Woodburning for Energy Independence

Woodburning, a traditional home heating option, can help you gain energy independence and personal satisfaction.

Home Heating Cost Chart

The annual cost of heating a home with wood is about half the cost of using oil.

Illustration by Corning, Inc.

Content Tools

The New Woodburner’s Handbook (Storey Publishing, 1992) is the essential layman’s guide to the age-old wisdom of heating with wood. Author Stephen Bushway presents first-time and long-time woodburners with all the information necessary to heat a home economically and safely, while safeguarding the environment. In the following excerpt, from Chapter 1, Bushway explains why woodburning can be an intelligent and environmentally sound way to heat your home.

Have you ever noticed how people gather around a fireplace in a ski lodge or common room? It's a lot like being with people at the seashore. No one owns the ocean but it's an elemental part of our world, and we gather around it. And so it is with fire. Fire is nature's way of giving us the sun's warmth. Burning wood isn't only about energy independence, resourcefulness, or economics. It's about the hearth and its rightful place in our homes.

Woodburning can be an intelligent and environmentally sound home heating option, whether it is used as a primary or supplemental source of heat. Among the other home heating fuels, wood is the one renewable fuel that can be harvested with one's own labor and a modest investment in equipment. Forested land provides us with storm-damaged trees; trees cleared for development, or roadway and utility maintenance; and standing dead and deadfall timber. Sound woodlot management yields significant firewood from the process of thinning out crooked, non-lumber-grade trees and less desirable species. The byproduct of logging operations leaves firewood from unusable limbs and trees cut for access roads.

In any wooded environment, there is both oxygen production from growing trees and the release of carbon dioxide — the "greenhouse" gas — as dead wood decays. Since these gases are products of a natural cycle, we may as well use them to heat our homes, as long as our woodburning is done responsibly and in harmony with the environment.

From a geopolitical perspective, the woodburner can also derive some satisfaction from the thought that Btus created from burning wood implicitly reduce the risks associated with our society's insatiable thirst for oil and other fossil fuels — risks as far-reaching and dangerous as "Operation Desert Storm'' or the Exxon Valdez incident.

A Historical Perspective

Even a thousand years ago, woodburning Europeans were concerned about fuel efficiency. Urban populations made fire safety a social concern, and a ready supply of firewood was a valued commodity. With wood, the material almost exclusively used for cooking, heating, and building, the per capita consumption was significant. Aside from these domestic uses, the demand for wood by industry for foundries, bakeries, glassworks, and the like, also took its toll on the forests.

In addition to wood's popularity and usefulness, we should remember that the period between 1550 and 1850, is now sometimes referred to as the "Little Ice Age." During these years Europe was experiencing its own energy crisis, long before heating oil was even known.

Together, all of these factors — increasing demand, dwindling supplies, and a severe climatic change — led to the quest for efficient wood heating.

The Ageless Significance of Fire

As "keepers of the fire," we have had an intimate relationship with fire since our beginnings as a species. In fact, the word focus is derived from the Latin word meaning "hearth." The French word foyer means "fireplace"; figuratively it also means "home." Even today, fire is still the focal point of our living rooms.

Alexander Marschak wrote in The Roots of Civilization that fire "must be tended; it needs a home and place out of the great winds, the heavy rains, the deepest snows; it must be constantly fed." Fire helped to unite people with a single purpose, and feeding it undoubtedly became a task of coordination and cooperation. Camp sites were established in proximity to wood and had to be moved as nearby supplies became exhausted. The Sioux treated fire with care, lest it become dangerous. Fire is the symbol of Light or the visible manifestation of God according to Zoroastrian scripture. The Egyptians knew fire by many names: The Useful One, The Executioner, The Living One, The Angry One, The Beautiful One, The Withering One. The Hawaiian island of Maui is named for the hero who brought back fire from a volcano—home of Mahuika, the fire god. In Greek mythology, Prometheus brought fire to the people of the Greek island of Symni.

