The case for using firewood

Although much more efficient when burned in a wood-burning stove than in an open fireplace, the use of firewood is arguably more environmentally friendly than many other fuels.

Using firewood went out of style around the time the use of fossil fuels and burning coal became widespread. The environmental impact of firewood can be very harmful if used irresponsibly. Firewood is a green and renewable source of energy, but not limitless. Unnecessary indulgence threatens to leave desolate forests. With a renewed sense of environmental consciousness nationwide, many suppliers of firewood are adhering to responsible production and replanting strategies.

Firewood smoke does not emit as much carbon dioxide as petroleum-based products and other fossil fuels. There are cleaner burning fuels, such as propane gas used for cooking, but when compared to the levels of carbon dioxide released by coal-burning power plants, firewood is far more efficient. During its lifetime, a tree will absorb considerable amounts of carbon dioxide, as it is vital to growth.

The high cost of energy for heating and cooking and the need for renewable energy sources are just two of the factors why firewood is seeing renewed interest. Fireplaces and chimneys were once staples of North American residential construction. Many old homes in the United States and Canada are equipped with fireplaces that were unused for decades, but that is starting to change as homeowners are warming up to firewood once again.

Firewood stoves, on the other hand, are not seeing a similar renaissance as an image persists of smoky homes and a burnt aroma diffused throughout living spaces, walls and clothes. Such smokiness belongs to a long-gone era, for modern wood stoves have advanced combustion systems that isolate smoke and burn wood gases efficiently.

Choosing firewood

Homeowners who choose firewood as a source of energy for heating or cooking have quite a few choices available. There are two main categories: hardwoods and softwoods. Either can be used for heating or cooking, but it is important to keep in mind that softwoods ignite and burn faster, produce more sparks, and result in very hot fires. Hardwoods, on the other hand, do not produce embers so quickly and are much slower to burn.

Evergreen trees are, in general, more likely to produce softwoods; while trees that shed their foliage in the fall and winter are often used for hardwood. Tree species have been classified by their ability to store and release energy, which is measured in British thermal units (BTUs). One BTU is the amount of heat that it takes a source of energy to warm up a pound of water by one degree Farenheit. In terms of heating a residential living space, it will take about 35 BTUs to comfortably warm one square foot.

Wood species are rated and labeled by the number of BTUs produced in a cord, which is equivalent to 128 cubic feet of firewood cut for transporting, retailing and throwing in the fireplace or the firebox of a stove. To get an idea of how much firewood is in a cord, a good image can be obtained when thinking about a bedroom closet in a downtown apartment and dividing it by a half. Firewood is typically sold by fractions of a cord. Homeowners living in an area where mild to harsh winters are experienced could realistically burn up one cord of firewood in a couple of months to keep a 1,000 square foot home cozy.

One cord of beech tree, a reasonably affordable species for firewood, can produce up to 27 million BTUs. The highest-rated tree species for firewood is hickory, which is a delight not just for heating, but primarily for cooking. Homeowners who make the switch to wood stoves and begin cooking with hickory firewood are often tempted to burn as much as they can—something that in the end can be pricey.

On the lower end of the firewood quality spectrum, homeowners can find the inexpensive basswood and white pine, two species that produce between 14 and 15 million BTUs per cord.

Seasoning firewood

Most store-bought firewood, unless otherwise specified, will be seasoned. This means that it has been cut, chopped and treated using methods to reduce natural moisture. Trees, like many other living beings, are made up of significant amounts of water. Firewood must be seasoned prior to burning, otherwise the moisture will only manage to put out the fire and emit nasty creosote particles.

Creosotes present a few serious problems: they are major air pollutants, can cause chimney fires and respiratory diseases. Firewood should not be burned until seasoned. When purchasing firewood, shoppers can ask sellers to cut a couple of pieces from the bunch to test for moisture.

Chopping and storing firewood

An unintended, yet pleasantly surprising, benefit of using firewood is the amount of healthy outdoor exercise that managing firewood provides. Seasoned firewood does not usually require lumberjack strength to be chopped down into suitable pieces. Some homeowners resort to chainsaws, but the trick is to use tools such as axes and sledge hammers properly and with patience.

Expecting to splinter all logs with one ax blow is unreasonable. The right combination of wedges and sledge hammers can handle most large logs, but the firewood keeper must realize that a few well-aimed blows will be required. There is nothing wrong with chopping down to small pieces; in fact, burning large logs on the fire is not as efficient as measuring the right amount of smaller pieces required to heat a home.

Firewood should be stored outside, at a safe distance from flying embers and sparks. Wood will attract small animals and insects, and thus it should be stored in a place that is partially covered, dry and free from weeds. Firewood can attract moisture and fungus, and for this reason it is recommended to rotate and move the logs around frequently.

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