Tuesday, February 3, 2009

EntropyPawsed: Heating With Wood

For Bonnie and me, heating with wood was the catalyst that reconnected us with nature and put on us a path of a low energy lifestyle. How can something seemingly as simple as wood heat be such an important factor in our lives? The question is possibly answered by the process of heating with wood itself.

Our wood heat adventure started in 1994 when we moved into a small cabin in Hocking County, Ohio, about one hour southeast of Columbus. It had previously been a weekend retreat, and had a fireplace insert-type wood stove, along with baseboard electric heat. During plans for the remodeling, we decided to remove the electric baseboards and heat just with wood.

We purchased a Husquavarna chain saw, and I proceeded to read the owner's manual. When making my very first cut on a downed tree, I pinched the saw in the kerf. It was to be the first of many such pinches. That first winter, we bought most of our wood. But in all subsequent years in Hocking County, we cut, hauled, and split 100% of our wood ourselves. Some we scavenged by the roadsides in the area, some we cut from our own woods, the rest we cut for neighbors, keeping the wood in exchange for removing undesirable trees.

Ten years of cutting, hauling, and splitting wood for burning has the potential to provide a lot of education about trees and wood. Oak has a distinctive smell. Its grain is straight, making it easy to split. Hickory grain is not straight, making it difficult to split. Standing dead elm quickly dulls the chainsaw, and tends to be hard to split, but it holds fire even when dampened back 100%, black gum is almost impossible to split....

On a small rural holding, heating with wood can be sustainable. A rough estimate is “a cord per acre per year.” (A cord of wood is a stack that is 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long.) Learning how to identify and make select cuts can improve a forest while yielding free fuel. Your local extension service office probably offers information and maybe even classes on how to improve your woodlot. Here is a comprehensive site offered by the University of New Hampshire Extension Service.

Early painful lessons have made me a zealot for wearing a helmet with hearing protection and and a face shield. I always remind myself when working with the chainsaw that an accident could kill me. It may be morbid, but it also hopefully keeps one fully present and focused on the job. When a cut is in doubt, don't do it. Wait and come back, ask for a second opinion, or just give it up. If you become reasonably proficient with a chainsaw, you may develop a whole new prospective on life.

The wood is first cut to the desired length (our current stove takes relatively short 12 to 14 inch pieces). Then it must be split to size. We have always split everything by hand. We have several metal wedges that we rarely use anymore, but they are handy for splitting big logs.

The tool of choice for splitting is a maul. It is a combination ax/sledgehammer. Maul heads range from five to nine pounds. The piece of wood is put upon a block (I use a log that will not split), the maul is lined up, and swung from straight over top the head. The idea is to generate speed at the maul head, similar to a golf swing. There is a satisfying “swack!” as the maul contacts and splits the wood. It takes a bit of practice to make the maul head hit the wood in the right place. The rule of thumb is that the maul goes where you look, so look right at the exact spot you want to hit!

Moving to West Virginia in 2001 gave us an opportunity to place our wood stove where it functioned best in the unfinished cabin. We previously blogged about “A Pattern Language” and the fire circle pattern that we used. We put the stove close to the center of our cabin, and the flue pipe goes straight up through the living space for more efficient dispersal of flue gas heat. The flue pipe pierces the building envelope close to the peak of the roof, and the triple wall chimney extends from the ceiling to above the peak of the roof. This design allows for a most efficient chimney system. More information about designing fireplace and stove systems is found here by the Wood Heat Organization.

It is important to properly maintain the chimney for efficient smoke removal and to reduce or eliminate the possibility of chimney fires. We always clean the chimney and flue each year at the start of the heating season. This year, due to winter's early arrival and much colder weather, we cleaned the chimney for the first time ever mid-season. Most stove manufacturers will suggest monthly cleanings. I recommend obtaining an appropriately sized brush for your flue, some poles, and doing your own cleaning. You can get it done in one afternoon. You will learn a lot about your system, you won't get scammed, and it won't cost you any money, and you will feel the satisfaction of a job well done when it is over.

Our nature-linked low energy living journey started with wood heat. There is a beauty and immense satisfaction in being able to supply ourselves with our own fuel for heating. Maybe there is something to that old Zen saying, “chop wood, carry water...”

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