Firewood fail

Last few chunks of the 2013 wood supply
Last few chunks of the 2013 wood supply

I completely failed on firewood this year.

OK, maybe it wasn’t a complete failure. We made it all the way to March on the wood I put up during the year. And to be fair to myself, I was mostly out of commission from August to November recovering from major surgery. Without the valiant efforts of my fellow MAG members, I would have been totally hosed. As it was, I still ran into problems.

We’ve been heating with wood for four seasons now. We bought a Quadra-Fire Cumberland Gap stove back in 2009, when it looked like fuel oil would go to above $5 a gallon. Given that up to that point we were burning 1200 gallons of oil a year, the $4000 investment in the stove and installation seemed like a no-brainer, since our house sits on 10 heavily wooded acres.

Oil never got quite that high, but we’ve still made back our investment at this point. I harvest around 4 cords of wood every year, and while my monetary outlay is minimal, I still spend a lot of time prepping enough wood. I’ve managed to streamline the operation over the years, but it’s still very time consuming.

This year, I had the brilliant idea that I would completely redesign the system. My goal was to minimize the number of times I handle each piece of wood. I figured that I could manage that if I palletized the wood, rather than stacking and restacking it.

Good idea, bad in practice
Good idea, bad in practice

I designed woods bins for the job, built out of pallets that I got for free from the local Agway, plus some 2x lumber and furring strips. My thought was to run bucks through the splitter and pack the bins directly with the splits, then use the tractor to move the bins close to the house for seasoning.

I calculated that each bin could hold about 1/5th of a cord, so that I’d need 20 bins to hold the four cords I’d need for the season. I managed to get all that put up and placed by the house in time to beat the first snow of the season. But the plan quickly fell apart.

First of all, the wood didn’t season properly in the bins. I’m now convinced that wood needs both ends exposed to sun and wind to dry properly. Being buried in bins simply does not cut it. Add to that the fact that I was never able to properly cover the bins, so rain and snow hindered the drying process as well. Some of the wood was well seasoned, but mostly the unused stuff from the season before that had already been stacked before I transferred it to the bins.

Second, I seriously underestimated the amount of wood each bin could store. It turned out to be more like six or seven bins per cord, so my 20 bins was more like 3 cords, most of which was still soggy. Add to that the colder than usual winter, and that starts to add up to trouble.

envi-8 block

For the last couple of years, we’ve been supplementing our natural firewood supply with Envi Blocks. They’re basically compressed bricks of hardwood sawdust and chips, the byproducts of hardwood flooring manufacturing. We’ve been getting a ton each year, which generally runs for about the same price as a ton of pellets. They burn hot, for sure, but something about them is just “off” when compared to the heat thrown off by a stove full of seasoned oak or birch. The heat just doesn’t penetrate into the house like with natural wood. I know that’s totally subjective and completely unscientific, but it’s what we’ve observed. Kind of like how microwaved food gets blazing hot but cools down more rapidly that food heated in the oven. Weird.

We ran through our ton of bricks a couple of days ago too, and I bought 25 more packs for $100 to hold us over until this winter gives up the ghost. We’re down to the last eight of those, so now we’re really stuck. I’ll need to find some more firewood, or get some more bricks, or both. We usually run comfort fires into at least April, so we’ve got a way to go yet.

Lesson learned: you can never have too much firewood. I’ll make sure we have 5 cords this season, stacked and cured the old-fashioned way. I’ll still get a ton of bricks to supplement the naturals stuff – they’re good for early and late season fires, when you don’t need an all-day burn. I don’t want to be scrambling around at the end of next season again.

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