More on burning wood for heat


There’s some excellent comments on our previous post here about the carbon footprint of heating a home with wood vs. heating oil.

DJ, who lives way out in the country, uses a wood burning stove rather than a fireplace, as the heat output is far greater. Our neighbors across the street here in Connecticut also heat their home entirely with wood. They currently use a wood pellet stove, which is high tech, has a computer in it, but the neighbor says it requires considerable tweaking and cleaning, so he may go back to a wood burning stove.

After a few days burning wood I can say 1) it takes considerable time to get the wood ready, and then to prepare and stoke the fire, 2) to heat a home during the winter takes large amounts of wood. So, how sustainable really is wood, especially if used on a mass scale?

Joe Hartley says forests have been dedicated to growing wood for fuel, but such monoculture can have unintended consequences. He mentions friends in Wisconsin who used 5-6 cords of wood each winter. A cord is 4x4x8 or 128 sq ft. 6 cords is 1068 sq ft. That’s a lot of wood. Way out in the country this is doable. But even where we live, in an area where each home has at least an acre, if all homes were heated with wood, the air would be hazy with soot.

Joe and Eli Stephens both mention that burning wood produces quite a lot of particulate air pollution and other nasties too.

My sister’s boyfriend is an environmental engineer, so I asked him. He says, everything considered, heating oil (the primary home-heating method in New England) is probably more eco-friendly than burning wood. Which is not the intuitive answer, but no doubt the correct one.

  • dj

    How efficient is wood? An old New England saying claims wood heats you three times: Once when you cut it, once when you stack it, and once when you burn it. Try to get that from a barrel of oil!

    On a more serious note, using wood for heat is likely not practical in the city, though it has been done in places like Moscow and Denver over the years. Denver’s smog has at times been exacerbated by burning wood. On the other hand, wood does absorb CO2 as it is grown, and it can be used sustainably in small applications.

    OTOH, if you want sustainable, in India they heat and cook by burning dried cow dung. There’s a caste of people that does nothing but shape, dry and sell this fuel.

    The moral of the story: there may be no one, best answer that works well everywhere. Go figure.

  • Having learned how to cook on a woodstove, and have heated with wood throughout my fifty odds years on the Oregon High Desert… the key: dry wood. And mix hard and soft woods – my preference is Jackpine and Juniper, though Douglas and Noble Firs and Great Western Larch are excellent hard woods as well (hard to get, though). We usually keep about ten cord on hand – it used to take about eight for a winter, now it’s more like five – rotating so as to burn wood cut three or four years ago.

  • dj

    Oak burns hot and long, great on a cold winter night, but you need a good fire to get it going. We’ve been buring a lot of juniper (Utah Juniper, often misnamed cedar), and it burns hot but smokey, lots of ash left behind. Aspen is easy to cut & split, easy to start, but not so hot and burns quickly. It’s good for a morning fire. In general, Ponderosa Pine is my favorite: easy to start, plus reasonably hot burning.

    We have a wood cookstove, but haven’t been brave enough to try it yet.

  • My parents had a vacation place in Vermont down the road from a family farmer. The wife cooked everything on a wood stove and the food was delicious. It wasn’t that they were poor, far from it, she just learned that way and saw no good reason to change. And they’ve been on that land six generations now. Not sure if their kids will follow or not.

    Yes, *dry* wood is the best wood. Native Americans and the early pioneers must have spent substantial amounts of time each day getting the wood, tending the fires, etc.

  • dj

    Yep. Their chainsaws were much less efficient than ours.

  • S Dunlop

    to bob morris:

    6 cord equals 768 Sq Ft not 1068… i burn 10 face cord a year or 3 and 1/3 full cord in a two story 1800 Sq Ft home for the last 20 years and with a high efficiency wood stove i would have to believe the overall carbon footprint is better than that of any delivered gas, oil or coal fuel.

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