By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
My father’s reaction to the oil crisis of 1973 was to install two wood stoves, both downstairs in the enormous house I later came to inhabit. The house had at one point been heated by coal, but the hulking and decaying boiler in the basement had long ago been converted to oil. Back in the day, the day when taking in a grad student would pay the fuel bill for the winter, oil was ten cents a gallon, and the house thermostat was, naturally, placed near the front door, so the draft when somebody entered would turn on the boiler, making everything toasty (after about 45 minutes when the steam reached the radiators).
After the oil crisis, this fueling protocol was no longer tenable. My father forbade entering the front door — the house had rather a lot of doors, so we used other ones — installed the Jotul stoves, and purchased a woodlot so he could cut and split his own wood. At night, he set the stoves going, turned the thermostat down to 50 degrees, and piled on the blankets.
Time passed, and I came to inhabit the house during the oil shock of 2007–2008. Clearly, my father’s fueling protocol was no longer tenable, and decisions had to be made. Hoisting my own comment in response to alert reader Larry Carlson:
Parts of the house are 100 years old; others are from the 40s (I think). The house is quite large.
The project took several years.
1) Fill in the attic, first.
2) Insulated windows (eliminating the rattling wood frames)
3) I did a lot of sealing around doors, interior and exterior (stuff I could buy at the hardware store). I also created a routine of covering the windows with plastic wrap in the winter (even the insulated ones). I also piled garbage bags of raked leaves around the exposed part of the basement walls. Both these last measures were really helpful, both for the perception of heat and drafts.
After a pause I found another vendor who started by doing a blower door test; the house still pinned the meter (!);
4) On top of the attic fill, pink stuff (nothing on the roof because we want the attic cool).
5) Basement and large crawlspace foamed (can’t say it was 4″ but I whatever the standard was, it was that). Plastic on the floor of the crawlspace.
The house is not tight enough to require an air exchanger, but it did pass the blower door test.
6) In addition, since one object was to save on fuel, I installed a new (and efficient) natural gas furnace to replace a monstrous old oil burner.
It was quite a project!
The new boiler was the endpoint of the project, and so for a good decade I lived with a wood stove. At some point, the two Jotuls had been abandoned and replaced by a single no-name black steel box in the room where I had come to live. The steel box was extremely rugged and simple not to say primitive: You controlled the draft, which in turn controlled the amount of oxygen reaching the fire inside, with two valves that you screwed open or shut. To “turn off” the stove, you screwed both valves shut. For a roaring blaze, you opened them all the way. That was it. For me, the important thing about a wood stove is that the quality of the heat is like no other. If you want to feel like this cat, buy a wood stove.
There is something about the way that a wood stove with a solid, long-lasting fire radiates heat that is highly conducive to relaxation or sleep. I can’t explain it, but for me it is true. (The issue is the thermal mass of the stove, present whether the stove be steel, cast iron, or soapstone.) The heat from a wood stove is amazingly comforting.
But of course this isn’t about our feelings. I should say that the picture above is a little deceptive and my own set-up was pretty different. First, I deplore the decorative aspects of the stove; the window, the legs, the unboxiness. Second, that stack of wood at the left is way too neat; was it bought wrapped in plastic at 7-11 or what? Third, my stove was set on a steel plate, the steel plate rested on a wood floor, and a black metal sheet-metal pipe rose from the back of the stove, took a turn to the horizontal, and joined itself to a brick chimney by cutting through a wall to which the pipe and the stove were both far too close. (Contrast the neatnik’s arrangement of bricks in the photo.) Fourth, since I lived in the same room as the stove, there were a lot of books and papers scattered about, along with computer equipment, plus chips and bark from carrying the wood in. In other words, the stove in the photo is safe. My stove was, in retrospect, a ridiculous, albeit grandfathered, fire hazard. Don’t be like me!
So much for the stove. Now for the wood! (I admit at the outset I did not think through a fueling protocol. You probably should. I went with what I already knew, plus advice from other owners.)
As coal comes in tons and linen in yards, wood comes in “cords” (normally cut to a length appropriate for your stove, itself of a standardized size):
A cord is the amount of wood that, when “racked and ” (arranged so pieces are aligned, parallel, touching and compact), occupies a volume of 128 cubic feet (3.62 m3). This corresponds to a woodpile 4 feet (122 cm) high, 8 feet (244 cm) wide, and 4 feet (122 cm) deep; or any other arrangement of linear measurements that yields the same volume…. Maine appears unique among U.S. states by also defining a “ cord” or of cut firewood: “A cord of 12 or 16 inches (30 or 41 cm) in length shall mean the amount of wood, bark and contained in a space of 180 cubic feet (5.1 m3); and a cord of wood 24 inches (61 cm) in length shall mean the amount of wood, bark and air contained in a space of 195 cubic feet (5.5 m3). [1981, c. 219 (amd).]” Other non-official terms for firewood volume include standing cord, kitchen cord, running cord, face cord, fencing cord, country cord, long cord, and rick, all subject to . These are usually taken to mean a pile of wood in which the logs are shorter or longer than in a legal cord, to accommodate various burners.
So you can see from the helpfully underlined verbiage that — unless you own your own woodlot — what an actual cord is depends very much on your vendor, and so you should find a reliable one. How much to buy? Unless you’ve done your homework and calculated your likely consumption in a fueling protocol, I would ask the vendor (and maybe order a little too much, for a reserve).
Wood is either “seasoned” or “green.” Seasoned wood has been cut down and left to dry out for at least, well, a season. Green wood is sold in the same year it is cut. Seasoned wood is more expensive than green, but not, at least when I was buying it for the land ship of a house, killingly so. More importantly, green wood is full of sap and moisture, which means it burns inefficiently and creates the by-products of incomplete combustion, like carbon monoxide and creosote (gunk that coats the inside of your chimney and in sufficient quantity is a fire hazard). But if you have just installed your stove this year, you may need to buy green wood: Half for this year, and half for next year, by which time it will be seasoned. Of course, in a perfect world you would buy seasoned for this year, and green for next (assuming you have space under a roof somewhere to stack and store it), and then green ad infinitum.
Wood is sold split or not. My father found that splitting wood was good exercise; I went so far as to purchase an axe, but ultimately felt that the risk of losing an ankle out of clumsiness was too great.
Wood is also “hard wood” or “soft wood.” Hardwoods are (for example) oak, ash, or maple. Softwoods are pine, spruce, larch, cedar (and pine is pretty bad wood, IIRC). Softwood burns easily and fast, and so produces little heat (that is, the thermal mass of the stove doesn’t have much to soak up). Hardwood burns hot and long, but ramps up slowly. Softwood is cheaper than hardwood. So, you need to decide on a mix or ratio of hardwood to softwood (and frankly, I forget what mine was, except that it was mostly hardwood; ask your vendor). There is also birch, a hardwood that burns like softwood. I always bought a little birch, because starting a fire with birchbark is much, much more pleasant than starting it with newspaper (which burns ink and other horrid substances, and I don’t care that the inks aren’t oil-based anymore).
There are buyers guides for wood stoves (here, here) but I’m not going to go into how to actually buy a wood stove; your situation is as unique as your dwelling space. I will, however, go through a number of issues, some essential, some ancillary, that are not covered in buyers guides. Here are some things to think about.
1) Code enforcement. Before installing a wood stove, you should check with your local code enforcement office to see what their requirements for a wood stove are; as you have seen, my wood stove was totally not up to code; I was lucky to get away with it, or I was protected by a benevolent fate. Items that code enforcement might be concerned about include the surface on which the stove rests, the distance from walls, smoke detectors, and so forth.
2) Emissions. For those inclined to do homework, this issue of Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association looks really good, and the articles are unlocked (at least as of this writing). From “Introduction to Special Issue on Residential Wood Combustion“:
Wood heating, as a renewable energy source, is viewed by many as an environmentally beneficial, “green” heating option. From a pollution perspective, . In many states throughout the country, residential wood heating is one of the largest sources of PM. High wood combustion emissions have resulted in rural regions with elevated PM2.5 including some that are in non-attainment. Yet in areas without attainment issues, wood heating has not met with the same level of concern as other sources emitting far less criteria and air toxic pollution. As emissions decrease from industrial and electrical generation units, emissions from area sources, such as residential wood heating, represent opportunities to realize significant emission reductions and achieve public health goals in the coming decades.
