Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Should you heat with WOOD?

Outdoor Wood Furnaces are becoming popular in some Northern parts of the country. But does heating with wood make economic sense? Like anything else, you have to "do the math".

In the North country, a lot of people heat with wood.  And the trend is nothing new.  Since the first energy crises of 1973, people have been turning toward this apparently cheap energy source.  But is it cheaper than other fuels?  And is the hassle worth the savings?

Back in the 1970's, before the Internet, people used to pass around a photocopy of a humorous story about heating with wood.  The story included a list of all the expenses of heating with wood, starting with the stove, stove pipe, ceiling fan, chain saw, cord of wood, etc. The list then goes on to buying a wood lot, a pickup truck, a log splitter, trip to the emergency room, replacing the living room carpet, and of course, burning down the house - and the eventual divorce!

It was a funny story, but it illustrated even back then that a lot of people were starting to question the economics of buying a new heating plant and then spending all your spare time cutting and chopping wood, not to mention feeding the wood stove, just to save a few hundred dollars.   And with some of the ancillary expenses, the savings might not be there.

Every Summer, we return to Central New York, and every Summer, there is yet another house we see that burned down over the winter due to a wood stove fire.   Because of the prevalence of these fires, many people have opted for the outdoor wood furnace pictured above.

But such furnaces cost thousands of dollars (even over $10,000!) and even more money to install. Trenches need to be dug and piping run to the house. It is not a cheap project. For the $5,000 to $15,000 involved, you can pay a lot of utility bills.

And the cost of wood is not really "free" - even if you cut down your own.  Owning a chainsaw, a truck or trailer, and log splitting equipment is necessary.  And your time is worth something.  Hours spent cutting wood is hours spent away from other activities that could be more profitable.  Cutting wood is only worthwhile if your time is worthless.

From a safety standpoint, you are more likely to injure yourself or others while cutting wood.  And there is always the risk of a house fire with an indoor wood stove.   Insurance companies charge higher premiums for such installations as a result.

The outdoor wood fireplace solves some of the safety issues, but is a hassle to go outside and stock occasionally (particularly in inclement weather) and also tends to "smoke out" you and your neighbors, since most have very short chimneys.

And one of the charms of wood heating is having a fire in a fireplace.  Many "energy-efficient" stoves have closed-off faces, so you do not enjoy the ambiance of a fire.  And outdoor fireplaces remove that ambience entirely from the premises.

Some folks claim that heating with wood is "environmentally friendly" as they are merely converting downed trees to CO2 - and those trees would just rotted anyway and released CO2 over time.  I don't buy the argument on several grounds.   To begin with, it takes decades for a tree to totally compose, but only about a month or less to burn it in your wood stove.  So you are accelerating the release of CO2. Second, when a tree rots away in the woods, it breaks down into various components which nourish the soil and product a nice layer of forest mulch.  Remove the tree, and you remove those nutrients. So there is a negative environmental impact to wood burning - at best it is no better than fossil fuels.

Some others are coming to the same conclusion - burning wood is just burning, which makes smog, smoke, and CO2.

And if you are still not convinced, stand downwind of your neighbor's wood furnace for an hour - then blow your nose.  The black soot coming out should tell you something about the local air quality.

Many people who heat with wood have older homes that are poorly insulated.   So they switch to a wood furnace to avoid "high heating bills".  But the high heating bills are more of a function of poor insulation, old windows, and a drafty old house.

The money spent on a Wood Furnace would probably pay itself back faster in terms of buying insulation, vinyl clad windows, new siding and roof, and a more efficient, more modern heating plant.

And many people who heat with wood turn the temperature up in their house to 80 degrees, on the premise that the wood is "free" (it isn't) and thus they can "afford" to be snuggly warm.   Living in an overheated environment isn't good for you, I think.   Moreover, wasting energy, even wood energy, is just wasteful, period.

I think a better approach to heating you home is to make your home tighter and more efficient, and keep it at a reasonable temperature.   Rather than buying $10,000 worth of equipment and spending hours (days) every fall chopping wood, make your house energy efficient.

We live in a NYSEG certified energy efficient house (UPDATE:  it has been sold!).  It has 6" of insulation in the walls and another inch of foam on the outside.   It is like a thermos bottle.  During the day, even in the depths of winter, the sunlight coming in will heat the house sufficiently that no heating is needed.   Our energy bills are trivial.

Americans have been raised to solve every problem by adding more energy.  So rather than live in a house with a Southern exposure, proper insulation, tight windows, etc., people intentionally build energy-hog homes and then try to solve the problem by throwing energy at it.  As a result, their heating bills are astronomical.

You can't "solve" a heating problem like that with wood.  All you are doing is spending the money in a different place.

Thanks, but no thanks.  I'll take a pass on wood heating.