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Mechanics Corner: Knocking the chill from the cold farm shop

Andy Overbay for Progressive Forage Published on 18 January 2017

I don’t believe there is any place colder than a large metal building on a cold, windy day. If they are oriented incorrectly to form a wind tunnel … oh my goodness, they are frigid. As we get older, our ability to keep warm diminishes, so keeping the farm shop warm on these chilly days helps us to not only be warm but also work more safely.

Shop heating can come in many different forms, and each one comes with its own set of installation costs, operation costs and safety considerations. Let’s look at a few of the more common ways to heat farm shops and think about the three issues above.

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Space heaters

Freestanding space heaters are portable and inexpensive but are only useful in limited amounts of space, depending on models. Unvented kerosene and propane heaters can boost the temperature in a small garage, especially if it is insulated, but they also release carbon monoxide and moisture into the air.

Air quality in a closed shop would definitely fit into the area of “safety hazard” if you choose to go this route. While they heat a small area quickly, the heat also can dissipate just as quickly when the unit is turned off or runs out of fuel.

Electric heaters

Electric heaters can offer you the ability to heat an area almost as fast as a space heater. The size and power of the unit varies widely, as does the cost of the unit and installation. Units can range from a small $50 space heat source to units that can heat thousands of square feet and cost thousands of dollars.

Radiant electric heaters can really focus heat into certain areas of the shop, and floor-installed heating can cover an entire area. Electric heating can be among the safest choices, but they are also among the costliest to operate.

Wood stoves

According to my beloved wife, nothing beats a wood fire for warmth. Usually that ends the conversation right there, but I think in this instance we better go a bit further. Wood stoves can be a good choice – but only under certain circumstances.

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With any kind of open-flame system, you need to be sure that clearances and the absence of combustibles are maintained; the latter is especially difficult in many shop settings. Considerations for proper chimney construction and venting need to be considered, and wood stoves can take a good bit of time to heat any area of much size.

On the other hand, if you are working on wood projects or have recently built much fence, scraps and waste wood may be readily available and actually help clean up a potential mess. Be advised: Pressure-treated wood is not to be burned in a wood stove under any circumstance.

Even the ashes of pressure-treated wood fires can kill livestock, as several unfortunate farmers can attest.

Outdoor wood furnaces

If you are convinced that wood needs to be your fuel source, it may pay to invest in an outdoor furnace. These units have become very popular in my area in the past few years, and there are several nice features about them that make an outdoor heating system attractive.

They can be used to supplement existing systems and many have the ability to heat multiple structures.

You might use one to add heat to the house and feed the shop as well. They can also supply heat to greenhouses, barns or even a pool or hot tub. They can also supplement your water heater as well.

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Boilers are typically installed 30 to 200 feet from the home or shop, and the furnace uses a firebox and heat exchanger to send hot water through insulated underground pipes. From there, the design of the heating system takes on much the same look as a modern forced-air system.

Waste oil heaters

Waste oil heating systems can be a great way to go if you have a large inventory of machinery to generate the waste oil. One side benefit might actually be that you change the oil in your equipment more regularly to generate the fuel for the winter ahead. My only experience with these units comes from a friend in a neighboring county.

He uses his heater to warm his large commercial greenhouse. While he loves the heat it produces, he also shared that his unit quickly burns through the waste oil he can generate from his small farm. He pays a recycling company to bring waste oil to him to carry him through the cold months, so it isn’t as economical as he intended.

That said, most heating systems have become more and more efficient, and my friend’s heating system is over a decade old at this point. Bottom line with this choice is: It depends.

Geothermal heating

Geothermal heating works on the same principles as a modern watering trough. Holes dug to a certain depth in the ground release natural warmth generated by the earth to raise the temperature of the target to above ambient temperatures.

Generally, a series of well holes are drilled, and pipes placed in the holes conduct both heating and cooling properties of the ground to an aboveground heat pump system.

Obviously, the major consideration for this type of heating is the cost of drilling the “heat wells” the depth needed to help with the heating, and whether it is supported by the geology and water table in your part of the world.

One advantage to this system is that once installed, cost savings can be realized, and just as with a conventional HVAC system, more efficient cooling can also be a benefit of this choice.

In summary, the best choice for knocking the chill out of your farm shop is dependent on your unique situation. Careful planning and research will help you create a work environment that will be a blessing to you and your operation for years to come.  end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.

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