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Wood burning - a very expensive "free" option

 
pollinator
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I've been mulling on this over the past few months. No firm conclusions as such, but wondered what other people's experience of this was.

This winter is the first time that we have done the majority of our heating with wood.  We keep the downstairs rooms warm, keeping some internal doors closed. It's a lovely atmosphere, but we have the fire going for many hours per day. Our house is old (200 years), uninsulated and leaky. Heating and moisture control is a constant battle.

We are well set up with appropriate infrastructure. We have a large roofed woodshed and work space for processing firewood. We can borrow a splitter when needed. We have our own saws. Lots of our fuel comes from the property, with very little brought in from offsite in the last 5 years. We aim to season all our wood for at least 18 months split and stacked, but ideally longer.

My conclusions are that, by the time my labour and expenses are factored in, and purely considering the heat it provides, wood heat is a net negative for us. We are time poor, and the extra tasks involved are directly taking us away from other activities. If I get half an hour at home in day light hours (unusual in winter) I have to choose between getting in firewood, or gardening tasks. Keeping the house warm takes precedence, so my winter garden prep gets neglected. And there are other trade offs through the whole process.

That said we LOVE the experience of burning wood - the fire makes the living space warm and cosy, and lovely to spend time in. But that enjoyment has a cost that is more expensive than other heating alternatives (eg gas central heating) which can be simply set and forgotten. Even buying in processed wood is more expensive for the heat it provides than the same amount of gas.
___________________

So my musings bring me to this...

How many such "free" steps can a person take, without seriously compromising the other aspects of their life? We want to grow more of our own food. Again, there is a time cost. Much of the cultural aspect of permaculture is encouraging independence - food security, heating etc... But those things all come with costs, direct and hidden, financial and personal.

I would struggle to justify reducing my paid work to have more time to spend doing these unpaid tasks around the property.
 
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Michael said, "by the time my labour and expenses are factored in, and purely considering the heat it provides, wood heat is a net negative for us.



To me, unless this is time that someone normally would be earning money, if I were doing this I would not factor in my time. At the least, I would not use a rate of a current salary.

Using the amount of money that it would cost a person to hire someone.

If I could hire my neighbor's teenager for $5.50 an hour then that would be the figure to factor in not $50.00 an hour if that were my current salary.
 
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When I was a kid my parents heated with wood in a suburban area that was being cleared. Many of my memories from age 3-7 involve sitting in the back of the station wagon with the chain saw next to me and a heaping load of wood in back. They would cut it from where land was being cleared (today there are office parks, malls, etc there), bring it home, and split it. All weekend, every weekend, all summer and into fall. I know money was tight for them, and it kept everyone busy, but was a ridiculous amount of effort. I can't imagine doing that myself, even if it saved me $1000 a month.

That said, I think we all have "soft spots" for things we like, even if they are not financially sound. My favorite example is when the Car Talk guys ran the numbers and figured each of their home grown tomatoes cost approximately $5,000! Makes no sense, but damn I like growing those tomatoes (...brewing that home-brewed beer, making my own sourdough, rebuilding an ancient gas-guzzling car, etc etc). Enjoyment puts a thumb on the financial scale!

I would struggle to justify reducing my paid work to have more time to spend doing these unpaid tasks around the property.


My goal for 2020 was to cut my workday: work 8 to 2, spend the rest of the day on farm stuff.
Cue the pandemic: my workload and income took off. Cutting my workday in order to raise rabbits and some nice sweet corn seemed like madness compared to the chance to sock away money for a bigger farm in a few years. My yard and garden have been a total horror show until my first vacation since then, over Christmas., but that's okay.
I think being aware of the resources you have, and the plans you can make, and how you can adapt and be agile, is at heart very permie.
 
pollinator
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I have a small house and pretty well insulated. I also have my own wood lots at the edges of my yard and gardens. It takes me maybe two days' work per year to sock away all the wood I need for the year, including all that we burn cooking and sitting around the outdoor fireplace. Sometimes like when all the ash trees died, a lot of that work had to be done anyway. I season our wood for two years minimum, but I have some that's been undercover for much longer, trying to burn all that ash instead before it ruined.

I have a friend who is always scrounging for wood, driving around, loading, hauling, unloading, splitting.  I don't think I could do all the work that he does, and still get other stuff done, let alone just chill out sometimes, the latter of which is very important to me.  I also can't see how he really saves any money over just putting in a propane furnace.

Just another example of how everyone's life and situation is different.
 
pollinator
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We heated our old 3 bed un-insulated property with wood, it took 8 cubic meters per year which took 2 weekends to process, Every day it then took about 5 minutes to fetch a wheelbarrow full, which is what we burnt in a day and once a week an extra 10 minutes to clean the furnace. Those 10 minutes were not in daylight there's no need to waste daylight on fetching firewood, that's what lights are for!

We bought all of our wood in 1m long lengths that we then dried for a year, cut with a chainsaw and split with an axe.

The heating in that house cost 5000 DKK per year which is about £600 and less than half what the house would have cost on the town heating. Now we use pellets and that takes less time but costs 3x as much.
 
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In homesteading, I have found the equation frequently comes down to time or money.  I would never call wood heat free. I have been in situations where I have acres of wood, including blow downs, and minimal financial income. In those situations, wood seems to be the best alternative for me.   I have always had my houses well insulated.  It doesn’t matter what the source of the heat is, insulation pays off.  

When I have found myself working full time, I have used our LP furnace  more than the wood.   As I said, for me it seems to always come down to time or money.
 
