Growing up heating with wood, I can very readily say that wood is easily the best off-grid and renewable source of heat in the winter. My own opinion is that one cannot call themselves a Survivalist or Prepper without a wood stove. In its best forms it is one of the most versatile tools you can own- but there is a learning curve. This wonderfully written article comes by way of Johnny Mac. Check out his no-nonsense forum, Unchained Preppers. – NC Scout
When designing our cabin for the family redoubt back in 2008 we wanted the cabin to be self-sufficient when it came to power, lighting, and heat. Today I want to share with you the heating part of this trilogy.
Of all the natural heating fuels, propane/natural gas, wood pellets, coal, wood, electricity, or solar the research that I did directed our path to wood. The main reason being the cabin is situated on 35-acres of mostly hard wooded mature trees free for he taking. Then if necessary, there is another several thousand additional acres that surround our property.
While coal and wood pellets are relatively cheap and readily available today, that may not be the case in a SHTF type of scenario. The electric here goes out regularly even when the rest of the area’s grid is working, and of course electric heat is one of the costliest forms of heat so that was out of the question. Additionally, solar is very costly too. Then you have gas and in my parts that means propane which has a double negative whammy—Delivery and cost in a SHTF scenario.
Again, that left us wood for heat and a minimal solar array for modest electrical usage. Today though I want to talk about heating and leave our solar back-up for a later article. The big question that everybody seems to have, “Is wood really cost effective?”
First, I will speak to the esthetics of wood heat, then the cost of the fuel, and last stoves versus fireplaces.
The good, bad, and ugly of heating with wood
We have lived in apartments, sail boats, and fancy houses on the water and last a log cabin in the mountains all over the lower 48 over the past 42 years of marriage. In our last house in Rhode Island we used natural gas and a small wood burning stove. Here in the wilds of Northeast Pennsylvania we heated exclusively with wood until 1-year ago when we added a highly efficient propane furnace, as a backup.
As previously mentioned, when we lived in Rhode Island we had a wood stove and natural gas furnace. At that time, I traveled 42 out of 52 weeks a year so it wasn’t practical to have my wife continually maintain the wood stove while I was away. When I was home, I left the furnace on at 66 degrees F and kept the wood stove going. We loved the dry heat that the wood stove put out especially as our house was over the water 2-times a day.
We burned 2-cords of wood a year and at that time a cord was going for $250– delivered. The two cords lasted us from November till April when by that time I was tired of dealing with the wood stove.
Although we loved the dry heat, we hated the dust that was generated by the stove. Dusting was a common occurrence which our long-haired cat loved to help out with. Then there was the challenge of finding space close to the outside door to bring wood into the house. And of course, we not only brought in wood but also mud and snow.
One year I did a quick calculation on what we saved using the wood stove versus the natural gas for the furnace. We did save some money instead of just using the furnace, but it came out to only $90– a winter. Then again it would probably have been more saving’s if we used the wood stove more than when I was home. Now let’s look at today and our cabin pictured above with wood two cords of wood stacked on the porch and two cords under. Three more cords are strategically placed close.
Currently we use six or seven cords a year depending on the severity of the winter and the type of wood we are burning. Luckily wood by the cord here goes for around $160– per cord versus what it cost in Rhode Island but that is still a cost of $1,120, a season for seven cords of wood. Plus, the split logs are only 18” long and our current Jotul wood stove burns 24” logs so you might as well add another cord and $160– to the equation. Lastly, we all know that every wood stove vendor tells you that their wood is seasoned and they deliver a true cord. When in reality it probably isn’t seasoned, and it is hit or miss getting a true count.
In my eyes the best thing to do was to try and buy some full logs from a logger where I can request a species of wood and cut to the optimum size for my stove. The first venture into buying a “tri-axle” load of wood turned out turned out to work well but not great. Once I cut down the tri-axle load of logs I only got 7 1/2 cords cut to 22” and split. Plus, the logs had been dragged out of the area being logged so frequently I had to sharpen or switch chains on my two saws; However, the cost was only $500– for the load or $67– a raw cord (no cost added for fuel, oil, sharpening etc.). Then there was time lost due to sharpening the chain saw chain, additional expense for professionally having the chain sharpened more often, the wear and tear on my chainsaws plus the extra gas & oil needed to cut dirty logs the cost came in around $110- a cord which is still not too shabby versus local or Rhode Island prices.
That first year of cutting, splitting, and stacking my own fire wood a friend stopped by who was a retired logger. He wanted to know what I was up to so over a beer I filled him in. He was impressed by my work but had some suggestions for me.
1) Put your order for a tri-axle of wood in March and not wait till August as I had done. This way you can dictate to the logger what kind of hard wood you wanted and the wood had time to season.
2) Shop around to different loggers that would guarantee you a full tri-axle of wood which is approximately 11-cords.
3) Shop around for a logger that does not drag logs out of the logging zone but picks them up with a back hoe to place onto the tri-axle trailer.
4) Next tell them you will take the load anytime but not later than June 1 and you will be paying with cash not check. I did what he suggested and was quite impressed with the result.
The load was dropped off at the beginning of May and for the most part the logs were dirt free. I was told that the logs had been cut in February so had started to dry out nicely evident by the checks at the end of the logs. I had specified hard woods, Ash and Oak. I got about 60% ash and the rest in white & red oak. It was neatly stacked in about 30-minutes (picture left) at my wood cutting area which was about 200-yards from the cabin. The last tri-axle was stacked next to the cabin which caused a lot of grief from my wife due to the saw dust, dirt, scraps, and noise over the summer. The cost of the Tri-axle was $700-.
