We are just concluding our second winter living in my grandparents’ 100 year old farm house. When we gutted the home we removed the old fuel oil burning furnace in the basement and all of the old corresponding duct work. Then it was the question on how we wanted to heat our home. My plan initially was to have a small wood stove in the kitchen to support electric off peak heat. Within a month of subzero temperatures though we knew we would never be willing to afford the electric heat… oh my gosh expensive! So, we kept our little wood stove burning hot all of the time and found out real quick a “little” stove was not going to cut it against a northern Minnesota winter!
Enter our “big” wood stove. Once getting it in place Joe spray painted it to make it look nice and we’ve been happily using it ever since. Before (with the little stove) we were waking up regularly to mornings at only 40 degrees in the house no matter how much wood we burned! On top of that we had our electric heaters kicking on and spending upwards of $500 a month on our electric bill besides. We happily removed said little stove and fired up our new big wood stove in the kitchen and I am very glad to report that the house is toasty, our electric bill is less then $100 a month and I have yet to even turn on our electric heat at all. So, after two winters of experience under my belt, here’s all of the good and the bad about heating with wood!
#1 If your time is worth nothing it is extremely cheap heat!
We never stop looking for wood to bring home, it is literally a 365 days a year job that Joe never slacks off of. On average we need about 7 cords of wood to heat this home for the entire winter. Between gas for the chainsaw, maintenance etc. we only spend about $400 a year. However, if we were paying Joe for his time, let’s just say I don’t think we would be able to afford it 😉 Collecting, cutting, splitting and moving the wood we use to heat our home is a very big job. The old adage says, “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” That is a tremendous understatement, by the time it reaches our house most of the wood we burn we’ve moved AT LEAST four different times. (First cut it down and into chunks and then haul it to the trailer and drive it back home and then get it off the trailer, cut it and split and stack it and then bring it into the house to burn it. It is a TON of work!) – Because we’re talking about cost I have to mention that your house insurance will also go up too.
#2 Oh my gosh its so dirty.
Really though, we are constantly sweeping and never keeping up. With the little wood stove we were literally living in a house totally covered in black horrible ash. Nowadays the filth is not near so bad as this stove burns much more efficiently however there will always be wood chips, ash etc. all over our floors all winter long. It is a losing battle that we have learned to just accept. On top of that we have white ceilings and (no matter what) a little bit of smoke is always going to go up when you’re starting or feeding a fire – I refuse to take a picture of it… its so bleak and there isn’t any point in repainting. Because of the small wood stove we started with the entire first floor of our home needs to be repainted.
#3 Kinda scary.
Every morning, every day, all winter long we regularly fill our big stove with wood (right smack dab in the middle of our kitchen) get that sucker burning upwards of 500 degrees, shut the door and then leave the house! Seriously, we just leave lol. I am not at all paranoid when it comes to fire but on more then one occasion I’ve been driving home wondering if the house is still going to be there. For the feint of heart, this is not the way to heat your home.
#4 Kinda awesome.
Unlike a lot of people in the winter if the electricity were to go out our household would continue running almost without a hitch. Not only is our heat run on nothing but fire but we literally have a wood stove in our kitchen – a big flat surface that I could use to cook on with no problem at all. We are literally only one step away (a hand pump for our well) to being able to continue our day to day operations completely without the need for electricity… though I totally wouldn’t want to.
#5 It is amazingly warm heat.
I’ve been sitting in homes looking directly at a thermostat knowing full well that it is, in fact, 74 degrees right where I’m sitting but I’m COLD. Wood heat is completely different then any other kind of heat – it is unbelievably WARM. How can different kinds of heat feel differently? I don’t know but it is just plain true. I can always tell when I walk into a home heated with fire as opposed to electricity – they’re just warmer and cozier. And where will you find Joe and me in our house on any winter night? Sitting or standing by the wood stove of course. Having a source of heat in the middle of our home to walk to when we come in from the cold outside is so great, I gladly become a rotisserie.
#6 You’re always coming home to a cold house.
