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Heating With Wood

Our little farmhouse is heated exclusively with wood. Maine was gripped with a severe cold snap the past few weeks, and winter is far from over, but we were able to keep toasty inside with just firewood heat.

Once upon a time, that would seem impossible to me. In fact, I remember spending a winter in a home heated with wood when I was in college, and felt not only that the owner must be "backwards" but also that it was impossible to keep warm. While firewood may not be the most ecologically sound or the most efficient way to heat your home, it can certainly be effective.

In doing research for my next book I've come across a lot of information on how to get the most out of your wood stove, and I thought I'd share some of that knowledge here. Some things just make sense, others you might not have considered.

The first thing to consider is what kind of wood stove to heat your home with. I wouldn't recommend heating a large house with just a single wood stove - although you could do it with a couple of stoves or a stove and a fireplace. A wood stove is perfect for our space, which is two closed rooms, about a thousand square feet. You want to consider your stove's heating capacity and the amount of space that it can effectively keep warm. And you want to pick a stove that can warm a space larger than the one you're trying to heat - especially since makers often exaggerate just a little bit.

In addition to heating capacity, look at your potential stove's heat output, usually measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units), and its burn time. You do not want a stove that falls too low on the BTU scale as it won't keep you warm, but you also do not want a very hot burning stove as that can damage the inside of your stove. Around 20,000 BTUs per hour is a good number for a medium size house. Burn time is very important to consider if wood is your only source of heat, because it determines how often you'll be getting up throughout the night to keep the fires burning. A good stove can get through a cold winter night with only one or two stokings.

It's also very important to check your stove's emissions and efficiency, and to make sure it is set up correctly and hooked up to a clean, safe chimney. I am not an expert and I highly recommend having your chimney at the very least inspected by a professional chimney sweep before using it.

But it doesn't end with the right wood stove! The type of wood you use can make all the difference.

You want to always used seasoned firewood in a wood stove. Not only will wet wood be hard to start a fire with, it burns very messily which causes creosote build up in your chimney and eventually will lead to a chimney fire.

The best woods to burn are dense, so they'll burn for a long time and produce a powerful heat. They also should not be sappy or resinous woods which again will cause creosote to build up. Oak, maple, and ash are some of the best logs to burn with, while birch is fast burning but an excellent fire starter. Softwoods in general can be great fire starters but burn quickly, while hardwoods are preferred for wood stove heat because they burn hot and long.

It's also important to keep a stove clean for both fire safety and performance. Yes, ash build up can be dangerous, but you might not know that a stove full of old ashes with just a flame on top isn't going to produce much heat. Doing a regular clean out of all the old ashes keeps your stove performing well, and again, turn to the professionals for a good chimney cleaning once a year.

Taking these things into consideration you can keep a space pretty toasty with a wood stove. Also keep in mind how heat travels (mostly it goes up) and remember that even if you have a really small house, if there's a lot of closed rooms a wood stove's heat won't be able to travel around. Open doors and fans help to spread the heat, or you can close off a section of the house during winter and not try to heat it at all.


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