In 2020 at my casa, we decided to put a 250 square foot, three season porch on the back of our home in Central Illinois.  In 2021, we found a contractor with experience in jobs like this to do the work and in 2022 the job got done.  Welcome to Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” America…  and the lack of skilled tradesmen in our world.

As part of the give and take negotiations of marriage, the wife wanted a screened in porch.  I didn’t want any porch.  Then she wanted a closed-in porch.  I relented in exchange for a wood-burning stove (as backup heat) and a hobby solar system (for backup electricity).  Construction began last spring and it was almost complete by Independence Day.

How has it worked for us since then?

The wife and I love the porch.  The kids love the porch.  I’ve burned some wood out there (understatement) and we’ve had the solar system running for about eight months now.  The porch itself has nine huge windows – almost floor-to-ceiling but they open for fresh air in temperate times.  Then there’s the mostly-glass entry doors. 

One person described time spent in it as “floating” on the grass in the backyard overlooking a large city park.  Add in the ambiance of having a real, flickering fire on a nice, toasty warm porch in the winter is second to none.  Especially if it’s snowing outside.  It’s so peaceful and tranquil. 

Frankly, if I had a CPAP out there, I’d probably sleep there.  It’s nice.

Let’s look at it from the “grid is down” scenario for auxiliary heat and electricity and the first-hand lessons learned…


For the wood burner, we bought the Ashley Hearth stove rated for 2000 sq. ft.  For most of the time it’s been great for the porch.  Silly me thought the stove could heat a couple thousand square feet.  The joke was on me.  Don’t let the joke be on you if you buy a wood-burning stove.

It doesn’t have nearly enough thermal output.  Not even close.  My hopes of using it as a backup heat source for the home?  LOL.  Not so much.  Again, not even close.  No way.

At the same time it is efficient.  It draws in cold air from outside, so it’s not sucking out your warmed air for combustion.  It’s airtight in terms of smoke smell.  And it’s so efficient at burning and reburning in the combustion chamber that even Pete Bootyjudge might have one in his home.  

Well maybe not.  He might get a splinter handling firewood.  Or get some wood ash on his sleeve or face diaper when cleaning out the stove.

Having said how much we enjoy it, the stove experience hasn’t always been a bed of roses.  At times it has provided a painful learning curve.  First off, I had no idea that the double & triple wall stove vent pipe for a simple, straight-up run would cost more than the stove itself.  Yeah, you read that right.  The stove was about $1500 including the forced-air fan add-on.  The pipe and other necessary components came in at over $2000.  Then there was the installation of said pipe.  The price for good (and safe) vent pipe even shocked our builder as he didn’t have a lot of experience with wood burners (he subbed out the install to a local company who had that experience).

Here’s another dirty little secret: “ratings” for wood burning stoves are like ratings for the range of walkie-talkies.  Just like you’re never going to get 30 miles out of a pair of crappy bubble-pack radios you bought at Best Buy or Walmart, you’re never going to heat the square footage those stoves claim.  Plan on a tenth of advertised ratings under adverse conditions.  And that is for a very well-insulated space.

As I noted earlier, we bought the forced-air blower that goes on the back of the stove.  It does a very nice job blowing air across the back of the firebox and that cranks out heat.  It easily doubles if not triples the effective heat output of the stove by warming more air.  The bad news?  It’s kind of noisy at anything above low speed (and output) settings. 

That cold snap at Christmas with temps plunging to around zero-degrees and strong winds left me with a stove that struggled to keep the porch (225ish sq ft inside – albeit with pitched ceiling of 12′ high) warm even when well-fired by my standards. 

Here’s another lesson: firewood isn’t cheap.  It’s about $350ish per cord, call it $400 with tip, delivered and stacked.  Boots’ Firewood – an advertiser in GunNews – is awesome.  They’re prompt, neat and nice guys.  Unlike a local supplier, they actually brought out more or less what I ordered, not about 3/4s of what I ordered.  Not only that, but Boots didn’t dump it in my driveway and drive away either. 

