Archive for Monday, December 3, 2007

A burning hot trend

With natural gas, propane prices on the rise, more are looking to wood to warm their homes

December 3, 2007


Don Cottrell, left, and Darryl James split firewood in North Lawrence. Cottrell said he has about 225
customers in the area who regularly buy wood by the cord - a pile that measures 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet high.

Don Cottrell, left, and Darryl James split firewood in North Lawrence. Cottrell said he has about 225 customers in the area who regularly buy wood by the cord - a pile that measures 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet high.

Don Cottrell stacks seasoned hardwood. The type of wood and its age can affect safety, woodcutters say.

Don Cottrell stacks seasoned hardwood. The type of wood and its age can affect safety, woodcutters say.

Don Cottrell works on splitting up some seasoned hardwood November, 28, 2007, in north Lawrence.

Don Cottrell works on splitting up some seasoned hardwood November, 28, 2007, in north Lawrence.

On the street

Have higher energy costs affected the way you heat your home?

We use space heaters in whatever room we’re using and set our thermostat at about 67 degrees.

More responses

Mike Garrett remembers the Sunday dinners of fried chicken at his great-grandfather's house.

He remembers as a young boy going into the living room to escape the bite of a cold, Kansas winter day. "Bonanza" or "Lawrence Welk" or some other show that now defines nostalgia played on the black-and-white television.

But what really has stuck with Garrett is the memory of the wood pile.

"Great-grandpa was in his 90s and he still had a firewood pile as big as a 20x40 house," said Garrett, who lives north of Lawrence. "It was so hot in that house."

Garrett now thinks of his great-grandpa at least three times a day - at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. when he grabs a log or two to throw on his wood-burning furnace.

"People say I remind them of him because I just love cutting firewood all the time," Garrett said.

Try sparking that type of memory with your natural gas furnace.

Mountain of wood

Garrett is among a surprisingly large contingent of area residents who rely primarily on chunks of oak, hickory, hedge or other woods to heat their homes.

Garrett has been heating his house near the Lawrence Municipal Airport with a wood stove or furnace since 1981. The memories the practice kindles are nice, but not quite as nice as the money it saves.

"Thirty-six dollars," Garrett says as he answers his own question of how much he spends per month on the electric heating bill for his two-level home that is more than 2,000 square feet. "And that is for the lights, the washer and dryer, the fans and all that."

As energy prices continue to rise - especially propane used to heat rural homes - people in the wood-cutting and stove-selling business say interest is increasing in the oldest of heating technologies.

"I had a mountain of wood when I started, and I'm down to five or six cords," said 76-year-old Sam Fish, who has been selling firewood in the area for about 10 years. "It sure seems like it is busier."

Don Cottrell said he has about 225 customers in the area who regularly buy wood by the cord - a pile that measures 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet high. He said almost all of his customers are using the wood for serious heating purposes rather than for an occasional marshmallow-roasting device.

"You can definitely save money, if you do it the right way," Cottrell said.

The rising cost of propane has made it easier for people to make the firewood equation pencil out. Propane prices nationally have been predicted to rise by about 30 percent from a year ago. The national average for natural gas prices has been projected to rise by about 5 percent from a year ago.

"I tell people who are living in the country and using propane that they're already paying for a wood stove - they're just not getting one," said Kathleen Benedict, manager of Lawrence's Swims & Sweeps, 1033 Vt., a store that sells stoves and fireplaces.

Sawing wood

But hold on: Experts also warn people who are thinking of converting to wood to make sure that they're not biting off more than they can chew. Or more accurately, more than they can cut.

"We don't like to push everyone that direction," said John Wade, manager of The Fire Place, 540 Fireside Court. "I'm not sure that it makes a lot of sense for someone living in the middle of Lawrence to convert to wood because they're still going to have to buy their wood."

In these parts, that likely will cost you about $150 to $175 per cord, depending on the species of wood and how long it has been "seasoned." Determining whether it is more cost-effective to burn wood or to stick with natural gas can involve some tricky mathematics that are dependent upon how efficient your wood-burning stove is and other factors. But one Web site run by Penn State University suggests that if you can buy wood for less than $160 per cord, it could be cost effective, based on the natural gas prices of this area. For propane, the chart suggests you could pay more than $200 per cord and still come out ahead burning firewood.

