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Reviews > Cook Gear > Stoves > SolHuma Vital Stove > Test Report by David Wilkes

Test series by David Wilkes

SolHuma Vital Stove

Initial Report - April 1 '09
Field Report - June 2 '09
Long Term Report - July 28 '09

David Wilkes

 

Tester Information

Name: David Wilkes
E-Mail: amatbrewer@yahoo.net
Age: 42
Location: Yakima Washington USA
Gender: M
Height: 5'11" (1.80 m)
Weight: 197 lb (89.40 kg)

Biography:

I started backpacking in 1995 when I moved to Washington State. Since then, I have backpacked in all seasons and conditions. I have usually only managed time for 1-3 trips a year averaging 2-5 days, and as many day hikes as I can. I am currently getting into condition to summit some of the higher peaks in Washington, Oregon, and California. I prefer trips on rugged trails with plenty of elevation gain. While I continuously strive to lighten my load, comfort and safety are most important to me. My current pack is around 30 lbs (14 kg), not including consumables.

Product Information

Manufacturer:

SolHuma

Year of Manufacture:

2009

Manufacturer’s Website:

www.solhuma.com

MSRP:

CA $79.00

Listed Weight:

1.5 lbs / 700 g 

Measured Weight:

  1.7 lbs / 772 g

Product Images
Image courtesy of SolHuma

Product Description:
The SolHuma stove is a compact wood burning (CWB) stove designed for use by humanitarian organizations and outdoor enthusiasts. It is marketed as a “survival stove” for extreme situations. The stove is designed to burn a wide range of combustible materials including wood, paper, charcoal, waste material, and even animal dung, creating up to 20,000 BTU of heat according to the manufacturer. 

Initial Report

April 1 2009

Features (as listed by the manufacturer)

  • Removable stainless steel diffuser plate
  • Support rods pivot to accommodate pot sizes, and can support up to 24 kg.
  • Fold-down stainless steel thermal shield
  • Cover plate protects the ventilation system. 
  • Mechanical airflow shutter.
  • Aluminum base
  • Hooks hold the folded thermal shield for transport.
  • The air intake is split to prevent particles or smoke from going into the fan.
  • Quiet high-performance fan
  • Six feet provide stability and heat isolation from the ground
Image of StoveThe stove has 4 major parts:
First is the fire box. This is comprised of a collapsible metal heat shield with pivoting pot support rods, and a removable stainless steel diffuser plate on the bottom. The sides of the fire box (called the “thermal shield” by the manufacturer) can be folded for storage and the pot support rods swing to accommodate different size pots.
Second is the aluminum base of the stove. This portion provides the structure of the stove and includes the air intake, feet to help limit heat transfer to the ground, and the housing for the fan along with the airflow shutter.
Third is the fan. The fan is used to create a forced airflow through the fire box , via the diffuser plate, to create a furnace like combustion chamber. The fan is powered by two “AA” batteries that according to the manufacturer should operate the fan for 35-40 hrs. 
Last is the battery holder which includes the fan speed switch
[0 = off, I = low, II= high]

The stove is intended to burn a variety of combustible materials. Forcing air up through the fire box helps in the combustion making the materials more effective at producing heat.

Stove DisassembledInitial Observations:
The box the stove arrived in includes the instructions printed on the box in English and French. There were no instructions separate from what was on the box.
The stove comes with two notable warnings. First is printed on the box as well as on the stove. The warning is to never use flammable liquids to light or re-light the stove. The second is that one of the functions of the fan is to keep the base of the stove from overheating, and as such it is important to not shut off the fan until all of the fuel has burnt out. The instructions suggest to fully open the shutter and set the fan on high (II) to burn off the remaining fuel after cooking is completed.