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hi there. I feel "option" is your word there. You have the Option to turn on automatic heat. Or have some nice wood heat. Without the option you are stuck with one or the other and sometimes would like the opposite of what you're stuck with. I've lived with both 'wood only' and 'electric furnace' and I've got to say that having both is the best thing to deal with life as it changes from time to time.

After many years of electric only I have been given a wood stove by a family member. A stove I used for years when I lived in their house. I'm excited to install it now but am burdened by the cost of the parts i need to put it in. I'm looking for 'extra' work so i can have 'spare money' for those parts. Doesn't look like I'll have it in this winter. Maybe by next year before heating season comes again. Then I too will have the option to light up a nice fire to keep the house warm without having to pay someone for the energy.
 
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Michael, An interesting conundrum, and as other's have said - time or money.
In a way we had a similar choice when we moved here. The previous owners of the property had installed an electric boiler central heating system - with water filled radiators downstairs, nothing upstairs. Goodness know what they were thinking!! You might as well have made a fire with £5 notes! (I believe they were intending to be part of implementing a large scale wind power installation and get 'free' electricity that way, but that's a long story...)
Our idea was to take ownership of our heating source by planting a coppice on our 6 1/2 acres for firewood, and to create as much self reliance on the property as we could. At the time, the electricity infrastructure to the Glen was very poor, with frequent power cuts due to weather. This has since improved, but we were glad of our new wood fired range cooker the first christmas day when the power went out for several hours! We still don't supply all our own wood (and may never actually achieve that). The first few years we got in large log deliveries, and yes the labour involved in cutting and splitting those added significantly to my husband's workload and was not cheap either! We now get softwood delivered split and cut to length which saves a lot of time, and actually wasn't that much more expensive. Hopefully the balance will shift to having more of our own wood as time goes by. When we retire, we'll actually have more money, since we used to have better paid jobs, so hopefully when we get too infirm to cut the wood ourselves we can employ someone (maybe a Gert?) to help us out. I love my trees (my husband really loves them and hates me cutting them down!) I love the habitat we have created and the fact we know where our energy is coming from and that it's under our control. I bark at the papers when they talk about moving everyone to electrical power in the UK! I'm enjoying learning about the way the trees grow, and other uses for the materials they provide. I chip away at the coppice work during the winter and it fills in a few pleasant hours during daylight, when it's a bit damp for doing much garden work. We probably burn about a wheel barrow of wood a day if we have both stoves going, but often we just have the cooker on, since we don't use the other end of the house so much.
We also have an old (rather damp) draughty house. We're working on improving this step by step so that the heating load is reduced. This is sensible whatever heating source one uses. We have a pretty efficient Range cooker that heats some of the central heating water (and does almost all our cooking), and a refurbished inset stove at the other end that heats the rest of the water.
I would suggest you look at employing someone to help you out if you have the cash spare and are time poor. Spend the time you gain on what gives you most joy. Life is not a rehearsal.
 
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Michael Cox wrote:This winter is the first time that we have done the majority of our heating with wood.  ...... My conclusions are that, by the time my labour and expenses are factored in, and purely considering the heat it provides, wood heat is a net negative for us. ....... I would struggle to justify reducing my paid work to have more time to spend doing these unpaid tasks around the property.



This being Permies, I'm surprised I'm the first to ask, "have you considered installing a rocket mass heater?" :)  Of course that is also an investment of time up front to build, and some materials to acquire like the barrel and some bricks, and possibly shoring up the floor under it. But still, I had to ask! ;)  After the couple days it takes to build though, you could see that time spent on firewood drop significantly, and it would certainly result in a net gain of time after the first heating season. Would black locust grow on your property? You can buy a pound of seeds for about $25, plant out any open spots in your wood lot, and assuming average rain start coppicing in 5 years (that's my plan), and it will regrow from the roots if cut in winter. You can cut the trees when they are around 4" DBH and then you don't have to split it, just cut it to length and start seasoning it. Then using the tire on a stump, packed full of wood, you can split a bunch of kindling at once without needing to bend over to pick up individual pieces, so a little time and spine saver.

Back in the '80s there was first a newsletter and later a book compiling the articles, called The Tightwad Gazette. (Edit: the book has hundreds of things people did to save money/time) The author worked out what all of her time and money expenses were for her job like commute time, decompression time after getting home, business attire, gas and car costs, taxes... and found her $15/hour job actually netted around $3.50/hour. Since they had child care costs and time saving options that cost more, she worked out how much she would save per hour by doing those things herself instead, and found she could save more money than she was making at the job, and quit. Ended up with more money in the bank that way. I'm not saying that's an option for you, but especially if you have a longer commute time maybe working 4 days a week vs 5 is an option to save that commute time? Using grid-tied energy certainly saves time, and if you lose power for whatever reason you still have wood heat as a backup to avoid frozen pipes and people.
 
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Directly providing for our own needs really forces us to think about the efficiency of the process.

One of the things I love about Permies is the focus on doing less work, in addition to being independent.
The rocket mass stove, the wofati, the hugel beds, are great example's of this.
They take lots of effort up front, but they pay off in less overall work.

Most of us are already enmeshed in the economy that is, a system that shift and obscures many of the actual costs.
I like to look at these things through the lens of WWII, a time where the ancillary effects of buying anything was thrown into sharp relief.
The reason to burn wood is because that natural gas probably comes from fracking, and one day, it might not be available at all.
That is why wood gasifiers where used during WWII, burning petrol took away from the war effort, and it was not always available.
This kind of trade off doesn't always favor a reduction in labor, and it isn't always affordable.
As I recall, the USSR had to buy grain from the USA, during the cold war.
Not exactly an affirmation of their espoused beliefs.
How much of a "principled premium" one can afford to pay is very individual.
I eat factory farmed chicken while pampering retired laying hens in my back yard.
Clearly, something isn't lining up between my choices.

