Diesel, Propane, and Survivalist Small Ball: Part I

Survivalists are prone to testosterone soaked thoughts about the right caliber for “the big one”. I carefully and deliberately stick to smaller scales. I’ll get more mileage out of a full freezer and a big woodpile than wishing I had a bunker. This is “survivalist small ball” and it doesn’t sell magazines. However, it’s where the rubber meets the road. (Also, raising a pig and growing tomatoes tends to focus the mind in a way theory can’t.)

Last month I had a “survivalist” success. It took several tries and lots of false starts but not a lot of money. You might think it’s a pathetic accomplishment. You may be right. You might also be thinking theoretically. There’s a big difference between theory and practice. My little success was realized not in theory but right here and right now. In return the universe gave me a sweet bit of Schadenfreude. Cool!


Services around Curmudgeon Compound are as unreliable as anywhere I’ve lived. It’s hard to get things done when there’s nobody to do it. (I don’t know if it’s low population density, blue collar labor being outbid by a growing welfare state, or both?)

Furnaces need fuel. In cities, people have piped gas. Your own personal pipeline; how cool is that? That’s not an option for folks in the hinterlands. Country households must call a fuel delivery service. A fuel truck will come, pump furnace fuel into a tank in your basement, and happily bill the shit out of you. Customers never need to leave the warm glow of their TV.

Unfortunately, fuel delivery systems where I live are chaotic. A gaggle of rednecks with their own trucks offer deliver fuel. They may or may not arrive. The price and timing will be random; if the fuel arrives at all. Did I mention they might not arrive?

You get used to it. Actually I didn’t get used to it and that makes me stand out. I found it infuriating. Reliability matters. The handful of small operators that serve my area tended to let me down.

In fact the word “fuel service” is a misnomer. It’s a fluid situation indicating they might deliver fuel if they previously scraped enough money together to fill their truck, if the ice fishing sucks, if there’s nothing good on TV, and (most importantly) they’ll race to your house the day their alimony payment is due. Unless they they’re hungover, their truck is broke, or the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligned with mars, in which case they won’t even answer their cell phone. None were good at the business of business. Some returned my calls, some didn’t. You can count on them arriving on schedule like you can bank on a politician’s smile. The lower my tank gets the more frustrated I get. Also their nasty habit of “forgetting” to show up got worse the colder it was. (I like to assume some hot MILF is calling at the last minute or maybe some kindly grandma is slipping them a few cookies. If I’m getting stood up so they can watch Oprah I don’t want to know.)

How to adapt to annoying oil deliveries? Learn the ropes and do it yourself! “Furnace oil” is just “off road” diesel. It’s died red to indicate you haven’t paid road tax. It will also run combines, bulldozers, farm tractors, skid steers, etc… It will run your truck too; but if you use it on the road you’ll get a ticket with many digits so put that shit out of your head right now!

Every station nearby has a pump to supply “off road” diesel. A smart monkey should be able to get fuel from the station to my house. Am I not a smart monkey?

Well at first, no.

It sounds simple. It isn’t.

First of all there’s a thing called a “transfer tank” meant for this purpose. On top of the transfer tank you install a “transfer pump”. Then the whole thing (usually) gets permanently mounted in your truck. (If you don’t have a truck got bigger problems than furnace oil!) This is the perfect solution for the care and feeding of log skidders and farm tractors.

It would also work for a furnace. Thus, predictably, it costs too much. One can aspire to being a smart monkey but starting out as a broke monkey makes it harder. Also, filling half my truck’s valuable payload with a tank I don’t always need rubbed the wrong way.

Lucky me; I scrounged a nifty 70 gallon DOT approved tank. At the time I was driving an SUV; no truck bed. I stuck the tank on the back of my little utility trailer. (A.k.a. The pony trailer: see here and here.)

Brilliant? Nope. It sucked.

For one thing, you’ve got to strap the living shit out of a 70 gallon tank to hold it down. In response I built a hefty mount. That worked better but it never worked never well.

