A Guide to Winter Heating with Wood

No matter where they live, most people must heat their homes for at least a portion of the year. Here in Vermont, the saying goes that there are eight months of winter and four months of bad sledding, so heating the home is an important issue. In southern states, warming the house may only be necessary if you live in the mountains or during an occasional cold snap.

Recently, everyone has been hit by the rising cost of fuel. But those heating with wood have been able to weather these increases with little impact on their budgets. Although the cost of firewood has risen due to an increase in demand, it is still a relatively inexpensive source of heat when compared to fossil fuels. And this has many people taking a second look at using wood as a way to supplement their traditional heating system, or even to switch over completely to a wood-heat system.

 Install a Wood Stove

Wood stoves come in a wide range of sizes, from small parlor-stoves which could heat just a sitting room, to units large enough to heat an entire house. Modern wood stoves are air-tight, meaning that the air that is drawn for combustion is controlled by the user. This enables them to burn more efficiently, using less wood and keeping the temperature more even and you more comfortable. (Note: If you vent a wood stove through an existing chimney, be sure to have it checked for cracks or leaks.) 

Choose Your Wood

The best wood for heating is hardwood. Hardwoods such as oak, maple and beech produce more heat per pound than softwoods like aspen or pine. They burn hotter and last longer. If you harvest your own firewood or supplement your purchase of firewood with prunings, it is best to select hardwoods for heating and softwoods for kindling or for beginning- or end-of-season heating to take the chill off in the morning.

Another benefit to using hardwood is it is less likely to cause creosote build-up in the chimney. When wood burns, especially at a low draft and low heat (the way a stove may be set for overnight heating), moisture from the wood condenses on the chimney wall. This moisture contains chemicals and unburned particles of wood. As it condenses, it drips back down the chimney where the moisture is driven off by the heat, leaving behind a sticky substance called creosote. In addition to impeding the draft of the chimney, creosote is extremely flammable and can cause chimney fires. Because hardwoods burn hotter, there is less creosote buildup than with softwoods. No matter what type of wood you burn, it’s important to clean the chimney regularly. This may be necessary only yearly, or it may have to be cleaned more often, depending on use, wood and type of stove or fireplace.The easiest way to get firewood is to buy it. Wood is sold by the cord, which measures 4’d x 4’h x 8’w. In rural areas where wood is logged (like Vermont) you can expect to pay between $100–$225/cord. Some key things to know before buying are type of wood, length and thickness (so it fits in your stove), whether it is split or not, and if it is green or dry. Green wood is always cheaper than dry, but you’ll want to count on giving green wood a full year to dry out.

Choose the Location of Your Wood Pile

Positioning the wood pile is important. The best place is as close to the wood stove as possible. However, wood piles are a haven for mice, chipmunks and insects, so do not place the wood against the house. If possible, consider the lay of the land so that the house is level or downhill from the pile, making the prospect of pushing a fully loaded garden cart or wheelbarrow more practicable. Power equipment such as tractor with a cart, or the DR® Powerwagon can make this chore even easier. Also consider wind direction and air circulation for drying the wood, and whether the location will be adversely affected by snow falling from a roof, or rain running or pooling under the pile.

Firewood RackStack Your Wood Pile

Stacking wood is an art and many folks take pride in constructing a straight, even pile. Proper stacking is important, because it allows for air circulation so the wood can dry. The fastest way to build a pile is to stack logs between two existing endpoints. These can be two trees, walls that you build or a purchased metal frame. Otherwise, you’ll need to build a “chimney stack” at each end of the pile to ensure stability. Keep the wood out of the weather by covering with a tarp, or stacking under a roof. Even dry wood gives off moisture, so it is not a good idea to stack the woodpile in the cellar of your home.  In addition to saving money on energy, heating with wood gives you the feeling of independence gained by controlling your heat source. In the event of ice storms or power outages, you still have heat. If bad road conditions prevent the oil delivery truck from reaching your house, you just put another log on the fire. Best of all, wood heat makes for a cozy atmosphere in which you can settle back in your favorite easy chair and read a good book, reflect on your accomplishments, or start planning next year’s yard and garden projects!

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