Upon unpacking the stove my fist impression was how heavy this stove is and how solid it feels. The weight specifications listed on the box appear to be rounded up quite a bit. 1.5 lbs = 680 g but the box says 700 g.
As I normally do, I attempted to assemble and operate the stove prior to reading the instructions in order to see how difficult it is. I found the assembly and basic operation to be totally obvious and intuitive. After assembling the stove and inserting batteries I attempted my first fire. I placed a handful of leafs and twigs from my yard into the stove as tinder and placed a small scrap of pine on top of the tinder. I then lit the tinder with a match and turned the fan on to its low setting. Immediately the fire spread across the tinder and in around 30sec the wood block was clearly burning. I ended up burning some scraps of wood as well as a handful of pellets from my pellet grill and playing with fan speeds and the shutter. I allowed the fire to burn with the stove fan set to the low speed setting until the material was mostly burnt away. I was quite surprised at how thoroughly the material burned. The material burned almost completely; there were only a few small coals and a small amount of ash. Most of the ash was blown out of the stove while it was operating. I allowed the stove to cool before dissembling and putting the stove away. I found it a bit difficult to get the ‘thermal shield’ back into its storage place, it is a tight fit and requires a bit of work to get it in and out.

The battery pack holds two AA batteries and is held closed with a small cross-tip (Philips) screw. I don’t normally carry a tool that would be very effective for this type and size of screw. I considered leaving the screw out but the battery cover does not appear as if it would stay on without the screw. In addition this screw is not held in place and as a result could be very easy to lose while changing the battery in the field. It might be more back country friendly if the screw had a slotted head so that it can be easily removed with a knife or similar tool, or better yet if the battery compartment would remain in place without any screw.

The air flow shutter seems to be a bit flimsy and there seems to be no way to fix it into the closed position. I fear it might be a potential failure point if this shutter opens while in my pack and is damaged. The stove does not come with any sort of carrying or storage container except for the box it came in. Some sort of storage container or bag might be a good idea.

Normally when testing a stove, I would perform some tests where I boil a given volume of water under controlled conditions to see how long it takes and how much fuel is consumed. With this type of stove I think there are simply too many variables such as type, size, and moisture content of fuel, along with the two speed settings and the air flow shutter position, not to mention wind, temperature, and altitude. I did build a fire in the stove and boiled 0.5 L (16 oz) to get an idea how long it would take and how much fuel. I found it took no longer than I expect from my white gas stove, and only half consumed the three small scraps of pine board (see image below) that I was using for fuel. My initial impression is that I could heat enough water for a meal 1-2 people in the same amount of time I currently experience with my other stoves. In addition, depending on what is available for fuel, it is likely that I could cook the meal using just the fuel that I placed in the stove to start. During the course of the field & long term testing, I anticipate using different types of fuel to see how they affect the performance of the stove.
Animation of the stove in action

Field Report

June 2 2009
Field Test Usage:
  • 2 overnight backpacking trips
    • Central Washington – in a wooded canyon at about 2000’ (600 m)
    • Eastern Cascades (California) in a pine forested valley at about 10000’ (3000 m)
  • 1 night of car camping at a campground
    • Eastern Cascades (California) Hosted campground at about 7000’ (2000 m)
Additional usage:
Twice I used the stove while working nights on ridge tops in central Washington and once while on a 15hr drive from Washington to the Eastern Cascades (California).

Comments:
I have been quite surprised at how much I have enjoyed using the stove. Primarily how easy it is to get a fire started, and how easy it is to obtain fuel. So far, in every place I have used the stove, besides my back yard, I have been able to locate plenty of fuel in the area around where I placed the stove. In fact during my last use while in the Eastern Sierras’ I realized that within about 20’ (6 m) of where I placed the stove, I could locate enough fuel to cook two meals a day for myself for probably 2-3 days. Keep in mind that the stove placement had nothing to do with fuel availability; I just picked a good sheltered spot to place my camp, and a relatively flat spot to place the stove.

