiny home year-round. The conversations of heat source and insulation quality go hand in hand.
A tiny wood stove means tiny fuel so it’s not as simple as going to your local firewood dealer and ordering a cord or two, it just won’t fit in your stove.
That means sourcing the wood starts with good ol’ fashioned you and a tree. The upside is that a tiny space doesn’t require much heat to feel comfortable so the amount of fuel needed for the season is much less than what you would gather for a conventional home.
If you’re stationary and have trees on your property then gathering wood won’t be a problem. Medium sized saplings can be cut and left round for burning (a good option if you don’t feel like chopping).
Most of us out there aren’t parked on 20 acres of harvestable firewood. So what does the savvy traveler do when faced with this dilemma?
Sourcing Wood on the Move
There are a couple of tricks we can employ here. One is right under our noses (or bonnets for you bus people).
Yup, I’m talking about the simple and effective way of collecting from the side of the road. Local utility companies are often cutting trees that are a potential threat to their power lines and usually leave enough behind for the tiny wood stove forager to collect.
Now, grabbing small amounts for a single fire is one thing but if you plan to be stocking up for the winter it’s important to contact local authorities to make sure you have the green light. Most of the time they’ll be happy someone is “sprucing” up the side of the road (pun intended, but spruce isn’t actually a good fuel source).
Look for the oldest and driest hardwoods, preferably ones that are up off the ground.
WARNING! It’s extremely important that you follow ALL local firewood Laws! Many states have laws in place that restrict the transportation of firewood across state lines. These laws are not in place to protect firewood businesses, they’re to impede the spread of invasive diseases and insects that can be traveling with your wood.
Pressed Sawdust Bricks
Fear not fellow vagabond! There is another safe and simple way to source fuel for your wood stove in a pinch: pressed sawdust bricks. You can buy these bricks on Amazon but you will no doubt get a better price at a local hardware store.
Not only are pressed bricks the perfect size but they also burn hotter and longer than just about every hardwood. Plus, there’s no cutting, splitting, moisture content, or bugs to worry about! They can be found at pretty much every hardware store. They’re easy to stow away out of sight too.
The only actual downside is that they’re not free. We have a box for our sawdust bricks and a stand for our firewood and use a combination of the two to offset the cost.
My favorite brand of pressed brick is Bioblock Natural Firelog. They use only 100% recycled kiln dried hardwood and there’s no added wax or chemicals. There are cheaper options out there but I find Bioblocks to burn hotter and cleaner than others I’ve tried and the size is perfect for our stove!
Heating and Burn Time
We’re often asked, “Does your wood stove heat the whole bus?”
The answer is yes, and then some, but it’s different than baseboard or forced hot air.
If you were to look at baseboard heat on a graph it would be a relatively straight line delivering pretty consistent temperatures throughout the day (a little less so with forced hot air).
In contrast, if you were to look at wood stove heat on a graph it would look more like a bell curve starting out at a cooler temperature, reaching a peak during full burn, and then gradually dropping back down.
There’s a science and technique to getting the temperature just right in your tiny space and it differs depending on the outside temperature you’re dealing with, the efficiency of your stove, and its size.
Our 4kw Dwarf Stove is great because it offers an air intake adjustment and an air wash adjustment (air circulates in front of the glass). This gives us plenty of control to get our temperatures dialed in.
A full size bus (ours is only a 3/4 at 31 ft.) may be better suited to a larger 5kw dwarf. Tiny Wood Stove also has a 3kw option for smaller applications. If you plan to be in milder (not northern New Hampshire winters, hah) temperatures, that may work best. Find what’s right for your space!
Adjustments for Specific Temperatures
If it’s very cold out (20’s and lower) I add more fuel and leave the air open for a hotter burn. When everything inside the stove has had a chance to catch, I turn the air down slightly to conserve fuel and get a longer burn time. I’ll stoke it throughout the day but typically if it’s sunny the passive solar through our windows keeps the bus comfortable even in the coldest temperatures.
Believe it or not, it’s a bit trickier when temperatures are ranging above freezing. The way to achieve the most consistent comfortable temperatures is to use less fuel, but this also means you have a shorter burn time and need to stoke the fire more often.
Another technique I use is to use the same amount of fuel I would on a cold day but after everything catches I turn the air way down to slow the burn. This gives a nice long burn time but can sometimes result in the bus getting a little too warm for a period of time.
The Overnight Burn
Like I said before, a tiny stove means tiny fuel.
Well, unfortunately tiny fuel means a shorter burn time. On cold nights I have to get up around 3:00 am to stoke the fire, not the most fun activity in my day. But just like many things in life, you get used to it.
As a matter of fact I pretty much wake up at 3:00 am now regardless if I need to do any stoking. Anyway, for us buslifers we have a dog and I’m a total sucker when it comes to his comfort.
