Wood you be mine?

Here in Maine, a state with vast quantities of firewood, people are struggling to heat their homes. I read a heart-wrenching article in the New York Times about it this past weekend, and have been hearing similar stories in the local media the past few months.

Maine’s older housing stock is fitted mainly with oil-burning furnaces. Many of those residing in these homes are older, others are simply poor, and very few have the financial wherewithal to change systems. Meanwhile, oil prices continue to rise, and cuts at the state & federal levels in heating-assistance subsidies mean the very neediest Mainers are having to make terrible choices. Like whether to buy food or fuel.

There but for the grace of God, go I.

My family and I live in a very old home in Maine. Although our 250-year old colonial was originally heated with wood, we now have a heating system with an oil-fueled furnace.

When we bought our house in 2009, we were told that the former owner had burned through 1800 gallons of fuel in the previous year. At current prices, 1800 x $3.50 = almost $6300. That’s a boatload of money for most people, but for a single-income family already stretched to the breaking point?

We made the decision to install a wood stove within days of buying our home. If we hadn’t made this choice, we would very well be in the same predicament as many of our struggling neighbors.

Our wood stove, the Heartstone Equinox is designed to heat 3500 square feet, roughly the size of our house. The past two winters we have used it as our main heating source, supplementing with oil only in the early mornings before relighting the stove.

Last spring we made the decision to purchase a second, smaller wood stove for our kitchen. Whether it’s the kitchen’s placement over an unheated & uninsulated crawl space, a lack of wall insulation, the constant stream of in-and-out though the door to the yard, or more likely all of the above, the kitchen has always been far colder than the rest of the house. We installed the second wood stove this fall and continued with our preparations for winter, buying and stacking 6 cords of firewood.

My husband & I went into winter wondering how much better our “dual” heating system would be than the two previous winters. Would the second wood stove make a noticeable difference? Most importantly, would we be able to further reduce our oil consumption?

The answers? Yes and yes.

Today is February 6th. The last time we had our oil-fueled heat on was last year. And I don’t mean this winter, I mean LAST WINTER. April 2011. We’ve gone all these weeks & months heating our 3500+ square foot home solely with wood. The craziest thing about this? Our current home – 150 years older and 400 miles north of Philadelphia – is SO MUCH WARMER than our old house used to be! Our Victorian back in Philly had forced-air heat. Truly the worst heating system in the history of mankind. The heat would kick on, out the hot air would blow.. it’d feel great for 10 minutes, then BAM! the cold would smack you again in the face. All winter long I’d wear two sweaters and a hat – in the house!

Here in Maine, where winter is harsh and hangs on long, it’s so warm in my olde house, we have to wear tank tops and shorts to sit in the living room where our big granddaddy of a stove resides. The upstairs stays warmer than it ever did when the oil heat was on. We’d be lucky if it was in the low 60s before, now it’s often in the upper 60s or even 70 degrees.

I say none of this to complain or gloat. On the contrary, I use our experience to suggest there is a better way of handling the heating crisis in Maine. In a state with vast forests and seemingly limitless quantities of firewood, why should anyone be reliant on heating oil? Why should anyone be forced to make a life-and-death decision to starve or freeze to death? And why is our government not investing in stoves, rather than fuel subsidies? When an ample, clean and renewable energy source is staring us in the face, why is it not being acted upon?

My husband and I must work hard to heat our home with wood. During winter, we tend our fires and haul in wheelbarrels of wood almost daily. In the off-months, we must purchase and stack cords of wood, 6 on average, to allow it to dry. We trade labor for convenience, but what a benefit we receive! Real warmth, clean fuel, and for $5250 less than oil. That’s right; the 6 cords of firewood we purchased @ $175 a cord comes to $1050. Still a lot of money, but spread out over months, quite manageable, even for our single-income household.

I know that this work is untenable for some. Anyone too feeble to do the work, however, could successfully utilize a wood pellet stove. The cost-benefit would still far exceed that of fuel oil. What we need here in Maine is real assistance. A government with the sense to invest its money wisely, to aide and improve the quality of life of its citizens, and private business to accommodate that need.

0 thoughts on “Wood you be mine?

    1. I cannot recommend it enough. The heat generated by our wood stoves is so much better than any other I’ve known – forced air, radiators, kerosene heaters. There’s just no comparison. Good luck!

  1. We have oil and forced air in our Ontario farmhouse, and it’s definitely not that great combined with our drafty windows. I would LOVE a wood stove, but unless we do some odd addition, it’s not in the reno plans. Boo.

    1. Ashley, I’ve seen wood stoves vented through walls, if you don’t have a fireplace. Before settling on our house, we looked at another that had a stove in the kitchen/sitting area, vented through the wall. (and this was in a house with fireplaces in every room!) They’d built a tile/stone surround for safety. It was really very pretty.

      Anyway, I feel for you w/ the forced air. Back in Philly our forced air system was powered by natural gas – cheaper than oil, but every bit as inefficient in terms of heat. My husband dreamt of installing radiators!