Now, I never had to think about any of this; it was sufficient for me that I wasn’t burning oil. So I am by no means an expert. First, I am guessing the key is complete combustion, both for the particulate and the carbon monoxide. Second, everything should go up the flue, meaning that neither PM2.5 nor carbon monoxide should be concern inside the house (assuming your chimney is sound). Interestingly, your Corsi-Rosenthal box that takes care of Covid should take care of PM2.5. However, what goes up the flue matters, bringing me to–
4) Catalytic converters. From Inspectapedia:
The operating concept of a wood stove combustor is the same as that familiar to readers whose automobile uses a catalytic converter to clean up their vehicle’s exhaust. Catalysis is defined as the speeding-up of a chemical reaction by using a catalyst – an additive or agent whose presence speeds up a chemical reaction.
In a woodstove catalytic combustor, smoke and hot gases from burning firewood pass through a honeycomb of material coated with platinum/palladium that, at sufficient temperature, break down the components of the smoke into less harmful end products, ideally, or in perfect operation, producing simply carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O)
The platinum or palladium (both may be present) are the catalysts. The honeycomb design provides sufficient surface area to treat the volume of exhaust passing through the combustor. High temperature is necessary for the catalytic process to occur.
The temperature rage at which a catalytic combustor in a woodstove can work varies among specific catalytic combustor products and among wood stoves, but typically the device can operate as low as 250°F (121°C)in some designs, but more often at a higher temperature, between 400°F (240°C) and 500°F (260°C).
To protect the combustor from damage or clogging with creosote and ash, the woodstove will include either a manual or an automatic control to bypass the catalytic device when the stove is not at sufficient operating temperature.
Again, this advanced technology was not present in my day; but it does seem that a fueling protocol that heats the fire fast is important to absolutely minimize the length of time the catalytic converter is bootstrapping. And:
Catalytic stoves are typically more expensive long term than non-catalytic models because the catalyst honeycomb eventually breaks down and needs to be replaced. Modern catalysts can last up to 10 years with proper maintenance and use.
Non-catalytic or secondary combustion stoves make up about 80% of the market. They tend to be less expensive and have an average efficiency of 71% (with a range of 60-80%). Modern model design improvements like firebox insulation, a large baffle to produce a longer hotter gas flow path, and pre-heated combustion air which comes through small holes above the fuel in the firebox create lower emissions. The actual fire and the flames are generally more visible compared to a catalytic stove. Non-catalytic stoves are simpler to operate, and don’t require catalyst maintenance or cleaning.
I like very much the idea of minimizing emissions through the design of the stove itself, rather than with a complicated add-on with its own emission issues. But I do think a catalytic converter is something to be seriously considered even for a well-designed stove. (Also, catalytic converters are sold as add-ons, so depending on the configuration of your stovepipe, I don’t see why a requirement for a converter need affect your choice of stove. In fact, an add-on is probably better, because you can upgrade it without buying a whole new stove.)
3) Chimney. If your stovepipe vents into a chimney, find a reliable chimney sweep and have them clean your chimney before heating season.
Here are three ancillary products not visible in the photo–
5) Fan. You can put a fan on top of your stove to distribute heat more evenly throughout your dwelling:
A heat powered fan sits on top of the wood stove and as the stove comes up to temperature the fan blades start spinning. Some manufacturers claim that a heat powered fan pushing warm air away from a wood stove will help heat a room up to 18% faster.
The other benefit of a heat powered fan is that by moving air around (and creating a convection effect), the wood stove does not have to run as hot and therefore you can use less wood.
There are two common types of heat powered wood stove fan designs, a Thermoelectric Generator which is an electrical design, and a Stirling Engine which is a mechanical design. Both heat powered fan designs work by exposure to temperature differences, where one part is exposed to warmth (as per a wood burning stove), and the other part is kept cooler.
I wish I had known about stove fans; obviously, I would have purchased a mechanical design. Here is a Buyer’s guide.
6) Bellows. For a long time, I would start a fire by raking last night’s ash and coals level, then piling birch and small sticks or wedges of wood over birch bark. Then I would light the birch bark with a wooden kitchen match — one match, naturally, Boy Scout-like — and then blow on the pile until it caught, and the softwood on top of the pile began to catch. (Then I would shut the stove door, and open the valves all the way. When the softwood was roaring, I would open the door, pile on the hardwood, and after a short time close the valves almost completely. Then, after a short while, the soft, lovely, lovely radiant heat would begin. But I digress.) Well, kneeling down and puffing and wheezing got unpleasant over time, and I had the bright thought of getting a bellows. The bellows were great; much more powerful and efficient than my own breath. And now, I learn, since getting the fire hot fast is important for emissions control, civic minded as well. So I highly recommend bellows.
7) General mess. I am not strong on housework. Carrying wood in from wherever it’s been stored leaves a trail of wood chips, dust, twigs, little bits of bark, not to mention tromping in snow and ice. I am at best an indifferent housekeeper, so it never did occur to me to buy a small shop vacuum to clean up the matter left behind after each run for wood. And then, of course, there’s cleaning out the ashes (scuttle to the right in the photo) and hauling them. Something to consider.
Dear reader, I don’t want to scare you off; it does seem, however, that a wood stove is more of a companion than a boiler or a heat pump, and also more integrated into a local community (which is in my view good). Although I have gone into a lot of detail in this post, in practice my wood stove gave a wonderful quality of heat, was easy to operate once I learned its ways, was extremely reliable, and didn’t take a lot of time; firing it up was simply a daily ritual that I did without a lot of fuss. I encourage those of you aghast at high fuel prices to look into them. Wood stoves are also possibly the most Jackpot-compliant home-heating method there is, so if you plan to remain in the same patch for more than ten or twenty years, you might consider looking into one now.
 Oil is a horridly noxious corrosive substance best left in the ground under taboo, as I discovered the few times I had to fill a five-gallon plastic jerry can at the truck stop and then tromp through the snow to top up the tank with it, when the oil delivery man was late, or the weather colder than I had thought.
 I stan for steam (and not hot water). Steam is extremely simple and rugged, which is my kind of engineering. For those new to steam heat, or struggling with it, I highly recommend Dan Holohan’s We Got Steam Heat. Interestingly, many steam heating systems are, to modern sensibilities, overspecified; they can get so warm you can leave the windows open. That was, in fact, by design: Open windows during the winter were a measure taken against airborne pandemics.
 Why did I get rid of the wood stove if I loved it so much? Partly because it wasn’t up to code, partly because my life had become busier, and I didn’t want to spend time managing my fueling protocol manually. However, I believed I was past the oil crisis, too. Oops.
 Be careful about this, because this is one way a woodseller can, as it were, take you, without actually cheating you. “You never said!”
 Heat pumps are complicated. No thanks.
One thing I would comment on Lambert’s comprehensive ode to burning wood is in the Code Enforcement section.
In rural Virginia we found that our homeowners insurance vendor can be changed without warning. The last change involved having to send photos of our Jøtul stove setup to document that we are compliant with code.
Been heating w/wood since ’72. Have gone through 2 Franklin stoves (near-useless in the midwest), a Round Oak Duplex 5′ tall parlor stove from 1903, 2 Vermont Castings pre-cat converters and am still using a mid 70’s ‘Better’n Ben’s’ firebrick- lined large fireplace ‘insert’ (it sticks out into the room by 2′). We’re now the last to burn wood in our canyon. The second to last was a neighbor who passed away at 95.
Scrounging firewood is an art. It helps to have a pickup and trailer and a strong back and fellow freegans who will spot curbside piles (always ask the property owner). Make friends with tree trimmers. We just rented splitters for big batches. The rest, by hand w/sledges, wedges, mauls, etc. A favorite for pine is an unlikely looking axe w/a head w/two spring loaded cams in it, aka “The Chopper.” It will send staves flying up to 15′.
Chainsaws are lethal. Never had a cut. I wear ballistic chaps for bucking stove wood. A droll ER doc pal once remarked that if I came in on his shift, they’d just start diving for clamps to stanch blood loss.
We lined an old masonry chimney flue w stainless steel flex 6″ pipe. The ‘draw’ is now strong, like a ‘tuned’ low resistance car exhaust system.
We have a gas furnace but rarely light it.
“No Burn” nights are here now, so we’re starting to segue over to photovoltaic/battery for electric heat. We’ll keep the stoves in case.
I found an old version of The Chopper at a yard sale and had to snag it. The springs are still intact though the haft was done for. I intended to replace it at some point but haven’t gotten around to it, it’s a hilarious and interesting ax head.
I also found a Chopper at a yard sale with no springs, and missing one of the little kickers. The parts were still available 5 years ago. I had my doubts but was intrigued enough to get it working and was more than pleased.. It works incredibly well,a brilliant invention.
