Sunday, September 20, 2015

Why We Heat with Wood

In our adult lives, Sami and I have "owned" (at least in partnership with the bank) two homes.  We've heated both homes with woodstoves.  In our current home, we actually had a natural gas heater replaced with a woodstove.  And while the air quality regulations have continued to make it more difficult to heat with wood, we've actually disconnected our central heating system.  I would have a very hard time giving up my wood heat - for practical and philosophical reasons.

We get our firewood locally.  Our friends Allen and Nancy Edwards own timber land in Colfax - land that they are continuously trying to make more fire safe.  This process involves removing woody vegetation - Douglas fir, live oak and manzanita, mostly.  This becomes our winter fuel.  For me, this represents a shortening of the carbon cycle - our winter warmth is directly related to the safe removal of carbon from the Edwards' property (which, in turn, reduces the likelihood of an uncontrolled release of carbon from wildfire).  If we still burned natural gas, the geographical distance between the production of carbon and winter our comfort would be greatly extended.  I like the fact that our heat is local!

Secondly, heating with wood gives us some measure of self sufficiency.  We can be warm all winter because we cut firewood.  Wendell Berry has written that he'd rather know how to cut and split firewood, and how to build a fire, than how to turn up his thermostat - and I agree.  My dad used to say that heating with wood heats you three times - when you cut it, when you stack it and when you burn it.  I simply like the fact that I can pay for our winter heat with my own labor.

Berry's point also suggests that more skill and knowledge is required to heat our home with wood than it would be with fossil fuels (at least on my own part).  I have to know which trees or shrubs to remove to make the forest more fireproof.  I need to know how to safely operate a chainsaw.  I need to know how to efficiently load and unload my truck.  I have to know how to stack wood so it will cure and stay stacked.  I have to know how to build a fire.  I have to know how to maintain my woodstove and chimney.  I have to know how much wood I need to heat our home for the winter.  I take a great deal of satisfaction from these skills.

As I mentioned earlier, our winter heat is directly related to the health of the environment in our community - our 3-4 cords of firewood help make the forest around Colfax, CA, more fire-safe.  But this connection runs deeper than that for me.  The solar energy captured by the trees at Allen and Nancy's is released in our woodstove.  Their sustainable harvest of this material is directly responsible for my family's comfort.  This connection is important to me.

Finally, nothing warms me like wood heat.  The late Ivan Doig, one of my favorite authors, wrote that his dad said nothing warmed the rivets of his Levis like the woodstove.  I can come home soaked through my clothes and shivering with cold - the woodstove warms me right up.  Natural gas, propane and electricity just aren't the same!


  1. I am really enjoying your blog posts...and your dad's quote about nothing warming the rivets of his jeans like a wood stove is SO true. The closest i can get with gas heat is standing over the big old gas floor heater wrapped in blanket after coming in soaked. There is also something really satisfying about getting that soaked taking care of the horses, and then coming in and getting warm sure provides good bragging rights to our non-horse friends, if nothing else.

    Ivan Doig is one of my favorite authors, too, as is Dayton O. Hyde, Mary Williams Hyde's uncle. Keep those fascinating and meditative posts coming, please!

  2. Thank you for your kind comment! I'll have to look up Dayton O. Hyde!

  3. I've got to say I 100% agree with you about other fuel sources not being the same, and this is something I firmly believe. I can't quite put my finger on why, but somehow the heat from a wood burner is so much more cosy and warm (which sounds strange), than other fires.

    Wilfred Andrews @ LB Plumbing and Heating

  4. There is something magical about heating with wood, you are absolutely right about that. And all the extra skills you have learnt, many people wouldn't notice or appreciate those. Like knowing how much wood your family needs, which trees to remove and when, and how to safely cut and stack. So much more satisfying that turning a switch, definitely.

    Lovella Cushman @ Perfection Plumbing

  5. We have also always heated with wood for as long as I can remember. When you have sufficient amounts of wood at your disposal it is awesome. Friends of ours now moved over to gas and they seem to be very happy with their choice. Great blog, love reading your work.