The July heat must be boiling my brain to cause me to write about this lifestyle choice.
When Jeanne and I were planning our new house way back in 1982 the great energy crisis of the mid-seventies had put fuel conservation foremost in everyone’s mind, so we used some of the energy saving techniques that were popular at that time. Our design called for extra-tight construction coupled with lots and lots of insulation. Also we sited the house with a southern exposure just below the crest of a hill so it would have protection from heat-robbing wind. To heat our new home we wanted to rely on our own renewable wood supply coupled with a simple passive solar collection system (but that’s another story).
It all works rather well: wood fires give us a warm, dry home in the dead of winter. We feed two small air-tight stoves, one in the cellar the other in our living room, all day and into each evening with chunks of firewood.
Heating our house this way has given us a sense of self-reliance even though it is hard work. Getting a supply of dry firewood ready is a time-honored yearly chore practiced by folks like us throughout the northern tier of states. Gas or oil fired heat is what everyone else uses and we do have a minimal back-up oil furnace, just in case, which supplies our domestic hot water and can keep the house above freezing.
I don’t have exact figures but would guess that wood burning amounts to a very small fraction of the fuel types used in this country, probably less than one percent. That puts us woodstove users in a very small minority nationwide – but in the majority locally where the smell of sweet wood smoke wafts over our villages and country homes from October to May.
Woodsmoke puts us into the sights of environmentally concerned people who have proved that the smoke is less than desirable, even a pollutant!. The result of their activism requires new woodstoves to have catalytic afterburners installed, similar to those on vehicles, to burn up toxic particles before they spew out the chimney. The addition of catalytic converters was good because not only do they reduce smoke toxicity but they capture more usable heat in the process. Our next woodstove will have a converter.
Wood pellet stoves are another home heating device worth mentioning. Trees of lesser commercial value, usually white pine and other softwoods, are ground up and pressed into small pellets, similar to animal feed. The pellets are slowly fed onto a ceramic combustion plate in an air-tight stove where they burn briskly under a forced air blast. It’s a good system but relies on electricity to make it work. The best part about pellet stoves are the pellets, which come in weatherproof plastic bags that you buy from a dealer and dump them a bag or two at a time into a hopper and that’s that. Apparently there is little ash and not much smoke, just a lot of controlled heat.
Our heat comes from harvesting a dozen trees each year from our woodlot plus buying a load from the local wood guy. Our own woodlot is inexhaustible – as long as we only supply ourselves. We split it, stack it and all winter long carry it indoors to burn. It’s not for everyone but we like it and will go on doing it until we’re just too old for the effort.