Heating Up!

Our new home here in Northeast Ohio came equipped with two heating sources. We have an oil-burning furnace down in the basement, which heats the majority of our first floor and one room upstairs. And we have an electric radiant heat system in the portion of the house that was added on in the early ’80s – the breakfast nook, the dining room, the master bath, and a loft area upstairs.

We’ve add a third a few months ago – our new primary heat – a 1977 wood burning stove. Not the most efficient, to be sure, but it does the job!

Why did we invest $1100 in buying and installing a wood burning stove?

It started when we experienced a bit of sticker shock. We paid $500 to buy $170 gallons of heating oil – enough for only a couple months at most. Plus our bill for the electrically heated section of the house! We were averaging about $325 a month for heat ($250 for oil and $75 for electric,) and it was only October! We just simply couldn’t afford it.

In our rural area, surrounded by the Amish, woodburning as a source of heat is extremely common. There are many “Yankee” families who heat primarily or completely with wood. Many more use it to supplement their heating system. That means that the resources for wood and woodburning are plentiful, and fairly cheap. A cord of wood will run about $239. I’ve heard that in the Northeast US, a cord can run as much as $600-$800!

One of the best things about burning wood is that it’s renewable – oil, gas and coal are not. We routinely go around the wooded areas and pick up fallen limbs to use as firewood. There is a technique to this – you have to make sure you leave some limbs to rot and nourish the soil, as well. (On a side note, I’m hoping to grow mushrooms this summer using the woods on our property!) We are also letting certain parts of our property go back to forest, rather than cutting down new seedlings.

Firewood is also cheap. In our area, there are always people looking to have someone haul away a cut or fallen tree for free. This fall, we even received split wood from a friend.

But there are some problems inherent in wood burning, just like oil, gas, and coal – it pollutes. And because wood burning stoves are for the most part, unregulated, many people are using old, highly polluting wood stoves – like us. In fact, it’s bad enough that there may be restrictions on wood burning in your area, often specifically restricting the use of old stoves.

When we started burning, it was for financial reasons. Now we are looking at the environmental impact, too. To be honest, I wish I had read more about this before we bought our stove off craigslist. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Newer EPA-certified wood stoves are extremely efficient in burning wood, reducing pollution by 60%-80%. That’s a lot! Some of the articles I could find on wood burning and pollution actually suggested that while environmental officials are concerned about older stoves, they are relatively unconcerned about the new stoves that come with catalytic converters or combustion chambers because the reduction in pollution is so great. (Here’s one article.) In fact, according to the EPA, the stoves they certify are relatively close in emissions to oil and gas furnaces. Still not great, but better. I think the fact that wood is renewable definitely helps in the argument for stoves.

So what are we going to do about our old stove?

1. We plan on saving up for a new stove with a catalytic converter. Brand new this will cost us $1000 to $1500, plus a bit for installation (though not as much as before, since most of the components are the same.)  Many of these stoves are so efficient you only need to add wood once or twice a day to get continuous heat.
2. We are currently burning a more efficient wood – kiln-dried ends from a hardwood floor manufacturer. The wood is very dry and produces a much cleaner, hotter fire than the logs we were using before, and they are untreated, so we don’t have to worry about burning varnishes and such. If you burn wood, I highly recommend looking to see if you can find someone who uses wood and has scraps to get rid of. We pay $20 a truckload (they dump as much as they can into the back of your pickup) and it’s lasted us over two weeks. This means that we’ll be paying $40 a month for wood instead of $90 – that’s a big difference right now! And since it’s cleaner, I feel better about using an older stove.
3. We’ll avoid burning anything but untreated wood. Plastics, paper, treated wood – they aren’t only bad for the environment, but they are also really bad for the stove and chimney!
4. Eventually, my husband and I want to look at other renewable, non-polluting power sources – solar panels, windmills, and the like. It would be nice to be “off the grid,” but this probably won’t happen until we’ve paid off at least the credit cards and student loans. While solar panels are becoming cheaper and cheaper, they are still very expensive.

Any suggestions you have would be great. We are trying to balance on the fine line between finances and environment, but we lean towards finances right now as we struggle under these debts.