Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Wood Burning Heat, Pt. 2


Here’s part two of my ongoing story about wood heat. Which I am writing as I should be actually moving a load of wood into the house. I’m sure the gorgeous fall weather is not going to hold. and there’s the wood, just sitting there!

If you’re going to burn wood and not pellets, the whole woodburning heat scene gets a little complicated. You can go about getting wood a lot of different ways. You can buy loads of just long logs that you cut and split yourself which have to be delivered on a log truck. You can buy precut and split wood. You can get “slabwood” which is basically the leavings from when sawmills square off the trees they are cutting for boards. Again. the slab can come in long planks or cut. Ideally, you can be cutting firewood all the time from your own wood lot or one closeby where you live where you have permission to cut downed trees.

There are a few considerations when deciding where you’re going to get your wood, the most important being, will it burn right? Do not use evergreen wood in your wood burning stove. The wood is full of pitch and sap, and that will gum up your stove and chimney when it burns. A gummy, flammable chimney is a very bad thing. You can get hemlock slabwood a lot of places around here because it’s a good rough framing wood (our new goat shed -ha! ha! We did get something done around here! - is made of rough sawed hemlock) but I asked my uncle who is my mentor on all things wood, and he said don’t burn hemlock slab.

The next consideration is if the wood is dry enough to burn. Ever since we’ve started with the wood heat, and we’re going into our fifth winter now, we’ve burned trees from summer blowdowns about three year s previously. We live in a wooded area, there is at least one bad windstorm a year, and the big trees that com down during those storms are excellent firewood after they are on the ground a couple of years. My uncle does maintenance on a wood lot for his neighbor who is a retired forester, and they get along really well. You would never guess that the woods around the house over there were actually really heavily utilized, providing heat for about five different households. All he does though is cleans up down trees and trees that are unhealthy or hanging.

The wood had to be properly seasoned for a couple of good reasons. Wet wood doesn’t burn as hot, and isn’t as efficient. Also, the greener the wood it, the more creosote will build up in your chimney. Creosote, as my stove man has told me many the time, is the solid form of natural gas. It’s like a shiney, bubbly, glassy layer that builds up in the stove pipe if you’re burning green wood at lower temperatures, and it is the reason that chimneys catch fire. Even a little creosote burning can make a greasy, tarry buildup in the chimney that can never really be scraped off. I’m not sure if the creosote buildup have something to do with greener woods just never reaching the temperature of burn they need to be at or the chemical combination of the wood before it has aged, but firewood needs to be seasoned.

If you can feel a dampness in a newly split piece of wood or notice a big color difference between the inner core of the wood and the outer layers, the wood could be dryer and should be set aside long enough to dry out better. Seasoned wood can have been rained on, and still burn fine, but you need to make sure the moisture is dampness because of rain or dew and not “tree juice.”

Guessing how much wood you need is tricky and kind of scary if you are going to rely on wood heat entirely. it’s one of those things that you really can’t have too much of, though. If you’re cutting from your own wood lot, just keep cutting. It won’t hurt to have like a year’s supply of wood on hand just in case something happens, and that way you’ll never have to worry about a lack of cut, seasoned wood. My grandfather was a poor planner when it came to wood, and tended to get enough wood to last right up into the middle of winter. My poor mother and uncle were traumatized as children having to scrape snow off logs and get them in the house so they could get some heat. We’ve never really hit the right formula for getting a whole winter’s worth of wood yet. Our old stove ate wood so much that even twelve pickup truck loads was not enough. With our new stove, I’m thinking ten will be plenty, but of course I only got eight last year and ran out in March.

When you buy wood, it is generally measured by the “cord” which is an even stack of split wood 4’ wide by 4’ tall by 8’ long or 128 cubit feet. A “face cord” is a little more subjective: 4’ tall by 8’ long but only as deep as the individual pieces of wood, which brings me to a really important point:

You need to know what size wood fits in your stove.

If you have a door, the wood needs to fit in. If you have an open fireplace, the wood can’t just stick in kitty corner or it could fall back out. Find out what size wood your stove should burn and made a “template” either a stick or a dowel or a piece of yardstick that you can hold up against the wood to make sure that it fits inside the stove.

