Monday, January 2, 2012

How to (or how not to) buy firewood -Updated

I've edited a few things, thanks to tips from Roo and The Colonel. I appreciate the input, you two!!

You'd think it'd be easy, right?  Just call up the local firewood guy, and voila! you have a nice, toasty winter.  Um...not quite.  Not unless you happen to know a great local firewood guy to start with, anyway.

Last year was the first year we bought wood.  Before that, we did the wood ourselves.  Let me tell you, that job is not all it's cracked up to be.  Not when the only mechanical device involved is your chainsaw, and the rest is all manual labor.  It's even worse if you don't really have a clue what you are doing, which we didn't; we made it up as we went.  

When we first moved here, we didn't know jack about firewood.  I didn't even know what a cord was. can stop laughing now.  For those of you that are just looking confused:  a cord of firewood is 128 cubic feet, generally measured in a stack 4 feet wide, 4 feet tall, and 8 feet long.  You can stack your cord of firewood any way you like, but the measurements of a true cord will always be 128 cubic feet.  That's length multiplied by width multiplied by height, LxWxH,  for those of you that don't recall that from basic algebra.  Don't feel bad.  I had to struggle to recall it myself.  Here's a handy cord calculator, thanks to The Colonel.  He'd suggested it before, but I'd forgotten all about it.

Back when we were city folk, and really hadn't a clue, we bought wood this way, just to light up our decorative fireplace:

You sure as heck don't want to try to purchase a winter's of wood that way.  I can only imagine the cost of a cord when you are paying that kind of exorbitant fee.

Take a peek at your local Craigslist or other firewood ads.  Some firewood dealers will try to sell you a rick, a rack (not the kind to fill out your bra; you'll have to see someone besides a firewood dealer for that), a truckload, or a face cord (4 feet high, 8 feet long, and however wide the one stack of logs works out to be).   As it happens, in Ohio, all of the above are not allowed.  Firewood must be pre-packaged, as in the above pic, sold by the cord (or fraction thereof), or sold by the ton.  The ton must be weighed on a certified scale.

Keep in mind, a full cord of firewood can not be hauled in one load in a pickup truck.  You'll probably run across at least three people with a truck load of wood for sale that will try to tell you different.  A cord of wood weighs about 3500 lbs, and most trucks can't handle that, even if the cord would fit.

Before we found our reliable wood guys, we dealt with some not-so-reliable types.  Our first load of wood was supposed to measure two cords, loaded into a dump truck.  When it arrived, it was dumped in a pile, so we had no idea how much wood was actually there.  It was covered in snow, soaking wet, and chock full of ants.  Zillions of ants.  So many ants that I only brought the wood inside as I was ready to toss it into the fire.  Lesson one:  inspect the wood before it's dumped, and don't be afraid to say, "Get that shite off my property!!"

Once we stacked the wood, we discovered that it was barely a single cord.  Lesson two: Just because the measurements of the truck multiply out to 256 cubic feet, that doesn't mean you are actually getting that much wood.  Picture this:  Wood tossed willy nilly into said cubic footage, versus wood stacked neatly into same cubic footage.  Which one do you think will be closer to the actual two cords?  Of course the neatly stacked wood will fit more into the space, as there will be less air space between logs.  That said, how many wood delivery guys do you think stack wood neatly into a truck?  So far, the answer would be NONE.  Lesson learned.

Our next firewood adventure was with a guy that advertised a guaranteed amount.  Great.  He showed up, dumped the wood, got paid, and left.  I stacked the wood and discovered it was over 1/4 short.  Grrrr!  I called him and he said he'd make it up on the next load, gave me some stuff about a "thrown cord" being an allowed measurement, but blah de blah.  His next load we took in good faith, and it measured a full cord...still 1/4 short considering what he owed from the last trip.  I chalked it up to experience and moved on.

Finally, we got lucky.  A dear friend of mine, Roo, and her husband, The Colonel, live on a tree farm.  When The Colonel has time away from work, he clears certain trees, not suitable for lumber, from his woodlot and cuts them for firewood.   We were fortunate enough to have him sell us a few cords of the driest, cleanest, hottest burning wood we've yet to run across.   The only problem so far is the rather awkward issue of telling my dear friend that her husband has the best hardwood around.  Um...double entendre, anyone?  Fortunately, she has a good sense of humor. ;)

We found a second wood guy through Eöl's work, and he's been wonderful, as well.  Between the two, we managed to purchase 13 cords of dry, seasoned, split hardwood, before the first snow even fell.  If you've ever struggled to get your own wood cut and split before snowfall, you know that sense of warm fuzziness I'm talking about.

