How not to heat with wood
Where I live now (Philadelphia), people pay eight dollars at the supermarket for a little, plastic bag of birch to burn in the fireplace for an hour or two during the holiday get-together. This is great for ambiance, but you are keeping a complete heating system functioning for no practical benefit.
Where I grew up (northern Vermont), wood burning is a different beast entirely, and it used to be a real beast. In the bad old days (before advances in home and stove efficiency), people had to burn cords and cords of wood to stay alive. They had to get up several times a night to feed several stoves. Summer months meant endless cutting, hauling, splitting, and stacking.
However, you can benefit from wood heat without extinguishing your will to live by following some tips for heating with wood the easy way.
Reasons to heat with wood
Environmental reasons to heat with wood
Many less-informed environmentalists see heating with wood as an unforgivable practice. (Do these people think that their homes are heated by positive feelings?) However, the actual environmental impact of burning the wood is almost carbon neutral. The carbon released by the burning is the same as the carbon released from a tree rotting on the forest floor. Furthermore, modern stoves include a secondary burn that significantly reduces pollution.
You do want to make sure that your firewood is harvested sustainably and locally. The machinery and transportation have an obvious impact, but if you are responsible in acquiring your firewood, it is much less harmful than heating with oil, gas, or most sources of electricity.
Economic reasons to heat with wood
Low initial investment
If your chimney and flu are in good condition, setting up an efficient, wood stove is pretty cheap. Even a massive, brand-new stove capable of heating a 2,200 square-foot space will only cost about a grand. Compared to other heating systems, this is a great deal.
If your chimney and or flu situation is problematic and requires an investment, you will have to think carefully about whether or not heating with wood will pay off.
Firewood is cheap.
Even if the firewood is being purchased and delivered, homes heating with wood spend a fraction of what other homes use. Depending on the home and location, this could save you thousands of dollars a year. Where I live, hardwood firewood is currently $225 a cord, they will even stack it for another $60.
If you are willing and able, your firewood can be almost free. Even where I live, finding wood to burn is pretty easy. I can go to the one of the city’s organic recycling centers (where they dispose of fallen trees) and cut all the wood that I can carry. (By the way, you meet some interesting characters if you go to do this.)
Firewood prices are not as susceptible to market fluctuations as other fuel prices. Firewood is a local, renewable resource. If the prices get high, companies and individuals will increase harvesting and stabilize the price.
Self-sufficiency (and the impending zombie apocalypse)
After a long day of fending off zombies, you will want to relax in warmth. The zombies at the utility company are even less useful than they were before “the outbreak.” If your heating methods are less dependent on an intact civilization, you will have nothing to worry about…well…except zombies, medical care, finding food, etc.
Joking aside, heating with wood may give you a reassuring feeling of self-sufficiency. You will be less susceptible to market fluctuations, less dependent on utility companies, and less likely to have costly mechanical problems.
15 Tips for Heating with Wood the Easy Way
Now that we have established our reasons, here are my tips for heating with wood the easy way. Heating with wood need not be backbreaking or inconvenient. These tips for heating with wood the easy way show that a bit of thought and planning makes all the difference.
Tip #15) Think about your heating portfolio.
Heating with wood alone is not practical for many. If your home freezes when you are away, your pipes, tanks, etc. are going to burst.
Think about how you will diversify your heating portfolio. How much time and effort are you willing to spend in order to save money? What is your overall heating budget, and how much are you trying to save? How much wood can you store? For example, you might decide that you will always heat with wood when you are home and try to cut your heating bills by 50 percent.
You do not need to cut off your other forms of heat to save big by supplementing your heating with wood.
Tip #14) Run a tight ship.
Identify where your home is losing heat. A 15-minute fix might save you a ton of work (literally). Make heating with wood easier by reducing the amount of wood that you need to burn.
Perform your own heating audit. Go through every space in your home with a clipboard and make notes about heat loss issues.
- Double check the weather stripping on windows and doors.
- Look for windows and doors that aren’t closing properly.
- Decide which interior doors should stay closed most of the time. (You do not need to keep the laundry room at 72 degrees.)
- Use a feather to check for drafts.
- Identify which surfaces are transferring the most cold into your home. Touch the surfaces or use an infrared thermometer (you just point it at the surface). If a surface feels cold it is cooling your home.
Look at the notes from your heating audit and decide which issues you want to address in the short term. Window sealing kits, caulk, and spray foam cost very little and can make a big difference. In the long term, consider investing in interior storm windows, additional insulation, or upgraded entry doors.
Tip #13) Get your firewood delivered and stacked.
If you enjoy harvesting and processing your own firewood, that’s wonderful, but do not feel guilty about having your firewood delivered and even stacked. You can never be as efficient as a pro. Even if you are paying 300+ dollars a cord, you will still be saving money.
Tip #12) Plan for efficient firewood delivery.
Heating with wood is one of the major systems of your home, and it deserves careful planning. Make sure that the driver can easily deliver the firewood to where you need it. If the truck cannot get to your storage, you will be doing extra lugging every year.
It is not unreasonable to plan your landscaping, driveway, etc. around firewood delivery. If you need to tear down a garden shed, move a fence, or extend a driveway so that the truck can get closer to where it needs to be, do it. It will pay dividends for years to come.
Tip # 11) Set up a dedicated kindling station.
Nothing is worse than trying to scrounge up kindling on a cold morning. You are less likely to run out if your kindling station makes things safe and easy.
- Set up a dedicated chopping block at a comfortable height.
- Flank your chopping surface with platforms to prevent the wood from landing all over the place.
- If your are chopping up wood scraps, hold the piece with a large spring clamp to keep your hands away from the hatchet.
- Have two kindling crates so that you can switch them out without running out.
- Consider investing in a Kindling Cracker tool.