Of course, there's always the option of cutting your own wood, if you have a place to do so. But Wade has a key piece of advice for those folks sharpening their saws.

"They ought to go cut a cord first to see if they are going to like doing that," Wade said. "If you don't like doing that, it can get to be a job in a hurry.

"If they decide not to convert to wood, I guarantee they won't have a problem selling the cord."

Estimates vary based on the size of a house, but most people said it would take three to six cords a winter to heat an average home.

The hot stove

How warm your home will be, though, depends largely on what you're burning the wood in. Generally, most folks said old-fashioned fireplaces are better for cuddling around than doing serious home heating.

That's because many of the older fireplaces are "open," meaning the fire isn't burning behind a sealed glass. That situation allows the fire to suck valuable warm air - part of the combustion process - out of the room. Their big open chimneys also allow lots of cold air to enter the house.

Instead, wood stoves - or new fireplace inserts - are the more common choice for effective home heating. Many stoves - which also have dampers that allow the intensity of the fire to be controlled - cost $1,000 to $3,000. But installation could cost that much or more, if the home has not previously had a wood stove, Wade said. In that situation, installation will involve cutting holes in walls and ceilings.

Another option is the outdoor wood furnace. Garrett uses one to heat his home. The fire actually burns outside the house, but the heat travels through pipes into the home's ductwork. He said such furnaces sell anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000.

He also said the outside furnace might please your insurance agent more than a traditional wood stove. He suggested checking with your insurance agent about whether your rates would go up if you purchased a wood stove.

Wood stove merchandisers said that fire safety has improved over the years but that it is still important to have your chimney checked once a year. Chimney fires can occur when creosote, or tar from the woods burned, builds up in the chimney.

"Chimney fires are serious," Benedict said. "You can't see it right away because it is up in a hole."

But burning the right type of wood - and wood that has had the chance to dry out for at least several months - can greatly cut down on the fire risks, several woodcutters said. Generally, hardwoods such as oak and hickory are recommended by everyone.

Walnut is a more iffy proposition. Some think it is fine, but other said it can lead to creosote buildup and even stain your shingles.

Then there's hedge. Fish calls it the "Cadillac of woods" because it burns hot. Everyone agrees on that. But some say it burns too hot, which could lead to stove damage or unintended fires if not handled carefully.

The other issue with hedge is that is sparks badly, meaning extra care must be taken when burning it in an open fireplace.

In short, hedge is the type of wood that can create debates among old coffee-drinking men in small-town diners the state over.

Bet you can't say that about your furnace.


LogicMan 10 years, 6 months ago

Burning wood is much more polluting than natural gas or propane; Denver, for example, has wood-burning bans at times during the winter due to their pollution problems.

Also, spending the money instead on weatherizing your house, installing CFLs, etc. is likely much more cost and time effective. At least for now.

Tandava 10 years, 6 months ago

I don't like fires in a fireplace behind glass. It ruins the effect. Most fireplaces, including the ones behind glass, are horribly inefficient. There is, however, one open fireplace design that IS efficient: the Rumford. Even though it was designed in the late 1700's (or maybe the early 1800's), most people have still never heard of it today. Construction is a bit expensive, but that is true about any good open fireplace.

I love burning hedge in my open fireplace. The shower of sparks that it sometimes sends out into the room is better than the 4th of July.

Jerry Stubbs 10 years, 6 months ago

Burning wood emits lots of CO2, about the same as coal.

Richard Heckler 10 years, 6 months ago

We set our thermostat at 68. Nighhtime to 62.

If I get get cool a jacket or vest warms me.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 10 years, 6 months ago

Good post, logrithmic. As with all technologies, there are tradeoffs. We are only just beginning to assess and acknowledge the negative aspects of fossil fuels as a way to heat and power our economy. Burning wood for heat his a viable alternative to heating with gas or electric, but not for all, and not in all circumstances.

