Fire in a Box
I like wood fires because…
It is a technology where I can build my own efficient stove. I can do this with metal, with scrap, or even just with local stone. There is no electricity, electronics from distant lands, technicians or tech support needed. It is completely and totally doable and maintainable at the most local of all levels.
I know how to properly build a fire box, a chimney and keep them clean and maintained. It is not rocket science. The basic principles are simple and clear. Much of it has been proven over thousands of years with some improvements in the last few hundred years. Bonus points if one does not live in a house made of fuel.
Wood fires are easy. Done properly with fast burns they transfer their heat to the mass of the stove, the shroud and the house means few burns a day so there’s no having to tend the fire all the time. Lighting a fire is a simple skill children can learn to do right and safely. Even our dog Remus is fascinated with fire and brings me little sticks and pieces of paper to put in the fire. The concept of controlling fire is a million years or older with our species. It may be part of why wolves tamed us.
Wood heat is clean. A fast hot fire of well seasoned wood burns cleanly. It’s a natural process using natural materials that are part of the current carbon cycle rather than releasing locked up carbon from hundreds of millions of years ago like coal, gas or petroleum. The by-product, ash from the wood fire, is a valuable soil amendment for our gardens.
I can grow and harvest my own fuel, locally from our land with minimal or even no technology. The fuel is literally kicking around on the forest floor and grows on trees. Metal, chainsaws, a tractor to skid logs are all nice extras for harvesting firewood but even without those I can simply gather deadwood branches that I can snap with my hands to heat our home. We can do this without an axe although one is a nice addition, a simple million year old time tested technology that lasts for generations.
Wood is a local fuel that supports our local economy without the need for long distance transport or shipping across the world like oil. Wood does not support terrorism or wars in foreign lands. Wood keeps the money and jobs in our neck of the woods.
Wood requires minimal processing. One, two, pickup sticks. Three four, shut the door. Five, six feed the fire. At most we buck, block and split the wood, stacking it over a season to dry. In a pinch we can kiln dry wood in a day or so using the previous burn. No huge oil refineries are needed, no processing plants, no leaky land grabbing pipelines, no storage depots polluting the land, no trains that roll into town and explode.
Which leads me to another very big issue: Wood doesn’t explode. It doesn’t even catch fire all that easily unlike gasoline and propane. Wood is a safe fuel with some basic cautionary principles – it is fire. Minimum clearances distances to combustibles, clean the chimney at least annually and inspect it times en time.
I’m still not interested in building my house out of wood. Masonry for me, it’s not burnable. Yes, there are chimney fires but that comes from people not doing it right. Everything can be done wrong. Choose to intentionally do things right and one doesn’t have those sorts of problems. Fate is not chance.
Done properly with a large thermal mass, ideally built right into the house, the wood fire provides a gentle heat that can take days to move through the masonry. This avoids the overly dry air of forced air heating systems and the active electric driven hydronic systems which both fail when the power goes out, which it often does in the winter. The heat can be stored for days in the thermal mass where it cycles slowly. A properly built house naturally stays above freezing even in our extreme climate. The wood boosts us to comfortable temperatures for all.
One of the keys to wood burning is not needing a lot of wood. Our cottage is small, thermally massive and requires very little wood to keep it warm all winter. We use about 0.75 cord of wood per year. Our old farmhouse needed seven cord of wood a year. Using less wood is nice because the work it took to bring in one year’s wood for the old farm house is enough for a decade in the cottage.
I like fire. It is simples and it works.
Update: 20200809 – After more than a decade of burning wood each winter and it staying under 0.75 cord of wood per year I decided this last winter (2019-2020) to do an experiment of heating just with electricity, no wood. The cost was under $50/month with the electric space heater running in a little in November and then through December, January, February and March. This makes the cost of wood if I were buying it still cheaper than electric but it is good to know that even electric won’t break the bank due to the cottage’s high mass design. Good and Green.
Outdoors: 14°F/-17°F Sunny
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/60°F
Daily Spark: Fire is man’s greatest theft.