If we didn’t have Moose we’d probably just stack on the pj’s and load up the blankets when the fire went out. Of course, in that case, you have to be comfortable waking up to a very chilly bus. Well, I’m not a fan of freezing cold floors or wearing clothes to bed and neither is Moose, so here’s what I do to get the best overnight burn.
About a half an hour before bed
I load up the stove as much as possible while still allowing airflow. In our case it’s either 4 Bioblocks for cold nights or 2 Bioblocks and 2 big logs for moderate nights.
Bedtime Stove Prep
I let all that catch at full burn until it’s time for bed then turn the airflow almost all the way down, just enough to have some small flames. It won’t be the hottest burn but you don’t need it to be when you’re covered in blankets. It will, however, be the longest burn the stove can achieve.
Keep in mind that burning at low temperatures can cause smoldering which leads to creosote buildup, especially if there’s high moisture in your logs. A nice hot burn will clean out the stove but not the entire flue. It’s important to clean out the flue at least once a year and check it monthly for buildup.
I always joke with Meag (probably to the point where she’s sick of it) about how the wood stove is all I ever wanted and that I just built the bus around it.
All joking aside, I wanted the stove to be a focal point and the hearth is what really made that happen.
The base of the hearth is a granite top from a kitchen cart we picked up at a yard sale. Using a carbide stone bit I drilled multiple holes to bolt the slab and stove to the bus.
The hearth’s form is made up of cement board, ¾” plywood, and square steel tubing for reinforcement. The tubing was critical to make sure there was no flex in the wall that could potentially crack a tile.
I used a diamond cutting blade on my angle grinder and cut the tiles dry without any problems. After two sloppy days mortaring and grouting the hearth was done. Not too much work but it sure does bring it all together!
The only piece I had to source on my own was the custom elbow which cost less than $20 from a local tin shop.
It’s important to note that this diameter pipe is unusual and if you are going to source your own make sure it’s not a pellet stove pipe. Pellet stove pipes do not have the same heat rating as wood burning stoves.
We get asked all the time if we have to worry about carbon monoxide. The answer is YES, ABSOLUTELY! Anything burning creates carbon monoxide and anyone burning anything in a small space should take it very seriously.
We have two carbon monoxide detectors and a smoke detector. A properly installed and maintained stove and chimney shouldn’t be a danger if drafting properly and good ventilation exists.
I’d like to also make the distinction between carbon monoxide and oxygen depletion.
A common misconception is that carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is when all the oxygen in the room is depleted. While oxygen depletion is part of the process and a danger in itself it is not the same as CO poisoning. CO can be created from oxygen depletion because this in turn creates an incomplete combustion of carbon which produces the dangerous CO.
If your stove isn’t drafting properly it can release CO into your space. This can happen on windy days or when opening and closing windows and doors. With our drafty bus door, regular refreshing of the air through air vents in the roof, and multiple alarms in place I rarely worry about it.
We did purchase an outside air intake for our stove which, when installed, will draw air from outside the bus and eliminate the possibility of oxygen depletion and mitigate drafting issues. It also makes for a more efficient burn!
It’s always been the little things in life that make me smile. In this case it’s my miniature chopping block and hatchet I use for making kindling inside the bus.
It’s simply a square chunk of white oak with a thick piece of felt glued to the bottom to protect the floor. Because our wood is only 8”-10” it splits with little effort making it a fun and easy thing to do right inside the bus!
The hatchet I picked up at a yard sale and refurbished, the handle I carved from a piece of reclaimed American hickory. It holds a special place in my heart and therefore a special place in the bus. It just made sense to put it to use with its little chopping block buddy.
Okay, I know all you purists are going to hate on me for this next trick, but when you’re trying to start a fire at 3:00 am, it’s cold enough to see your breath, and you’re out of kindling a propane torch sure does come in handy. Don’t get me wrong I love the art of building and lighting a fire but sometimes it’s okay to make things easy. Just make sure it’s stored well away from the stove and the nozzle is disconnected if in transit.
This next one might be a little weird but hear me out. Dryer lint. Yep, that annoying thick carpet of garment droppings the last person at the laundromat “forgot” to remove. It makes the best tinder you can imagine. When dealing with a tiny wood stove it can sometimes be hard to hold a match when there’s no room to fit your hand. Put some tufts of dryer lint in your kindling corners then all you’ll need to do is touch it with a flame and woosh!
Lastly, get yourself a wood stove temperature gauge.
Every stove requires a little breaking in and practice to get to optimal performance, this simple and cheap device will get you there faster. Even if it’s not completely accurate, if kept in the same place it can be be used as a reference point to help you learn the life of your stove and keep you on the highway to the burn zone!
There you have it folks, our tiny wood stove life in a nutshell. Hope you enjoyed this post!
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