Heating with wood

If you’re new at using a woodburning stove, here’s the information you need to burn safely

(And if you’re an old pro, consider this a refresher course)

by Dale Crosby

Once you find a good wood burner (and I assume you will want an air-tight one), you need a good, safe chimney, and all areas around the burner need to be safe from heat. A hot wood burner can actually catch the wooden studs inside a wall on fire through the plaster/drywall. Cement board is an easy, inexpensive way to protect the areas near your stove. You can glue or nail (use masonry “cut” nails) right to the wall. There are many different ways to make or install a chimney, some require a professional and others just need some good directions, common-sense helpers and a free weekend. Each house and each location in your house have certain requirements for safety (i.e. is a cement block chimney best, or a stainless steel insulated one more appropriate?). It’s best to research this by asking friends and neighbors who burn wood how they have theirs set up.

After you have a good, safe setup, you need lots of practice to get to know how your woodburner works. Each of the woodburners that I have owned were very different. Of course, you can burn it too hot and the chimney pipe can actually turn red hot (you’ll smell “burnt” air). One of the best things I purchased to prevent this was a chimney pipe/ductwork thermometer. This has a magnet on the back and I stick it right to the chimney pipe about half-way up. It has a dial needle that shows the temperature of the pipe. You can easily see when the fire is getting too low (cold) or too hot – and thus prevent the red-hot pipe scare.

To control the heat you can adjust the dampers – which are like vents in the door that let in or restrict the amount of air to the fire. Too much air and you’ll get the fire too hot; too little and you’ll starve the fire. With fire you need fuel, heat and oxygen. Starve it of one and you’ll get nothing. Fuel, of course, is the wood. Heat is referring to enough hot coals in the burner to ignite new wood you put in. If you open the stove and there is a pile of red-hot coals, the fire will continue to burn and catch the new wood you put in to replenish it. However, in the morning when I wake up, I need to open the door and leave it open to let the maximum amount of oxygen enter to get the coals and remaining wood to heat up. I now have it down to a science. Instead of standing there watching it, I can go boil water for tea, feed the dog, change his water, start breakfast and return to the living room to see the temperature gauge is just right (not too hot, not too cold). I also hear the fire roaring and crackling. Then I just fill it up as far as I can with wood, and close the door. A final inspection when I go out for the day, and it is good to burn for 10 hours or more.

When I get home, I fill it up again and top if off a few hours later before bed. So I only tend it three times in a 24-hour period. It takes practice though, because you have a lot of factors like the particular kind of wood (hardwoods burn hotter and longer), the dryness of the wood, the setting of the dampers (Open the dampers more and you let in more air, which makes it burn hotter but faster – maybe so fast that when you come home later the wood is completely gone. Then you’ll have to start a new fire which will require more newspaper, kindling, etc., until you once again have a hot, stable fire.)

After you get all these factors working for you, it’s an easy, enjoyable thing to do in the winter. I have had many people ask me, “Isn’t that thing a pain? You know, cutting, splitting, and hauling all that wood, cleaning ashes and maintaining the stove all the time?” To me, having this as my daily routine is not a burden, but merely another seasonal activity and habit like planting and maintaining the garden in the spring and summer. You definitely won’t take heat for granted when you are as responsible for it as you will be when you heat with wood.

Stove placement
As far as how it heats the whole house, it really depends on the location of the woodburner and the circulation of air that carries the heat through the house. The living room (where the stove is) is always the warmest, followed by the kitchen (which will be a few degrees cooler), followed by the dining room and the bedrooms. This works for me because I prefer my bedroom to be cool. Conversely, the living room I prefer warm to watch tv or read. I do have a vent-free propane heater mounted on the wall in the dining room which helps on those extremely cold nights, but if I ran out of propane, it would be no big deal – just a little cooler.

Ideally though, I think in a house with a basement it is much better to have the stove downstairs and cut a floor vent above the heater, or keep the door open to the cellar to circulate the heat upstairs. Or, if I did not have a decent basement (or easy access to it), and a living room and large kitchen opposite each other, I would have a stove in both rooms.

