When my wife Karen and I started on Pulteney Point in 1969 the house was supplied with a beautiful white porcelain enamel Enterprise oil cook stove. Ms. Enterprise had a “polished cast iron cook top, roomy storage drawer, even heat porcelain oven, no-fog oven window” 1 and a high shelf above the cooking surface. As the lighthouse generators ran on diesel, the stove (and oil-burning furnace) had been modified for burning this fuel.
Never having used one of these stoves before we did not not have very good luck cooking on it at first. This talent improved over the years and later we had great success with our cooking and we fell in love with our oil stove.
Depending on the fuel, the weather, or the person, you would either love or hate your oil stove.
These stoves were not designed to burn diesel fuel but the lighter and hotter burning stove oil. This stove oil would ignite easier, burn cleaner, and leave less carbon. We could have purchased drums of stove oil and had them shipped to the lighthouse via the Coast Guard ships but diesel was readily available and could be purchased at lower cost.
Diesel is hard to light except when in a fine mist from the injector of a diesel engine. Ours just ran by gravity from the carburetor (actually a glorified mechanical shut-off valve with a reservoir for oil) into the bottom of the firepot (see diagram of the firepot at left). In here we threw a lighted wood kitchen match and hoped it would ignite something before the match went out. Later we learned to use a small piece of lit paper instead which acted as a wick. Then we waited and watched until more of the oil heated up and started to vaporize. Depending on the wind speed this could be fast or slow. When well lit we turned on the fan for air and closed the firepot lid and waited for the stove to warm up enough to create its own draft.
This sounds like an easy job – light, sit back, enjoy! But if the stove was cold it could take a long while to heat up. If hot then we had to be cautious it did not heat up too fast and explode. Also, most firepots were lined with copper water-heating coils which collected soot because of the cold water inside. These coils sat just above the firepot and below the stove top. They entered and exited through the rear of the stove. The inside of the firepot was earlier layered with cast iron fire rings (later replaced by stainless steel). These rings helped lift the flames above the bottom of the pot by heating up and creating a secondary burning surface for the vapourized oil.
When lighting the stove these rings presented an additional hazard as they were in the way, making it more difficult to get the match or burning paper into the pot. Holding a flashlight with one hand, as the inside of the pot was black with soot and ash, we would manouever the fire-lighting material through the coils and fire rings, meanwhile trying to avoid getting the soot on our clothes and not burning our fingers. With the wind blowing this sometimes took many tries.
The stoves used a standard eight (8) inch blue-steel stove pipe with a wind-damper inline which was to prevent strong gusts from putting out the fire. Similar pipes and dampers were also used on wood stoves. Anyone who has lit a wood stove will know the routine. The stove pipe ran into a brick chimney or in some occassions straight out through a collar in the roof.
OK, the diesel fire is lit in the stove, the covers are all closed and the fan is running. Perfect!
If you were looking at the stove from the front, the hot exhaust and flame from the burning oil in the firepot (left side of the stove) travelled up through the middle of the water-heating coils and across the top of the oven below the flat cooking top. From there it travelled down the right side of the oven, under the oven and exited at the back up the stove pipe.
This flow of heated exhaust gases warmed the oven and the stove top, and the house. It was a perfect arrangement. We could keep things hot on top; cook, or dry things out in the oven, store things on the shelf to keep them dry (salt) and keep pans warm and rust-free in the drawer. It was a perfect arrangement.
Depending on the quality of the diesel oil (summer/ winter grade, rust, water, additives, etc.) the fire would burn differently. The diesel was picked up in Esquimalt, BC by the Coast Guard ships for their own use and for re-supplying the lighthouses. It came from steel tanks, went into steel fuel tanks on the ships and from there it was transferred to aluminum barges to come ashore at the lightstations where it was pumped through long hoses and two-inch steel fuel lines into steel holding tanks.
We then pumped what we required to a 250 gallon fuel tank in our basement (early years). This was great. The oil was warmed by the household air and so burnt better. The tanks did stink a bit in the cellar but we got used to it. They really did stink when you overfilled them (which happened a few times!). The fuel was pumped by a little car fuel pump up to the stove carburetors (actually called an oil valve). When on “idle” (low flame) the pump would work, make a bumping knocking noise about every 15 seconds. When on high (baking bread or cooking roast) this little pump would go crazy, making its bumping noise every few seconds as more fuel was required.
The copper fuel line to the stove had an inline felt filter to pick up sediment, rust, dirt, etc. The only thing it would not stop was water. Water got into the bulk tanks through condensation, or a mishap in delivery. When water got into the system all had to be shut down for hours of cleaning. We could usually recognize the water sound as the carburetor fed it into the hot firepot and it sizzled and bubbled as it evaporated. Eventually more water would displace the oil and the stove would go out.
