Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Woodsmoke and Work

Making the fateful decision to heat with wood is not one lightly taken, we've found.

While we have a two-zone heat-pump system to keep the temperature at something above freezing, as well as a restored and tight house, there is much more to do to keep things cozy.

A great part of the transition to rural life involves the constant splitting and storage of wood. I opted to make the side walls and part of the back of a three-bay tractor run-in into wood storage. With sustainability and lower costs in mind, I made the racks from the crates in which the farm house's new standing-seam roof arrived.  Even with that much ready storage, consider that a home in Central Virginia can use up to four cords of seasoned wood in a winter; that is not far off the figure given for upstate New York given in Bryan Alexander's Scaling the Peak.

A cord of closely stacked wood measures 8' x 4' x 4'; quadruple that figure for one heating season.

On the plus side, a single stove can heat an entire home, especially when it gets paired with a stovetop fan. We purchased the larger of two models available from Plow and Hearth, then added a stove thermometer. Finally, after I stupidly broke the glass on the stove with an overly long log, I ordered not only replacement glass (at nearly $200) but a spare piece. Our stove is side-loading too, so unless I am starting it from cold, all wood goes into the side and the glass should be safe. Should be.

I've mentioned Audrey and Michael Levatino’s book The Joy of Hobby Farming and the authors' list of farm essentials. They advise against a power splitter, and there we must, well, split company as we split wood. In town, splitting was a hobby and exercise for me and my maul, but in the country, I split when chores and day-job do not interfere. This means volume and speed become essential. The $1200 invested in a 27-ton Troybilt seems like peanuts now. I got the oak for this and next winter free and I'm probably saving at least $200 per month in electric bills, when compared to what we spent in town with our heating system.  One caveat for all small engines these days: either find ethanol-free gas or run the tool until it's dry, to avoid crystallization in the lines and carb. It's a terrible and mostly preventable problem for small engines, and locally I've two sources of petrol without the ethanol.

On a good day when we are home all day, the heat pumps now never come on, and the farm house maintains a temperature of 65 degrees or more just from the one stove.

And when time permits, I heft the maul and split by hand, using my axes only for kindling. Yet even stacking and moving wood from the gas-powered splitter provides a workout to rival any gym.

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