I wanted to use rainwater for my some of my domestic needs, till I realized how much storage it would take.
That prompted me to reduce our water usage through a more expensive toilet and washing machine, since the cheaper water saving options had already been done.
I am revisiting the idea now, with an eye towards resiliency.

You did not actually ask for suggestions, but you know how we are here!
-Insulating your house would be a similar investment, but much more expensive.
-Adding mass around your stove offers some of the advantages of thermal mass.
-A solar thermal collector could offset some of the heating needs.
-An low mass attached solar space could add space and contribute to space  heating .


One poster (Walter Jefferies I think it might have been) abandoned his old house completely in favor of building a brand new hyper efficient tiny house.
 
Michael Cox
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Sadly the fabric of the building cannot be touched. It is a historic listed building, and retrofitting insulation and double glazing would not get past planning. This prevents the obvious steps that I would love to take - RMH, secondary glazing, insulating the walls etc... The windows are absolutely huge and single glazed. Plus we rent, which adds another layer of difficulty.

Our current compromise is working reasonably well - when we have the time we use teh stove, but when time poor we will revert to the central heating.
 
pollinator
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I dunno man. I feel like having a wood stove is my personal pinnacle of thrift. Here is how I see it:

If seasoned oak is $400 a cord and I burn 4 cords (cause I also have about zip for insulation... for now) then I heat my house all fall, winter and spring for $1600.  Let's say I value my time at home at $20 per hour. It's low but I am spending time out in the sun and getting a good workout so I think it's fair. And to be honest if I am falling trees it's so much fun it's hard to even count that time. Then we have some costs. 2 gallons of saw gas and the oil is about $15, maybe two more for the splitter since I split by hand as much as I have time and energy for. Or when I am in a bad mood, hahaha. Oh and bar oil so lets be crazy and say $80 for expendables ( I added gas for the truck). So now we have $1520. Divided by $20/hr means I have to take 76 hours to break even. No way in hell it takes more than 20 working hours to fall, limb, buck, split and stack 4 cords of wood.

 
Michael Cox
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Dan Fish wrote:Divided by $20/hr means I have to take 76 hours to break even. No way in hell it takes more than 20 working hours to fall, limb, buck, split and stack 4 cords of wood.



That quite literally represents all my daylight hours free time for a month or more. And I don't get my free time convenient blocks of days or half days to work.

I find it hard to motivate myself to dedicate my free time to "work" even if it is for myself, when I am so time poor.
 
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My advice would be insulate and close up leaks first, no matter what else you decide.  Whether it's time or money, most people can't afford to waste either. Heating an uninsulated, drafty house is an uphill battle.  You may find that heating with wood is worthwhile if you are using 1/4 of the wood you have to use now.  Just my two cents, as always.
 
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Such a great question Micheal,

I think it goes back to taking the time to asses our weaknesses and strengths. What things we need to address vs the resources we have. Perhaps getting firewood is not worth it to you when you convert time to $$$. If your weakness is not having enough time, perhaps it's putting your energy towards addressing that need at this point in time.

For us, getting firewood is a family & friends event. Both my husband and brother-in-law absolutely ADORE going out to get firewood. They love going out in the bush and doing physical labour. They love splitting rounds. They love tuning chainsaw. My sister and I love helping out, loading the truck, bucking logs, stacking wood, and making picnics. For our family this is something we look forward doing together so it becomes less of a chore and more of a beloved event.    
 
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It is of course a fallacy to equate time spent at home with one's wages earned at a job... unless you are "stealing" time away from your potential earnings/workday hours, like you said.
One is also paying taxes on the wages, possibly taxes again on the purchased fuel, plus other costs such as: delivery, commuting, gym membership, meals away from home, etc... The wood is free from many of these.
It could also be function stacking, like clearing fallen limbs or unwanted trees of your own, or for others (possibly for pay/rewards). Burning in your stove rather than hauling to a yard waste site, or not lugging your junk mail to the curb...

Your priorities as to which hobby gets your time are up to you to decide... I'm struggling with this right now as well. Opportunity both in the time/calendar sense, and in the physical/space/equipment sense. There's always deadlines and limitations. If you want tomatoes, there's a schedule you need to get on to guarantee a harvest, if you want dry firewood to burn, the same... If you have a woodshed or a greenhouse it is different than a woodpile under a tarp or plant starts on the dining table. There's work and day-to-day life that often fills up all the time, leaving less time for hobbies.

What is your measure of success? Enjoyment? Reducing external costs? Flavor? Self-sufficiency? Is it all-or-nothing? or is a partial victory good enough?
You could burn a fire only when it suits you, when it could be enjoyed while reading a book, or some other transient/passive tasks, and NOT when you need to focus on gardening, or some other tasks.
Incremental changes can free up time/space/thought. Reducing here, frees up something there... It could be anything; shrink film over windows to reduce drafts, enough socks to make laundry day just every other week, giving up on one idea in favor of a new idea, one-pot meals, take-out meals to not have to spend time cooking on your "_____ day" to have more time for "_____". Sometimes chipping away works, sometimes one big focused effort is best.

 
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Michael Cox wrote:Sadly the fabric of the building cannot be touched. It is a historic listed building, and retrofitting insulation and double glazing would not get past planning. This prevents the obvious steps that I would love to take - RMH, secondary glazing, insulating the walls etc... The windows are absolutely huge and single glazed. Plus we rent, which adds another layer of difficulty.



