Something about a wood stove crackling away on a cold day just seems fitting for a homestead. When we purchased our home, its antique cook stove was a selling feature for us. The old stove had a firebox, oven, water tank, and six “elements”. It boasted lots of character and produced a lot of heat. The stove was invaluable when the power was knocked out by an ice storm or high winds.
But all was not sunshine and roses with the old stove. It was impossible to close down the airflow to maintain a slow burn and the stove consumed several cords of wood during a single season. We didn’t risk baking anything in the oven, though we did use it occasionally for roasting vegetables and meat. If we stocked it fully before bed, it would burn through the wood within a couple hours. And with nothing but a grate as the floor for the firebox, the ashes and coals would fall through so that a new fire had to be started from scratch each morning. We used the stove to supply heat during the day but each night our propane-fueled furnace would start-up. We discovered later that the firebox was outfitted to burn coal.
The stove was also housed in a single-story addition to the original home and most of the heat it produced was trapped under an 11 ft ceiling so that the remainder of the house dropped steadily in temperature while the addition began to feel like a sauna. We tried to spread the heat throughout the house with ceiling fans and strategically placed floor fans. We went a step further and did some minor renovations; we enlarged a doorway and added a ventilation fan that took the heat trapped beneath the ceiling blew it into the second storey hallway. We had mediocre results. It was time to decide which was more important - an antique cook stove with lots of character or an efficient, modern wood burning stove? One thing we knew for sure, we did not want to depend on propane for our heat - but we needed to improve our current stove situation.
Chop Wood, Burn Calories
We knew we wanted to use wood to provide (most) of the heat in our home. For one, it enables us to buy our fuel locally and to support our neighbors. Within the last decade the Emerald Ash Borer had decimated the ash trees in Southern Ontario and the dead trees provide an excellent source of quality firewood. Secondly, natural gas and propane have a much higher cost. They must be mined, processed, stored, and transported, and all by specially trained personnel, high-tech facilities, and specialized vehicles. The price varies based on forecasted supply and demand. Not so with firewood.
True, heating with wood does require more work. What, with the collecting, splitting and stacking of the firewood, and then hauling it inside and later cleaning out the ashes...only to do it all over again. But using wood to heat a home does connect a person to the earth in a way that flicking a furnace switch never can; it makes a person more aware of the effort and energy required to produce heat. And, at least for me, a realization of the stamina and fortitude of the early pioneers. And if calories matter, much more are expended dealing with all that firewood than fiddling with a thermostat.
In the end, we decided to sell our antique stove and replace it with a modern cook stove. Unlike the older stove, our new model is a gasification stove. The gases produced from burning the wood can be cycled back through the firebox and re-burnt. The result is little to no particulate pollution coming from the chimney and less creosote build-up. The new stove also uses a third of the wood because it is lined with firebrick and is relatively airtight. Following a day of burning, we find enough coals buried in the ashes to quickly ignite another fire.
When it’s time to clean out the stove, we sprinkle some of the cooled ashes onto the garden beds. Certain plants prefer the alkaline nature of wood ashes better than others so we distribute appropriately. For example, asparagus plants prefer alkaline soil, whereas blueberries prefer acidic, and do not appreciate a dose of wood ashes. We’ll also periodically dump the ashes into the chicken run where they are mixed into the bedding. We only do this after the ashes have sat outside for several days in a steel bucket and we are sure that there are no longer any live coals. The chicken run is our main compost bin and the chickens do a great job of turning it over for us. We have another spot where we put compostables and will sprinkle ashes onto this pile periodically. Another use for our leftover ashes is to spread them on our gravel driveway where they take the place of lime and decrease the vigor of weeds. During snowy or icy conditions, the ashes sprinkled along the driveway provide traction and, being a darker colour than the surrounding snow, melt the ice off quicker.
And no, an oil, propane or natural gas furnace can’t supply a person with the multi-use “bonus” that is wood ashes, nor with a chance to burn some extra calories. We’re happy we updated our stove… but I, for one, still miss the character of the old one.
Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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