OnlyTheOne 10 years, 6 months ago

Don't burn "wood" get a pellet stove! Yes, I know it's still wood but not nearly in the quantity a fireplace will consume and they are really efficient but would've resulted in a tremendous insurance penalty (just like a fireplace) here.

cobaltblue 10 years, 6 months ago

I have been using a pellet stove (Quadra Fire) for two years and it works great. Most of the time it is the only heat we need but do have propane back-up for when it really gets cold. Pellets are made from oak sawdust and come in 40lb bags. Depending on the setting, one bag can last up to three days. Cost has been running about $4.50 per bag. Corn is about as cheap but there are storage problems with corn (mice, etc). Pellet stoves can be vented straight out of the side of the house, no need for expensive and extensive chimney pipes. Hedge is the best wood around, I use it for my sauna.

George_Braziller 10 years, 6 months ago

merrill (Anonymous) says: We set our thermostat at 68. Nighhtime to 62. If I get get cool a jacket or vest warms me.

Same for me. Except if I get get cold I love to heat up the oven and cook. Takes the chill off and you can fill the fridge with meals that you can eat the rest of the week or share with a neighbor.

Chris Golledge 10 years, 6 months ago

Response to Mooner,

The difference between burning wood and fossil fuels is that the carbon in wood as recently come out of the atmosphere; burning it is merely recycling carbon in the biosphere. In the very long term perspective, so is burning coal, etc.; however, current life on the planet has evolved in a biosphere that has a certain level of carbon (in the form of CO2) and burning fossil fuels by the gigaton changes that level.

In the very long term perspective, by burning fossil fuels, mankind is returning the planet to a state it has been in before (at least in terms of carbon in the biosphere). Change happens, but we need to be concerned about the rate of change.

Point of curiosity (and risking exposing my ignorance): Other than fossil fuels and diamonds, what kinds of minerals contain large amounts of carbon? I can't think of any. Does that mean that at some point in the ancient past most of the carbon in fossil fuels existed in the biosphere?

Pure fantasy: Is that why mammals/birds (warm blooded) have only recently evolved or become dominant? Really higher levels of carbon and hence CO2 than exist today would have caused a much warmer world. What's the math? Would O2 levels have been significantly lower as well? Lower levels of O2 would have favored lower metabolic rates as well.

Brad Watson 10 years, 6 months ago


riverdrifter 10 years, 6 months ago

OnlyTheOne, I have a pellet stove and my insurance co didn't give a hoot when I told them I put it in, so I don't where that comes from. My stove is about 98% efficient. My neighbors don't even know I have it -almost no smoke. Expensive investment, but I like it. I've got 3.5 tons of pellets laid in, good through most of the 2008-09 winter, depending. I use to buck 4-7 cords of hedge per winter for use the following year but I've never been this old before & don't want to do that any more.

Brad Watson 10 years, 6 months ago

RIVERDRIFTER...hilarious......i know what you mean....but if you just make time a half hour a will have plenty and you won't have to work too hard. i go out right before dinner and buck away for a few problem.

blindrabbit 10 years, 6 months ago

Burning wood has some disadvantages but I can attest it does warm more than once. Don't believe it, go out and cut, split, stack and carry a cord and you will find out for yourself. Good exercise!

Word for the wise: If your are purchasing fire wood make sure you know what you are getting! Many firewood venders do not know the definition of a cord (4x4x8 or 128 cubic feet). Many will call it a cord even though it may be much less!!!!! I have seen terms like "face cord", "rick cord". Also, most pick-up loads, even those stacked 2 feet high are really only about 1/2 of a cord. Here it comes down to dealing with a honest seller and applying "buyer beware".

Staci Dark Simpson 10 years, 6 months ago

I have the outdoor furnace too. I love it. We of course don't mind cutting. Garrett is right our gas bill was only about $35/mth last winter. But we have somewhere to cut. One good thing about the outdoor stove is it will hold big chunks and green hedge is the best thing ever to burn in it. To me it is worth the $. We live in an old drafty house and you can crank that thermostat up and it doesn't burn more wood.

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