Heating our Home with Local Wood

This morning I stepped outside and almost fell right on my butt. There was a slick layer of ice on the front steps. Ice coated my car windshield as well, necessitating the familiar ritual of windshield scraping. As the day progressed, it warmed up a little, but then an Alberta Clipper crested the Worcester range and Mount Hunger faded and then disappeared behind snow. In Montpelier it is raining – 35 and raining as the sun sets. We’ll get some snow, or else freezing rain, if the storm sticks around a bit.

Most of October experienced well above average temperatures, so the rapid transition to cold and ice feels abrupt. Of course, these cold temperatures are not all that far below average for late October. The heating season is really getting going.

One of the neat things about the house we bought this spring is an old Sam Daniels wood furnace. The furnace sits in the basement and is surrounded by a series of vents and a fan. The fan sporadically turns on when the furnace gets hot and blows the heat through the house. Unfortunately our chimney turned out to need to be rebuilt, but with this being done the furnace is good to go. We also have an oil furnace, but plan to use mainly the wood furnace.

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I think the wood furnace looks like it is making a sad face.

There are lots of advantages to heating with wood in Vermont. The hardwood forests can be harvested sustainably, and firewood is mostly a byproduct of timber harvest anyway, as smaller and crooked logs can’t be turned into lumber. As long as forests are not removed permanently, wood heat does not add any net carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, nor is it affected by all the environmental, economical, and political problems associated with obtaining oil. It can be much cheaper than heating oil. If we have a tree blow down, we can burn it. It works when the power goes out, albeit a bit less effectively (the fan of course won’t run). One downside is having to deal with the wood, which can be hard work and isn’t for everyone. As for the actual act of maintaining the fire, that i really enjoy. So far. We’ll see if I still do in March. The other (very minor) downside is I can’t see the fire unless I go down into the basement.

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This is about three cords of wood. We bought six. We have no idea how much we will need, nor how much oil we will end up using (which we will mainly use when we are gone for longer periods of time or during extreme cold).

We have been very safety conscious because we have a friend who had a house fire due to a (very different) wood stove setup. We’ve got a metal lined chimney and the furnace is in the basement surrounded by concrete, far from anything flammable. Unlike the previous owner, apparently, we’ll be cleaning the chimney each year, though apparently the risk of dangerous chimney fires in a metal-lined chimney is low.

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I’ve got a lot to learn about the furnace and wood heating. At first I’d get the basement all smoky each time I lit it, but I learned how to prepare the fire and manipulate the vents to get the fire going without having to open the furnace door after the fire is lit. I’m not sure how hot to get the fire though, as people have told me ‘you can burn this furnace really hot’ but I don’t have any context for that. I’m sure stuffing it full with pine needles and throwing in a match is unwise, but on the other hand I am wondering if my frugal ‘only use three logs at a time, stacked triangularly’ strategy is not the best one here. The fan isn’t turning on much and that may mean the heating is less efficient. I’m not sure if larger or smaller diameter logs are best. The wood itself needed a bit of seasoning when we got it. The warm, dry fall conditions so far have dried it out quite a bit, as evidenced by the ‘checking’ (cracked ends) on the wood. However, I brought some of the wood into the basement too early, and it isn’t as dry. They say burning green wood can get the chimney gunked up, but this definitely isn’t green wood… still I’ve been mostly sticking to the ash, which has a lower moisture content than other hardwoods, for the start of the heating season. I haven’t tried burning any buckthorn wood yet, but I will at some point.

In any event, it will be fun to see how it goes.

8 thoughts on “Heating our Home with Local Wood

  1. roger mack

    we have a glass front woodstove in the livingroom that heats as much of the house as we need. flames are better than tv. very relaxing to watch. nicely done stacks you have. i buy split hardwood, mostly various oaks, and split it a bit more as our woodstove doesn’t like really big chunks. i probably touch each piece several times. keeps me healthy. the folks i buy from get donated wood, split it, and supply it free to low income people. i can afford to buy it and the money buys supplies for the program.

  2. K E

    I just wanted to put my 2 cents in regarding rocket stove heaters, for those who may be interested. They use 1/6th the wood per BTU, need less tending (including overnight), and emit far less particulates (hence their 2nd moniker, “wood gasifiers.”) I’ve seen one commercial model, running something over $1K, I’m sure you can find it via web search. Most of the others I’ve seen have been DIY. Nice article, & best of luck with your own set-up. 🙂

  3. slowwatermovement Post author

    Thanks for the comments! The rocket stove heaters look really interesting, and if our home hadn’t already come with the huge Sam Daniels wood furnace, we’d definitely consider it. What a neat technology! It sounds like you can even generate power and/or run the fan off of the heat on some of them. It might be a possible option someday in our fireplace as an insert, since we don’t use the fireplace much for heating (it’s not nearly as efficient as the wood furnace). We could use that many nights and the Sam Daniels just on the cold ones.

