My fiancé and I bought our first house in February 2008. We did not move in right away and spent a few months renovating the home. Even before we occupied the home, our jaws were dropping at how much oil was being used keep it above freezing. Based on what the previous owners had told us about their heating cost, and even looking at their receipts, we thought the heating cost was going to be reasonable. We know now that they must have been freezing all winter, or using an alternate heat source.
Before we spent our first complete winter in the house, we installed a wood stove. Although there are pros and cons, as with everything, I am very pleased with our decision. I had never burned wood before, so the entire process was new to me, and we had to learn a few things (many through trial-and-error), such as to how to properly stack and store wood, start a fire, and operate the stove safely.
Our house has a rather unique layout where the kitchen is its own extension, or “wing” of the house (long ago, it used to be an attached barn). We placed the woodstove in the kitchen mostly because it was easy, since there was already a stovepipe installed in the roof. This has turned out to be a convenient place because the kitchen has proven to be the most poorly insulated room of the house. With the fire roaring, it is nice and toasty in there instead of chilly and drafty. Even with the stove being positioned at the furthest possible end of the house with no second floor above, it manages to eventually heat up the entire house enough to avoid the furnace coming on. I can only imagine how much oil we would save if the house had a more typical footprint.
Benefits to burning wood:
The best benefit to our woodstove is saving money! In New England, where temperatures can sink below zero, living in an old house with less than ideal insulation would result in a very expensive heating bill if we didn’t have the wood stove. We start a fire each morning and keep it going all day. The fire dies out a couple of hours after we go to bed, and that’s when the furnace comes on. We set our thermostat at a constant 63 in the winter. Sure, it’s a bit chilly when we first get up in the morning, but things start warming up quickly after the fire is lit. Therefore, our central heating system is only active for a few hours each night, instead of working 24 hours a day. That is a lot of oil saved. I estimate that we would be using at least twice as much oil if we didn’t burn wood. We are able to go six months or more before ordering an oil delivery. At current prices, I have estimated my yearly savings to be at least $800.
Another perk to using a woodstove is the ambience. There is nothing quite as cozy as being able to warm up next to a real fire. Visitors to our home always remark on how lovely it is. Even when the stove is not in use, it adds extra charm to our old farmhouse.
Burning wood is also good exercise! Cutting, hauling, stacking and carrying wood could be seen as a pain in the neck, or as the good exercise that most of us need. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment and pride when I’ve completed a neatly stacked cord of wood.
It also makes me feel more in tune with nature. We have to prepare the wood in the spring and summer, giving it enough time to become dry and seasoned. When there’s a chill in the air and we haven’t finished our seasonal stockpile, we know we have to get a move on! I watch the weather forecast more closely, to find out if it will be cold enough to warrant starting a fire. It’s quite different than having a furnace with a programmable thermostat and never really thinking about your heat besides perhaps making a phone call to order more oil. I’m much more connected to the production of energy in my house, and that makes me more aware of our consumption of energy and resources overall.
There are social and economic implications that I enjoy as well. When I am able to warm my house with wood, I know that I am actively using less foreign oil. Unlike the oil, I know exactly where the wood came from and how it was produced. It is a local product from a neighbor. The wood is harvested from Even if burning wood didn’t actually save us any money, I would probably still do it because I would rather my money benefit a local person instead of lining the pockets of a huge oil company.
I was quite worried about safety at first, since I had no experience with a woodstove. I was terrified to leave the house with a fire still burning! However, I’ve learned that burning wood is very safe if you follow a few basic precautions. The stove is installed with a pre-made hearth to protect the floor and is a safe distance from the wall and flammable objects. We made sure to follow the installation recommendations exactly and the setup was inspected by the local fire department so we could have a proper permit. We keep the creosote buildup to a minimum by using properly seasoned wood, burning hot fires and cleaning the stovepipe regularly. Of course, you should have the proper number of operating smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors for the size and layout of your home.
Once our supply is in place for the winter, it’s pretty easy to start and maintain fires. At first, I was terrible at getting a fire going, but now I can do it easily. Fatwood fire starter is my friend. We are lucky that we have a nice setup for storing our wood. Most of the winter’s supply is in a woodshed next to the garage. We made a hatch door through which we can pass wood directly from the shed into the garage. We keep a medium sized pile in the garage, and since the garage is connected to the kitchen, wood is only a few steps away and I don’t have to go outside in the cold and snow to get more.
Disadvantages to wood burning:
My biggest gripe with the woodstove is that it is dirty! If you are a super meticulous person, having a woodstove in your living space and using it regularly might not be for you. There is no way to completely contain the dust that drifts out of the stove when you open it, and especially when you scoop out ashes. The wood itself is messy, as will sheds bits of bark, dirt, etc. when carried and stored. I learned that the simple iron log racks meant to store a few pieces near your stove is not the neatest way to go. A proper wood box is necessary if you want to contain the mess (or keep the wood from being chewed by your dogs!)
Despite constant use of the dustpan, vacuum and wiping down around the stove, I spend most of the winter (and a good part of spring and summer) grumbling while I wipe dust from every surface in my house. Sometimes I wonder if my oil savings are going to Swiffer duster refills instead. Certainly, if the woodstove was in a contained room, or a basement, the dust problem would not be so terrible, but the open floor plan of the first floor of our house allows the dust to travel everywhere. I envy friends who have pellet stoves for their neatness, but I do not envy the cost of pellets.
Depending on where you live, the cost savings may not be that great. Certainly, it is more difficult and expensive to get cordwood in a city than in the country. We are lucky that we get our wood quite inexpensively from a friend who has a lot of land. We assist in the actual harvesting of the wood, so we are trading our labor for a discount. If you are buying wood at retail price, I don’t know that you would save a ton of money. To burn almost continuously through a New England winter, we go through approximately four cords of wood. So before jumping into it, research wood prices in your area. If you have a pickup truck and can fetch your own wood instead of having it delivered, you should be able to get a better price.
The setup for a wood stove can get really pricey depending on your house, and your wants. You have to vent it either through a wall or roof. In our case, our regular house chimney for the furnace does have a hole where we could connect a woodstove into, but that would have dirtied up our nice new chimney liner in no time and having more than one heat source venting through the same chimney is sometimes not recommended. We were lucky that our house already had a separate woodstove vent setup. The actual woodstove itself can be a huge chunk of change. We went to some showrooms near us, and the prettier woodstoves were as much as $5000! We ended up buying a less attractive one at Home Depot for about $850, and it has worked perfectly well. Don’t forget about the hearth (a premade hearth cost us about $400), stovepipe, accessories like the poker and shovel, wood rack or wood box, and starter material such as Fatwood.
Burning wood requires a lot more work and attention than just turning up the dial on a thermostat. In addition to the work of cutting, hauling and stacking (which you might pay someone else to do), the fire itself needs more wood often. We have to add more wood every 1-3 hours (depending on how much I put in at once, the quality of the wood, temperature of the fire, etc.) Stuffing the stove full of wood and turning down the damper (flue) will make it last longer, but at the cost of creating more creosote buildup. The stovepipe/chimney needs to be cleaned at least once a year if you are burning a lot. We can easily take down the stovepipe ourselves, but if you need to hire a professional chimney sweep, in my area that will cost a minimum of $70 and up.
Overall, the pros and cons of burning wood will be different for everyone. Burning wood is not for everyone, but if it makes sense for your budget and your lifestyle, it can be a very satisfying choice.