On the street
We use space heaters in whatever room we’re using and set our thermostat at about 67 degrees.
- Use the EnergySelector program to compare the cost of firewood to other heatsources.
- Warmerwinter may ease pressure on heating bills (11-13-07)
- Heatingcosts predicted to go up (10-10-07)
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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.
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.