Sorry, I started my reply and got distracted by something, so I didn't see this until after I replied.
 
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Dan Fish wrote:I dunno man. I feel like having a wood stove is my personal pinnacle of thrift. Here is how I see it:

If seasoned oak is $400 a cord and I burn 4 cords (cause I also have about zip for insulation... for now) then I heat my house all fall, winter and spring for $1600.  Let's say I value my time at home at $20 per hour. It's low but I am spending time out in the sun and getting a good workout so I think it's fair. And to be honest if I am falling trees it's so much fun it's hard to even count that time. Then we have some costs. 2 gallons of saw gas and the oil is about $15, maybe two more for the splitter since I split by hand as much as I have time and energy for. Or when I am in a bad mood, hahaha. Oh and bar oil so lets be crazy and say $80 for expendables ( I added gas for the truck). So now we have $1520. Divided by $20/hr means I have to take 76 hours to break even. No way in hell it takes more than 20 working hours to fall, limb, buck, split and stack 4 cords of wood.



That is how I feel about it too.  That said, I cut wood in the summer when days are much longer, so it's light until 9 at night, instead of until 4:30 like now...  I can spend a few hours a day on a few weekends in the summer and have the wood I need for the entire winter.  If I didn't have even that much time, I guess I would have to pay for fuel.  I understand the dilemma, all my life I have had either time or money.  I never really have both...
 
Tereza Okava
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i talked to my mother about this when I chatted with her earlier. Her response set me agog: they did it because it was the petroleum crisis and they couldn`t afford to buy heating oil! Money was tight, they had a new house, and when they couldn`t squeeze another cent from anywhere else, they went after "free" heat (and it was all new to them: they didn`t learn til the first year that wood had to be cured, they went on the goose chase insulating the house, etc).
It`s easy for me to say I would rather just pay for it- but what a luxury it is to have that option.

It's like every other question here on Permies: ask 12 people and you get 13 different answers!
 
Dan Fish
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"That quite literally represents all my daylight hours free time for a month or more. And I don't get my free time convenient blocks of days or half days to work. I find it hard to motivate myself to dedicate my free time to "work" even if it is for myself, when I am so time poor."

I bet! I would be about ready to kill myself if I had only a half hour of free daylight a day and I definitely wouldn't be spending it chopping wood!

I do see your point sir. I am definitely not trying to say that you should cut your own firewood or even heat with wood at all. I just think when I do that math, the results come out way to the other side of expensive. I would give up gardening and shop at the farmers market before I'd stop cutting firewood. In fact, if you want to talk about time spent vs money... hahaha.

And don't discount these ancillary benefits:

1) Firewood is a fantastic full-body workout.
2) Where I live, fire danger is massive and the forests are pathetically over crowded. Wood cutting helps.
3) Many ladies like men that smell like sawdust.
4) I get plenty of material to make stuff like hugels, biochar, garden borders, etc as a side benefit.
5) I stack my wood where it can be seen from the road, insuring instant neighbor jealousy.
 
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Aside from the great workout, one of the best reasons to have wood heat (at least as an option) is that it doesn't require electricity to operate.

It's not unusual to get walloped with a blizzed or ice storm here in New England - we know all to well that power could be out for days on end.  It's not just frozen pipes you might be saving, it could litterally be a matter of life and death. These event aren't even isloated to the northern states, look at what happened to the poor folks in Texas when their grid went down. Wood stoves can also be used to dry your clothes & boots and to cook on in an emergency.

One other advantage to heating with wood is it's possible to store years worth of it, whereas this is a difficult and possibly dangerous proposition to do with other forms of fuel.
 
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Firewood is a spring and fall activity for me.  Weather is nice and the ticks/mosquitoes aren't out in the woods.  I'll cut for an hour or two at a crack.  I'll haul wood when I get a free hour.  I'll split for an hour.  I rarely spend a big block of time at it, that's too much work.  It just fills the nice spots in my schedule when the weather is nice.  I do have a very flexible schedule so I'm blessed.  I'm mainly trying to say that it doesn't have to be done in big chunks.  When winter rolls around I'm just hauling a box of wood in each day. 2 minutes and it can be done in the dark.

I don't worry about $/hr when doing firewo0d, maple syrup, hunting or gardening.  I do those for the yield, not the time value expended.  I won't sell my syrup for less than $15/hr but I'll still make it for less than that since I like syrup.

Maybe it's time to quit your job ;)
 
William Bronson
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I am in the middle of a long term project that involves heating with wood and having charcoal left over.
When I say long term, I  mean it's taking a long time to finish because at 51 years of age, I'm still stumbling through life!

I am enamored of the idea of this wood heat with charcoal cogeneration because it requires tinkering and futzing around to make it happen, and it will be a stacking function if I get it to work.
Every time I burn, I'll get a tangible long term result, and that will delight me for years to come.
I am  figuring biochar into my retirement plans, rying to stacking my interests into self employment.

I probably could afford to have a really nice wood stove installed  for the money I've spent messing with homemade woodburning devices over the last 2 decades 😳, but I would have missed out on the tinkering,and I would not have  NOT enjoyed feeding such a beast.

Anymore I look at all my permaculture style activities as what I enjoy,  rather than what is practical.
Practically speaking I should just get a second job and buy long term storage food and a hyper insulated solar powered home with rain water storage.
Working at permaculture stuff is more like playing cards or shooting pool for extra money.
If you work at it, you might win and you might win big, but I'm in it for the thrills and I'm willing to risk losing because I value the experience.

 
Trace Oswald
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William Bronson wrote:

Anymore I look at all my permaculture style activities as what I enjoy,  rather than what is practical.
Practically speaking I should just get a second job and buy long term storage food and a hyper insulated solar powered home with rain water storage.



