A couple of weeks ago Ben (my friend/housemate/landlord) and I embarked on an experiment. The woodburner (“Badger”) that had been sitting around for a few months acting as a coffee table was finally installed and we started heating the house with it – and only it. The start of our experiment was a little shaky. We started by burning off-cuts and skipped wood but then decided that we wanted something cleaner, more local and with more calorific value. Ben ordered a cube of logs from [I won’t say where] and when they arrived it was clear that they were hardly seasoned at all. At my urging he bought a moisture meter and discovered that instead of being around 20% moisture (which is what seasoned wood should be), they were 40% plus. They’re good logs – lots of oak etc, but they are wet. Next winter we’ll be really warm but putting one of those logs in the burner this winter immediately cools the house down as all of the energy goes into turning the water in the logs into steam. It really is that immediate.
I want to do a really good observation of how much wood it takes to heat a house through the winter, but it’s currently impossible to judge. We’re burning the old window frames that have just been taken out of the house and (occasionally) some of the dampish wood that has been toasted on top of the burner. Neither of those things provide good enough metrics to be able to draw conclusions about how much wood one would need to stay warm during the winter. The one conclusion that I have been able to draw is thus – it’s impossible to say how much wood the ‘average’ person would need in order to keep warm. It would depend on the size of your house, how well insulated it is, how cold the winter was, whether you were going to be in the house all day or just in the mornings and evenings, how efficiently you use your burner.
When we get some ‘proper’ wood, I’m going to start keeping an eye on how much we use. I’m not sure how. Maybe tick off on a chalkboard when you put a log in the burner? I want to know how much we use on days when Ben or I are at home all day and days when we’re out. I suppose I’ll also need to measure the temperature, I suppose.
As a potential coppicer, this experiment has already taught me a lot. It’s taught me that I like the idea of producing firewood, even if it’s only for me, Ben or Will. Firewood won’t earn you very much but it is elemental – you need to keep warm. It appeals to the localist in me who thinks that basic needs should be provided for within the local area.
Some other lessons have been:
- Wood needs to be 20% moisture or less when it’s sold. People aren’t stupid, they will know if it’s any more by the fact that it totally fails to heat their house. If you’re really unlucky then your customers will be like me and Ben, who are now the proud owners of a moisture meter and aren’t afraid to use it.
- Canny people will buy wood in the summer, when it’s dryer and cheaper. There is an extra market there – or at least the opportunity to get people thinking about what they’ll need come winter.
- At the rate we’re currently going through wood, we’re going to need a lot, and we can’t store it all because we live in a small place. Most people in the city will be like us. Some option of regular delivery, a la Blackbark, would be good.
I’m starting to think that going small scale first of all and just providing for my, Ben’s and Will’s needs (one house, one flat) is a perfectly acceptable goal. It would mean that I was outside less than I would like to be in the winter – but I have found exactly the same thing with scythe courses. I’m not outside half as much as I would like to be…
Having a woodburner is making me behave differently though. For one, I don’t feel like I am spending nights in alone any more. “What did you do last night?” “Oh, I stayed in with Badger.” Having heat only coming from one place – a heat source that needs to be constantly fed – means that I am really thinking about what I am doing. Do I really want to stay up and watch Borgen on iPlayer? That’ll mean feeding it another couple of logs. It starts to seem outrageous, so I find myself going to bed early – largely ‘cos it’s warm there… That sounds terrible, but it’s actually not. More sleep, more …… Imagine the population explosion if everyone heated their houses with a woodburner!
The link between firewood and romance has been known for centuries. This excerpt from an article from Mother Earth News explains it well.
“Know those old wives whose tales are famous? Well, when their daughters reach courting age, they gauge the marital prospects of a man by the way he stacks wood. Weak and insecure men (too timid to get far) build a low stack arranged by log size — heavy logs on the bottom, little stuff on top. The socially or politically ambitious (they’re all crooks) stack high and show-offish with big logs on top. The lazy (who never will amount to nothin’) leave their wood in a heap or start a pile but never finish. And the sly and mercenary (watch yer virtue and yer pocketbook) stack ground-fall tree limbs and apple tree prunings in with the wood. If you want to keep your psyche to yourself, stack as the sticks come out of the pile.”