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Holy wood pile, batman!

>> Monday, November 23, 2009

It's the time of year for wood hauling and stacking.  This is what our driveway looked like Sunday morning:

That would be 9 face cords of wood.  It actually pretty much looks about the same this morning, despite a whole lot of hauling and stacking - like about 4 hours worth of hauling and stacking.  The stacked wood pile has grown a great deal, but the driveway mound has not shrunk, I swear.  It's the incredible never-shrinking woodpile.

So, there shall be stacking aplenty in the coming week or two.  You should note that this is the second round of hauling and stacking this autumn - we already stacked 5 cords.  We have about 1½ cords left from last year, and we're hoping that will be enough to get us through the winter, although we really don't know.

If you hadn't guessed thus far, we heat with wood.

When we moved into our 2,200 square foot house that was built in 1831, we had some concerns about heating costs, and the environmental impact of us two (well, 7 if you count the fur-bearing members of the family) occupying that ridiculous amount of square footage.  I love old houses and desperately wanted to try fixing one up for the sheer fun of the thing, but I recognized my carbon footprint was going to be bigger than it ought to be. 

We spent a lot of time researching different methods of heating and what their costs are (both up-front and long-term) and what their environmental impacts are.  Spouse was partial to a wood-burning stove since that's what he grew up with.  He's from the North Country, in the middle of nowhere near Canton, New York, where it gets mighty cold.  His only neighbors were Amish.  Theirs was an enormous old drafty farmhouse, and his family went through 15-20 cords of wood a winter heating it.  Since he was the only boy in a large family, let's just say my husband is comfortable with an axe.

In contrast, I grew up in a raised ranch in suburbia and as a child never knew people heated with anything other than a furnace.  Ours ran on gas.  You wanted heat, you turned up the thermostat - that was all there was to it.

Despite that our house can be heated with the perfectly good high-efficiency gas furnace that resides in the basement, it's mighty pricey (we're currently estimating it is at least 3x the price of heating with wood), and gas has its own environmental impacts.  It takes a lot of work to extract any fossil fuel, and the results aren't always terribly pretty.

Is wood really a better choice?  I just don't know - it's mighty hard to say.  Wood is renewable, but was the wood in my driveway harvested in a sustainable manner?  And while our wood burning unit is one of the most efficient available and has one of the lowest emissions ratings out there for wood burning stoves, it's still combustion.  I gather from conversations with a couple of environmental engineers I know that the cleanest burning units available at the moment are actually coal-burning, but we ruled that out because of what has to be done to the earth to get the coal out.  Plus, I don't like the smell of coal when it's burning, and it doesn't have the same ambiance.  Pellet stoves also seemed to lack ambiance, and we have friends who have trouble getting enough pellets as demand seems to have outstripped supply, at least around here.

Our house technically had a wood burning insert in it when we moved in, so installing a new one didn't seem that difficult.  That, combined with the cost of running the furnace, my husband's love of wood stoves (a.k.a. pyromania), and some odd romantic notions about woods stoves and country living being suited to one another, and we ultimately decided on wood.

Using the ancient wood stove that was in the house when we moved in was out of the question.

That's not really a great photo of it, but you can sort of tell it looked old and iffy.  We moved in a year ago March, and finally got that old clunker out last November.  This is what we found when we pulled out the mantel and unit:

Well, really, it was far more alarming than this when we first pulled it out, because this is after we added a second layer of brick inside the fire box and installed a floor in the fireplace.  Yes, you read that right - the unit was teetering on the hearth over a yawning chasm that dropped into the basement.  That fact was even more impressive when we realized the entire 6" thick concrete hearth was almost unsupported from underneath, and was held in place at its corners by a few dry-rotted slats of wood.  Yikes!  Glad I didn't jump up and down on it between March and November.  You can see the pretty char marks up the brick, ending only an inch or so below the wood wall beam.  Nice, no?

