Heating with Wood

In a world where so many products amount to little more than fads and distractions, one cutting edge piece of technology has lately won me over: the modern wood stove.* With it, I plan to heat my home this winter entirely with wood. Free wood.

I came by this plan while browsing tax credits for ‘greening’ up one’s home. There were both state and federal tax credits for installing a wood stove. This surprised me. What’s green about burning wood?

Heating a home with wood turns out to be ecologically sound. It’s carbon-neutral for one, at least theoretically. A tree releases as much carbon when burned as it does rotting in the forest. And so long as new trees replace what’s burned, the same amount of carbon will be sequestered again. Plus, since most electricity comes from coal, enough people heating with wood instead of electricity could save a whole mountain top.

So I ordered a wood stove which I was pleased to find were now being made in styles other than rustic. Then I went to the woods to chop down a tree. My next discovery? I didn’t need to. From any point in the woods I could see half a dozen trees already down. Forests, it turns out, are crowded with trees elbowing each other aside, vying for sun and space, succumbing to the elements. They frequently fall over and die. There are millions of dead trees rotting in forests now that could be heating homes all winter long.

I expected that hauling dead trees from forests would become a new pastime of mine. But I never went back. I never needed to. There was enough wood lying around the city — a constant supply of it: limbs being pruned by neighbors, branches down after every wind storm, discarded pallets, Christmas trees.

Having to make a fire once or twice a day left me tempted to expedite the process by using those easy fire-starting sticks made of sawdust and petroleum. But I held off since they seemed to clash with the spirit of what I was trying to do. Then, on a whim, I tried starting the fire with pine cones. Bingo. Pine cones, it turns out, are nature’s Molotov cocktail. Once seemingly festive and cute, the pine cone I now revere.

Today’s wood stove is much more efficient than stoves from even ten years ago. Air enters the burning chamber from multiple conduits, vermiculite panels reflect heat back at the wood and into the room, the tight-fitting door keeps particulates out of the air, and they can be installed with an intake that uses air from outdoors in the combustion chamber. (Traditional wood stoves and fireplaces, which are especially inefficient, suck air out of the very rooms they’re supposed to be heating.) So not only is wood effectively unlimited and free, but the stove doesn’t need much of it.

Processing wood takes about twenty minutes, twice a week. In the beginning I used a chainsaw and electric circular saw, which made things go very quickly. Then I realized that I was needlessly speeding through an experience that I wanted to savor.** I already spend so much time in cars and planes, so little time outdoors. Why optimize away the last morsel of useful, outdoor physical labor I have left? Now I use a maul (often called an axe by mistake) to split the wood, a hand saw to cut the wood, and a mallet and hatchet to make kindling.

Friends and relatives twice my age say they’re too old for all this. They’ve grown accustomed to gas-log fireplaces, which to me seem almost as artificial as a fireplace screensaver. Maybe they’re right and one day I’ll become too old to use, or to enjoy using, my body this way. But I can’t help but wonder if it’s the other way around; that the absence of useful work makes us prematurely age.

Yet for all our differences I have yet to find someone who isn’t spellbound by the brilliant soul-soothing flames.

* They should probably be called “wood heaters” or “wood-fired heaters” since most modern wood stoves are not designed for cooking food. That said, I’ve begun cooking with my wood heater anyway. For instance, my default method for cooking sweet potato now is to wrap it in aluminum foil and leave it on the coals.

** “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” — Gandhi