> A favorite for pine is an unlikely looking axe w/a head w/two spring loaded cams in it, aka “The Chopper.” It will send staves flying up to 15′.
That’s the kind of axe my father used! Here is a photo:
I understand the particulate matter concerns but oil, coal, whatever extraction and delivery has a huge amount of pollution associated with it. Externalities!
Been using a wood stove for about 9 years. The chimney now needs some work, which is expensive, but we’re having it done as an investment in heating without the oil furnace.
Being in Oregon and using wood stoves, various types, for years – wood is everywhere. In fact, many people have wood, mostly cedar fences. Those fences only last 10 – 20 years so there’s always cedar for kindling. “M’am, you want me to haul that fence away?” Also, with global warming we have quite inconsistent weather with ice storms in late spring (for example) when plum and other trees are filling with leaves. So, lots of free wood. I’ve become more enamored of limb wood in that it’s easy to chop (I use a chop saw) and not much splitting needed.
I could go on and on but a nice, modern wood stove is a wonderful way to heat a house that’s well insulated. I’ve learned not to stack it against or even real near the house. Rats will show up and termites can appear as well.
I’ve never had to buy wood. One can get cheap permits and go into the woods to collect wood if needed. Get a wood stove with a flat top as it’s great for toast on a cold winter morning. Lastly, build a wood box directly next to the stove on the outside of the house. Install an interior door next to the stove and open the door to extract the wood you need for a fire. Fill the box 1 – 2 times per week for lots less dirt and chips around the actual stove. I used an old cutting board for my wood box door and it’s real attractive. Nuff Said. Thanks Lambert.
It’s another “level”, but have you thought about building/installing a masonry heater? I’m happy with the one I built. The only downside is the wood management, though it uses a lot less wood than a wood stove.
I had my stove. I didn’t need a new one. (Also, the weird configuration of the stovepipe was not up to code. If I wanted to still use a stovepipe, the stove would have been in the middle of the room. If I wanted to build a brick or stone wall and back the stove up against it, I would have had to reinforce the floor to take the weight, which would have been expensive.)
What about a terracota stove? It will radiate heat for way longer than a metal box. And they came in all sizes and can be much nicer.
Norwegian stove. Look up one of the modern clean burning ones.
I’ve seen them in use in Europe and they are fabulous.
> modern clean burning ones
I think, to be Jackpot-ready, you’d want as much of the clean burn to come from the design of the stove itself, and to use complex electronic gizmos and exotic metals like palladium as little as possible. And when the Jackpot comes, you won’t want any of that stuff at all.
When we were living remotely we went one better and had a wood-burning range – a Stanley – which as well as being warm heart to the house did all our cooking and provided hot water.
It’s not practical for many if not most people – you can’t go away and leave it to itself for hours – and as each installation is unique with subtle differences in the effects of the space around it, draughts and the flue which can themselves vary according to the weather on the day plus the variations in the wood you’re burning, you have to learn its idiosyncrasies and engage in a relationship with it, almost a dance to keep it content and purring like a cat.
Cooking on it is an art, too. Thinking ahead to bring it up to the sort of heat you want when you want it, but not too much as it’s very slow to respond, knowing and using the different heat levels in different parts of the cast-iron hot-plates or the two ovens which are constantly changing in response to what the fire is doing in response to the fuel amount and quality, and the draught settings and what the wind is doing to the flue. Taking a shower could be perilous, too, as there’s no thermostat on the hot tank and the water could get very hot!
But the bread… the roasts… the soups and stews…
Like nothing else a wood stove warms you twice – one when you cut and split the wood and once when you burn it. But a wood range warms you a third time, when you eat and drink what you’ve cooked on it.
I enjoyed this post immensely! I heated with wood from 1972 until 1985, and I don’t miss it one bit. I am looking out my window at enough standing oak to heat our cabin until my eventual heirs die. I have two working chainsaws, know how to use them, and an old pickup to transport the wood. I will cut the firewood, and deliver it to people in need for free. It’s good physical activity.
But unless the power grid goes down, and I can’t get LP gas deliveries, I would never, ever consider heating with wood again. Dusty, messy, either too hot or too cold, the list is a long one for me. It seems that I have become quite spoiled over the years.
> unless the power grid goes down, and I can’t get LP gas deliveries, I would never, ever consider heating with wood again.
I have six cords that I carefully stacked, and am moving over 100 miles away (didn’t know it when I bought and stacked the wood) . It’s breaking my heart as it would be crazy to move the wood that distance. I’ve been burning wood for about 15 years now and love the exercise involved and, as Lambert says, the special quality of the heat.
For those who would like to try it out, other than the safety precautions which are very important, you will learn as you go so do not feel overwhelmed. You do need, however, to bring in the fire marshal (here in MA.) or some such experienced person when you first set things up to make sure you are safe. And start your first fire with a small one to get ashes to cover the grate so you don’t deform it by over heating. And if you have a sheet metal tube for the flue and chimney (usually double walled stainless steel going through the roof and up to at least the height ++ of the roof crown, be careful to run it hot (to prevent creosote), but not too hot (not likely, but you could start a chimney fire -inside the pipe- from residual creosote). I run a wire brush, specifically for chimney pipes that I got at Home Depot, up the chimney twice a year; in the fall before first use, and then around Christmas just to be comfortable regarding fire hazard (we once did have a chimney fire and I would just as soon not repeat).
> And start your first fire with a small one to get ashes to cover the grate so you don’t deform it by over heating.
This is a very good point. My stove had been used daily for at least twenty years before I arrived at it, rather like a perpetual stew, and so it already had ashes covering the grate from the very first day!
It’s also a very good feeling, in the morning, to level out the ashes before putting a new load of wood in, and so see that a solid bed of coals has survived the night.
This is a good point to remind readers that a wood stove burns wood, and has burning coals. So be careful, not only to avoid dumping flaming material on your floor, but to avoid burning yourself. I myself never wore gloves, because I was always careful. My mother, who ran the stove before I did, kept a small tube of burn ointment handy.
I recently moved to regions where this post on heating is most helpful, informative, and inspiring. I expect to make near term application of the wisdom and advice it contains. At the same time, peripheral considerations lift their heads to trouble me. Most of our countrymen live in cities where wood stoves, if not outlawed, present insurmountable logistic difficulties — places like that where my daughter lives. Woodstoves, and rural life are not the future for far too many here, and abroad. The writing on their walls is grim. I applaud this post … though with grim reservations, which I hope might not apply to my own future situation, or that of such kin as I can gather near.
The burning of wood for heat conjures scenes from early in the industrial revolution after the discovery of steam power — but before the widespread use of coal as the source for that heat. Wood for many uses grew increasingly scarce and dear. I can only with difficulty transport that scenario to the situation of the burgeoning populations of the present world, some of which, even now, struggle to meet their needs for wood and charcoal for cooking, and where heat to warm is of far lesser concern.
However, this post on wood stoves and better weather proofing u.s. housing suggests another more basic concern. Besides its limited availability and the outrageous prices for housing, the housing stock available in the u.s. is not well suited to providing affordable easily maintained, heated, and cooled housing — proper shelter. It is not fit for purpose, if that purpose is to survive the coming Collapse. It is a large class of physical capital ill-fit to serve the future needs for housing, both in its present instantiations and in such new constructions crafted in the financial forges of capitalism as might be deemed fit for maximizing profit and existing building codes. Housing provides ample examples of yet another failure of neoliberal capitalism, and the modern ‘way-of-life’.
> the housing stock available in the u.s. is not well suited to providing affordable easily maintained, heated, and cooled housing — proper shelter. It is not fit for purpose, if that purpose is to survive the coming Collapse.
Excellent point. Maine has the oldest housing stock in the country. That is, in fact, a plus.
Built back when building was honest? When the dollar was worth a buck and the foot was worth 12 inches?
> Built back when building was honest?
Dude, a lot of the walls have laths with horsehair and plaster. Contrast that to the styrofoam pediments of today.
We’ve got a really nice wood burning stove in our cabin and it works great, but we only make it up to Mineral King a few times in the winter and it’s all about pine here, which is kind of a junk wood in the scheme of things, but works fine and sometimes we have to open a few windows as it gets too hot. Absolutely no need for it in the summer months.
A few of the older cabins in MK still have wood burning cooking stoves, which are pretty neat-o and all are over a century old and still functioning, as there are no moving parts to break and they were meant to last.
Tiny town in the foothills never gets that cold, we’ll experience a few nights below freezing each winter, but that’s it. Lotsa covers and a hot water bottle is all you need on a nippy night.
