Responsible Wood-Burning or How to Not Make Your Neighbours Your EnemiesDry wood and an efficient stove is a winning combination that you will benefit from over and over. The first thing that you will notice is how easily it is to get a fire built when using seasoned firewood, a feat that can be incredibly frustrating when using wet wood. The fire will then come up to temperature quickly and will burn long and hot with little to no smoke.
by "Grizzly" Adam Dietrick
Clean Burning: What's In It for You
You will find that you don't need to open the dampers very far to maintain a hot fire, which means that you will see an increased burn time from the same amount of wood. All this adds up to keeping your home warm with less wood-- which means less time spent cutting, splitting, stacking and hauling wood. This time can instead be spent doing what you love with your friends and family.
Modern Stoves: More Heat, Less WasteFor years the basic design of wood stoves remained unchanged, but since 1986 advancements in stove design have led to modern wood stoves being much more efficient than the “smoke dragons” that they replaced. The new stoves are capable of such high efficiency because they are capable of what is known as a secondary burn, where they actually burn the smoke that would otherwise have gone up the chimney. Up to 60% of wood's potential energy is in the secondary gases contained in its wood smoke. All this adds up to a more complete burn, less wood in, less pollution out, a healthier planet and the long-term sustainability of wood as a fuel source.
Replacing an old “smoke dragon” with a modern EPA approved wood burner is one of the most effective ways to improve the local air quality for both you and your neighbours. What appears to be smoke coming from the chimney of a modern wood stove is typically little more than water vapor. To ensure the your modern wood stove is burning as efficiently as possible check that you chimney draft is adequate, your stove's air intakes are correctly set, and be sure to only dry firewood. Remember, your stove is a wood burner not a trash burner!
Dry Firewood: The Crucial IngredientBurning wet or “green” firewood is what gives wood burners a bad name. The moisture present in wet firewood prevents it from achieving full combustion and causes waste in the form of unburned fuel, which literally goes up in smoke. What we see and smell as wood smoke is that unburned fuel escaping and lining our chimneys with highly-flammable creosote in the process. Furthermore, much of the heat put off from wet firewood is spent boiling the large amount of water out of it. The better option is to burn dry firewood.
Dry, or seasoned, firewood has a moisture content of less than 20% and can be burned efficiently with little to no smoke. To properly dry firewood it needs to be cut, split, and stacked. If the wood is unsplit, or left in the round, it is safe to assume that there is only a minimal amount of drying occurring. Drying begins when the wood is split. Some species of wood such as birch will actually rot before it dries if left in the round.
Different species of wood take different amounts of time to dry. Charts are available online that list the average drying time for most popular species, but these charts are best when used as a guide. Temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind, and direct sunlight can all affect the pace at which firewood dries. The foolproof way to know that your firewood is dry is to use a moisture meter.
A moisture meter can typically be purchased for $20 or less at home improvement stores. To use the meter simply take a few sample splits from various places in the stack, split them in half and insert the meter into the fresh split. The meter will then give a read-out of the percentage of water present in the firewood. A reading of 20% or less is considered dry and is ready to be burned.
Stacks: Your Long Term AssetsWhether in rows, a holz hausen or some sort of artistic statement, stacks are the gold standard when it comes to long-term firewood seasoning and storage. Use pallets, landscape timbers, or railroad ties beneath your stacks to keep your firewood up and ground moisture and bugs out. Some people even cut small trees into timbers for this purpose. Covering the tops of your stacks with tarps, plywood, tin or rubber roofing keeps moisture from getting in from above as well. Do not cover the sides of your stacks as wind and ventilation are needed for the wood to dry.
But the most important thing to your neighbours isn't likely to be top cover, off-ground storage or ventilation-- they will likely be most concerned with how your stacks look. Keeping your wood supply tidy and well managed typically leaves you neighbours with nothing bad to say. Take the time to make your stacks neat and try to keep your work area reasonably clean. Processing wood as it comes in keeps your yard from becoming an eye-sore.
Building a Fire: Quick & Easy MethodMost of the smoke emitted by an EPA approved wood stove that is burning seasoned firewood comes when starting the fire. Although it is not possible to eliminate all wood smoke, it can be significantly reduced. Load your firewood into your stove, lengthwise if your stove accommodates it. Ensure that all dampers on your wood burner and stove pipe are fully opened.
Place a fire-starter made of wax and sawdust between two of the lower pieces of wood and ignite. Kindling or newspapers can be used as well, but the wax and sawdust type fire-starter tend to heat up faster with less smoke. These fire-starters can either be made cheaply at home or bought online, such as the Super Cedar Fire-starters made by Northwestern Fuels.
Keep a close eye on the stove as the temperature rises. Some manufactures suggest keeping the stove door slightly ajar while it heats up. Never walk away from a wood stove when the door is ajar. When the stove comes up to temperature adjust the dampers as appropriate, the fire should not be choked down to a smolder. If you anticipate needing to add to the fire, do so while there are still some visible flames. Open all the dampers fully, add the firewood and wait for it to fully ignite before adjusting the dampers again.
Dampers: Controlling Your Fire
Simply put, a damper is a metal plate that allows you to restrict the flow of air into and out of your wood stove. Depending on the design, there may be up to three different type of dampers on your wood stove. Until recently the only control wood burners had over their stoves was a damper placed in the stove-pipe itself. A stove pipe damper allows the operator to restrict the air flow through the chimney, also known as the draft.
More modern designs include an air-intake adjustment that restricts the air coming in through the wood stove's primary air intake, thus allowing the operator to control the amount of oxygen present inside the stove. Even more recent is the bypass damper which basically allows a modern wood stove to bypass all of it's efficiency features and operate as a smoke dragon. This is useful when building a fire due to increased draft, but the operator must remember to close this damper once the fire is built.
Ashes: Their Storage and DisposalThe ashes that remain after the wood has burned will eventually add up and need to be safely stored until they can be disposed of. Even days after the fire has gone out, the ashes may hold enough heat to reignite if given fuel, oxygen and enough time. For this reason they must be stored outdoors in a covered metal container at least three feet from anything combustible. It is important that only non-flammable metal vessels are used to transport wood ashes from your wood burner to the storage container. When you are ready to empty your storage container, contact your local waste management services to locate a local facility where you can dispose of the ashes. Alternatively, a quick search online will reveal that ashes have a plethora of uses around the house, garden and yard. NEVER put ashes in the garbage.
Conversation: Make Your Neighbours WiseYour neighbours will likely be a bit perplexed by your curious lifestyle if they have never lived in a wood-burning household. Most likely they are wondering why you have so much wood when you don't even burn half of it over the course of a winter. An educated neighbour is typically a happy one. Here are some things to research and discuss with your neighbours:
- How having multiple years of firewood stacked keeps your air quality clean.
- The difference between smoke and the water vapor that typically comes from your chimney.
- How burning firewood can be a greener option than natural gas and electricity.
- The merits of your stacking system and how it combats pests.