If you've been considering wood heat, here are a few things you should know before you invest in a wood burning stove, wood fireplace insert or wood cookstove. With rising fuel costs, wood heat can be a money saving investment, but you need to plan ahead and make good choices.
#1 – You Must Have an Ample Supply of Clean, Dry Wood for Your Stove
Some of the best trees to harvest for fire wood include:
- sugar and red maple
- any of the oaks
- hornbeam (ironwood)
Hardwood species (like those listed above) will give you the best return on your investment of labor by burning longer and producing a lot of heat. These species are readily available in northern Wisconsin, but you'll need to do some research to find what's available in your area. For a detailed listing of the BTU content of various woods, visit Firewood resource.com.
A wood lot can produce from 1 to 2 face cords of fire wood per acre each year. You may also be able to salvage some wood from tree trimming services, yard waste centers or storm damage.
I burn everything that dies in the woods at my house. This includes elm, aspen and birch, but not much softwood (such as pine). Softwoods burn quickly and produce less heat, which means that you need to refuel frequently and use a lot more wood overall. (Note: Pine does make good kindling for a quick start to your fires.)
Firewood should be “seasoned” or dried for at least six months to a year before you burn to reduce creosote in the chimney and air pollution. Green (unseasoned) wood will burn slowly and produce a lot of smoke and particulates. When these build up in your chimney, it increases the risk of a chimney fire. This means you should be planning for next winter a year in advance.
#2 – You Need to Plan for Proper Wood Storage
To cure (dry), wood needs good air circulation. This means a shed without sides or rows with tarps. Personally, I'm not a fan of tarps or plastic because the wind and the sun will tear holes in them in short order, and water will leak in. You should also find something to stack the wood on to keep it off the ground. Old treated 4x4s are a favorite of mine. It doesn't have to be fancy – salvaged materials used correctly can get the job done just fine.
Above is a picture of my wood shed. You might recognize it from the post about natural back pain relief.
#3 – Heating with Wood Burning Stove is Labor Intensive
One thing that most people don't think about is how much time you will have to invest in cutting and splitting wood to heat your home. If you cut a cord or two of wood, split, and stack it, you will be doing a full day's work. If you have back problems or other health problem you might want to consider buying your wood from a logger. There is also the task of keeping a fire. Most wood burners will require attention every 6 to 8 hours, maybe longer if you have a good furnace or outdoor boiler. *Editor's note – Our masonry stove is fired only once or twice per day, but burns a little different than a conventional stove.
On the plus side, you can skip the gym membership and get your workout at home.
#4 – Wood Burning Stoves are Not Cheap
The initial cost of a wood furnace that will be about $3000 plus installation. Resale value drops quickly so if you don't think you are in it for the long term any savings will be negated by the initial cost. (You *might* be able to get a deal on a used unit, but don't count on it. Most people hold on to their stoves.) Quality wood cutting tools cost money, too, and with tools, you generally get what you pay for – it's worth the extra money to get tools that last. This is an investment – so make good choices.
Pellet stoves may be a better choice for urban areas, because you don't need to dry and store a year's worth of fuel. Outdoor boilers are another option. You will loose some BTU's because of the stove is outside the home, the water has to travel underground to the home and in the heat is transferred to the home via a heat exchanger. If you choose an outdoor boiler, radiant heating is preferable to a forced air system, which would reduce your efficiency even further.
#5 – There are Risks Involved in heating Your Home with Wood
Make sure your home owner's insurance will cover you if you have wood heat, and what restrictions they have on heating with wood. Clean your chimney every year and check for problems. Improper ventilation can lead to carbon monoxide build up, which can be deadly. (A carbon monoxide detector is a good investment for nearly every home, but especially those with combustion appliances.)
Creosote and Chimney Fires
Creosote build up is another concern. Mastersweep.com explains:
What most people think of as “smoke” is better termed “flue gas.” This “smoke”, or flue gas is released by the initial fire: the “primary combustion.” Flue gas consists of steam, and vaporized but unburned carbon based by-products (vaporized creosote). As the flue gas exits the fireplace or wood stove, it drafts upward into the relatively cool flue where condensation occurs. Like hot breath on a cold mirror, the cool surface temperature of the flue causes the carbon particles in the warm vapor to solidify.
The actual cause of creosote condensation, is the surface temperature of the flue in which the flue gas comes in contact. This resulting carbon based condensation which materializes inside the flue is creosote. It's usually black in appearance. It can be the fine black dust called soot, (1st stage creosote); or porous and crunchy, (2nd stage: see photo on left); or it can be tar-like: drippy and sticky, until it hardens into a shiny glaze, (3rd stage). All forms of creosote can occur in one chimney system. Whatever form it takes, creosote is highly combustible. If it builds up in sufficient quantities – and ignites inside the chimney flue: the result is a volcanic chimney fire.
Several conditions encourage the buildup of creosote:
- A flue too large for the wood burning appliance, (e.g.. unlined insert)
- A restricted air supply
- Unseasoned or rain-logged wood
- Cooler-than-normal surface flue temperatures, (e.g.. metal fireplace chimney)
Please note the phrase “volcanic chimney fire” – ‘nuf said. Clean the chimney.
Chain Saws and Other Cutting Tools
Chain saws and other wood cutting tools are dangerous. Anything strong and sharp enough to take down a tree can also go right through you. The chain saw is a tool the demands the utmost respect – poor judgment can leave scars that last a lifetime. You should also invest in steel toed boots, logger's chaps, safety glasses and a hard hat. Every year professional loggers die in the woods. It is definitely not something to do with the boys and a few beers.
The Satisfaction of Heating with a Wood Stove
I hope this post hasn't scared you off of using wood heat. I've used it as my primary heat source for years, as have many friends and family members. It's a good feeling to look out at a well-stocked woodpile and know that whatever happens to fuel prices, your home will be warm without breaking the bank. Wood heat isn't drafty and dry like a forced air system. The radiant heat from a wood stove soaks right into your bones. And, like the old saying goes, it's the heat source that warms you more than once.
This is a guest post by my brother, Richard Poplawski, who lives in northwest Wisconsin in the old farmhouse that used to be owned by my grandparents.
Other posts by Richard:
- How to Grow Blueberries – Grow Your Own Superfruit
- How to Grow Raspberries for Homegrown Fruit in Record Time
- Growing Asparagus and Rhubarb – Reliable Perennial Crops for Generations
Originally posted in March 2012, updated in 2016.