I keep cutting up dead oak trees and must have a hoard of 10 cords now, and we use it mostly for atmospheric fires in the fireplace, but can’t keep up with new supplies of dead oak trees providing ever more firewood.
Almost true but be wary. Fireboxes are lined with firebrick which does wear away and eventually need replacing. If they’re not still made for that particular stove I guess you can have them custom-made somewhere – I don’t know as I’ve never had to do it – but even if so they’re not going to be cheap.
Although ill suited for firewood, pine trees are most wonderful for lumber! And we all know “he who dies with the most lumber wins”! I have dropped dozens of huge pines over the years and had them milled for various building projects. People ask me “Where did you find rough cut lumber that is 2 feet across?” Well. I cut it.
Just yesterday, I spent a couple of hours sizing up some pine trees, with an eye for having a mobile sawmill brought in to make logs for a “tiny house” for friends who need a few days away from it all can hang out.
It seems like an interesting endeavor, but needs more research first. I know zero about it.
The dining tables at the Silver City Resort in Mineral King were made from a large pine tree from close by that the beetles killed.
Makes for a happy ending, of sorts.
Wood burning is horrible for the air for the reasons you mentioned. I’d go for solar first, wood or whatever as backup. Also look up rocket stoves, which are a new design that recovers more heat from the burning wood than old designs did.
I’d like to second none’s remarks.
Do I need to say it? “Second to None”? :)
Rocket stoves, particularly rocket mass heaters, are next in the tech progression for wood burning. They:
a. Wring out every last BTU from the wood you burn. It’s total combustion.
b. Produce very few particulants; there’s almost no smoke.
c. Are cheap to buy, and cheaper even to build
d. A “rocket” stove is called such because of the enormous draw (intake airflow) the design induces, and that massive intake of air is why they burn so clean
e. A “rocket mass heater” is a rocket stove, running full blast, that stores all its heat into a thermal mass (brick wall, masonry bench, better yet… giant water tank). The stove runs full-speed, max efficiency. All that giant amount of heat is stored in the “Mass”, which then lets it out slowly. The design puts the heat into the mass, not up the flue.
These things look cool, they’re fun to operate, more fun to build, are efficient as all get-out, are cheap to buy, build, and operate.
If you’re not familiar with them, you’re in for a treat.
If you spread the ash from the stove in the forest where you got the wood, you’ve done nutrient cycling. Take a bow, you’re a genius; you get this year’s Closed-Cycle Econ System Award.
Lambert, I am delighted to see this sort of thorough waterfront piece on the subject of house-heating. Many of you know that a whopping big part of U.S. energy consumption goes to HVAC – maybe 25 pct, or more. It’s big. So, it would pay big dividends if we came up the ramp on this subject.
Search keys: rocket mass heater. Cob rocket stove.
This sort of thing would work really well in a greenhouse adjacent to your main house, too.
> rocket mass heater.
I encountered the term more than a decade ago in the permaculture context. The idea was that I would build my own, like those Indian guys digging a swimming pool into a clay bank.
No thanks, life is too short. Can I just buy one and install it?
It looks like the rocket stove concept has become popular enough that companies now make and sell free-standing rocket stoves for cooking. Here is a review of some, just to show the concept exists in the commercial world now.
It was some time after the Aprovecho Research Institute first invented and began studying rocket stoves that some permaculture-connected people heard about them and began thinking of integrating them into the Masonry Home Heater concept. They felt a rocket stove would burn wood much more efficiently and completely than any non-rocket firebox, thereby sending maximum heat into the masonry heater itself from a set charge-and-burn amount of wood.
As a mere layman who just reads about these things, I have no idea how to find out about Masonry Heater installable rocket stoves, especially on today’s search obstruction engines.
If there is a professional designer/installer of Masonry ( Thermal Mass) Heaters in your part of Maine, he or she or they might know if Masonry Stove-compatible rocket stoves exist for purchase and installation into/onto the Masonry Heater.
Here is a whole bunch of “rocket mass heater images” with URLs. Perhaps one or another might lead to an URL which describes how, where and from whom one can buy a pre-made rocket stove for the mass heater you already have . . . or buy a rocket stove mass heater system from one who designs and installs them.
If they are indeed as efficient, wood-sparing and maximum-heat-extracting as is claimed, it might be a good thing to have in tomorrow’s wood-shortaged future if one doesn’t have to design it and hand build it oneself.
The Permies Forum family of forums has a forum on rocket stove mass heaters. Perhaps one of the entries here will talk about commercially available rocket stoves or mass heater systems, in among all the do-it-themself hobbyists.
Intruiging. I will check this out!
> a professional designer/installer of Masonry ( Thermal Mass) Heater
If I were building, this is what I might do. (You will notice I didn’t provide a buyers guide for stoves; all the material about wood applies to any stove.)
One wonders if it is possible to have such a thing installed into an already-existing house.
If there are dozens of companies for post-installation in Nordics, there must at least as many in USA. An existing smokestack or funnel is a bonus, and the floor will likely need some extra support.
Never heard of a rocket stove but to backup the range in winter we used a local New Zealand designed wood-burner that claims to be highly efficient, low emission and zero-carbon. Dunno about the zero carbon but it seemed pretty good.
By zero-carbon I expect they mean carbon neutral, i.e. burning wood releases carbon into the air, but creating the wood in the first place involved a tree growing by sucking that same carbon out of the air, so the claim is that it evens out. That is somewhat bogus for various reasons including fuel burned to transport the wood around, old forests being cut faster than they are being replaced, and in some cases fertilizer made from petrochemcals. But anyway, the special pollution from wood burning is particulates rather than carbon.
For heating based on rocket stoves, see here:
I’ve used wood stoves more or less continuously since the early 70’s, when the first oil crisis hit. I use about 5 cords/per year, along with oil heat in a newish oil furnace, for about a 50/50 split on heating. I agree with Lambert and others here that wood heat has a special quality of warmth, with the added bonus that the physical labor of cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood is good exercise. I have developed two reservations about wood heating though, beyond the good points about being vigilant about chimneys and creosote and code requirements for placement. One is just the inherent inefficiency of a wood stove: in order to prevent creosote buildup, the flue gases escaping must be quite hot–that’s a lot of waste heat going up the chimney. The second is simply that the wood itself is captured CO2 taken out of the atmosphere; the products of nature’s most efficient natural carbon-capture method are going up in smoke every winter. Here in NH we have more forest than in centuries, and it needs to managed, but better to “manage” and store carbon with building products–including replacing structural steel with structural wood. We can do better, but foresight and planning in this regard is anathema in our neo-liberal world.
Wood Heaters need oxygen to burn. By default, they draw oxygen from within the room, which creates a draft (draught). However, it is possible to supply the heater with air from outside, via a pipe from the outside to the air intake. This pipe should also preheat the air. You would install a valve in this pipe to turn the air supply up or down.
I built a masonry heater in my house in Tasmania in the early 1980s, and I built it through the external wall. At the back was a room which contained a wood supply, a toilet and the laundry. To exit the house via the back door, you went via this room. Since there were two doors, an air lock was in effect. To exit via the front door, there were also two doors to go through , an air lock. This stops your heat from pouring out when someone opens a door.
The masonry heater drew its air from the back room, not from the house. There were some gaps where walls abutted, allowing air entry, but not too much. You fed the fire from the back room, so there was no need to cart wood through the house. You also emptied ash from the back room – no need to take it though the house.
The arched firebox was about 4′ long and 18″ wide and high, enough to take big pieces of timber including knotty bits. I got a foundry to cast the door; my only mistake was not to get the air intake made bigger than usual.
From the firebox, the gases rose into an expansion chamber, where they dropped their heat into the living room. Then they descended into a passage parallel to the firebox, from which they went up the chimney, which was in the back room.
The firebox and expansion chamber were lined with firebricks. Then there was an air gap of about an inch, then a second skin of bricks. The second skin radiated the heat, but it never got hot enough to burn your hand – unlike a metal heater.
This kind of heater has traditionally been built across northern Europe, from Germany to the Baltic States, to Russia and Korea. It is in fact a kiln, and reaches about 900ºC. But because it’s entirely enclosed (no glass) and has two or more skins of bricks, it’s quite safe.
And very efficient.
We also had a Rayburn wood stove. We would normally use the Rayburn for cooking, which would heat the house, the bedrooms being upstairs. When a cold spell was expected, we would fire up the masonry heater, and keep it going for a week or so.
The gases from the firebox went UP (into the Expansion Chamber), then ACROSS horizontally, the DOWN, then out horizontally, then up the chimney. There was another small cast iron door at the bottom of the chimney. There is a rule for how high the chimney must be, to get the heater to draw: (as I recall) for every foot the gases are drawn horizontally, the chimney needs one foot of height; and for every foot the gases are drawn DOWN, the chimney needs three feet of height. I had to raise the height to get it to draw, but then it was fine.