The importance of fire spawned the tradition of the eternal flame — the fire that never dies. In early times women kept the fire, as did the Vestal Virgins at their temple in ancient Rome. The Olympic torch and the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery bear witness to fire's continued symbolic role today. A Zoroastrian temple is reported to have had a fire burning continuously for 2,500 years.

Some Native Americans revived the tradition of the Ghost Dance, which included rubbing sticks together to make fire. They refused to adopt the flint and steel brought by the white man. Instead they always kept a fire burning in their lodges as a symbol of eternal life and a sign that they were attentive to the eternal order of things.

These concerns continue today as wood heating and biomass (plant-derived fuels) energy production play a vital role in the mix of global energy sources. Fire also comes to us, as one contemporary writer put it,

“ . . . over wires from a monster hearth at a utility, of which we know little or nothing, and over which we have no real control Just possibly, in this age of nuclear fires, it is lime to regain some control over an element central to our lives, and to restore some of the attentiveness and respect for fire that even our remote ancestors knew."

— David Lyle, The Book of Masonry Stoves.

Sociologists talk about modern man's sense of alienation, which dates from about the time we began to put our age-old heat source in the basement. With the advent of the furnace, we may also have forsaken the value of self-determination.

Occasionally, people tell me how happily they gave up the drudgery of woodburning when the price of oil dropped. I'm in total sympathy. Trying to insert a woodburning routine into a modern lifestyle, especially when the initial impetus was economic, can be trying at best. Add to that an initial load of wet wood, a chimney with a poor draft, and some back pain from hauling wood. Now you have a disenchanted woodburner!

The Choice of Wood

So why burn wood? There are probably as many answers to this question as there are woodburners. Most people would agree that from burning wood they derive personal satisfaction, economic benefits and energy independence.

Economics

A friend of mine said that here in New England we have our own oil wells. Just gaze upon the countryside! There is no question that there is a considerable untapped potential for fuel wood in our forests. The increased demand in recent years has made it more feasible for logging operators to recover tree tops for sale as firewood and to develop more efficient ways of harvesting and processing trees that are not of lumber grade. The key to maintaining our valuable wood resource is conscientious forest management and tree planting programs.

Sample Cost Analysis

This cost analysis makes certain assumptions about fuel prices. The current price for firewood, cut, split, and delivered, is today between $90 and $100 per 128-cubic-foot cord. If an average cord of wood containing 22.5 million Btus of heat is consumed in an EPA certified stove with an overall efficiency rating of 70 percent, wood costs $6.35 per million Btu of heat delivered to the living space.

No. 2 heating oil, on the other hand, sells for about $1.25 per gallon. With a heat content of 19,000 Btus/gallon, a state-of-the-art oil burner delivers 112,000 Btus of heat for each gallon of oil at a cost of $11.16 per million Btus.

If you purchase natural gas for $0.90 per therm (a therm is 100,000 Btus of fuel energy), a high-efficiency condensing furnace might produce heat at a cost of $8.10 per million Btus. (With central heating, the actual amount of heat delivered to the living space also depends on the percentage lost on the way from the furnace to the radiators or convectors. This then, adds to the cost of the fuel if the piping or ducting loses heat to space that you don't want or need to heat.)

In the above comparison, wood is the cheapest fuel. The analysis, however, isn't complete until the initial costs of a certified stove and perhaps a prefabricated chimney are factored in. And, if the woodheating appliance supplies only half of the home's heating requirement, the payback period for the installation is doubled.

Will the stacking and hauling of firewood, the extra cleanup, the ash removal, and stove loading be figured at your regular job's rate of pay? If so, your fuel savings will probably be offset by the labor costs you attach to your woodburning chores. However, if you have more time than money, you shouldn't consider these chores as added cost. In fact, wood heating can offer even greater savings in terms of cash outlay if you buy wood in log lengths and cut and split it yourself.