Later, for safety reasons, the house storage tanks were moved outside. This gave more chances for water to get in and if extremely cold, turned the summer (thicker) diesel into a thick, waxy, sludge which again shut down everything. A small 40 watt trouble-light at the outlet of the fuel tank would heat the fuel line enough to melt the sludge and the oil would flow again.
One time we had a delivery of diesel oil that contained an additive that smelled like acetone. This stuff burned like wildfire in the stoves. Never had a better fire in the old oil stove! Could have used that forever.
Unfortunately it had a bad effect on our diesel engines and caused the fuel injectors to slowly plug up and stop working as the residue from the additive clogged the exhaust valves. One after another the three-cylinder diesels shut down after about 24 hours running time. Just before the last diesel went down the cavalry (CG technicians and helos and ships) arrived with fresh clean diesel to dilute the contaminent.
Never did find out what the contaminant was but it sure smelled like acetone. Nobody would confirm, or even acknowledge that it was there, even when I sent samples to the delivery ship. I wish I knew what it was. It made diesel burn with a nice hot blue flame. 2
Hooked up to the hot water coil inside the firepot were two copper lines that went to a forty (40) gallon, insulated, hot water tank which stored the convection-heated water while the stove was running. (see similar diagram at left) As we also used the stove to heat the house, the stove was on all the time. This way we had lots of hot water for washing and baths. On top we kept a large coffee pot of water so we had hot water for coffee or tea. Wet clothes could be hung on the sides where we had installed a towel rack, or hung on the oven door handle. Many a wet shoe was dried on the rack above.
When we really wanted more heat and cooking was finished we just opened the oven door. The heat was constant and regular and the house was always warm. Many cold helicopter pilots and engineers and other visitors used to come in, and even before taking off their shoes, they would hug the warm stove sides to warm up their hands and legs. It was a perfect arrangement. Well, as I said before, almost!
Besides the fuel, the next problem was the weather. On a nice calm summers day, the stove burned beautifully. With a light breeze the stove burned beautifully! With a 20 knot wind the stove burned beautifully, but with strong gale force winds and/or gusts the damper was banging and slapping against it’s stove pipe tee and the flame in the firepot was rising and lowering like a charmer’s snake. The only thing to do was to turn up the oil flow and create a bigger fire to make it’s own draft greater than the wind speed. This worked to some extent but the gusts made the diesel smoke, and soot started to build up on the inside of the stove. We loved it when Karen made bread in the windy weather – the stove was on high, water was hot, and the fire burned hotly. We had fresh bread, hot baths, and a clean stove.
A dirty stove was not something to look forward to, but sometimes was a necessary evil. The soft carbon from the diesel would build up in the firebox, on the water heating coils, the underside of the cooking top plates, and under the oven. The hard ash would clog the fuel flow from the carburetor and eventually the stove would not operate at all. Then came the dirty work.
On with the coveralls and dirty gloves (I kept a special set of each for this job). Off with all the cooking surfaces exposing the innards all clogged with soot worse than a smoker’s lung. I rigged up my own Shop-Vac (vacuum cleaner) with a long flex-pipe from the exhaust which trailed out the open back door so that any soot that wiggled its way passed the vacuum filter ended up outside the house.
First, make sure the clinkers in the firepot are cold before vacuuming them up. I heard of one fire in a vacuum cleaner when hot coals were sucked into the paper vacuum sack. (another reason for using a Shop-Vac with a metal drum).
Another incident that I did witness (after the fact) was the cold hard clinkers sucked into a normal household vacuum and cutting the bag. This then left all the soft carbon soot to be pumped out through the hole at vaccum force all over the house behind the lightkeeper. What a mess!
Once cleaned, the stove was re-assembled and re-lit. It work beautifully.
Well . . . the only other thing that could mess up a good diesel oil fire was a helicopter. On McInnes in summer the helicopters used to approach the landing pad into the NW wind directly over our house. The downdraft from the helicopter forces the exhaust gases back down into the stove and loosens all the carbon from the inside of the stove. This then exits from the damper and any cracks on the stove plates.
The first time this happened we returned to the house with our groceries and mail to find everything around the stove covered in soot and ash – walls, floor, ceiling. Live and learn!
Later I asked the pilots to try and fly a different route and if impossible (while slinging) I fabricated an aluminum cover for the stove pipe to deflect the downdraft and I put the stove flame out for that period.
Some people just didn’t like the oil stoves. I’ll admit, they were fussy at times, but all I remember was the wonderful warmth from them. They were the centerpiece of the house. From it came good foods, warm water, dry clothes and utensils, and heat for the whole house.
1 “Exclusive Enterprise Features” quoted directly from the Enterprise-Fawcett webpage.
The fuel barge photo is from Bob Wilson. When Bob was on Pachena Point in 2009 he wrote some very interesting letters which you can read here. He does not seem to be doing any more letter writing so I asked him if he would write for this website. He did say he was too busy, but if enough comments came in he might change his mind.