With fossil fuel prices much higher this winter than the previous seven years, some people are considering installing a woodstove or fireplace to try and save money. When I moved to Greene County, full time, in the winter of 1973, with no job and no money, there was an oil embargo imposed by OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Producing Countries). The price of oil doubled, almost overnight, and I decided I had to find a way to save what little money I had. Cutting and burning my own firewood seemed like a good idea at the time. At the time, it was probably a good alternative, but there are downsides to this activity that must also be taken into account. This week I will focus on the pros, next week I will discuss the cons of heating with wood.
Burning wood for warmth allowed humans to survive in places and for times that our early ancestors could not. Every time we light the wood stove or light a log in the fireplace, we are repeating a ritual that predates civilization. Wood fires can bring a comfort and a feeling of well-being that cannot be easily explained in terms of modern science. It is true that whether you cut and prepare your own firewood, or buy it locally, you are using a renewable resource that can last indefinitely. Well managed, a ten acre woodlot can produce about five full cords of lumber per year, forever. Now I happen to own enough woodland to be self-sufficient if I choose to do so these days. I choose not to.
Firewood is sold by volume, but the actual heat you get is determined by the weight of the wood, not its volume. One pound of seasoned wood provides approximately 8,000 BTUs of any gasoline. A solid cord, which is defined as a four-foot-high, four-foot-wide, eight-foot-long (128 cubic foot) pile of hickory or oak can weigh up to 4,000 pounds, producing more than twice as much of warmth than a cord full of pine, willow, linden, or aspen (poplar), which weighs as little as 1,800 pounds. This weight per volume is based on wood with a moisture content of approximately 20%. Freshly cut wood can weigh more than double. Firewood never dries below 20% humidity when stored outdoors. Only kiln-dried wood can be dried below five percent humidity. This makes two-by-four leftovers excellent fire starters.
It is wise to learn a little more about the species of wood you burn. However, heating your wood-burning home isn’t just about BTUs.
Almost all wood species have their own unique burning characteristics, and long-lasting wood stoves appreciate the “art” of using the right wood for a specific purpose. If you want a quick, hot fire that will heat up the stove and the house in a hurry, you can burn very well seasoned pine, spruce, or hemlock (or two-by-fours, if you can afford it), but these species do not. burn for a long time and they also do not produce long lasting coals. If the outside temperature is not really cold, maybe in the 40s, you can settle for fine ash, birch, birch, red maple (soft), butternut, linden and even partially rotten beech. Sycamore commonly grows along streams, and the wood is very heavy, difficult to split (used to make butcher’s blocks), and contains a lot of water.
If it’s really cold then the hop charm (aka ironwood), hickory, and my favorite firewood, sugar maple, are by far favorites. These three species burn very hot and make excellent, long-lasting coals. Oak is also an excellent firewood, but only when it is dry.
Oak firewood also has a scent that I don’t particularly like. I don’t particularly like the smell of willow, dogwood, locust and aspen. Most people don’t notice the smell of wood until they have thousands of pounds of it in the living room! Apple wood is very dense, burns very hot with large coals, and has a wonderful scent, just like pear and other fruit trees. Apple trees are usually quite gnarled, but with a lot of internal rot and it is also difficult to split. Paper birch has bark that burns with dense, black smoke. It’s good for starting fires, as the bark will burn even if it’s soaked, but not much else. However, it looks nicely stacked near a fireplace! If firewood was sold by looks, paper birch would be a bestseller! Next week I will discuss the cons.