  2. There are also newspaper log rollers that will take newspaper and roll it like a log. Since it is denser, it takes longer to burn than it would otherwise.

    The good thing about your system is that you don’t only have to burn wood. It is flexible enough to burn any carbon based combustible. It definitely leaves you less vulnerable.

    Besides, a nice, roaring fire is perfect on a cold winter’s night.

    1. That’s a really great point, Hayden. When we cleaned out the attic, there was some wood we were able to simply burn. Not a lot, but fuel is fuel. Our neighbors have also allowed us to cut down some dead trees on their property, and another neighbor across the street actually brought wood over to us when she took down a tree. People really are so kind!

      Wood = heating homes AND bringing neighbors together!

      1. Oh! and this year we also investigated another wood fuel – compressed logs. They’re made of fine shaved wood. They just seem to be taking off here. I doubt they’ll ever surpass cord firewood in sales, but they do have advantages. For one, they ignite immediately and burn well. And there aren’t any bugs (remember my post about that?) Anyway, we stopped buying them b/c we have cord wood and didn’t need the added expense, but they do have appeal.


  3. I have a swell little cleaning tip fellow readers and fire stokers alike may enjoy – if you would like to restore your oven or fireplace interior glass to its original see-through sparkle, spray basic white vinegar on the build-up and wipe away with crumpled newspaper. No abrasives, no harsh chemicals, no stained towels. Nothing else works like this dynamic duo. Enjoy!

  4. You were smart to add the option of using wood as a fuel source. Here in Virginia, wood has been plentiful this year and really, due to Hurricane Irene knocking down trees right and left, a way to dispose of downed trees that otherwise might have been left to rot in a landfill. Even new homes should be built with a flue, giving homeowners the option of using wood as a back up source of heat (in my opinion). With the price of fossil fuels heading up, wood is a reliable and renewable option worth maintaining despite the mess associated with it. Then there is the romantic factor achieved by sitting by a warm fire. I imagine your kitchen is a favorite hang out in the winter. It would be for me if I had your beautiful kitchen.

    1. Thanks so much for your wise (and lovely!) comment, Orples. I agree; more options are better than less, especially when it comes to something as essential & costly as heating. And seriously, who doesn’t LOVE curling up in front of a fire?! Even the dog and cat lay sprawled on the living room floor.

  5. My thoughts and prayers for those who are cold today, who have to stretch every ounce of penny as well as their heart for a piece of warmth, of food on the table, for a medicine to bring them back to health, for shelter, for love, for a decent life. I’m too am a single earner and I could totally relate how hard it is. You made a smart of choice, the stove not only gave warmth and lots of money savings, it also gave your home a beautiful glow. You have a stunning home. Wonderful interiors. The choice of colors and furnishings are so pleasing to the eyes….I could hear in the back ground the words, “welcome to my humble home…” Thank you.
    Happy Valentine’s Day…wishing you and your love ones all the love and joy in the world.

    1. My house is blushing, IT…

      These 2 stoves were an investment – one that’s already paid for itself in cost savings. I wanted to share our experience in hope of reaching others. If people are struggling to heat their homes, wood is a viable and affordable solution. And now that tax season is upon us, people may have the financial means (i.e., refunds) to purchase what they need. It feels fabulous – not only the warmth of the wood heat, but the freedom from dependence on oil.

      Long live self-sufficiency!

  6. My parents live in a very rural area, and their property is covered with trees. Every time one dies my father cuts it up (they have cRaZy huge woodpiles at this point). Their home has 3 heat sources (electric, oil and a wood stove), and my father seem to enjoy splitting wood, so that tends to work out very well.

  7. Your dining area looks so cozy with the hearth. Our fireplace is in the den. Good place for it but we watch our big screen telly in the lounge room! Sigh. If we have a fire we read instead.

  8. The local council here has made a big push to try & get rid of wood burning heaters & encourage people to switch to gas or electric. Wit the rising electricity prices we have no intention of giving up our wonderfully warm fire. We had gas heating years ago in another house & we had to run it on high to keep the place warm. Then it’d be a huge gas bill. As far as I’m concerned wood heating is the only option I’m interested in.
    Your timber floors are absolutely beautiful!!!

    1. Hey Tony – thanks!! And keep up the great work with your heat. Why governments try to go against common wisdom is beyond me, though I suspect lobbyists (at least here in the US) have a lot to do with it.

  9. Nice job researching and documenting the use of woodstoves at my old home. Also, how is the attic renovation coming? It was always so cold up there in the winter. Is it better now that you have improved the insulation?

    1. Thanks Abbie! Attic work is at a standstill until it gets warmer outside. We constructed an extra-thick insulation barrier (like the heavy door your dad used to use) fitted at the top of the attic stairs. It’s light enough to move whenever we need to go up there but heavy enough to block air movement. It remains in the mid to high 60s on the 2nd floor – sometimes as high as 70 – even without any added insulation in the attic. Pretty amazing! These wood stoves truly are the best.

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