Keeping the house warm is a full time job and no matter where we are or what we’re doing, if we’re away from the house for any amount of time, one of us will inevitably look at the other one and say, “We gotta get home and start a fire.” We’ve settled into two big fires a day – one in the morning and one when we get home at night and it is plenty – on really cold nights we’ll feed the fire until we go to bed otherwise it is usually nearly out before we head upstairs. Joe’s big surprise for my birthday (last February weekend) was to take me over night to another city. We were gone for 25 hours and when we got home our living room was 43 degrees. (All of our plumbing is pex so we don’t worry about pipes freezing but if you have galvanized or copper water pipes in your home the constant worry of them freezing and breaking would be crazy and I would never recommend this lifestyle unless you knew someone would ALWAYS be there to keep the fire going.)
#7 One hot spot in the whole house.
So it will be 95 degrees fahrenheit in the middle of the kitchen right by the stove and only 65 degrees in the farthest corner away in our living room. Our master bedroom (on the second floor) keeps the best and never gets much below 60 ever because heat rises. Out in our converted screened in porch (where my office and our extra bedroom is) we just keep the door closed and it never gets much warmer then 45 out there all winter long. This is not great but we’re used to it and just make do. If anyone comes and stays with us we just open the door and let the other part of the house warm up but we don’t see any reason to waste heat on it otherwise.
#8 It requires a lot of dry storage space.
Tragically our big old barn is in too bad a shape to store anything in (that we don’t want to get soaked) so we’re very fortunate to have my grandpa’s old machine shed to store our wood in. If you don’t have considerable space for wood storage you will need to calculate the cost of a building into your estimates if you want to heat with wood. Of course you could always stack it on the ground and throw a tarp over it but, I don’t know about you, but my experience doing that has always been spotty at best.
In the end, I am happy with our choice to heat with wood – it is totally the most inexpensive option for where we live. In northern Minnesota we have a fire going nearly 6 months out of the year and this last winter we saw wind chills hitting -50 degrees fahrenheit and actual temperatures dipping down in the -30s. When we renovated this house we opted for spray foam insulation which is basically the best you can get. All in spending only $400 on heat all winter is absolutely incredible but, like I already said, that’s not including Joe’s labor. (I do help Joe from time to time but he’s taken total responsibility of our wood situation.)
Do we plan on sticking with this? Yes and no. We plan on heating with wood indefinitely but right now we’re looking into an outdoor wood boiler. To do this we would be putting the wood boiler outside and then running pex water lines under the ground into our house to radiators. This would accomplish a bunch of great things for us: It would remove the fire from the middle of our house and move it outside. It would provide us with a home that is actually the same temperature throughout. We would get to paint and actually keep our white ceilings and trim white and we would no longer be hauling wood in here and covering the house with wood chips and bark etc. The other great thing about an outdoor wood boiler is that they reach much hotter temperatures then traditional wood stoves meaning: Your wood doesn’t have to be perfectly dry etc. Right now Joe and I are always very careful and vigilant on what we burn (dry very clean wood of several types) for fear of ending up with a chimney fire caused by creosote and built up grime/ashes – its the biggest worry when heating with wood as we do now. Would we take out our wood stove from the kitchen? Probably not because, as I pointed out earlier, we have a great cooking surface and heat without the need for electricity right now and outdoor wood boilers do require electricity.
On top of that we also plan on insulating and finishing out the inside of our garage and if we installed an outdoor wood boiler we would go ahead and run a line to the garage too and put a radiator out there as well. It would never be very warm out there but I would guess it would stay above freezing and oh-my-gosh how great that would be for our vehicles in the winter! Our biggest hurdle right now is cost, outdoor wood boilers are really expensive! When I priced it out my estimates fell to nearly $10,000 all together! So, it is our plan SOMEDAY (hopefully soon) and we are keeping our eyes open for a used one.
If you are considering heating with wood I hope this post gave you some insight on what its like to live with it. If you’re renovating or looking to buy or build I would urge you to go the outside wood furnace or boiler route right away if you want to heat with wood. They do require MORE wood to heat your home but, as far as I can tell, the benefits make it entirely worth it. (Our best estimates suspect that we’ll go from burning 7 cords a winter to burning upwards of 10.) And you certainly don’t NEED to do all of the hauling, cutting etc. but you will save the most money doing it all yourself. Where we live we can buy wood pretty inexpensively from sawmills and we would still be paying less then half the cost of electric heat.