There’s nothing like warming up next to a roaring fire during a cold winter’s night. More than comforting, employing wood heating can save money on energy costs associated with electricity or propane. Burning wood might be the only way some people have to keep warm, whether it’s the only option their homes have or if they find themselves in a survival situation in which it’s a necessity.
Although heating by wood fire is the original method of fending off winter chill, it seems many would-be enthusiasts don’t know all of what it may entail. One reason wood heat isn’t more widespread, other than the prevalence of other methods, may involve the difficulty in determining how much you will need to make it through winter. Most wood-heating experts will tell you there’s no one-size-fits-all way to determine how much fuel is needed to heat the average home.
“There just isn’t a meaningful answer because there are way too many variables, such as hardwood or softwood or some of each? What climate zone are you in? What elevation is your house at? How big is your house? Is it energy efficient? How efficient is your heater? The variables just go on and on,” says John Gulland, co-founder of the popular Woodheat.org website that provides research and information on wood heating and promotes responsible wood-energy use.
Gulland says that the way to get an estimate on how much wood you’ll need is to consider how much people in the same area use. “The key is to get some local knowledge from experienced wood burners and then produce half again as much firewood as you think you’ll need,” Gulland, the author of three public information booklets on wood-burning, including the Canadian federal government’s A Guide to Residential Wood Heating, says. “That way you won’t run out. Firewood doesn’t go bad, so you’ll use the extra next year.”
When talking about how much firewood needed to purchase or cut for fuel, the standard is measured in units called cords. A cord is a measurement of wood cut equal to a stack four-feet-high by four-feet-wide by eight-feet-long (4 x 4 x 8 feet), or 128 cubic feet. The director of the National Firewood Association, Scott Salveson, says the amount of wood to heat the average-sized home (say 2,400-2,600 square feet) primarily with wood for a cold winter will obviously vary, but the national average is between five to six cords per household. The amount can “change dramatically based on stove selection and quality (dryness, species) of the firewood being burned,” he says. “If we assume six cords are required to heat a home with a stove made in the 1970s, a high-efficiency stove like some of the new EPA-rated models could cut that in half.”
Considering the many factors involved, consulting a local stove dealer or chimney technician would be beneficial, according to Salveson. “Your installation expert can help you analyze your house/building and suggest the optimal stove based on all relevant variables, including the firewood you’re most likely to be burning.”
In addition to selecting an efficient wood-burning stove, wood quality and care is important to ensure you get the best fire going. There are plenty of species to choose from: oak to maple, aspen, and many more. British Thermal Units, or BTUs, are used to measure heat. One BTU equals how much energy it takes to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit, at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The BTU content, or the heat output potential, is similar between many species of wood.
The denser the wood is after seasoning (more on seasoning later), the more energy, generally. Dense firewood can be more difficult to start burning, however. “Lightweight, low-quality wood has its place, and it is best for starting fires quickly and mixing with hardwood to fine-tune your fire,” Salveson says. Most important when it comes to preparing wood to be used for heating is the moisture content. Drying wood to ensure it has the right amount of moisture to burn efficiently is a process referred to as seasoning.
No Wet Wood
“Burning wet or unseasoned wood is a waste of energy,” says Julia Valentine, a United States Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson. “Wood burns most efficiently when the moisture content is between 15 and 20 percent. When a live tree is cut, the moisture content can be greater than 50 percent – meaning half the weight of the wood is water. Too much water in the wood reduces the temperature in the wood heat, preventing the wood from completely burning. Incomplete combustion results in smoke going up the chimney and creates creosote [a fire hazard]. The smoke can also negatively impact the air quality inside and outside your home.”
Moisture meters can test firewood to make sure it is dry enough to burn, Valentine adds. Basic meters are easy to find online or at most hardwood stores at price points in the $15 to $45 range. But Salveson of the National Firewood Association uses a different method to test firewood’s moisture. He knocks a couple of pieces of wood together. If it has 20 percent or less moisture content, “It will sound like a percussion instrument, or bowling pins,” he states. “If it sounds like anything else, it’s not dry. It’s a very musical ring, and learning it is not hard–just listen. Try the ‘knock test’ a few times on different firewood and you’ll know immediately when you hear the right sound.”
Time Is On Your Side
Those are ways to see if wood is seasoned but, for those not purchasing firewood that’s ready-to-burn, how do you dry the wood in the first place? Opinions vary, but the consensus is that it takes a long time and trying to shorten the process will only lessen the ability of the firewood to heat well. Storing firewood properly is also important to ensure it seasons correctly. “It needs both sun and wind to dry, so don’t stack it in the shade or right up against a wall–aside from not drying, it’ll grow mold and attract insects and critters,” Salveson says. “Cover the top, preferably leaving an airspace. Leave the sides open; just engineer it for coverage with maximum air flow and sunlight.”
The EPA’s Burn Wise website contains information about best burn practices, energy efficiency, installation and maintenance tips. The website recommends seasoning wood for a minimum of six months, storing wood outdoors, off the ground, and with the top covered. Gulland, of The Wood Heat Organization instructs, “Cut the wood to length, split it and stack it off the ground on rails in the open in a single row, and cover just the top. If it is hardwood, it will take at least a year to season unless you live in a desert. In a maritime climate it should probably season for two years. Softer woods like aspen, willow or the conifers will dry in about half that time,” He states “The key thing to know is that wood dries very slowly, much more slowly than people new to wood heating realize.”
Year after year, logging is at or near the top of the most dangerous civilian jobs in the US. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists 111 deaths for every 100,000 loggers in 2014, as per a report in Time magazine.
If you’re cutting firewood on your own, using the right tools and moving the wood carefully is paramount. Woodheat.org recommends using a pair of “good gloves and steel-toed boots for serious wood splitters. If you use wedges and a sledge hammer, safety glasses should also be worn.” Other items listed include a maul and iron wedges for splitting, and a few extra axes and maul handles. And don’t forget sharpening tools, which they say will save time and labor. If you know how to set teeth and remove rust, you can turn that old saw you have on hand useful again.
“A two-man saw is great if you have help,” Salveson says. “A three-man crew is ideal for mass production. One fells and limbs, one skids and bucks logs, the third can take up the slack of either or start splitting. A five-foot, two-man saw seems ridiculous when chainsaws are available, but they’re valuable equipment when they’re not.” Salveson advocates for using wood that’s readily available. “It’s an old joke that the best tree to cut for firewood is the closest one, but there’s more truth to that statement than humor,” he says. “Labor, time and transport considerations are as important as having access to the trees to be harvested.”
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