Is Wood Heating Right for You?

Now is the perfect time to explore the options and decide if a woodstove or other wood heating system is the right choice for your home.
By John Gulland
March 31, 2008
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Heating your home with wood can make you more self-reliant and save you money, too.
ISTOCKPHOTO/CHRISHAYWARD


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Wood heating has many advantages. Wood is a renewable fuel, it’s widely available in many parts of North America, and in some situations, heating with wood can save you money.

If you’re interested in wood heat, right now is the best time to explore your options for a woodstove or other wood heating system. Because spring is the slow season, wood heat retailers may sweeten the deal to get your business this time of year.

But before making a purchase, be sure to research your options and seek out good advice. This will be time well spent, because it can help you avoid costly mistakes. Wood heating isn’t for everyone, but with a little research and planning, you may discover that it’s a great option for you. Here are a few things to consider when evaluating your options.

Calculating the Costs and Benefits
In many cases, heating with wood will save you money, but this is not true for everyone. If you live in a forested rural area and can do some of the processing of the wood yourself, you can save some money — especially if you already have a truck or trailer and are handy with a chain saw and splitting maul. But if you have to buy split firewood and have it delivered to your suburban home, you probably won’t save much.

To get a rough idea of the cost savings, you can try various online tools, such as this fuel cost calculator. However, no calculator can give you a completely accurate figure for how much you will save. Most can’t figure in supplementary heating, in which only a portion of the conventional fuel cost is displaced. Nor can they take account of the time you would devote to all the tasks involved in wood heating.

After all, if you paid yourself minimum wage for all the cutting, splitting, stacking, fire stoking, ash removal and so on, the savings would quickly evaporate. So even if your main motivation is to save money, also consider if the other benefits appeal to you—the ones that seem to sustain the most successful users of wood energy. If you enjoy physical work and a regular routine, and if you would like to be more self-reliant and less dependent on fossil fuels, than wood heating might be for you.

Consider the Options: Woodstoves, Boilers, Pellet Stoves and More
One of the first things you’ll have to decide is what kind of system to buy, because there are several different wood heating technologies, and all of them have pros and cons.

The least expensive and most efficient way to heat with wood is with a woodstove located in the main living area of the home. Clean burning stoves certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) average around 70 percent fuel efficiency, and by putting your heater in the main living area you save energy because the warmth is concentrated where you spend most of your time, not in other areas such as bedrooms.

However, if you want to heat the whole house to an even temperature and keep fuel wood out of living areas, you could opt for a wood boiler or central furnace. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find efficient boilers and furnaces. The most efficient wood boilers are downdrafts, sometimes called gasifiers. If a forced-air furnace is more suitable for your house, you can look for one of the few that are EPA-certified. Although it may not be easy to find high efficiency, clean-burning wood furnaces and boilers, the effort is worthwhile because the difference in fuel consumption, convenience and maintenance costs between older conventional units and these advanced furnaces and boilers is large.

If you live in the city or suburbs, consider a pellet stove, furnace or boiler. The 40 pound plastic bags of pellets are neat and easy to store and all the processing work is already done for you. You can probably save some money by heating with pellets, but you won’t gain independence because you can’t make the fuel yourself and you won’t have security from power outages because pellet stoves need electricity to run their fuel auger, fans and controls.

Other Considerations for a Wood Heating System
Whatever type of wood heating system you choose, you’ll want to be sure it’s well-designed and safely installed. When considering these issues, keep in mind that a critical part of any wood heating system is the chimney. It’s the chimney draft that draws in combustion air and sends the exhaust outdoors. Bad chimneys create wood heat nightmares because their low draft means a cloud of smoke rolling into the house every time the stove door is opened to add wood. The biggest mistake you can make is to install the chimney out through a wall and up the outside of the house. There is nearly always a way to route the chimney up through the inside of the house, and it is well worth the effort.

Wood heat has many benefits, including the beauty of the natural wood fire, the warm spot in the house to gather around, the security of knowing that you’ll be warm and comfortable if the electrical power grid fails in a storm, and freedom from energy suppliers who only care about the big check you send them each month. Chosen wisely, a wood heating system can provide many years of comfort, pleasure and savings.

John Gulland regularly writes about wood heating for  Mother Earth News. For more information, you can find more of his articles here, and visit his Web site at woodheat.org.


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Post a comment below.

 

JAMESH
12/7/2013 8:46:10 PM
I really think any "dangers" from wood smoke are over-blown. If it really does kill 30,000 people annually in this nation of 330 million people, that's a small number, and much less than are killed in auto accidents. Cost vs. benefit. While I get most of my wood from my own property, I did discover a great source to supplement it. There is a pallet factory in my community that will sell the scraps for $45/pickup truck load. These scraps are blocks that are either 4"x4"x6", or 6x6x6. The majority of these are Oak, but since you load them yourself you can pick all the Oak as you load. By stacking them tightly I get 1/3 cord in my truck and I feel it's the equal energy wise of what is sold as a half cord in split wood.