You can always ask for advice about how much wood you need to get to make it through the winter, but I guarantee that you will not get the same answer twice and those answers will be so far apart that it’s not even funny. The answer should be: get as much as you can get someone to bring to you fro the price you can afford. If it’s too much, you can always burn it next year! If it’s not enough, just make sure you have a backup heat source.

If you get your wood delivered already cut and split, you will pay a lot for it. If you have a chainsaw and can get a triaxle to deliver logs that you cut yourself, it costs less. You can also have the logs cut to size and then spilt them yourself. I’m five feet tall and a total wimp, and I can split wood., so anyone without major physical disabilities should be fine with this, if they’re motivated enough.

To split, you need exactly two pieces of equipment (three if you count work gloves): a splitting wedge for tough pieces and one of the best tools ever. The head of it looks like an axe on one half and a sledge hammer on the other. In the south, they call this a “maul” but in PA, we’d call a tool like that a “go-devil”. These come in different weights, and I have kind of a medium weight one at 8 pounds. It’s little heavier than some of the ones I’ve used that belong to a lot bigger people than me, but I also don’t put as much oomph into it as a bigger person can, so I need to make up for that in weight.

Splitting is one of those things that someone should just show you. Essentially, there are little stress cracks in the logs. Hit a crack really hard. If that doesn’t do it, hit it again. Try to hit the same place. If the wood doesn’t split, use the hammer end to pound in the wedge and just keep hitting that wedge. They have mechanical splitters which is definitely an option if you’re doing a ton of wood and you have health problems, but you can split a lot of wood with a go-devil before you need to think about getting a hydraulic splitter.

Getting around to splitting, this is as good a time as any to talk about exactly what kind of wood to use. Again, never burn evergreen in your stove or fireplace.
Ash splits the easiest and makes a nice fire. Locust wood, if the tree is too big for fence posts can be burned pretty well after it’s seasoned. Locust has a distinctive green stripe in the wood grain. All the nut woods are okay, but they split hard. Hickory burns really hot and had a great smell, but it splits hard and also really tends to pop very forcefully, so if you have a rug or an open fireplace, it might cause some problems to have coals explode out of the fire. We have mostly red maple and sugar maple this year, and as long as they are nice and dry, they are both good wood. Sugar maple splits hard, though. Cherry wood makes decent firewood. I have burned cotton wood, too, and it’s okay. Of course, you never cut down a walnut tree or a cherry tree for firewood. Plenty break and fall down all on their own, all people need to do it clean it up after it already falls down.

Edwin Way Teale in his book A Naturalist buys an Old Farm has a really sweet chapter about wood and his fireplace, and he gets into all the different colors and sounds and smells of different kinds of wood. The book is not terribly exciting, but it is really nice and kind of a good depiction of the sorts of things that people do to amuse themselves when they have a lot of nature around.

There is also a nice web site called woodheat.org (copy and paste, I don’t feel like trying to make a link). It’s obviously propaganda placed on the web by a stove dealers’ and chimney sweeps’ PAC, but the information is still good.

I guess there are a lot of rules and regulations about whether or not you can have a wood stove if you live in town. And you are not technically able to have a mortgage or house insurance unless you have something other than a wood stove for your primary heat. I’ve talked to more than a few people who were fiercely against wood heat because of pollution, but if a stove is smoking enough to cause bad problems for people in the neighborhood, there’s a problem with the stove. A hot fire in a well built stove and chimney will be nearly smokeless. And if there’s not a problem with the stove, the complainers are just never going to be happy about anything anyway!

That’s why we live in the country. We can light anything we like on fire and shoot guns in the yard. Yes, it’s a little hard in winter and the roads are bad and all that stuff, but I can fish in the back yard, and the kids next door walk all of about a quarter mile from the house to go deer hunting, and I have room to plant anything that comes into my head, even if the rabbits just eat it. And I can also drag the chainsaw back into the swamp and cut down some trees to keep my house warm for a while.

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