I’ve bought about two cords from Boots.  I chewed through well over a half a cord of wood between December 23rd and January 1st alone.  I’m running low now, as defined as having only a half-cord of wood stacked and ready to go but then again, the season is effectively over.

Compared to electrical heat…

The stove with a modestly fire has approximately the output of a pair of 1500W electric space heaters running full tilt.  Yeah, I know that 1500W of space heaters is about 5000BTUs and my stove is allegedly rated for 90,000BTUs.  I’m just sayin’.  Then again, I don’t run the stove super red-hot, with flames licking over the glass window on the door.

The space heaters have the benefit of being thermostatically controlled.  That means not getting up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire.  Big plus.

Electric space heaters are a whole lot less messy with dirt and wood chips or any smoke smell from loading the stove.  Another plus.

And they are a whole lot cheaper.  When it’s 32 degrees outside (and not much warmer than that on the closed-off porch), a pair of 1500 W heaters (running on two circuits to the porch) will bring the porch to 70+ degrees in between two and three hours.  Math time:  3 hours x 3kw = 9kwh x $0.125 per kwh, courtesy of Ameren or about a dollar… 

Meanwhile, each split log probably costs at least a buck, maybe two dollars…  Call it a minimum of $5 to load the stove, and in about a half-hour or so it’ll have the porch air temps in the high 60s.  Add in another hour or more to warm the room surface temperatures and the time difference isn’t that significant.  Especially if you run the room up to 75 degrees or so to warm the room contents – and the floor – so it’s cozy.   Then you’re dumping another $5 in wood to keep it running.

From a purely economic standpoint, Ameren’s electricity is much cheaper.

However, Ameren doesn’t bring the ambiance of a fire.  Or the independence that it’ll run even if something happens to the power utility.

Not wanting to give Boots Firewood all my play money, I bought a new Stihl chainsaw with a gift card I won from the Pontiac Sportsmen’s Club.  What’s more, I’m fortunate enough to have a couple of friends where I can cut deadwood.  I’ve been out one Saturday for a couple of hours and cut down about a rick of wood as my first outing.  I plan on devoting a couple weekend days to cutting when the weather warms up soon.  If it weren’t for my love of chopping down trees and recycling plant matter into CO2, I’d think hard about Boots and the delivery option for next year.  Yeah, I know.  I’m quite the recycler.

Tip:  Stihl saws run circles around Poulans.

So after my first season, I’ve gone from heating with wood to using the stove for ambiance and letting a space heater do the grunt work of making heat when we want to spend time out on the porch. 

In some ways, our new porch is kind of like a new swimming pool.  You use it everyday when you first install it and eventually, you use it occasionally.  Along those lines, we’ve gone from using the porch most evenings to keeping it open and heated on the weekends and surrendering it to cold winter temps during the week.

This winter, we also had a sensor fail on our furnace and were without traditional heat for a full day in mid-thirties weather. 

I’d already learned that the wood-burner wouldn’t heat the home by then, so I didn’t even try.

The old-fashioned kerosene heater saved the day.  What’s more, it had plenty of output to keep the entire house at mostly normal temperatures (granted areas furthest from the heater were noticeably cooler and the room with the heater was quite warm).  This with only a ceiling fan lazily helping to circulate the warm air.

The takeaways from this year:  You still can’t beat a kerosene heater for emergencies.  The furnace failure reminded me how darn effective (and affordable) kerosene heaters really are, especially for those on a budget.  Also, buy a lot bigger wood-burner than you think you’ll ever need. 

Clockwise from the circuit panel: Charge controllers for 2 sets of solar panels, each totaling 400W. They control whether or not the energy created by the panels goes into the batters, or if the batteries are at capacity, doesn’t. They’re compatible with multiple types of storage batteries and they’re set for LiFePO4 cells. The 3000W Renology pure sine wave inverter (fed by a couple of monster copper cables rated for 600A each), 12ga drop cords powering washer/dryer and the second a dehumidifier, but the dehumidifier proved too great of a load for the system. Transfer panel (ten circuits switchable from utility power to aux power input through the plug on the lower right), lastly, the AC input from outside to bring in power from a generator fed by10/3 with ground Romex (10 ga., 2 hots, a neutral and a ground).


