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Is Wood Heat an Option for You?

This winter has been persistently cold. The relentless sub-zero temperatures have become the favored topic of coffee time conversations. Most of these conversations are often followed by the escalating costs of keeping our homes warm.

Regardless of energy source, your cost has likely been greater this winter, and in most cases, far greater than normal. As energy costs creep upward, the increase becomes painful apparent when the consumption increases as well, as it has in this abnormally cold winter. Throw in the increased electric costs and propane shortages and folks began thinking about alternative sources of heat. If you live in an area with an abundance of trees, wood is often a logical choice.

Wood is essentially stored sunshine and a wonderful renewable resource with relatively low environmental impact. After all, wood is comprised almost entirely of the products of photosynthesis, and thus an easily attainable renewable resource.

Not all firewood is created equally though. Firewood from different species or types of trees varies widely in heat content, burning characteristics, and overall quality. In order to use firewood effectively, an understanding of species characteristics and firewood volumes is helpful. To see a comprehensive list of important burning characteristics for common species, check out: extension.usu.edu/forestry/HomeTown/General_HeatingWithWood.htm

The first rule in burning wood is that it should be dry, even knuckle-dragging cavemen figured this out. Green firewood may contain 50% or more water, which does not burn. Actually, green wood produces less heat because heat must be used to boil off water before combustion can occur. Green wood also produces more smoke and creosote (material that deposits on inside walls of chimneys and may cause chimney fires) than dry wood. Thus, firewood should always be purchased dry or allowed to dry before burning. Dry wood may cost more than green wood because it produces more heat and is easier to handle. Burning insufficiently dry wood is one reason outdoor wood stoves have a reputation for using more wood.

A wood's dry weight per volume, or density, is important because denser or heavier wood contains more heat per volume. In general it is best to buy or gather dense woods such as oak, hard maple, or ash. Hardwoods, or woods from broadleaved trees, tend to be denser than softwoods or woods from conifers (evergreens). Some firewood dealers sell "mixed hardwood" firewood. This may or may not be desirable, depending on the proportion of low- density hardwoods that are included and your need for heat. Lower density woods may be more appropriate for the heating needs of spring and fall.

Heat potential is one consideration, but the ease in which the fire wood is harvested and prepared is also important. Ease of splitting is important because larger pieces of wood must usually be split for good drying and burning. Fragrance and tendency to smoke and spark are most important when wood is burned in a fireplace. Woods that spark or pop can throw embers out of an open fireplace creating a possible fire danger while ruining a romantic atmosphere. Conifers tend to do this more because of their high resin content. Woods that form coals are good to use in wood stoves because they allow a fire to be carried overnight effectively.

Though firewood dry weight is important for determining heat content, firewood is normally bought and sold by volume. The most common unit of firewood volume is the cord, also known as a standard or full cord. A cord is an evenly-stacked pile containing 128 cubic feet of wood and air space. Though a cord can be piled in any shape, a standard cord is generally thought of as a stack of wood 4 feet tall, 8 feet long, and 4 feet deep. To figure the number of cords in another size or shape pile, determine the pile's cubic foot volume and divide by 128. A randomly-piled stack of wood will generally contain more air and less wood than one neatly piled.

Some dealers sell wood by the face cord or short cord, so be sure to ask. Some think a face cord is wood stacked to resemble Mt. Rushmore, but it’s actually a stack of wood 4 feet high, 8 feet long -- and as deep as the pieces are long. Pieces are commonly 12 to 18 inches long, so a face cord may contain 32 to 48 cubic feet of wood and air. Avoid buying air.

Another common firewood measure is the pickup load. This is a very imprecise but common measure. A full-size pickup with a standard bed can hold about 1/2 of a full cord or 64 cubic feet when loaded even with the top of the bed. Small pickups hold much less.

A randomly-piled stack or pickup load of wood will contain more air and less wood than one neatly stacked. Crooked, small diameter and knotty or branchy pieces also reduce the amount of wood in a pile. Random loading not only decreases the effective load, but increases the risk of losing wood on the highway, which conveniently seems to happen while meeting a state trooper.

Heating with wood offers many advantages to those inclined to recycle sunshine. But my favorite is the cozy radiant heat and pleasant aroma while providing something else to watch besides the TV.

For more information on cutting firewood without drawing blood contact me at 800-450-2465 or at stordahl@umn.edu.  This article was adapted from Heating with Wood: Species Characteristics and Volumes by Michael Kuhns, Extension Forestry Specialist, Utah State University.


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