I couldn't have said it better.  I can buy vegetables cheaper than I can grow them, and with far, far less time.  I can buy eggs for $.99 a dozen, far less than it costs me in time and money to raise chickens, build their coop, feed them.  I do all of this because I want to, because I like having a degree of self-sufficiency, I like learning how to do things, and I like knowing how to do things.  Very few things in my life at this point are decided simply by which is more cost effective.  Hell, I could sell my house and my 80 acres of land, get rid of all my animals, and move into an apartment.  I would have lots more money, lots more free time, lots less responsibility, a lot more safety, far less hard work.  I would also be miserable.
 
gardener
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I think the practicality of wood burning for heat depends on what your house and equipment are like. If you have a big leaky house and a big stove that is not very efficient, the work involved could be overwhelming. If you have a well insulated house and a very efficient stove or best of all an RMH, the wood processing could be easily manageable.
 
master steward
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I work at a sawmill and have access to all of the slab wood. So i can bring some of that home everyday i go to work. Right now we are processing some fallen wood. We tend to spend 1-2 hours doing it. Never a long period of time. I have a very flexible schedule however. I tend to want to deal with firewood in the winter when it isn't hot out. Usually the mill packs up after Christmas and i take a few months off before starting again in the spring. Usually with tasks which are not completely exhilarating, i usually only do 1-2 hours, anymore and i will start to dread doing the task.




Really to me it sounds like you need to find another place to live. I cannot imagine heating a house similar to what you describe. Yikes!


One thing which makes firewood easy is having a work party. This year we had 2 pizza partys and people came and moved firewood for about 2 hours. 1 truck and 4-5 people made for fast firewood moving. Any chance you could have a work party to help lessen the load?
 
gardener
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Everything depends on the individual's needs, desires, resources, etc etc. We have a lot of sawmills in the area and can get a giant dump truck load, enough for most of the winter in cold Central NY, for about $150. That makes sense to us. Also, there are hidden costs to all other heating sources... but again, it depends on your circumstances.
 
pollinator
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I have had a similar experience with processing my own firewood, but I am far less efficient than someone who does it for a living would have to be. This seems to me to be why division of labor is an essential element of civilization, which in its most positive sense produces enough free time for people to produce art, insight and innovation. It seems this provides competitive advantages versus those cultures made up of sparsely populated renaissance people.Still, I’d rather live on a mountain and try to reduce my dependence on those with questionable ethics, and this entails learning a degree of self sufficiency so I have at least some modicum of negotiating leverage in acquiring what I need. At some point, the price of a cord of wood is less valuable than the time it’d take me to acquire it, but I also know that I don’t have to just take any price offered by the market. Same goes for meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, landscaping, arborist work, excavator work, carpetntry, and to a lesser extent mechanics,  plumbing and electrical (rivers or shit and electrocution are two things I try to avoid at all costs). I know much better what’s worth paying for by having done it myself to the point of basic competency, and this is makes up for cutting a few expensive cords of wood and other such experiences.
 
Michael Cox
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Kenneth Elwell wrote:It is of course a fallacy to equate time spent at home with one's wages earned at a job... unless you are "stealing" time away from your potential earnings/workday hours, like you said.



It is a fallacy, yes but I still think it is helpful. For people who are time poor, like me, I actually put greater value on my home time than my hourly work wage. I'm careful to protect it, and don't want to spend it on things that don't bring me pleasure.

Fortunately I enjoy processing our firewood, but sometimes the scale of the task ahead turns it into a chore.
 
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Every life situation has its opportunity cost. And it seems to me that perspective, rather than money, is what counts - when you look back on your life, are you going to worry about how much you spent? How do you want to spend your 15 to 16 hours of waking time now?

We could have stayed full-time RVers but chose to buy a four acre property with a much-neglected house and outbuildings instead. RV living was fun for a while, but you usually have to move after a while, I missed having a garden, and the lack of RV parking options near family made it difficult to see them regularly.

Here are some reasons we are thankful that heating with wood is our main option at the moment and was something we enjoyed in the past:

Having just gone through a storm that dumped a foot of snow overnight and took out our electricity for 7 days due to trees and power lines coming down everywhere, we have been very thankful that we heat with wood and can use it for stovetop cooking.

Once in a blue moon, we use our portable electric heaters. On sunny days, we augment with heat from our south facing windows. We haven't yet had time to make hot air solar boxes - the ones in our previous home operated off computer fans to heat two rooms. I much prefer wood heat to the noisy forced natural gas system we had in four previous homes - generally the homes were poorly insulated and gas too expensive to keep us warm. Our current home is no better insulated but we can get the main area nice and toasty.

In our younger years, we had a basement furnace in one of the homes we rented when we were really cash strapped. Someone gave us a free woodstove and my hubby moved the furnace out of the way and was able hook up the woodstove to the ducting. We heated solely by using driftwood from along the banks of the local river - a fun activity for the whole family - and it was far superior to heating with natural gas - priceless, in fact.

Getting back to the recent storm, about 35 of the trees on our property snapped or were uprooted, including almost all our eucalyptus (not really suitable for our climate but looks like they were planted about 80 years ago), half of a giant oak, and large branches off larches, blue spruce, smaller oaks, and manzanita. Paying someone to clear up this mess would cost us thousands, if we could even get anyone to do so, since so many homeowners and public roads were affected. Instead, we are slowly processing the wood into firewood and compost, as time and energy permits - at 68 and 63 years of age we do have more time than some...