You should not use green timber; otherwise you get creosote in the chimney.
I have been heating with wood since the “70’s energy crisis. When the crisis hit Franklin stoves were popular items because people were not familiar with the finer points of heating with wood. I bought one. It was soon replaced with an Ashley airtight stove.
I have heated with a Franklin, an Ashley, an add-on wood furnace placed in the basement, a Hearthstone soapstone stove and my current stove a Woodstock Stove Fireview.
After I got the Ashley the Franklin sat idle for a few years until I got the “bright” idea to install a fireplace in my living room. So I spent $300 on triple wall pipe and I had a fireplace only to discover that my abode was really chilly in the morning. When I put a cigarette in front of the closed door of my idle Franklin I could see why my house was cold. The smoke along with my warmth was disappearing up the chimney. So out went the Franklin and it got sold. About a year later everybody must have had the same epiphany and you couldn’t give the damn things away.
Then I went to the add-on wood furnace in the basement. I stored wood in the basement so it went from the pile right into the furnace. Two problems there. The add-on was not very efficient, also a lot of my heat was radiating into the basement and spiders and bugs like hiding in firewood. I had warm floors and plenty of spiders and bugs in the basement. I am somewhat spider phobic, which meant I didn’t like going into my basement, and I was burning about 5 full cords/year to heat my house.
Then I bought a Hearthstone soapstone stove and installed it on the first and only floor. By not wasting heat in the basement and the greater efficiency of the soapstone stove I cut my wood use almost in half to 3 full cords/year in a 1200 square foot house. But I am one of these people who fires up and forgets to shut down the stove in time and over fires the stove leading to damage. Repairing the damage in a Hearthstone is not easy nor cheap.
Now I will do a shameless plug for Woodstock Stove (from Vermont). I bought one in 2006. It heats 1700 sq. ft. on about 3 full cords/yr. I like my house about 75* in winter. It has a catalytic combustor, cost about $150 which needs to be replaced every 3-5 years. You buy the stove online, you keep it for six months. If you are not satisfied Woodstock will refund the cost of the stove and pay the return shipping. They are confident of the quality of their product. It generates very little creosote. My Woodstock Fireview is the best stove I have EVER owned.
When you set your stove for an overnight burn creosote accumulates on the chimney walls as a black tar-like substance. When you crank up the heat the “tar” dries up, flakes off and falls to the bottom of the chimney. This assumes you have a good chimney. By good chimney I mean a masonry chimney with a clay liner that preferably is inside the house, not running up an outside wall. IOW, code.
I clean my chimney every spring. With the Woodstock Fireview I remove 1-2 ice cream buckets of dried creosote flakes from the bottom of the chimney, then I check the chimney with a mirror. Done. All my previous stoves generated a lot more creosote.
I got an Apple watch. Having a timer on my wrist solved my forgetfulness and the over firing problem.
I am from Wisconsin and not affiliated with Woodstock in Vermont. I just think their wood stoves are the bees knees of wood stoves.
We love our Wood stove. We are in Oregon and yes, due to ice and wind storms, we always have downed wood from pine, Doug fir, maple that my husband chainsaws to a proper length and then splits. We would never stack the wood inside the house because of bugs. And let’s not forget bats! Bats love to sleep in our woodshed. The heat IS different. All the surfaces (floor, walls, hearth etc.,) warm up in a way that they don’t from our electric heater. We live in a place that’s rural enough that our power goes out multiple times a year, generally from drunk drivers taking out power poles. But also from the above ice storms, wind storms, snow storms. A Wood stove is definitely work. But I know we are glad to have it when the grid goes down in the winter. And yes, we do have generators. But generators require gasoline… And how much gasoline are you going to store?
Many thanks Lambert.
There is this intert part of me that will only activate in front of an operating wood stove.
And, if you live in a place that might be prone to forest fires, it is recommended to not have your stacked wood or wood shed next to your home.
I have fond memories of my grandmother cooking wonderful meals, including her famous bread, on the wood cook stove in my grandparents’ cabin near West Yellowstone–in the 60’s in the summer. It was definitely an art. My grandfather would rise early, start up the fire, and cook his cereal before the rest of us rose. Perhaps it is that rich memory which prompted me here in Middle Tennessee to install a woodstove for heating my tract house. For nearly 17 years now I have enjoyed the entire process of collecting the firewood, moving it to an area near the house, collecting twigs and small branches for starter, letting the fire die down at night, starting it up again in the morning. My two cats lie either under the stove or right where it is the hottest in the corner. I have a chimney sweep clean the chimney annually. He is booked for months, so it appears I am in much company in my woodstove use. It is definitely the most penetrating heat–comfortable, too. Thank you, Lambert, for your paean to the joys and issues of heating with wood.
As a WETT certified inspector (wood energy technology transfer). I feel an urge to comment: first in Ontario before installing a wood appliance stove, furnace, or pellet stove, you need a building permit. Next the insurance company will want a WETT inspection. next all the parts stove and chimney are tested WH, CSA, etc as a unit, so buy the parts which are certified for use with that unit.
I know at least one house which has dumb waiter near the stove to the walk in basement, to save the mess on the main floor.
Birch is pretty, also the bark is full of pitch, which is why the natives built birch bark canoe’s which translates into a lot of creosote in the chimney.
I have also installed wood cook stoves (My old Findlay oval circa 60’s, is still in use and provides 2/3 of our winter heat) if you want a good cook stove suggest looking at the Mennonites or Amish who use them every day summer and winter. the Flame view is solid and well designed. just my two cents.
> you need a building permit
This will vary by the locale. When I say “code enforcement,” I guess I mean your local regulator.
Thank you, Lambert. Cold winter mornings before dawn- let dog out, feed stove, let dog in, feed dog, make coffee, sit by the stove drinking coffee and petting the dog by the flames’ light in the quiet. The best.
Late to the game, but I’ll add one more beneficial aspect for those in northern climes that I didn’t see noted:
Peace of mind. We heat our entire home w/wood and I’ll tell ya, when the lights go out it’s really good to know that you won’t freeze.
I recommend the Kuma Tamarack — medium sized stove w/a Cat.
Also, birch. Incredible btu output and clean burning.
> Also, birch. Incredible btu output and clean burning.
My recollection is that it’s like softwood in that it burns very fast. So not suitable for overnight, which is my most important use case.
Just want to mention if you have a stove, add a kettle with water for humidity.
Back in the day, we used a sledge hammer and wedge to split the wood. It came in long logs that got cut in 1/3s and then stacked to season. The next fall, it was then split and stacked in the garage so it wasn’t snowed under. We had a large wood box in the house that was loaded with split wood so that in the morning, there were logs on hand.
I think it was a Jotul – no window, just 2 knobs on the door to control the amount of airflow.
Grandparents had the wood burning kitchen stove as well as a wood burning furnace in the basement. The furnace was tiny but put out a lot of heat. No idea what it was but do know it was old back in the 70s so guessing probably early 20th century.
Had to look up a photo to jog my memory. It was a Fisher stove.
> Just want to mention if you have a stove, add a kettle with water for humidity.
Excellent idea; I did in fact do this (because that’s how the family did it). And put a pan of water on top of the steam radiators, too.
Re seeking to stop heat leakage from a home. Perhaps when the project is about finished, that then might be a good time to do a thermographic inspection to see where heat still leaks out-
Unless you test for heat leakage, you may never know any weak spots.
> thermographic inspection
I did in fact have one done, and should have said so. The difference in the roof — your house is a chimney, after all, and heat rises — was astonishing. That’s what you want to see up there; nothing melting.
A lovely read, thank you Lambert. I love my wood burning stove, although the environment police are increasingly opposing them in England, where wood is sold by the load or half-load. Not sure how that converts into cords. As for stacking wood, I can recommend a book by Lars Mytting, a Norwegian author, whose book about this is now available in English translation. I have never seen soapstone stoves outside of Norway, but they are beautiful in their own right.
Here is a NOmazon link to a source for that book, Barnes and Noble, which is a biggish store, granted, but is not the Evil Amazon.
And here’s a bunch of images of that book and what seem to be some other books by Lars Mytting, each with its URL for anyone who wants to go url diving.
Is Lars a Beatles fan — or were the Beatles Lars fans?
Dry, very dry.
Some time ago I bemoaned the disappearance of the Permaculture Reflections blog. I find my bemoanment was premature. It did not disappear. It is merely well hidden behind the commercial face of its blog hoster/poster, under the concept of “articles”.
