Heating with Wood: Wood Stoves for Busy Families

Heating with Wood: Wood Stoves for Busy Families

November 22, 2019

While growing up, I helped cut, split and stack about 17 cords of wood each year in order to heat our New Hampshire farmhouse and the extended barns attached to the house. This was our way of life. We never considered home remodeling in Litchfield County, CT to update the system.

We also brought firewood to a ski cabin in central Vermont where wood heat was the only way the cabin stayed warm. (Often too warm! We would open the windows in January and February in the upstairs bedrooms in order to sleep comfortably. Sometime during the night, we would close the windows and add wood to the stove downstairs.)

A legacy of foresting

I grew up the son of a forester father and came to appreciate that we were able to heat our two homes from the “woodlot” just up the dirt road through the forest from the house. It’s now a teaching forest full of trails and beautiful settings open to the public and focused on sustainable forestry.

Once grown, I embarked on a committed journey as a carpenter to create a home for myself. I figured, if one of the most expensive investments we ever make is our home, maybe I should consider home remodeling in Litchfield County, CT and build one myself.

Over time, I developed some insight into what would work for me. I watched as building science changed, mistakes were made and corrected and codes changed and changed again. My wife and I now live with the last of our children (a college senior) in a home we built overlooking a rugged valley in northwestern Connecticut. It’s been a labor of love and perseverance.

The oil embargo

In the mid-‘70s, I came to regard burning wood as a way to keep away from soaring fuel prices. I developed a strong regard for efficient and “clean” secondary burning wood combustion. My dad was in the wood energy business then, heating college campuses, 15-acre greenhouses and running dry kilns at sawmills, among others. All of these solutions used a secondary burning boiler system that burned wood chips instead of oil or propane.

One ton of dry wood chips was equivalent to 110 gallons of #2 heating oil at 1976 prices. The chips were dried by tapping into the existing oil burning boiler’s stack and stealing the hot air. This heat ran through a live-bed drying system to drive the moisture in the green chips down below 15 percent, where they became valuable fuel, and—shazam!—the chip burning system took over from the oil or propane burning system.

Alarmed communities insisted on duplicate scientific monitoring of the stack gases leaving the chip burning system chimney stack. Other than steam, there was about a 2 percent residual ash from the burning process, and gasses like carbon dioxide barely made a reading.

Super-hot and super-efficient, this was technology that had been around since the beginning of World War II. But this was smarter engineering and science. The payback on the investment was extremely attractive, until the embargo was lifted and oil prices dropped to unprecedented lows. This was a disaster for the wood-burning business and, many could argue, a disaster for the forests. If there is no market for tops and irregular species in the woods, these are no longer harvested. When they are in demand, they are chipped up on site, which creates great veins of composted topsoil in the forest, where annual leaf and twig fall far eclipse the need for additional composted biomass.

As a result, local biomass was wasted, whereas this fuel is a recipe for success in the right hands. Case in point: We used to heat our large fabricating plant with a small roll-around burner that was as big as a briefcase with a 2.5’ tall, 12” diameter refractory lined “chimney” into which the secondary burned gases flamed out. We burned pellets in this heater at a rate of 3 ½ cubic feet per 24-hour period. No smoke. No headaches. Just a warm shop that smelled mildly of toasted wood.

Modern wood stove possibilities

In my home, I have a spectacular Danish wood stove which I purchased from Niels Wittus in Pound Ridge, NY. It is as satisfying a stove as I can imagine adding to a property with home remodeling in Litchfield County, CT.

We get to watch the fire without sucking the heat out of the house because a large, curved piece of porcelain glass in the door helps create a seal against pulling too much air into the firebox. We control the air intake with a simple lever below the door.

We also get to watch the mesmerizing process of secondary burning. The wood fuel burns and effectively dissolves in the primary burning, which drives off all the gases we commonly see coming out the tops of chimneys. The secondary burning is the burning of the gases within the combustion chamber, which is beautiful to witness as it gives the flames an ethereal quality—a very captivating visual phenomenon. It also helps burn the wood to dust like ash. Secondary burning is 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no smoke coming out of the chimney. It’s very efficient.