We've also had some practice - our first year here, 2019, we had a 110 ft ponderosa snag that was right next to the house. Just getting professionals to fell it and cut the first 20 feet into 4-foot sections cost us $1,200. The two of us had quite some fun lassoing and hauling off those sections to line our driveway! I then took care of the little branches, hubby took care of the rest - we've been using it for firewood since 2020 and have a few sections of log to go yet.

Early in 2021, we had a professional crew trim out the dead wood in the large ponderosa pine and cedar trees close to the house and outbuildings  - this turned out to be fortunate as we had no damage to home or vehicles from the recent storm, unlike some of our neighbors. Rather than having the tree crew chip the wood up, we took care of all the branches ourselves - some is in a mulch pit, I used loppers to make sticks for kindling, and hubby chainsawed the rest to make firewood, some of which we have been using to heat the house.  That saved us about $800. We burn any type of wood that we have, making sure to clean the stovepipe at least twice a year. We would like to put in a rocket mass heater at some point as we get older, but need to burn all the excess firewood we have first!
 
master steward
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Michael Cox wrote:My conclusions are that, by the time my labour and expenses are factored in, and purely considering the heat it provides, wood heat is a net negative for us. We are time poor, and the extra tasks involved are directly taking us away from other activities. If I get half an hour at home in day light hours (unusual in winter) I have to choose between getting in firewood, or gardening tasks. Keeping the house warm takes precedence, so my winter garden prep gets neglected. And there are other trade offs through the whole process.



Oh man, I'm feeling this this year! I'm not terribly coordinated nor terribly strong, so wielding a chainsaw is not something I feel comfortable doing a lot of. And chopping wood literally takes me 3-10 times as long as it takes my husband to do. But, this year, my husband's Crohn's flared up, leaving him unable to walk...right when we really needed to bring in the trees my dad had--very kindly--came and chainsaws into rounds. I managed to get the wood under tarps...but it rained so much that the soil was a sodden and soaked the logs. By the time my husband was healed up enough to help move the heavy, wet logs, they were so soaked that they'd started growing mold and mushrooms. We got them in, but he didn't have time to chop them before he had another Crohn's flare-up. He's been unable to carry heavy things for over a month (or walk for about 2 weeks of that month).

Needless to say, I've been having to try to chop and haul all the firewood, piling it up in front of the woodstove to dry enough to light a fire, It's at least 30 minutes a day just doing that, and another 15-30 minutes maintaining the fire. Things I've learned:

    (A) It's awesome that strong, coordinated people can process a lot of firewood pretty quickly. I'm not one of those people.
    (B) I'm really thankful for having a small, well-insulated house.
    (C) If I wake up in the morning and it's below 60F, I make a fire, so we don't have to pay a lot for electricity.
    (D) If it's over 60F in the morning, I use electric heat and do a lot of baking. This keeps us around 70F all day.
    (E) I try to save the best firewood for power outages, when we'll really need it for cooking and heating.
    (F) Even after a month of chopping firewood nearly every day, for 30 minutes, I still stink at it.
    (G) I really hope my husband gets better soon, for all the reasons (one of which is that it's truly lame how much slower I am at these tasks than him!)
    (H) Wet wood stinks. It's heavy. It doesn't burn well. And it does NOT dry during our damp winters.
    (I) I'm really, really tired of chopping, hauling, drying, and trying to burn this wood, and I hope next year is a LOT better.


Tips for time saving on firewood and firewood processing times:

    (1) Concentrate on processing and storing the firewood that gives you the most heat per burn. For us, that's maple. Red Alders just don't give us much heat, and it's kind of a waste of time. They also act like sponges even when stacked in the shed--they soak up moisture from the air.
    (2) Maybe work on coppicing firewood for nice, burnable size that's easy to process. If you have logs that are the right size for a burn and don't need to be split, maybe that will save time.
    (3) Build some sort of way to hold the firewood to speed up the chainsawing.
    (4) If you have limited firewood/time, save it for the really cold days and power outages (or when kids are trampling wet snow clothes inside and you need somewhere to dry said clothes.)
    (5) Season the wood. Dry the wood. It'll give you more heat, and be easier to haul, and a lot less work.
    (6) Enlist help and make it fun, if you can! My kids love filling up the wheel barrow and then throwing me the logs to fill up the wood box. Like Ashley said, friends and family can help, too!
    (7) Insulate if you can. Storm windows are really handy (I need to figure out how to make decent looking ones!) and they save on a lot of condensation on the windows, and probably on heating, too!


 
pollinator
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Trace Oswald wrote: I do all of this because I want to, because I like having a degree of self-sufficiency, I like learning how to do things, and I like knowing how to do things.  Very few things in my life at this point are decided simply by which is more cost effective.  Hell, I could sell my house and my 80 acres of land, get rid of all my animals, and move into an apartment.  I would have lots more money, lots more free time, lots less responsibility, a lot more safety, far less hard work.  I would also be miserable.  



This is my thought process every time I am having a bad day! It keeps me from actually selling everything and simplifying down to an apartment. I would probably never have to work again, but what’s the point if I’m miserable?
 
author & master steward
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Michael, at the very least, you have an entire community here  who can empathize with you! We get it because nothing is truly "free." We either pay with money, or we pay with time. If we use power tools, well, there's a cost to keep them fed (either in fuel, electricity, or batteries). And even paying fully with money can present a conundrum, because unless one is independently wealthy or has a self-generating source of income, we can only obtain money with time, i.e. working for it. In the end, the time : cost : benefit ratio is a very subjective thing.