So here is an article about the Ten Best Fuel Wood Species for Zone Five and southward.
The author is so impressed with the species Osage Orange that he devoted nearly half the article to this one species, and the rest of the article to the nine next best fuel-value wood species. Here is a little bit copied from the article about Osage Orange to show what this article offers. . . .
. . . Three Cheers for Osage Orange!
I’d like to spend some time talking about some of the better fuel woods up on this list, specifically , Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera). Look at that number again…32.9 million BTU’S per cord. That’s the next best thing to coal! Another paper from the University of Missouri-Columbia stated that Osage Orange would produce 30.7 million Btu/cord. This would equal (and here’s the interesting part) 219.3 gallons of Fuel Oil.
Considering that 1 barrel of oil produces 9 gallons of fuel oil, and one barrel of oil is priced currently at $67 US. Then one cord of Osage Orange is worth $1,634.80. Since it generally takes 4 to 10 hours of work to harvest, haul and prepare a firewood cord, in terms of labor, this would translate into between $163.48 /hr and $408.70/hr (depending on your planning and efficiency). NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT! And…if the trees are coppiced in rotations, this would be sustainable! In other financial terms, one cord of Osage Orange is about 4,728 lbs. (dry weight). This would mean you could get about $3.00/lb. Considering the ever rising price of oil…ick! This tree is going to just become more valuable, especially since it’s not very popular right now, and people seem to just want to stick it in the ground dead as fence-post…more on this later.”
He also discusses the commercial possibilities of small-scale woodland owners in setting up coppice-able orchards of fuel-wood trees, where the live roots under coppice treatment keep growing new firewood-size trunks harvestable on relay rotation. If your house still has the attached woodlot, and it begins to look as if threats to fuel-availability survival make the prospect of physical work to grow firewood from the woodlot more attractive than the prospect of winter non-survival due to a non-availability or non-affordability of commercial stove wood, then perhaps the concept of establishing a number of best firewood trees in parts of the woodlot for renewable coppice harvesting might be explored.
( All the other articles at this site are worth reading enough to where I hope someone with desktop printing copies them all onto low-acid paper for when the Internet is crashed and burned to keep us from seeing this information ever again).
I am jealous of all you house owners. I have had occasion to use a wood stove and a fireplace, but now rent an apartment. As I live in California, land of the unaffordable, I do not expect to be able to rent a house ever again. As for buying one, no way. Unless the population drops by half or all the overseas investors and investment firms are kicked out. But I do miss having a fireplace, yard and garden.
A problem with old boiler and radiator systems in the past was the working water temperature and the heat exchange rate at each room. Old iron radiators were very inefficient and required high water temperatures inside the radiators. To the tune of 70-90ºC. That was very much responsible for inefficiency and high expenditures since heating water so much is costly. Modern systems based on aluminium radiators and others such as radiant floor work with lower temperatures about 55ºC for aluminium and lower in radiant floors and this means much less energy consumption for heating and systems that can be compatible with renewable sources too.
> A problem with old boiler and radiator systems in the past was the working water temperature and the heat exchange rate at each room.
I oppose hot water systems because they are complicated (a pump and pipes on both sides of the radiator). Steam is simple and rugged. It’s not quite as efficient, but on the other hand replacing it was not an option for me, and so I sought efficiency in other ways. (I also like the quality of steam heat; it is second only to wood. Possibly that’s because my cast iron radiators have a lot of thermal mass, unlike aluminium ones, as another commenter points out. I like a radiator that radiates.
Radiant floors are neat, though. I wonder if they could be combined with a rocket stove.
I have been heating my small efficient house in Nova Scotia with wood only for 40 years. I have an airtight stove which burns hot and clean, but we always let it go down at night and accept that the house will cool off.
Some winter mornings the house is at 10 degrees C when I get up. We always burn the fire at optimum air which means that we manage the heat output by varying the firewood load rather than turning down the air. My chimney never has creosote buildup.
We burn poplar and alder until about Christmas, then grey birch and cherry (both weedy trees in my woodlot) until spring. Grey birch has the same BTU content as red maple; the trick is that you have to split every piece as it will not dry through the bark the way many other species will.
The thing about wood heat is that one has to accept that there will be inconveniences. We use fans to move the air around the house, wood stoves cause grey dust to settle everywhere in the house, over-wintering mosquitoes come in on the firewood all winter, and there is always some dirt/debris around the stove. On the other hand, furnace oil is over $1.75 per litre but my wood is all stacked and dry and in my woodshed every year as we enter the winter months and my stove does not need electricity. Eases my mind.
We have heated w/wood on and off for 5o years… Franklin, soapstone, steel box w/spring thermostat on side, Jotul…. And now an ugly 80’s steel stove, funky and functional, because you want a leaky stove… not airtight, which will make creosote. I still use my 50 year old Stihl saw that my Mom bought me when I graduated high school (1971) for bucking wood but highly recommend the new battery powered chainsaws, esp. the Makita 36 volt battery model, which I charge from our solar off-grid system… they have great torque, are quiet, just need bar oil and sharpening. Bye bye oil-based, stale gas, loud stinky Stihl.
When driving on calm winter nights through hilly terrain where many peeps burn wood, note how the smoke settles in the valleys, significant pollution. Higher is better in woodstove hill country.
> When driving on calm winter nights through hilly terrain where many peeps burn wood, note how the smoke settles in the valleys, significant pollution. Higher is better in woodstove hill country.
That’s very perceptive and wood stove owners shouldn’t act like, well, people who refuse to wear masks.
Every particle of soot and volatile molecule and molecule of carbon monoxide in that smoke represents an energy-extraction opportunity which was paid for and then thrown away.
Completely complete combustion would result in zero smoke.
For a number of years until we moved last fall, my wife and I heated our house with wood that I mostly scavanged and split with a maul and wedges, so I can identify with much of what has been written here. I’ll just add a comment and a story.
The comment is that my hands-down favorite wood to burn is cherry. Not only is the smoke pleasant smelling, but when the wood pile gets wet your whole yard smells like cherries.
Here’s the story: I once managed to score an entire dump truck load of oak — cut to length but unsplit — from a tree service. When they delivered it, they simply dumped it in a jumble on our front lawn. It was a large tree, the sections from the trunk were close to 4 feet in diameter. After a few times of separating pieces to split from the pile by standing on the pile and pushing, I realized that if I kept retrieving the logs this way, the pile was going to shift under me and I would break a leg.
After cogitating for a while, I came up with the idea of boring a hole into the back side of the log I wanted to move, dropping an eye bolt into the hole, then using my come-along attached to the trailer hitch on my car to safely winch the log off of the pile from 15 feet away. It worked like a charm and I untangled the rest of the pile this way. (I confess that finishing up the splitting of this pile was one time I did rent a splitter.)
First home, $44k at 12% ca. 1981 had electric HVAC. We decided we wanted a wood stove (mostly me) and purchased same. Purchased wood, cords as described. Worked well enough. Real solution? Moved to Florida. Neighbors have fireplaces, our modest ranch doesn’t. So a few days of the year the smell of smoke is alive in the air as they burn whatever will fit. Oak fell a few years back. Cut it into manageable chunks and put it on the street (100 year old tree, fairly large). Guy came by and began loading. Did so for two or three days. Good riddance. Honestly? Don’t miss feeding the stove. Nope. Not even a little bit.
When we met we lived in my upstairs apartment, then an apartment in Olympia, and then when we got married we were renting a house from my in-laws, who offered us the house as a wedding gift of sorts. They used our two years of past rent as the down payment and let us buy the house for what they had paid for it. It wasn’t free but it was embarrassingly cheap, and of course we were too young and inexperienced to fully realize at the time how very lucky to have been given such an opportunity. (The following forty years have been a real eye-opener.)
The house was on the Westside and had been occupied by a lot of college students attending Evergreen, who needed to sleep and eat while going to school as cheaply as possible. It was a cottage of sorts that had started out down slope on a watershed and had been moved uphill and placed on big timbers as the foundation, and a skirt placed around it that deterred neither drafts or wildlife. We got our first Schnauzer while living there and she could spend hours looking down at the wood floor and growling at the skeetering vermin living beneath only she could hear.
No insulation, a single pane glass windowed-in porch that looked out over the watershed, and some previous owner, encouraged by the county no doubt, added an indoor bathroom to the backside of the house… but the room had sagged over time and the door had been removed, to be replaced by a curtain. This was our first happy home together. It was an architectural nightmare and we loved it.