JAMESH
12/7/2013 8:33:06 PM
I really think any "dangers" from wood smoke are over-blown. If it really does kill 30,000 people annually in this nation of 330 million people, that's a small number, and much less than are killed in auto accidents. Cost vs. benefit. While I get most of my wood from my own property, I did discover a great source to supplement it. There is a pallet factory in my community that will sell the scraps for $45/pickup truck load. These scraps are blocks that are either 4"x4"x6", or 6x6x6. The majority of these are Oak, but since you load them yourself you can pick all the Oak as you load. By stacking them tightly I get 1/3 cord in my truck and I feel it's the equal energy wise of what is sold as a half cord in split wood.

CathyBaiton
11/2/2013 5:02:13 PM
Please consider the negative impacts of wood burning on air quality and health, especially in populated areas. Wood heating is the largest single source of particulate matter in Canada, according to Environment Canada. It's also the largest residential source, according to the American Lung Association. Here is an excerpt from the article, "Wood burning: The air pollution elephant in the room" from the website of Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment, a group of medical professionals who have called for a year-round ban on burning wood, both indoors and outside: "Many years ago we adopted a societal norm that no one should be involuntarily subjected to second hand cigarette smoke because of the inherent public health consequences and the infringement on the rights of nonsmokers to avoid exposure. . . . The smoke from wood stoves, boilers and fireplaces creeps onto adjacent property and into nearby homes affecting the quality of life and health of neighbours. 'Cheap heat' or pleasant ambiance for a resident burning wood is accomplished at the expense of nearby neighbors and the community at large, just like second hand cigarette smoke." http://www.uphe.org/wood-burning-the-air-pollution-elephant-in-the-room

CathyBaiton
11/2/2013 12:06:09 PM
Here is the full link to the article mentioned in my comment below, from Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment: http://www.uphe.org/wood-burning-the-air-pollution-elephant-in-the-room Thanks, Cathy

CathyBaiton
11/2/2013 12:02:13 PM
Please consider the negative impacts of wood burning on air quality and health. Wood heating is the largest single source of particulate matter in Canada, according to Environment Canada. It's also the largest residential source in the US, according to the American Lung Association. Here is an excerpt from the article, "Wood burning: The air pollution elephant in the room" from the website of Utah Physians for Healthy Environment: "Many years ago we adopted a societal norm that no one should be involuntarily subjected to second hand cigarette smoke because of the inherent public health consequences and the infringement on the rights of nonsmokers to avoid exposure. . . . The smoke from wood stoves, boilers and fireplaces creeps onto adjacent property and into nearby homes affecting the quality of life and health of neighbours. 'Cheap heat' or pleasant ambiance for a resident burning wood is accomplished at the expense of nearby neighbors and the community at large, just like second hand cigarette smoke." - http://www.uphe.org/...

Matthew Thredgold
11/2/2013 2:23:00 AM
Please don't burn wood. Wood smoke is a class 1 carcinogen. It kills and harms people. It degrades urban air quality. It degrades rural air quality. There are 30,000 annual deaths in the US due to wood smoke caused particulate pollution. Wood smoke causes lung cancers, mouth and throat cancers, stroke, emphysema, heart disease, COPD, asthma, bronchitis, leukemias and it has been linked to breast cancer and colon cancer as well as SIDS. 1 EPA approved woodburner pollutes at 1000 times more particulate pollution than burning natural gas. 1 wood burner in 1 night puts the same amount of soot out as a gasoline car driven for over 12,000 miles. Only selfish dickheads burn wood. Only selfish dickheads burn wood.