If you are unfamiliar with firewood, but are thinking of heating that way, here are a few things you should know:

  • Unseasoned or green wood will only produce 2/3 of the heat of seasoned wood.  Seasoned firewood has a moisture content of less than 50%. (I got this fact from the Ohio website, but The Colonel says that dry would should be 18-22% moisture.  He's the expert! Probably why is wood is so awesome.  (Sorry, Roo. ;) ) Seasoning hardwood takes several months, and in some cases a full  year, depending on storage, type of wood, and moisture content.
  • A cord of wood stacked green will shrink a bit.  One site said 8%, another said 10%, but I'm going to check with The Colonel on that one.
  • When a seller advertises dry wood, ask if he means dry as in seasoned, or dry as in it is still green but has been under a tarp or stored in a shed.
  • Transportation of firewood across county lines, in many areas, is illegal.  The emerald ash borer and gypsy moth are the main reasons here in Ohio, but be sure to check your local laws.
  • Check your state's Dept of Agriculture website for more information on firewood laws in your state.
  • Hauling wood uphill, in the snow, on a sled, absolutely, without a doubt, is one of the suckiest things I've ever had to do, but you'll never truly appreciate firewood until you've done it. 

This is what a cord of firewood looks like, dumped in a tidy pile in the driveway:

See how the logs are all stacked neatly together?  That's how wood should be stacked for measuring if you are unsure of your delivery amount.  You've probably seen wood stacked in a sort of criss-cross method, where each layer goes a different direction for more airflow, and would not give an accurate measurement.  I'm only pointing this out because I didn't know it at first, either.

This is Eöl, standing on at least two cords of wood.  The snow was packed, and digging the wood out wasn't a lot of fun.  I'm thinking it's time to build a woodshed. 

If you are wondering how many cords you will need for an entire winter, that's a darn good question!! Ask around to your friends that burn wood, and double it.  Better safe than sorry, right?  For us, we do burn more wood in our smaller home than a friend of mine burns in her much larger space.  She has a whole-house wood-burning furnace, and not nearly as many windows as we have.  Her home is also newer and better insulated.  (But I can cook on my wood stove, as well as heat the house, and she doesn't have that option.)  There's also the factor of perceived comfort.  I spent so long freezing after we moved to Ohio, that I'm pretty happy when I can roam the house in only one layer.  Our home is set up for passive solar, which is just a high tech way of saying we have a lot of southern facing windows, and when the sun shines and the wood stoves are fired, it's so hot I put on a pair of shorts.   Can I get a hallelujah?? 

For our area, wood has turned out to be the warmest and most affordable option.  As city dwellers, we spent over $450 a month in natural gas alone, and still froze our tushes off.  With wood, our entire winter is paid for in advance.  If I buy more than I need for the winter, it's not going to rot or anything before the next cold snap. And don't forget, wood is a renewable resource.

Those of you out west probably burn pine.  Nothing wrong with that.  Hardwood is just what we burn 'round these parts.

A note on creosote:  I've heard a lot of people say it's caused by burning pine.  Nonsense.  From wikipediaBurning wood and fossil fuels at low temperature causes incomplete combustion of the oils in the wood, which are off-gassed as volatiles in the smoke. As the smoke rises through the chimney it cools, causing water, carbon, and volatiles to condense on the interior surfaces of the chimney flue. The black oily residue that builds up is referred to as creosote, which is similar in composition to the commercial products by the same name, but with a higher content of carbon black. 

You'll still have some creosote, even if you are Eöl and can start a super hot fire with nothing but your smoldering good looks.  Be sure to keep your chimney clean!

If I've forgotten anything, drop a comment or email and let me know.  I'll probably make a few edits anyway, if I can get The Colonel to take a peek at this.

Sources: Missouri extension, Ohio DOA Firewood Tips, some hands-on experience, and a few tips from The Colonel.  ETA: The Colonel recommends for more information.


Carolyn Renee said...

I know I shouldn't laugh, or be firewood saavy snobby, but whenever I see those wrapped five or six peices of firewood sold at stores for $4.99 I just shake my head and wonder exactly who would pay that much for a couple of split (small) logs. But then I forget where I the country, in the middle of the woods. Guess not everybody has the luck to be heating their home with wood! And ours comes from our back "yard". Hard work, yep, but worth it.

Oh, and I'm also one of those that will stoke up the wood stove so much that I'm walking around in shorts (and DH is complaining that he's going t melt).

Country Wife said...

I do the same thing when I see the logs...but I shake my head and wonder how I was ever so naive.

We've got a few more years of letting our woodlot regrow before we can harvest enough of our own to heat over the winter again. I have to say, I don't miss hauling wood uphill in the wheelbarrow, but I do miss those buns of steel. lol

Nicole said...

you can buy firewood like that here but its not $4.99 its more like $10 a bag. if you didn't already know, Australia is the most expensive country to live & NSW [Sydney]even more so. some times i marvel at how cheep everything is in the US. i have been watching those extreme coupon shows & all i can say is wow everything is so cheep even before they use the coupons, if only we had coupons here.

Country Wife said...

Nicole: Thanks for the info!! I had no idea the cost of living was so much higher in Australia. I also didn't know that Australia doesn't have coupons. Is anything cheaper there (compared to the US) that you know of?

Nicole said...

no sorry, think we need to move to your neck of the woods

Country Wife said...

We'd love to have you as a neighbor! :)