One good thing about using your own "free" resources, is that you probably have a pretty good idea of what the time cost is. With externally sourced resources, whether it's natural gas or buying wood, you can't control the money cost. Everything usually goes up (except wages, ha!), so that the benefit gradually becomes more and more expensive.

About the house, I'm all for historical preservation, but that certainly presents some serious challenges to your situation, especially since you rent. Masonry stoves with their lovely thermal mass are perfectly historical (Ben Franklin designed one), not to mention very fuel efficient. But there would be time and expense to get one built. Plus obtaining permission. Is the house already fitted for gas heat? If so, I'm guessing that would have to have been before it was granted historic status.

I think one question I'd have to ask myself is, is it worth it to stay there? We all get older, so to maintain a permaculture / homesteading lifestyle, we have to work toward being able to keep things manageable as we age. Can you do that there? How do you see yourself living 10, 20, 30 years from now?

 
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As pointed out above, I earn good money doing what I do. As such, the best investment of my time is doing what I get paid well to do and hiring someone else to do what they do. Here, it's moving wood about or even buying it.

That aside, it sounds like one of the best investments you could make is in inconvenience, for a short while.  That means taking a room at a time, a crawl space and attic, or sections of the exterior and wind proofing and insulating them.

For example, when I first got my equipment into my 1,800 square foot shop, I had to rely on infrared propane heat. It was highly inefficient and not worth the time in the really cold season. Then I built a wall to section off material storage and insulated. Even without sheet rock, the work area became usable in both the high heat of the summer and the nasty cold of the winter.  With rock on, it heats and cools better than our house.
 
pollinator
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I pay someone else to process firewood for me. It’s cheaper than running my propane furnace all the time, and much more pleasant (forced air furnace makes the air so dry!). It also keeps the bedrooms cooler and the main living area cozy, which I like. It would be even more cost effective to process my own firewood, of course, but this is a happy medium. It allows me to save money compared with propane & save time compared with doing my own firewood.
 
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Yes, it does depend on your  circumstances but there are two more reasons to burn wood barely mentioned here, as well as a couple not to. One person did mention that the alternative is usually burning fossil fuels (in your house or in a power generating station) and fossil fuels are polluting in every stage of the process. I don't want to contribute to that. One I don't believe I've seen mentioned is that wood heat, in a single cast iron stove, FEELS cozier than heat coming from air vents all over--because it's radiant heat, which warms objects (including our bodies) rather than the air. And it's uneven; it's warmer near the stove than elsewhere, which I appreciate when I come in after a cold walk. On the negative side, wood heat is not free ecologically either; it emits as much CO2 as burning coal as well as air pollution. Against that is that I've read that decaying wood would emit the same amount of CO2, just more gradually. The air pollution factor matters if you live in a densely populated area. Modern woodstoves are more efficient and less polluting, so if you live in the country this doesn't much matter. A couple minor factors are that lovely scent of woodsmoke in the air, a plus in my book--and the extra cleaning as you drop bits of wood and bark when feeding your stove.
My own situation: I live in West Virginia, where the steep terrain makes farming challenging but the slopes are covered with woods, and the wood is mostly high quality firewood: oaks, maples, walnut, hickory, redbud, tulip poplar...and with sparse population, this is our 13th winter here and we have yet to cut a live tree just for firewood. We use about a cord and a half a winter; my husband says it takes about a gallon of gasoline to do that, which seems like a justified use of gas when you consider what a gallon of gasoline will do in a car. We do have a log splitter now--my husband is 71, another neighbor will be 80 in spring, and the $1000 cost was split with him and two other households so about $250 each. We are mostly retired and in our case, I do all the gardening so firewood doesn't come at the cost of any growing options (all I do for firewood is ferry it from the woodshed to the porch and then into the house).
 
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I haven't read the whole thread -- no time right now -- so this may already have been said.  There IS a lot of work involved in heating with wood.  A huge amount of work, if you are cutting and hauling and splitting your own.  It used to be just a part of life, a given in the daily and yearly routines, because there was no option.  If you wanted to survive the winter, you had to have firewood.  Then coal became available, in some places, if you could afford to buy it.  And then over time other heating fuels because available.  All of them swap our money for someone else's labor, equipment, capital costs, etc.  If you find that you are better off economically buying your firewood from someone else, or even using other fuels for heat, there is no shame in that.  Especially if, like me and many others, you find that dealing with firewood is more difficult as you get older.

However.

I personally do not trust our supply chains, and I don't think anyone should.  Use those alternate sources of heat while you have them.  But be prepared to go back to heating with wood if the supply chains break!  Have the stoves and the equipment necessary to get your own firewood in, and heat your home (and cook your food, and heat your water).  Anyone who does not now have the ability to heat with wood (or with coal or natural gas, if those are resources available to you), should be actively working on fixing that gap in their ability to take care of themselves and their families.  (I would be leery about getting too dependent on things like home-generated methane, unless you are in a warm climate and willing to really scale back your energy needs; generating large quantities of methane, sufficient to keep up a modern lifestyle, just about requires heavy equipment to move the large amounts of material required.)

We heat our house and our water with electricity, but I have the ability to heat at least a couple of rooms with a small wood stove (and could cook on it).  I have the ability to heat some water, at least some of the time, with the sun.  I have the ability to cook with the sun (part of the time -- it's cloudy a lot here), or on the little wood stove, or in the back yard on a rocket stove burning a few handfuls of twigs.  None of those backups are terribly expensive, but we will probably be very thankful to have them someday.
 
pollinator
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Michael Cox wrote:
So my musings bring me to this...
How many such "free" steps can a person take, without seriously compromising the other aspects of their life? We want to grow more of our own food. Again, there is a time cost. Much of the cultural aspect of permaculture is encouraging independence - food security, heating etc... But those things all come with costs, direct and hidden, financial and personal.
I would struggle to justify reducing my paid work to have more time to spend doing these unpaid tasks around the property.