A lot of sweat, 3 months, 1 mason, various frightening and amusing discoveries about what people had done in renovating the house in the past, and beaucoup $$$ later, and we had a visually appealing, properly-installed, high efficiency wood-burning fireplace insert:


Now if only the area around the stove stayed looking that nice and neat and clean on a day-to-day basis.  And, (shifting uncomfortably and wincing slightly) if only hauling and stacking were a slightly less painful process.

To be continued...


Ellen Rathbone November 23, 2009 at 1:15 PM  

I can relate! From the agonizing over what mode of heating is the most efficient and least toxic to the planet, to the hauling and stacking of cords of firewood. Well, face cords. At least you have two of you to do it! I got my lowly 3 finally tucked away in one afternoon - it was a good workout!

Beautiful fireplace, btw!

b. November 23, 2009 at 2:18 PM  

Okay, so I will start off saying that I find it incredibly inspiring to read about people making informed, conscious decisions about how to live. You, in particular, really, really think about how your actions & your lifestyle impact the earth (& thus, the rest of us). Here's my problem: I find that MOST of the things that are healthiest for both people & the planet tend to be more expensive. We're working on 1 1 /2 salaries at the moment (actually, it's more like 1 1/3) & almost living beyond on our means as it is (due to my having to work part time). While we splurge on some organic things, especially for The Boy, we just simply cannot afford to only eat organic. We diligently recycle & half-assedly compost, but we don't live in a pedestrian (or even bike)-friendly area, so we rely heavily on cars to get places. I feel like if good-for-you things were more affordable, more people would be able to choose them (of course, good-for-you-things tend to be more expensive because a) there's more work involved & b) fewer people are buying so fewer dollars go to the company, yadda, yadda, yadda). I'm just blathering, but it's something I really struggle with. And feel guilt about.

b. November 23, 2009 at 2:20 PM  

Oh! And I do have a question. How do you handle cat litter? We (erm, meaning my girl) cleans them once a day & at the moment we use plastic grocery bags. Not a first choice, but we're not sure how to do it more responsibly. Any ideas?

Solar Panel Quoter November 24, 2009 at 7:37 AM  

Hi and hello.

I just wrote a small blog post for my workplaces solar panel quoter blog on the very subject of wood burning and is it eco-friendly?

This followed my colleague just finishing getting his installed and now manic about any 'stray' piece of timber he comes across.

On a personal note, as a kid, our old house had a raeburn stove and a coal fire that needed constant kindling chopping etc. My Dad worked on a farm so a trailer load of logs appearing in the driveway was a regular autumn occurrence - brings back many happy (if eco-unfriendly) memories.


p.s here's a link - perhaps you'd care to chip in with your experience.

p.p.s what's a 'cord' of wood?

Woodswoman Extraordinaire: November 24, 2009 at 9:51 AM  

b - I'm completely with you on how hard it is to be eco-friendly. And how expensive! All any of us can do is the best we can in our own circumstances, and to bear the environment in mind as best we can when we make decisions. Personally I think the government should make it easier and more affordable to make environmentally healthy decisions and purchases, given the state of our environment. Of course, lots of people disagree with me on that.

Re: litter - dang it, we haven't found good options either. We use feline pine clumping litter rather than clay, and it works amazingly well. Disposal required plastic bags, though, as you say. We try to take the Mountain to Mohammad (i.e. transport the big kitchen garbage bag to the litter boxes) to reduce the number of bags we use, and feline pine works well enough on odor to make that possible. But there really isn't a great solution!

Woodswoman Extraordinaire: November 24, 2009 at 9:55 AM  

Jonathan - thanks for the link! All excellent debate points, lots of which we considered but couldn't confirm or answer for certain. Some great new points to contemplate, too. Again, I lament my inability to weigh all the environmental factors in any decision - I never seem to know enough. I should have become an environmental scientist, in retrospect.

A cord, by the way, is one of two things. A full cord of wood is a pile that measures 8' long x 4' high x 4' deep. However, since most fireplaces won't fit a 4' long log, most wood is delivered in "face cords", which are 8' x 4' by fireplace length, which in our case is about 16" - 18". When I use the word "cord", I really mean "face cord".

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