Winter on the western side of the PNW tends to be chilly and damp, with dips down around zero in January and February. The house came with a large (expensive!) natural gas wall unit. The first thing Husband did the following spring of our first cooooold winter* was remove that unit. He built a hearth in that corner and the next winter we started with a little stove called a ‘Fatso’. It would burn both coal and wood, but we quickly figured out that coal was messy and it stunk, so we burned only wood. But it didn’t turn out to be adequate, so we got rid of that one and replaced it with a Jotul. We loved that stove! But again it was too small to heat even a small house with no insulation. Husband pushed the stove too hard and it cracked. Cast iron can become brittle.
The Jotul was repaired, another hearth built on the other side of the chimney where the Jotul would then live, and another larger stove was brought in, a Fisher ‘Baby Bear’. Between the two stoves (the Jotul was only used when it was very cold) we stayed very toasty indeed. Apart from the view into the woods, a partial view of Budd Bay, and the privacy, the stoves are the only things I miss from that house even to this day. What we still value – those memories! – we took with us.
Every summer Husband got a permit from the state and a map for where he could go to cut firewood. He had bought an old truck and a small chainsaw (plus chopping maul and wedges). He started gathering wood early so that it would be dry by fall. By the time we sold the house as our down payment on the farmhouse, he had wood gathering down to five tightly stacked cords. That’s what we needed to stay warm through the winter, with maybe a little leftover for the following season depending on how cold it got.
He had added a woodshed to the side of an existing shed on the property to keep it all dry from the near constant PNW rains. Our schnauzer took equal pleasure growling at that structure and those vermin she could have at! Those mice paid for her tortured hearing locked up in the house!
If it had been possible to replace our propane insert for a wood burning insert, we would have. But we have solar panels now atop a super energy efficient house and besides, getting county approval is nearly impossible except in homes that were grandfathered in before they began attempting to abolish wood burning altogether. The city recently passed an ordinance that restricts burning of any kind, even our gas bbq grills, if they think the fire hazard is dire enough, and it may be every summer from now on. Old age is full of regrets… I should have enjoyed those woodstoves and the cozy fires Husband banked each night more…. so much more.
*(after taking a machete to the blackberry brambles that were trying to devour the north side of the house)
The smell of burning wood always makes me ill. Headache and nausea. Unless it’s a bonfire. So I’ve never been too romantic about fireplaces and stoves. My neighbor up the hill used to smoke me out every winter until the city started to restrict wood burning. And I’m glad to substitute long johns. Around here they restrict burning wood in your fireplace by limiting the permits for a fireplace and if the air is bad they prohibit fires until the wind blows it out. And now they are buying up fireplace rights. Houses that have 2 or more fireplaces (with separate chimneys) can literally sell them to the city. My guess is that the city then cancels them out. But if it came to a freezing crisis, no doubt all those dormant chimneys would be puffing away.
It sounds like None, John Beech, yourself and I, are the few that don’t need or want a wood stove.
We just moved into a house outside of the Bay Area where the weather is hot for my wife’s health. The house was built as a passive solar house in the eighties. It has sky lights, large sliding doors for the view, a floor with large tiles, and two stone walls to absorb and reflect the heat. The builders also used the stone walls to absorb/reflect the heat from two wood stoves.
The all electric heating system died and we put in a new Japanese Daikin heat pump (SEER 18) to heat the house in the winter and cool it in the summer. Also, California has a $6,000 rebate for installing a heat pump. May had about 9 days over 100 and our bill for 900kWh was $250 at PG&E’s outrageous rates. My wife can go out into the heat and I and the dog can stay in the air conditioned space.
We weren’t going to use the wood stoves, so my wife traded one to the goat lady for two young goats next spring and we gave the other one away also.
By next year, I plan to have five ($2K each) Chinese 5kW vertical wind turbines (4’Dia x 8’Tall) installed on the hill behind our house. With about a 20kWh battery, we can meet all our electricity needs. We can tell PG&E to stuff it or join a new CA electricity option of becoming part of a VPP (virtual power plant) where an aggregator coordinates the feeding of renewable electricity back to the grid when CAISO needs it (normally 5-9pm).
Net renewable electric metering (NEM) is so passe’ as are wood stoves.
Heresy101: Way to go!!
Congrats on all your good decisions. I hope you’ll keep us up to date, occasionally, with reports on how your turbines are doing, and your experience with the VPP.
While I’m not able to do wind where I am, solar is def a good option, both for electricity and thermal energy capture.
Keep up the great work.
> It sounds like None, John Beech, yourself and I, are the few that don’t need or want a wood stove.
I’m not trying to force you into anything. At the same time, home heating systems are built to last. Wood stoves are more Jackpot-compliant than any heating system I can think of (coal and oil are much nastier and require transport; solar panels are nice but also flimsy in the face of catastrophe).
So, you may not want to need a wood stove (or rocket stove)) now, but if you think twenty years out your views might change. I understand that your situation in California is different; locale really matters in these decisions. However, if your Chinese wind turbines have circuit boards or complex electronics…. you might want to ask yourself what would happen if those items were no longer available.
Lambert … if you circle back to this…I’ve been looking for a vendor of rocket mass heaters in your area, came up empty. There is, however, a vendor of stone-mass heaters … high end stuff, great designs, but gonna be pricey.
Their strategy is to cast the custom-design, high performance masonry cores – the tough stuff that a typical mason won’t know the theory and design for. Your local mason then puts the stone veneer around the core, and does the stone bench and ancillary oven add-ons…you get the idea.
It’s not what I had in mind, but for those that don’t want to do the DIY thing, it’s an option, and their end-products build around their cores are really smashing. Good performance, great appearance, a real asset to the house.
Here’s a link.
The whole “standard-core” concept, if applied in the rocket-mass heater market segment, appears to have a lot of economic potential.
There are a few components of a RMHeater which are a little tough for the DIY to do, and could be economically provided from a regional hub, and get a local mason to do the rest of the custom work. It’s a pretty neat product-design, and it appears to have some run-room in the marketplace.
For you young people out there looking to carve out a market niche you could execute from your homestead, this concept deserves a good look.
The metal parts can be designed on your desktop, shopped out for cut, bend, weld. The masonry castings – the so-called “cores” … well, you can do that part yourself. Learning how to cast refractory parts ain’t rocket science; it can be done.
Nice margins, great service to your local community, and you get to capture for yourself the benefits of your technical acumen and innovation.
Excellent primer! But don’t diss the stove with a glass door to watch the flames.
And you should definitely chop your wood. Wood heats you several times: when you fell the tree, when you buck it up, when you stack it, and when you carry it inside. And you haven’t lit a match yet!
> you should definitely chop your wood
Too clumsy. Sorry!
Ignacio, it may be different in Spain but cast iron radiators are not inefficient and do not run at 70-80degC in the UK.
It is a great irony that old wide-bore cast iron rads (often called “school” or “hospital” radiators because most people grew up with them in pre-1970 public buildings like schools and libraries and hospitals, when homes lacked central heating) with relatively high thermal mass and large area are much better matched to modern heat pumps (with 40-50degC output) than modern pressed steel / aluminium radiators which require 70-80degC.
I agree that underfloor heating uses lower temperatures but it is very expensive to retrofit (new insulated floor slab etc. Although word to the wise, you can also fit it as wall heating, on internal masonry walls which have thermal mass, and then you can run in reverse in summer for cooling! This is often done in Finland…).
More generally on the topic, I am from a rural farming area of the UK. Our family house has no central heating. We have an open fire in the sitting room and an oil-fired Rayburn range in the kitchen. This used to be a wood burning model but my grandmother got an oil one when she became less mobile. It was possible to bank it up overnight and then riddle to embers in the morning and refuel it.
Rayburn’s and Agas are great for cooking. You use the hotplate or oven nearer or further from the firebox for temp control. The Aga deluxe model has four ovens: roasting, simmering, baking and warming. The Rayburn and 2oven Aga just have roasting and warming ovens. You dint need to fuel them all the time on high, you can make stews and stock (and roast the Christmas turkey overnight) in the warming oven. The Aga is better insulated than the Rayburn and more expensive because of it, hence an Aga for the landlord, a Rayburn for his tenant farmer…. Sadly only oil and gas and electric Agas are available now but Rayburn and Esse and Stanley and Mercury still make solid fuel ranges.
The Rayburn heats the kitchen and the cob wall it sits in, which reradiates heat upstairs to a bedroom. The Rayburn also heats a hotwater tank and, by gravity thermosiphoning, a heat leak radiator in the bathroom. The other bedrooms and dining room are unheated. There is an electric storage heater in the hallway, to heat stairwell, and in the sitting room, to supplement the open fire.
