Energy is a critical part of preparedness. Whether that’s stored food-energy for our bodies, fuels like gasoline that moves our vehicles, or firewood that heats our homes or cooks that food, energy is an important resource. Firewood should be a part of the preparedness energy picture. Wood for fuel has many important qualities- its’ reliable, abundant, cheap and renewable, stores for a reasonably long time and is not dependent on a long supply chain you can’t influence. If you live someplace where you can heat and cook with wood, you should have that as an option.
You can, of course, buy wood to burn. There are many people who make a living selling firewood. For the independent homesteader however, being able to produce our own should be the goal. Wood for heating and cooking comes in several forms. There is what I call “industrial wood”—pallets, building material waste etc…and then there is timber- trees. We’ll talk about trees first.
First, we need trees we can cut down. Every homestead and farm where I grew up had a woodlot – a piece of ground, usually hilly or swampy or otherwise not the best farm land where the family could cut wood to heat and cook with. If you have a homestead, keeping a healthy woodlot should be part of your management strategy. If you have only limited land or live in an area with fewer trees, you will have to get more creative here.
Where I live now, we have few trees and my homestead is not large. However, the city runs a wood chipping site where people can bring their no longer wanted yard trees or storm debris. After every big snow or ice storm there are trailer loads of large limbs that show up. The city eventually grinds all this up into chips used in the city parks. The sites are open to the public though and a pickup and a chainsaw will get you all the wood you can use in a few afternoons. Just an example of an option for even those with little land and few trees.
Industrial wood can be found many places. Home improvement stores throw out scraps of wood they have cut down for customers along with wood used to separate lumber-shipping materials. Anyplace there is construction there will be lumber scraps. Careful here – theft from a construction site is often a felony, ASK. Don’t burn plywood or similar wood products- the glues used to hold it together can give off fumes when burned, which is the same with treated lumber. Shipping pallets can often be had for the hauling away. Some pallets are treated with fungicides and insecticides – not the kind of stuff you want to burn in your stove.
Equipment-wise, you don’t need much. However, some things are pretty tough to do without. At the chipping sites there are plenty of people who show up and scrounge up whatever pre-cut chunks they can put in their vehicles that will fit in their stoves or fireplaces. There are a few folks that show up with axes and chop a bit here and there. A chainsaw though makes short work of as much wood as you can haul. A hydraulic wood splitter puts you at the top of the heap! There are often huge pieces of tree trunks that there is almost no competition for and a splitter gives you a real advantage there.
With regards to wood burning, many homes have fireplaces. They are not a great option for heating with wood and are designed more in most cases for ambience than practical heating and cooking. Better than nothing. They are improved in most cases with an insert which is more efficient. Next step up would be a wood stove. A good stove is fairly efficient and not only provides heat for your space but can be used to cook on. Another option is the wood furnace, very efficient but relying on a blower to circulate heat through the home’s duct work. Lastly, there is the outside wood boiler unit which offers many benefits including hot water. Costs range from nothing if you already have one of these options to as much as $10-15k for a new wood boiler system. The economics of wood heat of course varies on how much of what type of fuel you would otherwise use to heat your home. But, one thing that is always in woods favor is that if you have wood and a means to burn it, you can heat your space and a meal no matter what is going on in the rest of the world. That has value.
That’s an overview of some of the issues involved with using wood as a fuel. We’ll talk more about specifics – cutting with chainsaws, burning options, species of wood, seasoning, safety concerns and other issues in coming installments.