May is planting time up at the cabin, so I didn’t start tackling the job of cutting, splitting, and stacking this coming year wood till mid-June. The ability to cut clean logs was so much different than before. The logs cut like butter and I could get about 1/2-cord between chain saw fuel fillings with no sharpening or switching out chains. After each cord cut, I did take a file to the chains; However, I only changed chains once through the total period I cut.
I paced myself and cut, split, and stacked throughout the summer into the beginning of September. Luckily, I have a 14-year-old neighbor that I paid $7– a cord, to stack. He stacked at his leisure so as not to hinder his summer teenage social calendar. I designated where each cord went. This provided the best balance for sun, air flow for drying, and use during the winter were temperatures in January and February typically average around 10 degrees F during the day and drop down to below zero at night.
Wood heat is the best heat I have ever experienced. It is relatively cheap compared to other forms of fuel used for heating. If you live near a forest, there is a never-ending supply of fuel. I also cook a lot of stews on our wood stove during the winter which is an added benefit if your stove is not working due to lack of fuel. Did I mention popcorn and fried steaks?
Wood heat is dirty. You will be dusting often if you are a type ‘A’ home maker. You must empty the stove twice a month and the fire box dust pan once a month—Again it is dirty. Where you stack the wood in the house you will have additional dirt thanks to peeling bark, dirt, and yes in some cases bugs. Walking in with wood from outside you will bring mud and snow in with you. Have I mentioned yet—Wood heat is dirty.
For some coughing up a large chunk of change is a challenge; However, a friend of mine just puts $100– a month into a blank envelope starting in October. Then by March or April when he orders his tri-axle load of wood you readily have the money. Cutting up the wood then splitting is hard work. It is also dangerous as logs roll on you while cutting and chain saws buck. Add to that chore the stacking and by the time you are done you will say, “I ain’t doing this next year!” You will though as there is nothing better than siting in your recliner one January day when the snow is coming down horizontally, the temperature outside are low double digits, and a nice adult beverage at your side. While your wood stove is keeping you all toasty and maybe cooking your dinner to boot.
This year I kept copious notes on what I spent which I will share below. When it was all said and done adding in the price of the logs, selling the extra, fuel & oil for the chain saws, splitter, and tractor plus the fee I paid to have the wood stacked it cost me $97– a cord. Looking at the below table I cut 7-cords and then sold the remainder to a neighbor for raw cost a cord uncut. Of course I could have cut, then split an sold the extra for $160– a cord (3.5 cords X $160– a cord = $560-) but neighbors try to help neighbors on the mountain. This would have brought my cost per cord down to $44– a cord. I could have also reduced my out lay by $7– a cord if I stacked my own wood; However, a 14 year-old boy needs money too for important stuff like ham radio equipment.
Keep in mind the cost reflects stove wood cut to the exact length I wanted, the exact type of wood I wanted to burn, the time to saw all of the wood was
lessened due sawing clean logs and not having to stop as often to sharpen the chain saw chain.
Raw Cost of Wood
$700.00 Oil for Saws and Splitter
Total Cords from Tri-Axle
10.5 Diesel for Tractor $10.00
Total Cost Logs sold
<$235.00> Professionally Sharpened Chain
Cords Sold 3.5 Stacking fee $49.00
Raw #, Cabin Cost Per Cord
Gas for Saws and Splitter
$45.00 Final cost per cord for cabin
Now let’s look at stoves versus fireplaces.
A fireplace is a very inefficient way of heating a whole house. It is estimated you will burn up to 3-times what you would burn in a sealed efficient wood stove. Plus, you have to add in a safety factor as you will need to watch your fire in a fireplace 24/7. Then the dirt and soot is doubly bad with an open fire when compared to a wood stove— Bottomline, there is no comparison.
At our house in Rhode Island we used a Jotul F3CB which is rated for a 1,300 sf house and with a maximum out put of 42,000 btu’s. Well it did a good job keeping the house warm until the temperatures hit 10 degrees F and the wind blew off the sound. When
this happened the stove just could not keep up. The good thing is that only happened once or twice a year. Having a cabin in Northeastern Pennsylvania presented another challenge to over come. It is not uncommon to have weeks where the highs were in the teens and at night –20 degrees F. was the norm.
We liked the Jotul style, quality, and having an option of side loading as well as front loading. Our log cabin is 1,500 sf above the basement which adds an another 1,000 sf which we do not heat. The Jotul F-500 Oslo seemed to meet our needs with its side and front loading options. It was rated for a 2,000 sf house, with its maximum output of 70,000 btu’s.
We located the stove as centrally as we could and added the biggest area ceiling fan we could buy. The stove sits on an insulated riser to make it easier to clean and load wood. As mentioned previously we often cook stews, make pot roasts, and such on it. All of those cast iron pans, Dutch ovens, skillets, and kettles I had been collecting over the years has paid off.
I used to clean the chimney in the fall however I now pay a professional to do that, typically in May or June. My wife has this vision of me doing a header off the roof – Silly girl. Typically, I get antennas & such ready and while the chimney sweep is on the roof, he does a little bit of antenna placement and or repair while up there. Of course, I pay him for his time.
I know that many of the readers are in the process of figuring out the best way to heat their shelter during a SHTF drama. I hope that this article makes the decision a bit easier for you and your family. Heck why reinvent the wheel. Peace brothers and sisters!