Tip #10) Minimize transport.
One of the most important tips for heating with wood easily is making your regular trips for firewood as painless and efficient as possible. Minimize strain, how far you need to go, and how many trips you need to make
- Store the wood as close to its final destination as possible.
- Make your delivery route as convenient as possible. Consider paving paths, leveling the ground, or even building ramps.
- Use a cart or hand truck (like the one in the image) to make fewer trips and save your back. Handheld wood carriers are great, but only if your goal is the brutalize your hands, walk like a penguin, damage woodwork, and make many trips.
Tip #9) Store firewood off the ground
Raise your stacked firewood at least several inches off the ground. The less bending over you have to do the more comfortable your chores will be. Do your future self a favor by stacking your wood up on a rack, a couple of timbers, or what have you.
Storing your outdoor wood off the ground has the added advantage of helping keep your firewood dry, clean, and pest-free.
Tip #8) Burn only dry, seasoned wood.
Make sure your wood is seasoned (dry on the inside) and kept dry. Ideal storage keeps wood covered while allowing air to circulate around and through the stacks.
Throwing wet or unseasoned wood into your stove is counter-productive. It is like throwing a bucket of water into the fire. It may seem like it is burning just fine, but the stove will be burning cooler and dirtier. You might even do some real harm to your stove or flu.
Avoid burning wood that has a moisture content higher than 25 percent. You can use a moisture-meter if you really want to know how dry the wood is.
As a bonus, wood that is seasoned and dry is significantly lighter.
Tip #7) Set two storage zones.
Even if you are buying wood that is supposedly seasoned (dried all the way through), it may have a higher-than-ideal moisture content. It is best to create two storage zones so that you can do additional seasoning and keep track of the more recently acquired wood. This can be as simple as setting a divider in your wood rack.
Make sure that you can access one storage zone one year and the other the following year without having to do any rearranging or rotating.
Tip #6) Minimize your firewood handling.
Don’t handle the wood six times before it burns. The optimum number of times is zero (which is possible if you can find some chump who thinks this chore is “charming” or blackmail the neighbor’s kid).
Rolling carts are excellent because you stack once and then leave the cart by the stove. If you are loading the cart and then re-stacking next to the stove, you are adding an unnecessary step.
Tip #5) Forget about fireplaces.
Fireplaces are efficient, but only at wasting wood, time, money, and heat.
If the ambiance is worth it to you, fine, but don’t pretend that you are heating. The warm air is being sucked right out of the house. If you do have a fireplace, make sure that the damper closes tightly and that your are closing it faithfully when it is not in use.
If your fireplace has no damper and you rarely use it, stick a nasty clump of un-faced fiberglass insulation up the flu to stop the flow of air. (Make a sign so that everyone knows the fireplace is not ready for use!)
Tip #4) Use an efficient stove.
This is perhaps the most important of the tips for heating with wood the easy way. Modern, EPA-approved stoves have a secondary burn, control air flow, and exchange heat efficiently. If you are trying to produce some serious heat, quaint antiques are out.
During my childhood, we had a beautiful, antique cook stove in the kitchen. It was charming, but for heating it was under-powered, inefficient, and messy. We replaced that stove with modern stove shown above.
The video above shows a stove that seals up tight, allows you to control the air flow, and has a secondary burn (note the perforated tubes at the top of the burn chamber in the clip below). The secondary action burns up flammable exhaust gases and some pollutants. You burn more completely and cleanly.
You want the stove to burn hot while taking in little air from the room. Once it is properly set, the fire will almost seem to be burning in slow motion. Your wood burns longer while minimizing the heat being lost up the chimney. As an added benefit, the air quality in the home is much better.
Tip #3) Load it up.
Your stove is meant to burn full and hot. Do not keep little fires, as they will burn dirtier and less efficiently. Besides, loading it up means that you can spend less time tending it.
Tip #2) Close the dampers and stove doors when the stove is not in use.
A flu is continuously drawing warm air from the house through convection. The removed air is creating negative air pressure that sucks cold air in wherever it can.
Tip #1) Suffocate the fire over night.
With modern stoves, you can load them up, close the air intake almost completely, and leave them all night. Some stove even claim to have a 10+ hour burn time. In the morning, you will have enough coals to get the fire blazing in no time.
Safety tips for heating with wood
Any form of combustion has inherent risks. Heating with wood is no exception. Be responsible in protecting yourself, your loved ones, and your neighbors.
- Be vigilant regarding smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
- Keep fire extinguishers maintained, visible, and accessible.
- Establish fire emergency procedures.
- Pay attention to the materials and clearances around your stove.
- Do not use your stove as an incinerator.
- Have your flu inspected and maintained regularly.
- Follow all of the safety instructions that come with your stove.
- Educate yourself on burning wood safely.
Should I burn wood pellets?
Switching to wood pellets can be an awesome solution, but there are also some important drawbacks. My in-laws switched to wood pellets and have been very pleased.
- Extremely efficient
- Longer burn time (The hopper feeds the fire for you.)
- Clean burning (less flu problems and minimal ash)
- Easy storage and handling
- Less mess
- Improved indoor air quality
- Depends on electricity to run the blower and auger (although there are some gravity-fed models)
- Units are slightly more expensive.
- Susceptible to price fluctuations
- Slightly noisy
“15 Tips for Heating with Wood the Easy Way” conclusion
The chores associated with wood burning can be easy and even pleasant if you create efficient, comfortable systems. You want to get the most heat from the least amount of wood, prevent problems, and deal with the wood as little as possible. A bit of forethought can make your life easier and more comfortable for years to come.
How did I do with “15 Tips for Heating with Wood the Easy Way”? Did I miss something important? Do any of my tips miss the mark? Please leave a comment.