Cleaning the stovepipe
As far as maintenance, I clean the whole chimney before burning season, which is easy if you have a low pitched roof to walk on and a good chimney brush. I found a bunch of chimney brushes and poles at an auction a few years ago for $8.00. They work great.

After brushing the chimney, I disconnect the pipe (which is between the woodburner and the chimney in the wall) and check for rust and soot. Then, through the season, I just tap on the pipe twice a week or so, and can tell if it needs cleaning. If it feels empty and tinny it is okay. If it feels solid and full of soot, it definitely needs to be cleaned. You can also tell that the pipe or chimney is getting full of soot because you’ll notice that when you open the stove door, smoke seems to blow out easily and abnormally. This is because the chimney is becoming restricted and smoke, like water, flows on the easiest path. If it is full, you need to let the fire burn out, brush the chimney, disconnect the pipe and take it outside to clean it. The pipe to my stove is only four feet long, and I have found that I can just slap the sides up and down the pipe and dislodge the soot and ashes. I seem to average taking out the ashes once a month. This cleaning routine is extended when the wood is driest. For me, good, dry firewood burns so well the pipe and ashes don’t need to be cleaned for almost 2-1/2 months.

Drying wood
Generally, it should take nine months to a year to dry fresh-cut, green wood. If, however, you put this stuff under a tarp, it takes longer and can actually rot by itself. Covering something like green wood with a tarp doesn’t let the moisture escape well. When the heat of the sun hits the wood, it vaporizes and rises to the tarp where it condenses and “rains” back down on the wood. The ground moisture doesn’t help either. With a woodshed that has a leak free roof and lots of circulating air, you will have truly dry wood.

The types of wood that I prefer are of course, oak, locust, maple, cherry and hickory. I like locust because it burns hot and easy. It is not good for an open fire because it spits a lot of sparks, but this is fine by me because I have an airtight stove, and people give it away easier than other types of wood. Of course, if you’re an opportunist like me, you’ll burn whatever you can scrounge up or find for free. The only wood I stay away from is pine, because of the extreme level of sap which will vaporize and stick to your chimney, which can cause a chimney fire.

Friends and family call me from time to time when they need a tree cut up or when they see the power company is clearing lines and leave good wood. I can always cut trees off my property, but have only done so occasionally because the tree was dead, dying, or damaged by snow, ice, wind, etc. My house is over 1,100 square feet and I have averaged under three cords a year.

A couple of tips that I have learned along the way is to have a garden hose available during the burning season. Because of the risk of freezing, drain the hose completely and have a frost-free water valve installed. Practice to see how quickly you can get the water running. I was lucky one year by forgetting to put the garden hose away. I was still learning my woodburner and got the chimney too hot and it caught fire. Luckily, I noticed the pipe was hot and I could actually hear crackling in the chimney. Then I knew I was in trouble. I ran outside and grabbed the hose and was able to shoot the water into the chimney and save a possible house fire. I also have chimney flares which look like roadside flares that you light and throw into the woodburner during a chimney fire. I have never used them before, but have been told they work by robbing the fire of oxygen. On that note, as soon as you notice a chimney fire, close all dampers (vents) on the woodburner and pipe. This also helps to “rob” the fire of oxygen.

I hope this doesn’t discourage you for fear of burning your house down, because my mistake was a stupid one. I got into that much trouble by opening the door to heat the coals and wood, and walking away, forgot about it. If you walk away from an open stove door, never go far or get side-tracked like I did. As you learn how to maintain a stable fire, you don’t need to worry about chimney fires while away or sleeping. The biggest danger again, is when the flow of air is abnormally high, such as when opening the door and leaving it open, or opening the dampers too far.

I hope this will help you get started when you are ready to heat with wood.

Copyright Countryside & Small Stock Journal. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Countryside Magazine W11564 Hwy 64 Withee, WI 54498.

Lehman’s does not guarantee the accuracy of this information. Always obey the instructions in your owner’s manual and follow the advice of local safety officials.

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