I didn’t have a pump. I planned to use gravity. I fitted a simple garden hose to drain from the bottom of the tank to my house. Apparently the slope was too shallow? It drained slower than molasses in January.

Failure. Try again.

I took the tank out, mounted it on huge skids to lift and steady it, then stuck it back in the trailer. It rode better. I hadn’t lifted it high enough though. The gravity drain method was still pathetic.

Failure. Try again.

I took the tank off the trailer to improve the situation and dropped it on my foot. Aside from the pain (which was significant) I broke one of the fittings on the top.

Failure. Time for a better hobby? Never!

About Adaptive Curmudgeon

I will neither confirm nor deny that I actually exist.
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11 Responses to Diesel, Propane, and Survivalist Small Ball: Part I

  1. Anonymous says:

    Furnace? Fuel? What? And this, after hearing you repeatedly speak of true happiness being a full woodshed. I feel dirty. I need to go wash this off.

    Is your chainsaw broken or something? Grabbing the chainsaw seems like the best solution to the fuel delivery problems. Not only would it sooth your nerves, it would eliminate the need for the fuel delivery. Therapeutic and practical at the same time.

    • I think of a furnace like I think of the reserve chute that comes with your main parachute. You don’t actually need it but sheesh it’s nice to have. (It’s -25 this morning. If I get injured or am out of the house long enough for the fire to die I’d have frozen pipes right quick… except the furnace is my backstop.)

      It is possible to grab my saw and go cut more wood but I personally try to avid cutting it that close. For one thing it’s a stone cold bitch to retireve firewood in these conditions with my equipment. I’d work myself to death a week in this snow to get what I could retrieve in a weekend when the snow’s gone. So it’s my policy that once the first flakes of snow hit the ground the situation is set. I play the rest of the winter with the cards I dealt myself.

      That said, this winter has been pretty rough. I had plenty for a “normal” winter. I may run real low very soon. Stay tuned…

  2. Chaplain Tim says:

    The local farmers’ co-op delivers my fuel oil. I can usually get it within a week of starting to beg. My tank is in the basement, so I don’t have to worry about gelling. I prefer #2 fuel oil- the extra parafin puts out a bit more heat per gallon than #1 (which is #2 diesel, as you pointed out). Buying in bulk and buying it as fuel oil cuts the sales tax around here, so it is considerably cheaper than going to the truck stop and buying off-road fuel.
    Yes, that red dye will cost you plenty if the DOT finds it in a vehicle tank on the road. I bought my Duece from a guy who’d used it exclusively off-road and filled it from the same tank as his forklifts and loaders. Four tanks of fuel and two filter changes later, I finally got all of the dye out of the system. In an emergency my truck will burn fuel oil, but then it will burn anything short of Av-gas (which is one of the reasons I bought it)..
    Diesel transfer pumps aren’t that expensive- Harbor Freight sells cheap ones- if you’re willing to wait for a few hours to move 100 gallons. I’ve even seen little pumps that you can chuck into a power drill that are rated for diesel/fuel oil.

  3. R says:

    If gravity makes it too slow to drain pressurize it with 2-4psi with an air compressor, hand pump, or accumulator tank. Be careful to keep it low or you will fail the tank but a pressure transfer is low tech and easy.

    • Once it was time to think about pressurization I accepted the cost and bought a pump. Ironically I didn’t initially want a “powered” pump. I thought an old style pump where you give it a few cranks and maybe siphon after that would be way cool. I couldn’t find one locally and a cheap 12V DC pump costs about the same or even less anyway. Who knew? 8 GPM is pretty fast too.

