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...”


  1. Last June Cliff took a trip to Albany, NY-USA to talk to 3 audiences on Peak Oil impacts. In the group that invited me, the Capital Regional Energy Forum CREF), is a physicist who teaches energy at a well-known university, and he served in the Peace Corps.

    He has solar powered just about everything, including a solar powered canoe which we went for long ride in on a lake in the Adirondacks, and a PV solar powered house and pump for his well. He repairs about everything on his house himself and he heats much with passive solar. So the guy knows his stuff. He is no ivory tower academic.

    We talked for hours about survival in colder areas after the last power blackout.

    Survival looks difficult in the colder areas.

    Eventually batteries and even the solar panels deteriorate. He thinks that he could store dry batteries with the liquid stored in glass to thus get "new batteries" after they conk out. But eventually the batteries and solar panels give out.

    Cutting and moving wood without trucks, horses, and wagons will be hard and time consuming. There are not many horses around and it will take decades to breed enough horses to go around. Horses require food, care, vets, and medicine. No one is making wagons these days locally.

    Wood stoves break, just like everything else. You could keep 1 or 2 extras, but eventually you have none and can't get more, as there will be no transportation on the highways, and their manufacture will cease without materials coming in on the highways.

    In many areas irrigation is needed and will fail. Irrigating by manual labor is very difficult and time-consuming.

    Asphalt roof shingles need to be replaced, and houses need to be painted and maintained.

    Food must be grown in a short growing season, and all of the farm stuff that was once in an 1890 Sears catalog will no longer be available. Last summer I took a tour of a farm and saw how dependent farming is on oil -- transportation and manufacture of plastic feeding bowls, containers to store grains/feeds, straw, roofs for animals and storage areas, wire, rope, wood boards, cement, fencing, antibiotics for animals, asphalt shingles, glass, insulation, paint, heating, refrigeration etc. Seed and hardware will no longer be available at the local hardware store. No more Mason jars, they were once made in Muncie, Indiana and transported by rail all over the U.S.. No more Mason jars, unless they are made locally.

    Then there is clothing which is currently manufactured and transported from afar. Making cloth is a major operation from growing cotton to making cloth. I have studied the textile mills of Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts, as I used it as an example of the confluence of capital, technology, and labor for a course I taught on Global Urban Politics at the University of New Hampshire. I know that the parts in those factories were manufactured in many places with a vast transportation network. Those factories will not be built again. And there are not many sheep around, nor animals for making leather clothes. Eventually down coats and down comforters wear out, as do blankets. Keeping warm will be a major problem for survival.

  2. Thanks for your comments Clifford. When reading some of your earlier writings a few years back, the thought of living in Belize struck a certain chord with me! However, I have the Appalachians deep in my soul, and feel at home here. We are not looking for agreement with how we do things, but rather conversation about designing for a sustainable future. Your comments I think are potentially stimulative in that regard.

    There are two issues I am certain of. First, our energy footprint here is much lower than it was in the city, and we feel much more connected to nature. Second, when viewed from a long enough time perspective, nothing we do here is sustainable. We see this as a bridge to a sustainable future. David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture states in "Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability" that humans know how to live sustainably, and have done it for all of human existence with the exception of this brief period of industrial civilization.

    It is my understanding that humans lived in North America for perhaps 15,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. Many lived well north of where we are in West Virginia, in long houses, and without wood stoves and hardware stores. That being said, I have also urged my progeny to find a place to live in one of the biological hotspots, most all of which are in the tropics I think.

    The example of nature is resilience through diversity. Let us all share our ideas with good cheer and wishes of good luck. Then, we can all do our own thing. Perhaps some of us will get lucky and find that we have stumbled into something that works. And in the end, perhaps we should all seek to be "lucky rather than good":)
    Visit EntropyPawsed website

  3. I was just wondering, do you have thermal mass for storing heat in the house. I know with a bare metal stove, the heat can be unbearable when burning. It can help to have heat sinks around the house and wrap the stove in brick or stone to "soften" the heat (see The Sauna by Rob Roy).

    One idea I saw, was pretty much just a mass of clay piled around the stove pipe to capture heat going up the pipe. (http://www.simondale.net/house/index.htm)