Lighting the stove is amazingly easy. During my initial tests, I carefully placed some wood along with kindling in the stove as I would if I were lighting a campfire. After doing this a few times I realized that this was unnecessary and for all of my field tests (one exception noted below) I simply tossed a handful of burnable litter that I found nearby (small twigs, leafs, pine needles, grass, etc) along with a few small pieces of wood (branches). Then with the stove fan set to low and the air flow shutter fully open, in most cases I was able to start the fire with a single household stick match. On one trip I tried using my flint fire starter with immediate success.
SolHuma burning cow dung
The only time I have had difficulty in lighting the stove was when I attempted to use dried cow dung as the fuel. In this case I tried to use a handful of dry grass as tinder but this was not sufficient to get the dung burning in a sustainable way. I then resorted to using a scrap of paper as the kindling and this was effective. To my surprise, the cow dung was not a very good fuel, in order to keep a fire burning of sufficient heat to cook (heat water in this case) I had to keep the dampener fully open and the fan on the high setting. When I set the fan to the low setting the fire quickly diminished to the point that I could easily hold my hand over the stove for an extended time. On a side note on one of my trips I added deer dung to the stove, and found these functioned very much like mini charcoal briquettes. Along with some wood, the deer pellets worked quite well at maintaining a steady flame. I detected no unusual or unpleasant smells when burning the dung (I have to admit I did not go out of my way to suck in a big lung full of the stuff), the smell was surprisingly neutral, not pleasant like oak or cedar, but not unpleasant either.

One concern I had after receiving the stove was how difficult it would be to locate wood small enough to fit in the stove while large enough to burn effectively. I was worried that I would be constantly adding small twigs in order to keep the stove burning. I have found that at least in the locations I have been to, that there seems to be plenty of the right size fuel around; primarily the small branches too small for most people to use for their campfire. I was also concerned that the pieces of wood that would thick enough to provide a good fire might be difficult to break down small enough to fit into the stove without cutting. This has proven not to be a problem. So far I have been able to break the branches into the right size by hand or by placing them against something hard (a rock) and simply breaking them by stepping on them.

Aside from the design issues I mentioned in the Initial report (battery compartment, switch, air flow shutter) I have found a few significant issues with the stove. The biggest one is the weight. While I have enjoyed using the stove, for me it is simply too heavy to use for backpacking. It has however got me thinking about how I could do something similar with a fan (and coffee can?), and looking seriously into other wood burning stoves that are available. The second issue is something inherent to wood burning stoves and that is the soot & smoke. The stove and cookware get covered with soot, and while cooking with the stove most of my clothing and gear end up smelling of smoke. Another concern I have had while using the stove is the volume of embers that can be expelled. A few times while starting or soon after adding fuel, I experienced quite a few burning embers exiting the stove; some of these were still burning when they landed on the ground. This is a major issue in areas where fires are a problem and a big concern for me since I normally wear synthetic materials that melt and/or burn easily.SolHuma along with flint and fuel

On one trip I decided to see if the stove could be used as a heat source similar to a camp fire. I got a good fire going, and tried to warm myself from it. This did not work. The firebox contains most of the heat forcing it straight up (good for cooking but not good for warmth) and I found that standing over the stove, I had to get uncomfortably close to the flames before I could feel significant warmth, and then the smoke made it hard to breath. I would not consider using this stove too close to my shelter (tent/tarp) and especially not under a vestibule due to the above-mentioned issue with embers that exit the stove.

Cooking on the stove has been simple. I have mostly boiled water, but I also simmered some quinoa [see note below] and melted snow. Once I get a fire going, I place my pot on the stove and wait. I occasionally have to add fuel and/or adjust the air flow shutter in order to maintain a relatively consistent heat. After I finish cooking I leave the fan running as per the instructions until most of the fuel has been burnt off. Most of the uses I have allowed the fuel to fully burn off before dumping out the ashes. The one time I had to dispose of un-burnt fuel, I simply dumped it on to some sandy ground and doused it liberally with water before covering it with sand. Many of the areas I hike have a thick blanket of pine needles covering the ground so disposing of the un-burnt fuel would be more of a problem (hence me allowing it to fully burn off).

So far, not being able to fix the air flow shutter in the closed position for transport has not been a problem. Since my first hike with the stove I have been keeping it in an old stuff sack in order to minimize the amount of soot that gets on my other gear.

During my last two uses, I noticed that the pot support rods have become more difficult to move. They require quite a bit for force to get them to turn. Since I am only using a single cook pot with this stove (I am not about to get my good Ti pot covered in soot) this has not really been a problem.

