Burning Wood

by Pat Veretto

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Fashion and style go in circles, they say. Applying that to fuel sources, it's no longer much of a social statement to burn wood or any other alternative fuel to heat our homes. While it's not exactly fashionable (except in a pretty fireplace next to a window where you can watch it snow), it's neither so uncommon nor frowned upon as it was for a time.

The negative concept was, and still is sometimes, a holdover from the days when only poor folks burned wood for a heating fuel. People who were rich enough (or lucky enough) to have gas lines run close enough to pipe into their homes eventually bought natural gas heaters and could stay warm day or night with little effort. Poor people (or, more realistically at first, the majority of people) still had to gather firewood, build fires and dump ashes.

Another negative attitude is fed by gas and coal producers. Fossil fuel producers simply don't like wood burning advocates. They constantly tell us how bad wood smoke is for us, while offering only one solution: Burn fuel that can never be replaced. (Go ahead. Take it out of the earth. By the time your grandkids get old enough to need it, you'll be dead anyway, so why should you care?)

Renewable fuel (that which we can grow to replace what we've used up) includes corn and wood pellets, besides the stackable wood with which we're familiar. Corn and pellets call for special stoves, but the idea is the same, and the costs are comparable in the long run. We won't attempt to cover that here, but a search on any search engine will return information about those fuels.

Cost wise, wood compares very favorably to other fuels over most of the nation, although the cost of wood (and other fuels) varies quite a bit. Anywhere from fifty to a hundred and fifty dollars a cord is average depending on where you live.

That's not the whole story though. You don't have to buy wood in prepackaged and delivered units as you do other fuels. If you're in one of those "thirty seven cents until Thursday" periods, you can get by for a few days burning scrap wood, kindling, cardboard or furniture!

Ok, so you may not be that desperate, but why should you pay a good price for heat if you can get it for less? Or free. Free heating fuel sounds like a dream in our pay-through-the-nose-for-the-air-you-breathe world. At one time (before natural gas and commercial totalitarianism) heat was free for many. Of course you had to go to the effort of getting the fuel and bringing it home. You can still do it.

Instead of laboring at a job we don't necessarily enjoy, or working more hours than we'd like even if we do enjoy our jobs, we can take it upon ourselves to supply the fuel we need to stay warm without spending cash. Here's how:

  • Consider pallets used by newspaper publishers and anyone who receives shipments on a regular basis. They often give them away. They're not recycled because it's too costly to ship them back to the point of origination. Often they're made, at least partly, of hardwood. (Note: Pallets need to be seasoned at least six months before using, even if they look old when you get them. They're almost always made from green wood.)
  • Tree services need a place to dump their trimmings. You'll need an area for them to dump and some patience to sort through the small limbs, leaves and inevitable trash that comes along with it. All kinds of wood will appear in these piles, from hardwood to pine. Some will be very poor fuel, so be prepared to use it for other things, or to bury it or discard it in other ways.
  • Your own tree trimming or clean up efforts. Neighbors (the non-wood-burning kind) often look for places to get rid of broken branches and trimmings, or sometimes whole trees. If you're handy with a saw and don't mind a little exercise, this is a great way to increase your woodpile.
  • Barter, trade, swap. If there is a firewood supply business around at all, get to know the owners or operators and find out if they would be willing to trade for something you can do. Things to offer might include tuning up their trucks, changing oil in them, or knitting warm socks or sweaters for the outside work they do.
  • Scavenge. Once upon a time, on a Sunday afternoon with nothing better to do, we took the old truck out for a drive. Wandering along the back roads, we watched for wood. We found broken limbs, fallen trees, discarded fence posts, various pieces of wood from who knows where, and pieces of stove wood fallen from someone else's delivery. We came home with about half a cord of wood. At the going price of $125 a cord, it wasn't bad for an enjoyable afternoon's work.

Which Stove?

Although heating with wood seems like a very frugal thing to do, new stoves can be prohibitively expensive. Take a lot of time and look around to find the one that's right for your home.

It's tempting to buy the biggest, prettiest appliance there is, but you'll be wasting money if you buy a stove that's too big for your home. And you'll either be burning fuel too slowly for safety or using more fuel than it should take to warm your house. Check the BTU rating and talk with the salesman about it. Expect straight talk. Go with your home's statistics in hand, total square feet and insulation specs if you know them. Whether your home sits on a basement or is a two story makes a difference in what you'll need, too.

If there are only brief periods (up to three or four hours) when someone isn't up and around in your household, you might not want to pay for a stove that will hold a fire for hours and hours. If, however, you tend to hibernate during cold weather, or you're gone from home for long periods, look for something that will hold a fire for many hours.

The downside of a stove that only has to be refueled two or three times a day is that they don't usually put out a lot of heat at one time. That means that if you let the house cool down, it takes a long while to get it heated back up. Faster stoves, ones that require fueling more often, will heat up faster and heat your home that much faster, but you can't go off and leave them all day and expect the house to be warm when you come home. Take your time, study the various types and make a decision based on your lifestyle.

Good Wood, Bad Wood

No matter what kind of woodstove you get, wood is the basic need. You can burn wood in a fireplace, in a heating stove, in a cookstove, and in a barbecue pit.

Remember that wood needs to cure for at least six months before burning. Burning green wood results in a lot of creosote in the chimney, leading to chimney fires. Green wood doesn't put out as much heat as well seasoned wood, either, no matter what kind it is.

Hard and Soft

Softwood burns easily, but it burns up much faster. It's a lighter weight wood, which means it has less density. Pine and cottonwood are a couple of common examples of softwood. Pine is easy to burn, easy to build a fire with, but it burns up quickly. The pitch in pine makes it burn fairly hot, so it's good for when you need a quick, hot fire. Cottonwood, and its cousins the willows and poplars, don't burn as easily, and they don't put out much heat either. There are times when this type of wood is welcome.

Hardwood, such as oak and apple and black walnut, has more heat in it. It's harder to start a fire with only hardwood, though, and sometimes it's harder to keep burning. Because of its density, it burns slower and hotter than softwood. This is excellent for most purposes.

To get the most from a wood stove, a combination of soft and hard woods is best. Start a fire with kindling and softwood, then add hardwood as it becomes established. Once a good hardwood fire is going, you won't have to worry about it for awhile.

If you let the fire die down quite a bit, you'll need softwood to start it up again. Also, use softwood for a fire that you want only for an hour or so.

Do you need reasons to heat with wood? How about:

  • No power outages and no freezing in the dark.
  • Renewable resource. Ever heard of coal and gas depletion? How about wood depletion?
  • Keep the money at home. If you buy wood, you'll no doubt be supporting a local entrepreneur instead of a faceless giant corporation.
  • Use resources that are free to you and would otherwise go to waste. Pallets and scrap wood often wind up in dumps... er, excuse me, landfills.

Pat Veretto is a work at home grandmother who has homesteaded, homeschooled and happily lived frugally most of her life. She currently freelances.

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