We now have a 7.5kw, 800w solar system.  I call it a “hobby” solar system because it’s not really a serious system in my opinion.  It’s enough to run critical loads reliably – except, as I’ve learned, in the dead of an Illinois winter.

How do the panels do?  The very best output delivered to my batteries is 18.9A per 400W set of panels.  As I understand it, each 100w panel will deliver 5.21A at the source, so getting 4.7A seems respectable in my world.   In other words, I get just shy of 40 amps times the number of hours of peak sunshine under ideal conditions (maybe three-ish in the dead of winter up to five-ish in the summer) plus lower output at other times.    

With 3 2500W lithium iron phosphate batteries, I have plenty of storage for short-term emergency electricity use – 7.5kW hours.  I run them through a Renology 3000w pure sine wave inverter that will provide close to 6000 watts of surge capacity.  That’s awesome.  It runs quite cool.

Mr. Inverter does not, however, like the bonded ground/neutral in my circuit panel.  That’s a huge disappointment and on my list of things to troubleshoot.  The Inverter is available to use through extension cords though.  Suboptimal, I know.

Another hiccup: once in a blue moon (once every twenty or thirty cycles maybe) I’ll get a fault of some sort from the washing machine that triggers the safety shutdown on the inverter.  As the freezers also run on that inverter, if I run the washing machine at bedtime or when I’m leaving the house, I’ll move the washer/dryer over to utility power (unplug from inverter and plug into traditional utility outlet).

I installed a transfer panel that works great and safely.  I can power it through a genset (or hypothetically, my solar inverter).  I had the electricians install a receptacle outside so we can bring the electricity into the house without using a suicide cord or leaving a door or window open and running an extension cord.  That keeps cold air and carbon monoxide outside and vastly improves safety.

The transfer panel (a Reliance Control 30A 10-circuit panel) powered by a 4500w Westinghouse Inverter genset works flawlessly and only cost about three hundred bucks.  Thanks to YouTube, installation is easy – like a couple of hours tops.  It took me longer to decide which ten circuits to run though the transfer box.

I can (and have) run the most important half of the circuits in the house through the generator without any issue all day long.  Granted, it won’t run the air conditioner in the summertime.  For those of you with electric dryers, water heaters or ranges, it won’t run those either.  You would need to spend a lot more greenbacks for a generator with that capacity, along with stockpiling a lot more refined dead dinosaurs.  (Rule of thumb: with inverter generators you’ll get a little over 5kWh per gallon of gasoline.)

I simply have to remain cognizant not to run the microwave, the toaster and a hair dryer all at the same time – not a big deal at all.  But aside from cooking breakfast, I don’t have to worry about overloading the 4500 watt gennie. 

Those of you with teenage daughters who like to use blow dryers and curling irons and all those fun things, your mileage may vary.  You might want the Predator 9500 watt monster, but those weigh about 300 pounds fully fueled and that’s… heavy.

I had planned on running some circuits through the solar system full time (specifically the sump pump), but that’s on hold.  Right now, it runs the deep freezers and until the late fall, the washer and dryer as well. 

By November, the 800 watts of panels on the roof of the porch no longer reliably kept up with the draw down from the washer and dryer.  Well, they might have, but I won’t let the batteries fall below 30% in case the grid went down.

In December, between the endless cloudy days and snow cover, I moved everything, including the freezers back over to utility power.  With the heavy cloudy days and some snow on the panels, the freezers brought the batteries down to about 10% after about a week there at Christmas. 

With longer days now, the freezers have since returned to the solar system, as has the washer and gas dryer.  

The lesson:  Always install a lot more panels than you think you’ll need if you’re going to use it for anything other than emergency purposes.