MICHAEL HEWARD
12/2/2011 5:54:07 AM
Hi Folks, I've been hoping someone would have some advice for others pertaining to wood heating. However, after checking for several days, it seems no-one will step up to the plate to stop new comers from making some BIG mistakes. If you are new to heating with wood, A TRUE cord of wood is a stack of wood 4 foot wide by 4 foot high by 8 foot long! It doesn't matter how you stack the wood as long as you stack it as tight as possible. Pretend you are building a giant 4x4x8 foot solid log. That is a true cord of wood, plain and simple!!! As for seasoning, never burn green wood... Green wood waste valuable btu's right up the stack. You will have a cold fire and you will coat the inside of your stove pipe and chimney pipe with a very hard coating of creosote... Well seasoned wood is wood which has been cut, split and dried for 1 full year. The only exception to this rule would be if you split your wood extremely thin. Basically 2x4's. In most cases, well seasoned wood will be golden brown to gray in color. Depending on which species you are working with. Check with any stove manufacturer and they will confirm this!!! Due watch for the truckload wood sale. Many people try to sell what is considered as a truck load. Most people have no idea as to the weight of good hard wood. It is very hard to load a pick-up truck with a full cord. Forgive me for not having more concrete figures on this however, Oak comes in around 3,100 lbs. for a full cord. No 1/2 ton or even 3/4 ton pick-up can safely haul this amount of wood. Mixed hardwoods will still fall some where around 2,200 to 2,900 lbs. for a full cord. Still to much weight for the average pick-up truck to safely haul!!! Also remember, if it is just a truck load which has been thrown in the bed, there is a thing called wheel wells... They eat alot of room from the inside of a bed. In all reality, that so called truck load of wood may be more like 1/3 to one 1/2 a cord. Keep in mind, most areas in the mid-Atlantic region, a full cord of oak firewood is around $225-265.00 per cord. If you paid anything even close to this for the so called truck load, you probably paid 2 to 3 times what you should have... No back to the seasoned wood, Well seasoned wood will start with very little kindling. If your fire will not start easily, your wood has to much moisture inside. Once you get the fire going, you should NOT see any moisture seeping out the end of the log period. Moisture seeping or oozing out the end of the log means you are wasting valuable BTU's up the stack in the form of smoke. There again, check with any reputable stove manufacturer... Also remember, DON'T smolder your fire. Be sure you have enough air entering the bed of coals to keep a good flame. A good flame helps to burn smoke which results in addl. BTU's. A smoldering fire will also contribute to excess creosote build up in the entire system. If you have a Catalytic stove, you will clog the combuster by smoldering your fire... Another thing with catalytic stoves, Ceramic combusters need 500 degrees to light off. Make sure your stove is up to 500 degrees before engaging the combuster. After which, your light blue smoke should switch to pure white. Water vapor. If your combuster is in good clean condition and the smoke doesn't change to white, your wood is green... I hope this is of help to those just starting out...Make sure your system is clean!!! May everyone stay safe through this winter season and always. Cedar Mill Bumper and Hitch .com

MICHAEL HEWARD
11/29/2011 3:34:12 AM
Hello, The reasons for not going through a wall with your chimney would be, 1) you need to be careful when cleaning the chimney at the point where the horizontal connection meets the vertical section. Creosote can accumalate in this area which is not easy to see. 2) You need to be sure the connection at the wall is by means of an insulated thimble and chimney section to prevent a fire starting in the wall space. 3) You will loose a certain amount of draft with the addition of the two 90 degree joints. The loss of heat is very minor... Just be sure to keep everything clean and do regular monthly inspections and all should be ok. Cedar Mill Bumper and Hitch .com

Nancy Houvert
11/26/2011 8:33:52 PM
What do you mean by " The biggest mistake you can make is to install the chimney out through a wall and up the outside of the house." ? Is it for the waste of heat or for security reasons, or...?

Joseph Miller
12/1/2008 3:43:43 PM
If you were to update your articles you would have much stronger credibility! It is now the last day of November, that makes it Fall, not Spring - 3 weeks until winter!!

constance_1
10/6/2008 10:23:10 PM
i've used wood heat for over 40 years...i learned a few things the hard way...i might have a few experiences that may help someone just starting out. 1. if you are purchasing your wood from a local wood cutter...here are several things you really need to know. there are always a few bad apples in the bunch. try and use someone who has been in business for at least five years. they have a reputation to uphold. sometimes people use wood cutting as a way of getting them through hard times. and they may sell wood cheaper. if you are enticed by a cheaper price or someone selling wood on the side of the road. here are a few things to look for. 1a. make sure that you know exactly how much wood you are buying. a cord of wood is 4 feet high two feet wide and eight feet long. that is stacked with the logs laying vertically on top of each other not cross stacked. 1b. make sure you don't have a whole load of wood with soft or spongy looking centers. that would be from wood that rotted on the inside and only the outside that is hard will give off btu's! usually it just smolders and puts off very little heat.. and most important! 1c. if at all possible avoid wood that has been seasoned longer than 6 months. the very best wood, is green oak or any green hard wood. you age it and use 3 months later. hard wood seasoned for three months provides the most btu's for your money!...the one wood that isn't in this class would be pine. unfortunately pine needs to be dry. so be careful. if you have to use pine that is green try and mix it with dry oak or any slower burning woods. and remember the pitch from pine will cause cresote to build up faster!... try to get enough wood so that you have at least a quarter of a cord to use as starter wood the next winter. Often you will have the opportunity of getting wood from various tree's. be careful...some woods burn extremely hot. madrone is one...manzanita is another. of course the reason for care is hot burnng wood can








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