My in-laws have oil central heating and domestic hotwater in Fermanagh but they have a sitting room open fire with a back boiler, which gives additional heat to the hot water tank.
The posts about Continental European masonry stoves (with long flue runs to capture flue gas heat in masonry thermal mass) are on the money. If I could afford one, I would replace our stupid metal wood burner with one of these:
Finally, beware woodburners in timber houses. The National Farmers Union Mutual insurance company bans them in thatched buildings because the flue gas temps are so much higher than open fires and they are high enough to set fire to old wooden roof timbers or thatching next to the (masonry!) chimney. That shows you how hot they get and how much heat is wasted by a Franklin Stove type woodburner up a chimney.
PS: Lambert, how about a readers’ stoves feature alongside the plantidote?
Thank you for the post Lambert. One add under the “ancillary products” section might be a Fire Extinguisher. A “Cold Fire” type (no powder) would probably be worth the price if you ever needed to use it in the house. Sparks happen. I installed a Jotul F 602 V2 last winter and it works well in a small space in a mild climate. I took the time to work up a drawing of the stove installation with call-outs showing how the installation met the code specifics and it saved a lot of conversation with the inspector and helped me work through the design process as well. Warm is good.
> One add under the “ancillary products” section might be a Fire Extinguisher
I am generally not given to foolish optimism! (Yes, I did have one, tucked in a corner and never used.)
Good process with the inspector!
Complaints about burning pine, spruce or other conifers? Not so much, I believe, if you live in parts of the far north, like Alaska, where the hardwood forests of lower latitudes do not exist. When it’s cold, anything burns.
Just a note on the wonder-wood, Osage-Orange, mentioned above. Unless you have a very tough stove, Osage-Orange can be too much of a good thing. Old-timers around here say, “if you want to burn down your house, use hedge (Osage-Orange).” Furthermore, hedge is especially difficult and time-consuming to cut, with thorns on its prolifically sprouted branches. Anyone selling hedge deserves all they can get for it. Fence posts made from it can last 100 years. I’ve burnt firewood as my primary heat source since 1974, when we bought a used Ashley for $10 at auction – we still use it. Only sparingly do we burn Osage-Orange, never more than one stick at a time mixed with other hardwoods.
Could masonry heaters be made of the kind of firebrick or stone which could handle the heat of a pure osage orange fire? If they were made with a built-in rocket-stove firebox, could that firebox be made to handle the heat of osage orange as a basic non-degrading property of the rocketstove firebox? If those two conditions could be met for real, then osage orange might be the most energy-efficient wood for dumping the most of its fire-released heat into the masonry heater mass for slow release into the house.
The fact that old timers regarded the osage orange as a “burn your whole house down” wood is backhanded praise for its extremely high heat yield. That would make it a better fuel if there were/are better technology ( super-heat-proof stoves and heaters) allowing us to safely use it. And the splitting/cutting problem might be an opportunity for people to establish osage orange coppice orchards making enough money selling the high-heating-value wood to justify buying the heavier machinery needed to cut and/or split this type of wood. ( And of course some of the coppice-trunks could be managed for long straight tough garden poles for sale as garden poles).
The “splitting” problem could perhaps be evaded by having a coppice planting of osage orange coppices and one would have to cut down and into lengths the new thin trunks, but at least one would not have to do further splitting of them.
If one were to establish one’s own little plantation of osage orange coppice, there are near-thornless varieties now available.
Osage orange seems like an opportunity in search of an outlet. Or something like that.
I’ve never dealt with osage-orange, so I may be totally wrong, but I thinks it’s reputation is more about it’s density than anything else. It’s about twice as dense as pine, so should you be used to burn pine logs, you would definitely load too much wood in your stove if you changed to osage-orange. You would get twice the heating capacity in the same time unit.
Now, in a normal wood stove the stove pipe could, or probably would, become red hot and maybe burn the wall or ceiling around it, whereas a masonry stove has much, much more heat mass and radiating surface so it would take longer to heat up and thus it has more time (and mass) to deal with the bigger heat capacity.
The firebricks used in masonry stoves can usually take heat that would melt iron.
Someone should compare the wood-formation rates of pine versus osage orange on equal sized units of land. IF! . . . the osage orange forms more than half-as-much cubic volume of wood as what the pine forms, that would mean that the osage orange is producing more harvestable heat energy on a unit of land than what pine would produce on that same sized unit of land.
To D.W: Yes, I agree, but – not likely to happen. Burning wood used to be pretty common around here (southwestern Missouri), but no longer. Everybody seems to have decided it’s not necessary and, especially younger people, just not easy or clean enough. (I had a tractor mechanic friend who heated his shop almost exclusively with hedge). New regulations, especially if global warming is ever taken seriously, will, I fear, impede the use and functional design of wood stoves. Hedge is not that difficult to split (compared to, say, hickory (another high energy wood) or elm (practically impossible). I can’t see landowners giving up pasture or crop land to grow these land-gobbling nuisance (ask a farmer) trees. But, I’d like to see such an operation as you suggest. Osage-Orange, planted closely in rows were once promoted as boundary-line living fences as those can be darn near impenetrable when mature. Some trees in the wild don’t have thorns.
Would the osage orange gobble land if they were planted as far apart from eachother as any other silviculture-system tree? Or planted in hedge-y lines with wide alleys of cash cropping between them? Or alleys of pasture/range for feeding livestock?
If osage orange handled that way would not spread to gobble the land, then it could provide one income stream while the crops or pasture-livestock on the alleys between the rows could provide another.
I’m sure someone could come up with a plan to keep thornless trees from spreading too wide and to multi-crop, but it wouldn’t be like raising Christmas trees. Osage-Orange can grow moderately fast on good soil, but probably not quickly enough to make it a good investment of time, money, and land. The harvesting would be very labor-intensive, and you would need to chip up all the branches (hard on the chipper) or burn them in the field. I know from my own experience, most of the time you don’t want a real hot-burning wood because the house can easily get too warm except during very cold weather.
A big masonry thermal mass heater could solve the house-too-warm problem by soaking up all the heat into itself as quickly as the fire generates the heat, and then slowly feeding the heat out into the room over many hours.
Or am I wrong?
Don’t know. I’d have to build a new house to find out.
Some notes: In addition to a bellows, a chimney starter can work as well, as can a cheap propane torch..
Good on you for noting the pollution issue. The amount of pollution is non-trivial, and catalytic converters reduce creosote in the chimney as well.
There are systems out there specifically designed to transfer heat from a wood stove to a hot water heating system.
Something i don’t understand is how a stove, or a masonry heater , is supposed to be able to heat a whole house even though it is rooted to one place in one small part of the house. I understand basically how my forced-air gas furnace heat my dwelling unit . . . through heating a big mass of iron and then intaking house air and blowing that past and through the hot iron mass and then back into every room of the house through air ducts reaching every room.
But since a woodstove or even a thermal mass heater can’t blow forced air around the house, how does it lead to a house getting warm? Does anyone have a layman-clear explanation of how a stove or mass heater can warm the whole house?
In my experience DW, the heat from my stove, which is in my living room with an open plan stairs, rises (as heat does) to help warm the rooms upstairs if you keep the doors open, but not sideways to a separate room and kitchen on the same plane downstairs. The stove is not connected to any radiators or similar.
In my house, a ceiling fan (always on) in the same room as the wood stove moves air to the other rooms. I also have the option to turn on the fan in the central air system to circulate heat, but rarely find that necessary.
Thanks for these answers. This leads me to further rounds of speculative thought. IF! I can make my thoughts clear enough and good enough, I will offer them when I have the time to invest in them to make them submission-worthy.
Thank you again.
What America lacks is back boilers. You need the wood burner to heat a water tank as a thermal store. You can then pump the hot water around the house to heat radiators or in floor / in wall heating.
If you have short pipe runs, you can exploit thermal siphoning to get the hot water to circulate upwards and somewhat laterally to a heat leak radiator and then drop back down to the burned having been cooled. If the pipes are not lagged, the whole system us a giant radiator. Our Rayburn hears our house this way. If you want to store the hear for later, you need an actively pumped system.
Friends in Northern Ireland have a stately home with a giant (6m tall) thermal store and a high efficiency biomass boiler, which requires firing once a day with a few logs to heat the house and domestic HW. Their system is efficient but the grant scheme available for biomass, designed by Arlene Foster’s DUP, omitted the caps that other UK nations included so Stormont is paying subsidies to people for every log burned, whether or not they use the heat. Cash for Ash, they call it….