  4. P2 says:

    We in the frozen freakin north have the same issues…. Solution? 2 55 gal poly drums & a 12VDC submersible bullet pump attached to a goodly length of 3/4 ID arctic grade hose. I do this a couple times each winter (which lasts from oct to may) The poly drums are light and easily stored, the bullet pump empties them in about 10 minutes each, even at -50. And my toy half ton pickup hauls the 700 lbs easily enough… (bonus – it doesn’t hurts when ya drop a poly drum on your foot…. No much anyway)

  5. Robert says:

    Re pressurizing: Pay close attention to the psi. Do NOT go upstairs from the basement where your furnace’s fuel tank is located and start watching Gunsmoke while waiting for the pressure to build sufficiently so the oil will flow uphill to the container waiting outside. The “boom” when an end seam lets go makes Matt Dillion seem less interesting. There are products which do a very good job of removing the fuel oil smell from your cement floor. And the woodwork. Not so much from the rug, though. Luckily, it wasn’t my idea and, unfortunately, no one asked my opinion.

  6. MaxDamage says:

    Once there was a guy, let’s call him Max. Growing up Max had a Bryan woodburner (http://www.mixfarms.com/new_page_18.htm) that plumbed into the oil-fired furnace in his home. Half a cord a day dropped the heating bills from $600/mo to about $50. Max was happy. Max’s Dad was even happier. And warm. Max and his Dad cut wood every Sunday after church and became, not only frugal, but physically very fit specimens of manhood. Actually, Max’s Dad did the cutting and Max did the picking up and stacking most of the time. And the splitting. Did I mention Max became the very model of muscular manhood? Women practically swooned as soon as they saw him, what with the powerful sinewy muscles and his promise of endless winter heat so long as the Husqvarna had oil and gas.

    Then Max bought his own home, and discovered the joys of an air-to-air heat pump and electric heat at $0.05/kwh. For years Max was happy. Then the winter of 2013 kept Max’s heat pump from providing heat, and Max remembered the woodburner and ran the numbers. The wood would save him perhaps $100/mo, the stove is $4000, and winter is about 4 months long. Four months, $400, carry the one… Three years to pay for itself, at best, which is not a solid investment. Similar units can be had for $1000 from farm supply stores but lack a number of critical features.

    Then Max had an idea. Instead of building a woodburner and plumbing it into the air handler directly, or using a water jacket to heat water and pump that into radiators inside the house, wouldn’t it just be simpler to build a wood burning furnace and have it blow that warm air into a cover over the heat pump? The hot air from the wood burner flows into a box over the heat pump, the heat pump thinks it’s 120 degrees out and happily extracts that heat into my home, when it warms up outside all I have to do is store the heat pump shroud. The fire stays outside, as does the ash and the soot, and when the fire goes out and the unit cools below 24 degrees the heat pump simply stops.

    It’s brilliant! Why did it take me almost 5 years to think of it?

    – Max

    • A heat source for a heat pump. That’s both crazy AND brilliant.

      • MaxDamage says:

        There is one critical component I have yet to solve. I need a way to do emergency venting. If the temperature in the heat pump enclosure gets too high, the solder on the piping in the heat pump could fail. That would have me dropping $5K to replace a unit because I tried to save a hundred bucks that month. This is how divorce happens.

        The coolest solder I know of melts at 244 degrees, so that’s probably not too difficult a problem to solve. Hog confinements have thermostatically-controlled vents with blowers that can be set to specific temperatures and could be pop-riveted onto the enclosure.

        The other device that concerns me is the electric blower motor in the heat pump. Air at 100 degrees won’t bother it, but air at 180 might just shorten its lifespan significantly.

        The final consideration is electricity. With the Bryan when we lost power we had to kill the fire immediately else the house smelled of burnt insulation and the furnace needed a rebuild. I’d have to do the same if I recycled wood-heated air through the heat pump because my emergency vent likely wouldn’t work either. If I plumbed directly into the house, I could run the fan on the woodburner and on the main furnace with a simple generator, thus letting a small 4Kw generator power the whole house and heating system. To power the heat pump would take a much larger generator.

        It’s funny, I’ll probably spend another 5 years pondering all this and coming up with the most elegant solution. By the time I do, there will likely be a new, cheaper fuel source that renders this whole exercise completely moot.

        – Max

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