For those of you who follow the route to woodburning out of economic necessity, don't take shortcuts on your installation or on maintenance! The ongoing costs associated with woodburning include: chimney cleaning, stovepipe and gasket replacement, stove paint or polish, and perhaps a catalytic combustor if your stove uses that technology.

Personal Satisfaction

New woodburners should ask themselves if the time it takes to do the "wood routine" can become a form of rewarding therapy or even meditation. I find that the attitude one cultivates toward the chores associated with woodburning, determines the amount of satisfaction one derives. The Sufi mystic Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan says, "For every loss there is a gain, and for every gain there is a loss in life." With this thought in mind, I see my wood chores as the dues I pay for the satisfaction of providing my own heat. Have you ever climbed a peak and experienced the thrill of taking in the breathtaking expanse? Is not the view always worth the climb? This is the kind of satisfaction I enjoy as a woodburner.

Burning wood also helps me take a more positive attitude toward the onset of winter. With great empathy I watch the squirrel's nut-gathering activities every autumn as I go about my wood gathering and splitting; both of us are united in preparing for winter.

Emergency Heat Source

We sometimes forget just how dependent on electricity we are. Until there's a power outage. In western Massachusetts we had a freak snowstorm one October. Many leaves remained on the branches to catch 14 inches of wet, heavy snow, and the trees suffered massive damage.

Although the power was out for less than a day, we were very grateful for our parlor stove. It kept us warm and cooked our dinner. This leads me to an aspect of woodburning that for some people is the most important. Woodburning means, to a greater or lesser extent, energy independence.

Woodburning in the U.S. from 1973 to 1992

A mass woodburning experiment started in response to the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973. Stove manufacturers couldn't keep up with the demand. As a result, the quality of their products was variable and many designs were inferior. Do-it-yourself stove installations were not inspected. Stove selection was done with a "bigger is better" attitude, which resulted in excessive amounts of hazardous creosote in the chimney and a rise in loss of property and lives from house fires. On cold, still evenings in the suburbs when the smoke hung heavy in the air, the odor was disagreeable, unlike that of an open campfire. These fires were smoldering, discharging unburned, polluting gases and particulate matter which fouled the air. High-elevation communities where thermal inversions are prevalent suffer the most from these unhealthy emissions. Eventually, widespread woodburning brought the issue of air quality to the fore.

The dangers of chimney fires led woodburners to become more sophisticated about the need to burn seasoned firewood and to burn with enough combustion air to maintain a vigorous fire in the appliance and not in the chimney. This knowledge is vital today. Not only is clean combustion necessary to reduce the risk of chimney fires, but it is essential for completing the carbon dioxide cycle without taxing our environment in the process.

As long as the firing rate is manually controlled by the operator, clean, fuel-efficient woodburning can be compromised; it is physically impossible to achieve over-long burn times on a load of fuel without fouling both the chimney and the environment. The good news is that EPA certification has ushered in a new generation of stoves which, when operated according to the manufacturers instructions, allow residential wood heating to be done with minimal impact on the environment. These appliances have undergone extensive research and development that have created a new "clean burn technology." These stoves aren't only a little better than the old ones; field testing has shown a five- to ten-fold reduction in emissions.

In today's ever-shrinking world each of us has a responsibility to bum cleanly. In areas of the country where the airshed is particularly sensitive, this is imperative, or the right to bum wood could be taken from us.

Environmentally, both wood and pellets (made from renewable and recyclable materials) belong in the mix of home heating options. These are relatively new and small energy industries. They need our support to compete with the established nuclear and fossil fuel giants. Today, more than ever before, it is critical for us as energy consumers to make informed, intelligent, and conscientious decisions.


Excerpted from The New Woodburner's Handbook: A Guide to Safe, Healthy & Efficient Woodburning (c) Stephen Bushway used with permission from Storey Publishing.