For the last five years, my husband and I have enjoyed the radiant heat from homegrown wood burned in our efficient wood stove. We've learned a lot in the process. Here are my top ten tips if you want to follow in our footsteps.
1. Choose a modern, right-sized stove. Whether you go for a catalytic or non-catalytic stove, you'll make more heat and less pollution if you choose a stove that fits your space. Many sources suggest planning on 50 to 55 BTU per square foot in the extreme north of the U.S., on 30 to 35 BTU per square foot in the deep south, and around 40 to 45 BTU per square foot in the middle states. Here in zone 6, we chose a 28,000 BTU Jotul F 602 to heat our 500-square-foot mobile home, and the stove has been perfect except during the few days when temperatures dip below 0 Fahrenheit.
2. Burn hot fires. If your stove is the right size, it's much easier to light fires that burn without being damped down at all during the daytime. This type of fire will produce the most heat and, if your stove includes baffles to increase efficiency, will produce next to no particulate pollution.
3. Learn to damp down a stove. There are times when it makes sense to damp down a stove, though. I close our damper to reduce air flow right before going to bed, which leaves me with enough coals to make lighting the morning fire very simple. If I'm going to be away from home all day, I do the same. If you're planning to damp down a fire, it's important to first develop a bed of hot coals then to fill the entire stove up with fresh wood. Burn the new wood as hot as you can for about fifteen minutes until any moisture has been driven off and the logs are fully lit. Then damp the stove down all the way so nearly no oxygen enters the firebox. The result is a fire that will smolder for ten hours or longer, slowly radiating heat out into your cooling home.
4. Learn the different types of wood. Your local forest will determine which trees you choose to burn, but you'll soon realize that wood can be divided into three categories. Very soft wood --- like box-elders --- is extremely easy to light and burns fast. This type of wood is good for small fires during the shoulder season and for making kindling to start winter fires. Medium-weight wood like walnut and tulip-tree, is a little harder to light and creates a bit more heat, while hard wood like oak, apple, and locust will give you lots of heat but can be a bear to start without adding in other types of kindling. In our moderate climate, we mostly burn medium-weight wood but try to have a few really hard logs on hand for the dead of winter.
5. Understand splitting. How to split wood would be another post in its own right. But the shape your wood ends up in is relevant to building and maintaining a fire, so I'll mention a few pointers here. Small branches --- perhaps five or fewer inches in diameter --- can be added to the fire unsplit. These will burn slower than you think they would because of the round shape and barked exterior. In contrast, a rectangular or triangular chunk of wood from the interior of a larger log will light and burn much faster. So save those branches for chinking the gaps around larger logs when building an overnight fire.
6. Understand air flow. Lighting and maintaining a fire is all about air flow. There's a sweet spot where plenty of oxygen can eddy around your logs but where nearby flammables are still close enough to bounce heat back and forth between them --- this is the perfect setup for getting a new fire up and running fast. If you want to slow things down, pack the logs in tighter together, which reduces air flow even before you damp the stove down.
7. Manage your kindling. Top-notch kindling is the difference between an hour spent muttering over a smoldering flame and a fire that leaps to life in the time it takes to gulp down a plate of scrambled eggs. I collect the slivers that spray out in all directions as we split wood and save them in a dry place for tinder. Two small logs --- about two by two inches --- arranged on the two sides of the fire box, a couple of sheets of junk mail (non glossy paper only) crumpled up in between, three or four of those slivers carefully laid atop the mass so they won't fall flat when the paper burns, and then one more small log on top is all it takes. Open the damper, light a match and let the fire catch hold with the stove door open, then shut the door and watch 'er rip.
8. Put a kettle on top. Hot dry air in the winter can make your nose bleed and your lips chap. So fill a kettle with water and put it on top of your wood stove for electricity-free humidification. Or, better yet, mix up a winter soup to simmer all day, filling your air with both moisture and the aroma of homegrown food. You can even use that hot surface area to boil down maple sap into syrup!
9. Manage your ashes. I scoop the ashes out of my stove each morning before lighting a new fire, tipping any coals back into the fire box to make new logs light easier. The ashes go into a metal bucket (careful --- some coals will still be smoldering!), and when the bucket's full I take it all outside to sift out the biochar for use in my garden. If your soil is more acidic than mine, you may use the ashes in your garden plot as well.
10. Don't forget to enjoy the flames! I have to fight the cats over the warm spot in front of the fire and it's a bit tricky to make sure my laptop screen doesn't melt when I write there. But it's all worth it for the happy glow of a warm fire on a cold night.
Anna Hess is the author of The Weekend Homesteader, The Naturally Bug-Free Garden, and Trailersteading. She and her husband also blog about their homesteading adventures daily at the Walden Effect blog. Find all of Anna's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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