When temperatures drop, we haul wood in to the storage areas near the several stoves which keep our home warm. I won’t say it’s not work, because it is. All those sayings about “wood heats you three or four or five times” come to mind.

My mother was the daughter of a Swiss forester, and they were fond of feeding a fire in the large built-in tiled stoves that brought warmth into the core of the house. I remember there is one in the cabin in the Jura grandfather built. It had wooden grates on the flat horizontal surfaces with padded coverings to allow you to sit on the warmth and not get burned. It was absolutely natural that we would burn firewood to stay warm. There was also the overlying quest for burning only seasoned hardwood and burning it in stoves that were noted for their efficiency.

I can say that the scrape and clank of old Ashley stoves as you slid open the top cover and dropped chunks of wood into the chamber, the clink of the latch on the early Jotul stoves we used and the almost silent presence of our Wittus (my brother has one now as well) are something I can just close my eyes and hear. The snap and pop and hiss of burning wood is something that is familiar and comforting to me.

Fireplaces vs. wood stoves

I’m all for fireplaces, assuming they have a well-fitted damper that prevents the great draught that sucks warm air out of houses. I also regard fireplaces as more ceremonial and not the workhorses of home heating. Compared to efficient wood stoves, they are greedy burners, and they manage to suck a great deal of the warmth in a room up the chimney at the same time they are providing their cheery blaze.

When a fire is going on the hearth within the firebox (not the hearth extension, which most people assume is the hearth), it is likely behind some kind of screen to prevent most of the sparks that can escape the fireplace from doing so. Fireplaces need to be tended to and watched like a hawk. It doesn’t take much for an ember to pop away from the fire and make it past the screen.

I recall a dinner where everyone left the fireplace area to sit at the table in a nearby room to share a meal. When we returned to the living room, the rug, a cotton-based Kilim type rug, was nothing but burnt ash. The rug was sitting there as if nothing had happened, but it was just ash, which blew away if you so much as waved your hand over it. That was one of those moments where you feel you’ve witnessed a warning and felt a tap on your shoulder. Managing fire inside a house is not to be taken lightly.

Surrounded by resources

I find it troubling that we can live surrounded by wood, and yet, the run-of-the-mill conventional wood stove does no better than “pretty good” primary burning. There’s lots of smoke and carbon in the air. I’d rather burn smaller amounts of seasoned wood in a thoughtfully conceived wood stove and contribute a lot less smoke and carbon to the air.

Since 99 percent of my view is woods, and I’d have to walk over a mile to change that view, I feel completely clear in my conscience that I’m using firewood to heat my home. I feel the best when I process that wood from my own 15 acres—something I can’t do indefinitely without clearcutting our property. (The property includes an old meadow, and we have gladed a lot of the woods by selectively cutting and pruning trees on this property.)

Early on during construction, we faced considerable work manifested by a powerful four-minute tornado which ripped through our town and across Connecticut and clobbered a large chunk of our property. Yes, we had to tear down what was left of our new construction and start over.

We did our best to burn all the blow-down for heat. We chipped enough to create a pile that had a 75’ x 75’ footprint and, thanks to the French-Canadian loggers who helped after the storm, it was plowed up about as high. We gave away chips for years. Today, you would be hard pressed to tell that this place was smashed by a tornado in 1989. Seedlings we planted now tower over us. Never lose faith in the renewable promise of a well-managed forest.

Below you can see some of over three cords of seasoned fire wood stacked between the garage doors under the eight-foot-deep south-facing eave of our barn (garage/office/shop). You can see the folding sawbuck I made, directed by my father, so I could contribute to the 12” chunks of wood our wood stove burns. I can cut logs into four-foot lengths and then buck those up on the sawbuck. It gives me immense satisfaction.

Discover more

Do you share fond memories of wood stoves and foresting? Contact your local home building and energy experts at Green View Building & Design Company, Inc. for more information on the best heating options for home remodeling in Litchfield County, CT.

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