Today was the start of the heating season, and I built my first fire of the year in the wood stove. I really enjoy wood heat, now that I’m doing it right! I used to do it wrong, and it was a lot less fun.
My chimneys are very tall and I don’t like sweeping them. On the other hand, I don’t like being in the situation of, “Gee, it’s a long time since the chimneys have been swept. I wonder if we’ll have a chimney fire today?” So on Saturday I had the guys from Chimney Pro in Corvallis come out and sweep both chimneys, which they did quickly and well. So my peace of mind is all topped off.
Years ago, I was slow to get the chimney swept and at one point could frequently hear chunks of creosote clatter down the stove pipe. Not good! That was also the period when I was burning a lot of wet wood, which not only clogs the chimney something fierce, but is hard to burn and makes using wood heat a torture. We bought a better unit(an Oregon Wood Stove unit that, as you can see in the picture, is more than a fireplace insert, almost amounting to a free-standing stove) and mended our evil ways, ensuring dry wood by buying wood that was pretty dry to start with and storing it inside our shed.
Cheap firewood. Sometimes you can get firewood cheap, or for free. Ordinary split cordwood is a bargain around here, when compared to other sources of heat, but you can sometimes do better. For many years a local company that made shipping pallets offered its scrap wood very cheaply. The pieces were fairly small, but it was dry and cheap (never more than $30 per pickup load, or about $60 a cord with a full-sized pickup), and you could burn it exclusively if you wanted. If you got your supply before October, it was nice and dry, too. It made a lovely fire.
People are stuck in their ways, and many won’t even consider burning anything but ordinary cordwood in their stoves, so opportunities like this often go begging. They’re often poorly advertised as well, so ask around and keep your eyes open!
I’ve heard of many similar bargains across the country, from outfits that generate wood scrap that is not enough like cordwood to sell for cordwood prices, but needs to be gotten rid of, since manufacturers can’t simply burn their waste in big piles or dump it in the landfill the way they used to. Ten years ago there were many places where you could get scrap wood for $10 per ton. I don’t know what prices are like these days.
I have the good fortune to have Starker Forests as a neighbor. They have a good-neighbor policy that is just amazing! Among other things, they’ll let us cut downed wood for free — and will even send a forester over to show us where the good stuff is.
That’s pretty good by anybody’s standard, but there was a Golden Age of Free Fuel in this area that was even better. It used to be that sawdust was free for the taking from any of the many local lumber mills. When my house was built in 1940, its original furnace was a sawdust burner. It had a big bin for sawdust and an augur, like those used in pellet stoves, but bigger, to feed sawdust into the furnace. Free heat, and you didn’t even need to own a saw!
Newspapers and carboard. When I was a kid, my parents experimented with making newspaper logs, which didn’t work out. Much later, I discovered that the simplest way of getting heat out of newspaper was to simply lay a bunch of newspaper sections flat at the bottom of the stove and build the fire on top of it as usual, as if the flat sections weren’t there. These flat sections burn slowly but completely over the course of an hour or two. While not dramatic in any way, they allow you to turn all your used newspapers into comfort.
I also read a good trick online: newspaper burns too fast and kindling is a little too hard to light, and what makes it particularly easy to get a fire started is to use some corrugated cardboard as well. Rip it into strips a couple of inches wide and use liberally along with your kindling. I like using small boxes for this. Big boxes ones I flatten and recycle. I almost never blow on fires anymore.
Big fires vs. little fires. There’s a big fad for fires that can keep you warm all night long. Isn’t that what blankets are for? I don’t want my house to stay warm when there’s nobody around, so I build relatively small fires as needed, and stoke them once in a while, when I take a break from work. Admittedly, in harsher climates, you need bigger fires!
Wood heat in combination with other heat. I’m very happy with my combination wood heat and electric baseboards with fancy programmable set-back thermostats. I blogged about setback thermostats and wood heat. This has worked very well for me. I let the nighttime temperature linger for a while after I get up in the morning, to encourage me to build a fire. I wouldn’t build fires if it were already nice and toasty! And these particular thermostats (unlike the original ones on my heaters) are very responsive: they back off smoothly in the face of heat from the fire. So I get as much benefit from wood heat as I’m willing to get, but if I get distracted and don’t tend the fire, I don’t freeze! This combination approach works especially well in the fall and spring, when a fire in the morning is the only heat the house needs all day.