Field usage summary:
The stoves reliability and my ability to find suitable fuel exceeded my expatiations. The only real problems I have had with the stove have been the weight, embers, and soot. I am still concerned about the durability of the switch, but so far this has not been a problem, although I did find it difficult to operate with gloves on. I was also a bit concerned about the possibility of leaving the fan on or the switch getting turned on while in my pack, but since I unplug the battery pack from the stove when not in use this has not been an issue. Due to its weight, I do not expect to take the stove with me on any additional backpacking trips. However, I do intend to keep the stove in my work vehicle for when I work nights and want to make tea/coffee or cook a meal, and I plan to take it with me on our family car camping trips this summer.
One final question I have not had the chance to answer is if this stove is OK to use when/where open fires are not allowed. After using the stove and seeing the embers that can be ejected from the stove, I personally would not use it any time/place that starting a wildfire is a significant risk, but I am curious what the local forest rangers have to say.

simmering quinoa
Notice the material near the stove in the image above; a hand full of this, a few sticks and a single match was all I needed to get the stove lit.

Note:
From Wikipedia: Quinoa (pronounced /ˈkiːnoʊ.ə/ or /kwɨˈnoʊ.ə/, Spanish quinua, from Quechua kinwa), a species of goosefoot (Chenopodium), is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. It is a pseudocereal rather than a true cereal, or grain, as it is not a grass. As a chenopod, quinoa is closely related to species such as beets, spinach and tumbleweeds.
I use quinoa just as I would cuscus, while it tastes nothing like cuscus, it is cooked in a similar manner and seems to work well in the same dishes. I have heard it is considered a “complete protein” and very healthy, but I just like the taste and texture. In addition, I find it a little less dry than cuscus.

Long Term Report

July 28 2009
During the long term testing I used the stove a few times in my back yard, I carried it in my vehicle and brought it along on a 3 day family camping trip.
SolHuma Vital burning cow dung
  I finally got around to trying out cooking a dinner using only dung as fuel. I used dried cow dung that I collected previously. As a test I used only a handful of leafs and twigs as tinder under some dung, and was able to start the stove with a single match (in fact I repeated this twice). As I experienced before, the dung is a bit more difficult to get lit and keep burning than twigs and sticks, I had to keep the fan at high speed for almost the entire time in order to keep it burning (it did get a bit hot near the end and I had to turn the fan down for a while to prevent burning one of the patties). However it did produce an even heat and enough heat to cook a few turkey burgers (although my wife and kids were not interested in tasting them…go figure). They tasted fine and I could detect no unusual smells from the burgers or while the stove was burning.Cooking turkey patty over cow dung

I brought the stove along on a 3 day family camping trip, but since all of our meals were eaten as a group (6 people) I did not use it for cooking, and since temperatures were quite warm I did not make tea or coffee (my intended use on this trip).


One thing I have yet to confirm is if this stove is allowed to be used during burn bans, however after using it, I would never use it when one was in affect (especially when even charcoal grills are not allowed) due to the number of burning embers I have seen expelled from the stove.

Summary:
I am quite impressed with how easy it is to get a good cooking fire started with this stove and the availability of fuel. Durability of the product, especially in regards to the power pack continues to be a concern for me, but so far I have not experienced any problems. The stove is easy to use. The draw backs for me are primarily its weight and bulk. The weight and bulk of the stove do not offset the ability to not carry fuel while backpacking; however for car camping and emergency use the stove seems very effective. While initially I was concerned about the life of the batteries but since I have not had to change them throughout this entire test I would say that this is no more of a concern than I experience with pressurized canister gas stoves. Rather than risk running out of fuel on a trip, when in doubt I bring a fresh canister, and with this stove I would simply replace or carry a spare set of batteries (I normally carry a spare set of AA batteries anyway). The fragile construction of the battery pack has not been a problem for me, but having experience with the kind of switch it uses and the fact that the stove is almost useless without power, this is something I would not want to have to rely upon for a long trip.
In conclusion while I do not plan to use this stove for backpacking, I do plan to carry it in my work vehicle as part of my emergency kit and for cooking (mostly heating water) when I have to work nights and am on the road for extended periods. I also intend to bring it along for car camping trips, for cooking small meals and heating water for things like tea and hot cereal. I would recommend this stove as part of an emergency preparedness kit.

This concludes my report on the SolHuma Vitial stove. I would like to thank the folks at SolHuma and BackpackGearTest.org for the opportunity to test this product.
 


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