The upside?  Biden had a 24% tax credit for every dollar spent installing a solar system that went operational in 2022.  My entire system includes everything from the panels, the charge controllers, to the wiring, to the inverter (including a backup) and installation.  It also includes the generator to recharge the batteries when the sun’s not shining, the chargers, all of the hardware right down to the gas cans.  So I’m looking forward to that tax credit.

In an emergency, the solar system will power the sump pump, furnace, refrigerator, freezers, CPAPs and other critical devices, via extension cords until I work out that issue about a bonded neutral/ground.  For how long?  Maybe a day or so. 

My primary goal with the solar was to provide silent electrical power for critical loads overnight in a power outage so as not to attract generator thieves.  I’ve achieved that.  I’ll admit it cost a lot more than I initially expected though.

In doing all this, I’ve learned that my household “idles” at about 120 watts of electrical consumption if none of the big items (things with motors or compressors) are running.  Ameren is not getting rich off us.

While I’ve tested both the inverter and generator backup systems during the day, I hadn’t employed them in a real utility outage until a couple of weeks ago.

During a thunderstorm, lightning struck the substation that feeds the circuit for my neighborhood.  The circuit also services State Farm Corporate Headquarters, so it’s a VERY high priority circuit for Ameren. 

The problem, I later learned, was the direct hit destroyed a massive transformer, one that takes three years to manufacture.  It ended its service life in a blaze of glory, er, I mean fire burning off the coolant oil.  (Burning cooling oil no longer cools…  who would have thunk that?)  

What’s more, the lightning vaporized – as in nothing left – aluminum buss bars inside the facility and melted other massive copper cables rated for 1200A current like butter left on a warm stove.  It also melted large switches so they didn’t switch so well any longer.  Yes, it was a mess.

It took crews about four hours to put something together to restore power, which proved remarkable as there was still lightning in the area for the first part of that.  Those guys have big brass ones.

Why do I remember it so well?  The power went off as I worked to finish the May issue of GunNews.  While I didn’t lose anything on the computer thanks to the uninterruptible power supply (UPS), I quickly learned that the UPC’s beep every minute or so was going to become highly annoying in short order – plus the kids upstairs in bed could hear it and it kept them awake. 

So I pulled out the Westinghouse genset and in less than five minutes, I had the generator out and softly humming as it warmed up.  Add in a 50-foot 10ga. RV power cable hooked up to the exterior of the house (I learned those four-prong plugs are a PITA to plug into in the rain in the dark), and I was ready to go inside and switch over to backup power for real.  (Hint:  Don’t put the genset right next to the house where CO could infiltrate basement window wells, or other cracks or crevices.)

Five minutes after that, I’d tied the input to the transfer panel and switched over the circuits – all unbeknownst to the wife.  The lights came back on in her world as she surfed social media in the master bedroom.  She had no idea we weren’t running on utility power as she had lights, a ceiling fan and bathroom light there in the master bedroom.  Our generator is that quiet.

My neighbors have a natural gas backup generator that sits below our master bedroom.  That noisy sucker obscured the sound of me going outside.    

Bless her heart, she texted our neighbors to tell them our power was restored.  It wasn’t until I told her we had electricity because I’d gotten the generator out that she realized pretty much everyone was still in the dark.

In the end, when utility power came back online, I shut down the generator after switching our loads back to the utility.  We burned about a quart of gas which means that extra five gallon gas can in the garage would keep us in power for at least a couple of days if the outage lasted longer for other reasons. 

All in all, everyone slept happily ever after.  That night at least.

Knowing that we could maintain normalcy even if the power felt priceless.

2 thoughts on “REAL WORLD RESULTS: Backup sources of heat & electricity”
  1. Impressive. But, there’s always a butt. Your neighbors after a week or so of your lights on and their lights off are going to look pretty enviously upon you and what what you’ve got. You got to sleep sometime

  2. My first take- why would you tip someone just for delivering firewood, something you are paying the advertised price for? If they are not making enough with their advertised price, then they need to raise their prices.
    It is sad to see tip jars at so many places now. Are we now supposed to tip people just for doing what they are paid to do? No one ever tipped me for doing my job, and I never expected it.

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