My grandfather heated his home in northern Michigan with wood for most of his life. As he got older, we installed an oil-burning stove as a backup. But for the most part, he did great with just wood heat, and my brother and I would often go up to his place to cut and split timber and stack the cords.
My grandfather usually insisted on three cords of wood stacked on his back porch for a typical Michigan winter, and sometimes liked an extra batch just in case. (A “cord” of wood is a stack that measures four feet high, four feet wide and eight feet long.)
He always over-stocked. He felt that wood harvested in summer and fall was much better than panicking in late winter or early spring if the stockpile of wood was low. We all agreed.
His house was modest at about 1,500 square feet, but he had a second story. His wood-burning stove was on the first floor. He also had a wood-burning cookstove in the kitchen, which was next to the stairs leading to the second floor, but he rarely bothered to heat the upstairs.
When the temperatures got below zero, he closed off the stairway to the second floor with a light sheet of plywood and set up a cot on the first floor in the living room. Over time, he actually preferred this bed in the living room and pretty much relegated the second floor to storage.
I learned a lot by helping him heat his home – lessons that are still applicable for today.
Let’s start with the basics. If you have a two-story home, the good news is that heat rises. If you only have a first floor wood-burning stove, the heat will find its way upstairs, but you may find the first floor a bit chilly if the heat generated isn’t sufficient for your total square footage and it’s all going up.
Many wood-burning stove manufacturers indicate the reasonable amount of space you can heat with a given stove, but this varies depending on the stove quality. Make sure you anticipate your square footage and understand how many square feet any stove you purchase can reasonably heat.
Stove Quality Facts
A standard wood-burning stove is made from cast iron, and the iron acts as a heat exchanger to direct heat into a room or rooms. Some have clear glass doors so you can enjoy the sight of a wood fire and assess when to add more wood.
However, quality matters. A poorly constructed stove will not only vent smoke into your home, but burn and heat inefficiently. If you can’t afford a better quality stove, any wood-burning stove is better than none.
Some stoves are made with stone, brick or soapstone to transfer and hold heat. Another critical consideration is the flue and other valve controls that can control the flow of air to the fire. What you want overnight is a slow, steady burn that continues to radiate heat without burning out in the middle of the night. The key is to do your homework and know that better quality stoves will give you maximum control, effective smoke sealing and overall safety.
Wood-burning stoves also require a base underneath that is usually firebrick or fire-proof tiles that protect the floor from any radiant heat from the bottom. Make sure you insulate the floor properly before planting a wood-burning stove on any floor.
Humidity and Stoves
An unfortunate side-effect of heat generated by any wood-burning stove is that it creates a very dry environment. This can cause problems for some people related to their sinuses, chest congestion, dry skin and dry eyes. You need to find a humidifying solution. The simplest is a towel in a five-gallon bucket that is filled with water and draped over a T-shape made with dowels of two slats of wood.
Any water exposed to dry air will evaporate into the surrounding air, but the towel acts as a wick to speed the transpiration. You could also hang your wet laundry on clotheslines in your home; you’ll be surprised at how fast it dries.
Wood Types and Seasoning
Only wood that has been dried or aged for a least a year should be used in a wood-burning stove. In an emergency, you do what you have to do, but green wood not only burns inefficiently but produces creosote that will eventually clog your stove pipes and chimney – creating a fire hazard.
The type of wood is also critical. Hardwoods such as oak and maple are best. Fruit woods are also good if they have been sufficiently aged. Aged ash is good for starting a fire but as a soft wood it burns very quickly. The worst is pine. Dried pine branches can help start a fire, but even when aged pine produces creosote and simply burns too quickly. Here again, if it’s all you have then you need to do what’s necessary, but if you can avoid pine, do so.
Strive for hardwoods for 90 percent of your stockpile, with well-aged softwoods to start a fire. Three cords is a good general stockpile, but like grandpa said, “More is better.” Besides, you can always carry over the excess to the next winter.
Insulation as a Factor
Insulation applies to the retention of heat regardless of the heat source, but you can reduce your wood stockpile needs if you manage insulation properly. The key is to understand not only key insulation points, but temperature management.
Temperature management is as simple as telling a teenager to not leave the front door or the garage door open. This was my grandfather’s pet-peeve. He knew how much he worked to maintain heat and humidity in an environment — and complacency from anyone was not tolerated.
Temperature management also involves stopping leaks in the integrity of a structure. This is largely defined by doors and windows. What most people don’t know is that doors are the biggest heat leakers. Make sure your doors are sealed with a rubber or plasticized gasket and that the door seals tight.
Windows are another matter. If you have storm windows, make sure you use them. You can also apply a sheet of plastic internally and stretch it tight with a blow-dryer to create an additional seal. It may be unsightly for a while, but hey — it’s winter.
Gaps in insulation between the foundation and the frame can also be heat sinks. If you can afford it, find ways to insulate and seal areas where cold air can invade.
By the way, electrical outlets on walls facing the exterior can also cause drafts. There are simple insulating templates that you can use to insulate any electrical outlet. Hold your hand close to the outlet on a cold day and if you feel a draft, you know what to do.
Hire an Expert?
As a self-sufficient person who values and appreciates homesteading, I’m always reluctant to hire experts. But you may want to think about this a bit if you’re not willing to pursue some due diligence on the subject of heating your home with a wood-burning stove.
Heating your whole home with wood heat is a serious and potentially dangerous proposition. The risk of fire, oxygen depletion, carbon monoxide poisoning from escaping or leaking smoke, or a failure of the stove on a night when the temperatures are -30 Fahrenheit contradict our attempts to survive in the face of adversity. You want to get this done right the first time.
Wood-burning stoves require annual maintenance:
- The seals need to be evaluated and potentially replaced.
- The chimney should be swept and cleaned by a chimney sweep regardless of the quality of wood you are burning. If you want to do this yourself, then buy the equipment and make it a late spring chore.
- Clean out and dump the ashes on a regular basis. You’ll need an ash bucket and a place to dump the ashes in the cold and snow of winter. Think ahead about how and where you’ll do this. Remember: The ash will most likely have hot coals that are a fire hazard.
Heating with a wood-burning stove makes sense for many people and may be your only off-the-grid option. Take the time to learn the basics and have the tools and hopefully the resources to stockpile enough wood to stay warm and comfortable all winter long.
What are your wood-burning stove tips? How much wood do you stockpile? Share your advice in the section below: