I remember seeing a bumper sticker sometime in the mid-eighties that read “Split wood, not atoms.” Even though I was some twenty years from trying to heat a 160 year old, seven bedroom farmhouse with wood, I realized the sentiment to be a bit naive. I can guarantee the person driving around with that bumper sticker had never actually tried to functionally use split wood in place of a modern energy source. Certainly he was not running his car on wood!
We experienced our first winter at Rosemary Farm in 2008 – the coldest winter in nearly 27 years. The house is equipped with a forced air oil furnace. We went into fall with home heating oil at over four dollars a gallon. We also had an old open fireplace in which we installed a wood-burning insert. The house is drafty, and not well insulated, and we found even shutting it down to a few rooms, keeping the overall heat no more than 55 degrees and living in front of the fireplace (which we continually stuffed with wood), we still spent a small fortune in heating oil. It was cozy enough in front of that fireplace – cozy enough to get married in front of, but we needed a better solution for the years to come.
“I’ve got it! Let’s get one of those outdoor wood-burning furnaces. We have lots of trees on the property. I’ll just cut them up and we can heat for free.”
Back to the guy with the bumper sticker… Do you know how much wood you need to split to heat a house for a year? I’m at about ten cords so far and the winter is only half over. You may ask “didn’t you know or find out how much wood you’d need BEFORE installing such a unit?” The answer is yes and no. I was aware, though I thought it would be a little less, but I couldn’t really imagine how much wood that was – and how I was going to get it.
So as summer turned to fall – 2009 – we had a wood-burning furnace installed behind our house with fifty feet of underground insulated pipe to carry hot water to a heat exchanger installed in our furnace. I began to cut the pile of wood left by the loggers down near the brook. I was sure this would take no time at all and last at least half t chainsaw he winter. I attacked the pile with gusto and my 18″ Poulan chainsaw, a homeowners model left here by the previous tenants.
Wood Pile next to tractor
First things first. I had to dig the logs, some up to twenty feet long, out of the pile of mud the loggers had bulldozed them into. I used the forks on the front of my tractor and stacked up four or five logs to get started – no problem.
Two and a half hours later I had cut one ten foot log into five smaller logs. I had spent a majority of that time messing with the chainsaw and sharpening the chain. Oh yes, you must sharpen chains on chainsaws especially when cutting through tree trunks coat in mud – mud contains rocks and rock beats metal. I learned about sharpening chains after buying several new chains each time they dulled. Figuring there had to be a better (cheaper) way I bought a file and hit the Internet. It’s not that hard, but filing each one of the teeth on the chain takes a little time.
But two and a half hours for probably a days worth of firewood (we haven’t even got to splitting the blocks yet) did not seem efficient. Perhaps a professional, or at least someone who has done this before could help. But hiring someone on the cheap to do farm chores is a whole other story. Suffice to say after another half a day fight the woodpile beast the conclusion was “we’re going to need a bigger saw.”
Off to the farm machinery store…
“You could get away with the Rancher model, but you’ll find you’ll want something bigger with the amount of wood you have to cut.” That’s what our friendly, ex-Brooklyn tractor salesman told me. And to his credit he had been right about the tractor he sold me. ”So which model will I need?” Translation – How much will this cost me? For your information, a professional model Husqvarna 357 XP retails for over $750. He gave me a small price break and though in an extra chain, some chain oil and a file. Oh yes – you still have to sharpen them!
It still wasn’t like a knife through butter, but I was able to knock through the logs at a reasonable clip. The fact that they had been bulldozed into a mud pile was a problem, but another lesson learned. Now, onto splitting the cut logs. Splitting can be done with an axe and several wedges or with a wood splitter – a wedge force down into the wood by a hydraulic engine. I was lucky enough to borrow one from a neighbor that fit the back of a tractor. Of course it didn’t fit the back of MY tractor without two hundred dollars worth of mounting iron and hydraulic hose.
I spent a couple hours a day stacking, cutting, splitting and hauling wood to our wood stove. I figure all told, four or five days worth of work. And that pile, maybe seven cords (128 square feet of wood per cord) lasted just barely to Christmas.
Rosemary Farm has many wood acres – in the mountains. Unless you’re doing significant logging, it turns out it’s cheaper to buy logs by the truckload than to get them off the side of a mountain. We had a load delivered near to the stove. That relieved me of the burden of digging out, stacking and eventually hauling the logs to the stove. I still had to cut and chop them. A three-week cold spell of nights below zero relieved me of my 3 1/2 cords quickly.
It’s warmed up a bit now – in the thirties by day and I just had a tri-axle load delivered, about 7 1/2 cords. Ordering such a load is not like ordering a cheeseburger, it takes a week or so of arranging. If something goes wrong – and it usually does – maybe two or more weeks. I tried to plan ahead but still ended up cutting down several small trees behind the Maple Barn. (Don’t worry tree lovers; they were slated to fall anyway.)
I’m hoping, barring any more really cold spells, this load will last us through the rest of the winter. I figure that will make about 18 full cords. A lot of timber, but still less than a quarter of what we would have spent on heating oil. What about the cost of my time? Considering a gym membership in the city runs over a hundred dollars a month, and I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since high school – I figure I’m saving money there too!