Keeping warm with woodstoves

Split wood ready for the winter. — File photo by Mae Deary

Wood stoves are important fixtures in many Island homes, providing visual and practical warmth. For some, it’s the primary source of heat, while in other houses the stove serves more of a decorative function, without drawing as much heat up the chimney as a fireplace would. Wood burning stoves can be the least expensive way of heating a house through the Island winter, and there’s something satisfying about their immediacy. The downsides are well known to anyone who has heated with wood — the constant feeding of the stove, the dust, the dry air, and the work of gathering fuel or the expense of buying it.

Once upon a time, Islanders kept wood lots, where they felled trees and trucked the logs home to season until dry, then split them with axes, wedges, and mallets. A few acres, well-managed, could provide enough fuel to warm a household winter after winter, almost indefinitely. These days, though, many more households buy their wood, pick up some deadwood here and there, or get wood from a mix of sources. Even at $350 a cord, it can be one of the less expensive ways of heating a house. Scrounging, of course, is free except for the cost of chainsaw fuel and maintenance, not to mention the time and effort involved.

Heating a house with a wood stove requires anywhere from two to six cords of firewood a winter in this climate, depending on the size of the house, the efficiency of the wood stove, the effectiveness of the house’s insulation, the warmth preferences of its inhabitants, and the severity of the winter. Ken Cottrill of Lickity Split Logs, one of the Vineyard’s main suppliers of firewood, says that those of his customers who use the wood stove as their main source of heat buy three to five cords a year, and some buy as many as six cords. (A cord is a unit of dry volume, 4’x4’x8′, used to measure quantities of firewood.)

The firewood sold on the Vineyard comes almost entirely from off-Island. “The wood I sell is processed in Massachusetts from forests in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and southern Vermont,” Mr. Cottrill says. “It’s cut, stored for a year, then cut to 16″ lengths and split.” Lickity Split’s mix includes oak, ash, beech, maple, and cherry bought from sawyers whose primary business is cutting lumber for boards. The wood that isn’t straight, or is too full of knots, becomes firewood.

Fred Fisher of Nip ‘n’ Tuck Farm also sources firewood off-Island, and both have Carroll’s trucking deliver the wood to the Island. The cost of transportation is a major contributor to the cost. Lickity Split and the Fishers both charge about $350 or a bit less for a cord of firewood, but in western Massachusetts, closer to the source, a dry cord of wood can cost as little as $200 retail.

But what about all of the trees here? Josh Scott of Beetlebung Tree Care says that about half the time they take down a tree on people’s property, the customers want to keep it for firewood. Because of the cost of labor here, the resultant cordwood might be more expensive than wood trucked in from off-Island.

“Last year we were clearing a property near Polly Hill,” Mr. Scott said. He cleared away between 700 to 800 trees, which had died from caterpillar infestation. “We had 60 truckloads of firewood, but it was a little punky.” He didn’t feel that it was saleable, but gave it to people who needed it. He also heats with wood himself, using an outdoor wood-burning furnace.

On the other end of the market, Mr. Scott sells specialty firewood, white oak, locust, and cedar. “We’ll split it for clients who want really nice firewood,” he said, “and sell it by the eighth of a cord. If summer clients who are here two or three times in a winter get too much, it just rots.” With labor costs around $25 an hour, plus the cost of the wood, it is far more expensive than the mixed hardwoods from off-Island.

Some people manage to heat their houses with free wood. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, John Hoy of West Tisbury (and of Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish fame) hit the road with his pickup truck and a chainsaw to scoop up fallen locust for firewood.

“I am a scrounger,” Mr. Hoy said. “I scrounge about 10 cords a year off wherever, the side of the road mostly. I do pretty good in the summer when nobody wants to deal with the poison ivy and the ticks and the biting insects and the heat. I just keep on it all the time, all year-round. I get it for the wood-burning beast of a furnace I have out there. And that’s my only source of heat and hot water in the winter. As long as my back holds out I’m going to keep going like I’m doing, getting it on the scrounge.”

Even those who pay for all of their wood probably save some money over fuel oil or propane heat. Seasoned hardwoods generally contain over 20 million BTUs per cord, which, at a cost of $350/cord, works out to less than 1.75 cents per thousand BTUs. In comparison, home heating oil has about 140,000 BTUs per gallon, and costs over $4 a gallon, for about 3 cents per thousand BTUs; and propane provides 92,000 BTUs/gallon and costs $3.40 a gallon or more for about 3.6 cents per thousand BTUs.

Of course, there’s more to the cost of heating than just BTUs, but burning wood is still looking like a good way to save a few dollars on heating costs. That, and no one gathers around the propane heater like they will around a good wood stove fire on a snowy night.