Readers of this blog often inspire a post by asking a question. I figure that if one person is interested, it probably means that others have wondered the same thing and so I sometimes write an entire post in order to answer a question. This time I had just written this post (but hadn’t published it yet) when Brian happened to ask, “is that Poplar you are cutting up? If so, how does it hold the heat? What is the average burn time for a block?” This question was in response to the photos in my post, “What the Well-Dressed Woodsman is Wearing this Season.”
I’ve spoken with many people, especially those out living out west, who feel that they couldn’t heat with wood because all they have is softwood in their area. I had never really thought about it too much until this year when I started to pay attention to what wood I heat with.
We have two buildings on our property, both with about 1,200 square feet of usable space. The guesthouse is 25’ x 25’ x 2 stories, so 1,200 sq. ft. The main house is story and a half, and an “L-shpae,” but still close to 1,200.
Our main house was built in 1888. It was insulated and new windows were installed about 20 years ago and while it’s fairly efficient, it’s not leak proof. Since we live in an area with radon gas, I don’t mind the air turning over fairly frequently.
Our guesthouse was built about 20 years ago. It is frame construction using 2”x 6”s so it is much more efficient. It also has lots of windows on the south side and very few on the north side.
We use about 1/3 as much firewood to heat the guesthouse as we do to heat our main house and I use softwood in the guesthouse woodstove. It’s actually poplar, which is as soft a wood with as little (few) BTUs of heat value as you can get. Poplar contains 18,500 BTU/cord versus 27,000 BTU/cord for oak or 22,000 BTU/cord for maple.
Now I need to qualify a few things. We do not keep the guesthouse as warm as the main house. I have to keep it heated because that’s where our battery room is, and we cannot let our deep-cycle lead acid batteries freeze, and their performance goes down as the temperature drops, so there is an incentive to keep them warm.
My office is in the guesthouse, so I like to heat it to keep my hands from freezing up on the keyboard. But I don’t want it too hot. My strategy during a cold spell in winter is to have a big fire on Monday to heat the building up. On Tuesday I don’t need a fire and if it’s sunny on Wednesday and Thursday it often warms my office and the rest of the building up enough to not need another fire. If we have cloudy week though I may have two or three small fires during the week.
We keep the main house much warmer, and are always heating kettles, dinner, bathwater, etc. on the woodstove, so we naturally use much more wood there. I’ve always used softwood in the swing seasons of fall and spring, and saved my hardwood for winter. We moved here shortly after there had been a gypsy moth infestation, which had killed many oaks. The oak leaves came out in the spring, the moth larvae ate them. When the trees tried to re-leaf, it used up so much energy that many of the oak trees didn’t survive. So during our first decade here I was just trying to keep up with cutting 150 acres of dead oaks. I have cut most of them, many which had fallen over after their roots had rotted, so now I’m more conscious of what I cut.
I have been trying to cut back some areas near the house that I think will eventually be a wheat field in the future. It is surrounded by poplar, so I’ve been cutting those and burning that wood in the guesthouse. And it’s fine. Yes I need a bit more of it than if I was burning hardwood, and yes, technically I have to fill up the woodstove more often because it burns through the fuel more quickly, but it still has lots of heat in it. And I’ve got to tell you, I love cutting live wood like poplar. When all that I was cutting was hardwood from dead oaks they were making my chainsaw blade pretty dull pretty quickly. Cutting live poplar is like cutting “butter.” Around here poplars grow like weeds, so I can cut an area then a few years later the smaller trees are back ready to be harvested.
All this to say that if you are concerned about only having access to softwood in your area, well, you shouldn’t be. Build a really efficient home. That’s the key. The less heat that escapes, the less wood you’ll need to burn to heat it. From a sustainability standpoint I’m sure you can grow more than enough fast growing poplar on 10 to 20 acres to heat a home. And if you were managing your woodlot, and made sure to plant some hardwoods, like maple, in the mix, by the time you’d thinned all the softwoods a couple of times the hardwoods would be ready.
It’s just another reason that I love heating with wood. No drilling rigs for oil or natural gas. No trucks bringing out propane. No fracking. No pipelines. Just you and some tree seedlings. And once the woods get going, there’s no stopping them. The trees here just keep coming and coming in waves. I can’t cut them fast enough. They’re renewable, and sustainable, and the trees “fix carbon” from the atmosphere in their woody mass that is released when they’re burned, just like if they fell down and rotted. They are releasing the same amount of carbon they absorbed; hence heating with wood is carbon-neutral.
When I’m 85 and living comfortably on my Canada Pension Plan (social security) I’ll have all winter to cut firewood. I’ll have to pace myself, but it’s something I look forward to. Just like I look forward to every weekend when I know I get to put on my chainsaw pants and heat the house!
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Some reminders – Our next full day workshop here at Sunflower Farm is on Saturday, May 4th. Let me know (michelle at aztext dot com) if you’d like to join us!
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