Well, Michael, life is a constant flow of choices. Even NOT choosing is a choice, said Jean-Paul Sartre.
You mention living in an old house that is not or poorly insulated and you feel that you cannot really, $-wise and especially *time-wise* keep going like this.
Perhaps your choices are poorly stated. The wood is free, but takes too long/ leaves you with little time to enjoy life. True.
Take the *wood option*  off the table. How would you then keep warm? oil burner? gas furnace? electricity?
These things cost to install as well as to maintain: You would have more time but you would spend more money on fuel to stay warm.
I used to live in a house heated partially with wood and partially with LP gas. The cost of gas started going up, and we had no choice on this, since it is imported help. We really insulated the place very well, and THAT made a huge difference! [more on that lower.]
The real kick in the groin was when we renewed our House insurance a few years later[they didn't know we had installed wood heat] We lost our House Insurance: Some companies would not even touch us, others quoted prices that would preclude our kids going to college. Our local taxes went way up as well because we lived more than 10 miles away from a Fire Station and had wood heat. You don't mention this but this is what deterred us from continuing with this 'free' heat source.
I do not know what your options are in the UK, but one way you will start making a (HUGE) dent in your heating costs [and time to get the fuel ready] no matter where you live is in insulating the place properly.
During the winter, your options to insulate are few. Start by closing any rooms you do not use on the north side of the house. Thinsulate the windows/ doors, gaps and crevices you have access to, and suffer through this winter. Even hanging a quilt makes an enormous difference. If you can access during the winter, check what kind of insulation you have behind the ceiling/ upstairs. Heat goes up. Batting insulation is actually quite cheap and will start making a difference today and last pretty much forever. This will enable you to burn less wood [so less wood cutting Yeah]
You do not mention hot water. The option to insulate the pipes is trickier: wrap them if they are close to the outside walls so they don't freeze, but don't if the hot water pipes leak their heat inside the house.
You may also want to buy a little infrared gadget like the pros use to detect heat leaks. Mine cost $124.00 at the time and I also use it to detect dead hives in the winter. It looks like this: https://www.flir.com/products/tg165-x/?creative=471329062292&keyword=&matchtype=&network=g&device=c&utm_campaign=americas.us.solutions.cmvol.e.aw.rw.thermal-cameras-brand-desktop.shopping&gclid=Cj0KCQiAoY-PBhCNARIsABcz771nCLBtvANABVdJHBupJ2nv5CACtlWz8BIxwd_k5u_585bbYLfJIssaAidDEALw_wcB
If cats and other varmints have access to your insulation above you ceiling, they may have created a little warm haven up there: They remove all the insulation until they sleep directly on your [toasty] ceiling. If they poop and pee/ give birth up there, the problem can get a lot worse.
Check how good your windows are while you are at it. In old homes, single panes really do not offer much insulating.
Even if you brought in a pro to assess what can be done, I guarantee it would be cheaper than continuing like this. In his youth, my husband had bought a house he *thought* was insulated [who would buy/sell a house without insulation when the temperature can dip to -40F? Right?] It didn't even come to his mind They *said* it was insulated.
They did it one better: In the walls, they had stuffed newspapers! My youngster in Chicago will also have to remodel for the same reason: old 3rd floor, brick house apartment with shredded paper in the walls! I have cold sweats and nightmares thinking about his apartment going up like a roman candle!
Folks, don't assume your house is insulated unless you did it yourself of saw it done!
'Nuff said! INSULATE [preferably with fire retardant stuff]
 
pollinator
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Michael Cox wrote:Sadly the fabric of the building cannot be touched. It is a historic listed building, and retrofitting insulation and double glazing would not get past planning. This prevents the obvious steps that I would love to take - RMH, secondary glazing, insulating the walls etc... The windows are absolutely huge and single glazed. Plus we rent, which adds another layer of difficulty.

Our current compromise is working reasonably well - when we have the time we use teh stove, but when time poor we will revert to the central heating.



If you are allowed to put nails or screws in the interior walls, or even double sided tape, you could increase your insulation and cut down drafts with some non-permanent approaches. Installing wall hangings like heavy tapestries or quilted fabric might even be in keeping with the age of the building. Or even freestanding solid panels of insulating materials if you can't attach anything to the walls. If nothing else, insulated curtains should help with the window situation.
Maybe it is possible to add some thermal mass that would collect some heat from sunlight through those large windows and reduce your heating needs at night.
 
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So frustrating that you cannot increase efficiency!
One thing to check: don’t know your layout, but I realized shortly after we moved in to our home that the heating/cooling vents in the floor were not sealed around the edges - that is, there were gaps between the ductwork and the floor that allowed the air coming from the duct to drain right into an unheated garage. A simple tube of caulk has saved us who knows how much. You might look into cheap fixes like that which will not change the structure of the house - and sealing up leaks like that can save you more than gobs of insulation. Another example; we have an unheated attic. The previous owners had heaped insulation up there, which helped a little. But when I went up, I could see light through the holes in the ceiling below where the light fixtures were. A bit of tyvek house tape and a tube of fire resistant caulk, and I was able to close these off, along with the holes in the top plates where wires were run. Huge savings, no visible change to the house. I also used putty caulk, the stuff that comes in coils that you can mold with your hands. Comes off easy, so not even permanent.
Just a thought - if you can seal the leaks in the ceiling and floor it can make a big difference and make what wood you do have time to chop go that much further!
 
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