Sunday, December 28, 2008
Gear that works: Wood-burning outdoor water heaters
Outdoor water heaters were issued to New Zealand troops during WWII, and became popularly known as "Benghazi Boilers". Variations on the theme are manufactured today by a variety of British, Australian, Scandinavian and New Zealand sources as "Kelly Kettles", "Thermettes", "Ghillie Kettles", "Volcano Stoves", "Storm Kettles" and etc. For some reason, they haven't caught on in our hemisphere. I have a half-gallon copper "Thermette" (I reviewed it in this blog some time ago), and it's a worthwhile piece of kit. But I understand that the newer versions are rather poorly made in China.
Well, if a "Thermette" was bitten by a radioactive spider and then mated with a genetically-modified "Storm Kettle", and the resultant offspring overdosed on steroids, you'd end up with these things.
A metal fabrication outfit in Christchurch, New Zealand makes them. I stumbled across a reference somewhere on the internet, tracked them down and talked them into airfreighting me a couple. (I don't think they have a website, but their phone number is 03-384-2184 and their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org . The fellow I spoke to is Paul.) The stoves arrived well wrapped, but dented nevertheless. The airport bag smashers must have have had some aggression to work out. No real harm done, though. I hope that they'll have much more character before I'm done with them.
Shipping doubled the price, but they were still a bargain when compared to the quality and size of the aforementioned competition.
I bought ten-liter and thirty-liter (!) sizes. The ten-liter weighs 16 pounds and stands 23 inches tall. The thirty-liter weighs 29 pounds and is 32 inches tall. Both consist of three pieces, with a fire ring that goes underneath and a trivet that sits on top for cooking. The latter two pieces fit together and can be used without the boiler as hobo stoves. Everything is very solidly built of seam-welded stainless steel, and the boiler is powder-coated. The hole patterns punched in the trivets are works of art. I expect my kids will pass these on to their kids, blackened and more dented.
I tested them on a damp and windy 40 degree Fahrenheit afternoon - exactly the kind of hypothermic conditions when your morale would be well served by enough hot water for a bubble bath with a super model. I chopped a hole in the lake's ice and filled the boilers to the gills. (I've decided that a bucket and funnel are necessary accoutrements - not only did my hands get cold holding them underwater, but I was worried about dropping them. A cork would be a good idea as well, to keep bugs and debris out of the filler hole when water isn't actually being heated.)
All the squaw wood is long gone from around my place, so I picked up a variety of natural fuels from the ground, unfortunately not perfectly dry. Each stove was touched off with birch bark, then I started dropping pine cones, branches and horse poo (in the spirit of those Kiwi soldiers who used camel turds in North Africa) down the tubes like a mortarman when the enemy is in the wire. Both came to a boil at almost the same time, in about 17 minutes. They would have boiled faster if the fuel hadn't been damp, the water hadn't come from under ice, and the dog hadn't kept running off with the sticks and poo.
This sort of low-tech practicality and versatility gives me a stiffy. Water boiler, hobo stove, and water storage all in one. Most of the charm of an open fire with only a fraction of the mess, danger, inconvenience, inefficiency and illegality. No petroleum-based fuel to buy, store, carry, spill or smell. One moving part, the tap. While dinner cooks, there's simultaneously enough water heating for a family or even a boy scout troop. It's stingy with fuel. The only trace it leaves is a circle of ashes. Windy conditions that reduce the efficacy of most stoves actually make this one draft and burn better if the firebase intake hole is turned to windward. Kids enjoy feeding it, and they only sear their flesh once or twice before they learn not to put their hands over the chimney.
When comfort is more important than weight and bulk, or when the electricity goes out at your house, this is an outstanding piece of gear. It earns the prestigious and coveted Oblio13 Two Thumbs Up award.