Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I can remember when we were getting prepared to leave our suburban, natural gas-heated home to live in our new home on 150 acres in the bush. A friend warned me about how hard it is to heat with wood. In fact my friend knew of someone who had given up and moved back to the city because it was so hard. If I didn’t know any better I would guess it might have been some sour grapes.
Luckily my friend’s warning was completely unnecessary! Not only is heating with wood not been a problem, it has become my hobby! I absolutely love it! I can’t get enough of it and I usually have about a two-year supply of wood cut and curing at any one time. I love everything about heating with wood. I love cutting it. I love splitting it. I love piling it. And I absolutely adore the heat you get from a woodstove. We had a small house in the city that should have been easy to heat with our natural gas, forced air furnace but Michelle remembers that she always felt cold. We kept the thermostat at 21°C during the day, but it was never that wonderful, warm all over feeling that you get from wood heat.
At first I was a bit concerned about the environmental consequences of heating with wood. Then our friend Bill Kemp (author of The Renewable Energy Handbook), who understands this stuff, was able to set me straight. Heating with wood is carbon neutral. In fact short of building an R-14042 house and heating it with a beeswax candle, it’s really the only way to have carbon neutral heat. A geothermal heat pump system is great in that for every unit of electric energy you put in you get 3 units of heat energy out of the ground, but you still need to buy the electricity to run the system, and for most of us there is an environmental consequence to that electricity be it coal, natural gas, oil or nuclear. (And for anyone thinking of running a geothermal system on an off-grid house, good luck! The time of year when you will want to run your heating system is the same time of year when sunlight is in short supply. You’ll be running a generator just to keep your geothermal system going and that defeats the purpose.)
As a tree is growing it is absorbing carbon dioxide and storing it as woody matter. If that tree dies and decomposes on the forest floor it releases that CO2 back to the atmosphere and it also releases heat, albeit very slowly. But it only releases the amount of CO2 that it absorbed. If, instead, you burn that wood in a woodstove it will release the same amount of heat and CO2 as it would rotting on the forest floor, you’re just speeding up the process.
Natural gas companies have convinced people that natural gas is a very clean way to heat your home. Compared to other energy sources like oil and coal it can be. But natural gas is methane gas that was stored in the ground not affecting the atmosphere. When you pump it out of the ground and burn it you release that sequestered CO2 into the atmosphere, and it’s the CO2 in the atmosphere that is causing it to heat up.
It is important to use a proper EPA-certified woodstove that burns the wood properly. Those outdoor boilers you see belching great clouds of smoke don’t burn the wood well. They tend to smolder and that smoke you see is unburned materials and heat going up the chimney and being wasted.
Since we work (publishing books) out of our home, at this time of year I can quit work an hour before dark and head out to the bush. After a day of pushing pixels around a computer screen there is nothing better for my state of mind than to be in our woods. I’ve developed a system in which I cut the trees on the weekend and then haul them out during the week. I have two plastic snowmobile sleds that I use to drag the lengths back to the house or out to where I can get to them in the spring in my truck. I cut the tree into pieces the length of 3 fire logs, then I “buck” or cut those up into woodstove-sized lengths back at the house. I usually use the electric chainsaw for the final cutting into stove lengths. By February the weather here is generally cold but sunny. Since the solar panels work best in cold weather, light is reflected off of the snow and the air is cleaner than in the summer, we usually have lots of excess electricity to burn off. I can only dump so much of our extra “juice” into the electric hot water tank so the electric chainsaw becomes an additional “dump” load. It’s free electricity that would otherwise be wasted and it’s carbon neutral since my solar panels are powering it. It’s a solar-powered electric chainsaw and it’s absolutely awesome.
If I could figure out a way to make money harvesting firewood sustainably like this I would love to do it for a living. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing like the feeling of accomplishment when we get a new book back from the printers, but somehow for me it doesn’t compare to a nice big pile of firewood. Right now I can look in my woodshed and know exactly where this winter’s heat is going to come from. And outside the woodshed is next year’s firewood ready to go. These days I’m busy adding to next year’s pile and starting a pile for the following years.
Our 150 acres includes many ponds that were created by beavers. Beavers are unbelievably destructive but Michelle has made it very clear that they are to remain untouched. As far as she is concerned, the beavers were here long before we were, so we are just “stewards” of their land. I spend a good chunk of the winter cutting up the beaver’s leftovers. It actually works quite well because the beavers prefer the little branches and shoots that I don’t want. And they do the really dangerous work of bringing the trees down. I guess it’s a synergistic relationship although they do have a tendency to go a little crazy and overdo it.
Regardless nature is unstoppable and the trees grow back. I have never had to cut a live tree on the property. I usually take down some live popular trees in the fall to get weight in the back of the pickup truck, but other than that I have trouble keeping up with the dead stuff that’s already on the ground.
Our woodstove is the center of our home in the winter. Some of the time it has 3 huge pots of water on it heating up ready for that evening’s bath since with less solar radiation our solar domestic hot water heater doesn’t provide all of our hot water during this time of the year. Much of the time there is a pot of soup or something cooking on it. On a recent Sunday morning I made the entire breakfast of eggs, hash browns and fried tempeh on it, and then we put a pot of tomato soup on to simmer for lunch. The frozen tomatoes were from the garden as was the garlic and basil. We always keep a kettle on it ready to wash dishes or for our next cup of tea. It’s basically the center of my universe right now. I don’t know many people who would say that about their furnace.
Much of the natural gas in North America is now coming from shale gas and coal bed methane or it’s sour gas, and all of these sources have a negative impact on the people that live near where it’s taken out of the ground. When I drop a tree I might have an impact on any animals living in it, but I leave many other trees standing, many of which have holes in them where animals live. In the 12 years that I’ve been living here and cutting my own firewood I’ve yet to see any signs of animals having fled a tree I used for firewood.
I know what my friend from the suburbs would say to me today… “But what are you going to do when you’re too old to heat with wood?” My neighbor Dave was cutting firewood for a living when he was 75. When I can’t cut my own firewood to heat my home it will be time for me to lie down on the forest floor and fertilize the seedlings so someone can use them to heat sustainably in the future.
Photo by Cam Mather.
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My daughter Nicole sent me this picture of an artistically arranged woodpile and suggested that it could "inspire" me. I wouldn't want to use any of this wood and disturb this work of art!
Photo used with permission of artist. Here's a link to artist Alastair Heseltine's website; http://www.alastairheseltine.com