    Right after I made this blog post I figured something else about the stove out. I’d been somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t heating the house that fast and the fan was barely turning on. Turns out the fan has a control box that allows you to choose what temperature it turns on and how long it stays on (until it cools to another temperature). I’d lit a big fire because the house wasn’t heating that fast, and then once I figured that out, boom! It got really warm. I gave it a try with a much smaller fire this morning and it worked better than the large fires had prior to the adjustment! Oops… at least it didn’t take me too many fires to figure out.

  4. DD

    We have been heating our 1200 square foot one level home with a Sam Daniels wood furnace for the past nine years, having installed it new in 2006. It certainly does heat the house once the blower goes on and having dealt with its “charming” peculiarities I can offer some hints. The blower goes on when the fire is hot enough to heat the space above the stove which then turns on the blower. Throwing a match in a stove filled with pine needles is NOT a good idea. Heating with pine in any way, shape, form is not a good idea either. The resulting pitch will result in a nasty chimney fire whether or not the lining is metal. Here’s how I do it. I set two logs side about ten inches apart in the furnace box with rolled up pages of newspapers – about ten of those. Dry kindling goes on top and then criscrossing the two logs more substantial kindling and pyramided onto those pieces three dry logs. This usually results in the logs catching and burning really hot. However the little doors which open and shut on the sam daniels (regulated by the thermostat), should be open until the fire is burning well. You might have to adjust the doors by the chains that are on the box that open and close them. You don’t want to smother the fire, or burn it too quickly. If the fires don’t burn hot enough you get a situation where the blower is going on/off, on off every few minutes which can be quite annoying. The furnace does require tending and one shouldn’t build too big a fire which can drive you out of the house with too much heat. Nothing like opening windows on a frosty night to cool down the house. I usually go down every two or three hours to put on another couple of logs and let it die down in the night when we’re sleeping. A well-insulated house should stay somewhat warm until morning. Three cords to get you through the winter! Think again. We usually burn six and that’s for a small house.

    1. slowwatermovement Post author

      yeah, that’s similar to what we figured out! We never burn pine for that reason… if I have pine wood I use it for boiling maple sap or for little campfires outside. Or if it’s too pitchy for even that we just let it rot in our wetland garden and create organic soil.
      I usually load ours with two split logs, put kindling between them, and then a third log on top. The opening with the kindling faces the little door so once it gets hot enough to draft it really gets ripping through there. I usually don’t damper down except when we go to bed or leave for a few hours (or if the house gets too hot but that is rare). Usually by that time there is a hot ash bed and a few burning lots so no smouldering. Usually I do small but relatively hot fires with open damper. It means more tending but i like the ritual of continually checking on the fire. The result is barely any creosote, the chimney cleaning guy has remarked several times that we have very little creosote even though some sam daniels stoves can create a lot of it. So that’s good.
      we didn’t get thru the winter with just those three cords! It was just all that fit into the picture. We had six cords and burned almost all of it. Then we did some winterizing work on the house so we burn a bit less now. Hard to say exactly how much beause last winter was extremely cold and also that year we got stuck with a lot of red maple with less BTUs. But I think we burned about five cords that year even considering those things. If it is a warmer winter as they forecast we may use less still this year. But they forecast a ‘warmer’ winter last year too so i am not holding my breath.
      We burn a little oil too, either when we are gone or during really cold nights. I think maybe 70 gallons last year? They took us off the automatic refill list because we don’t use enough which is fine by me 🙂

  5. erin

    We have the same wood furnace in a huge old farm house. We just bought the house and heard from the family their parents burned 10 cords a winter!! We are doing what we can to weatherize but looking forward to spring when we can actually insulate the walls.
    I have been wondering if there are ways to make the ole Sam Daniels a bit more efficient? A better blower maybe or … Did you come across anything?

  6. Tom

    We have been using a Sam Daniels furnace here on the farm for about 35 years. Dry wood is really the key to producing good even long lasting heat. Six cords is a good average to use a season depending on the type of wood. Low BTU wood could mean 2+ more cords. Do you have a small electric motor with an arm on it above the furnace? Without the thermostatic controlled motor that connects chains to the door flaps the furnace can’t be run the way it was designed to. If you get dialed in with it theirs nothing like it in a drafty 200+ year old farmhouse.

  7. slowwatermovement Post author

    We definitely use less than 6 cords, our house isn’t huge and we do use a little bit of oil too especially now that we have a baby and don’t want it too cold overnight. We do have the thermostat damper setup, which is nice. I tend to run it open and toss wood on more often rather than loading it up and dampering down… the chimney cleaner guy says that makes less creosote and always says we don’t have too much (also use that anti creo soot spray). But damper it down overnight and when it gets cold enough it opens again.

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