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On Firewood, Fuel Oil, and BTUs

We went to a funeral this weekend for our neighbor’s Dad.  He was an amazing, godly man who grew up in the Northeast in the 1920s.  His bedroom was an outdoor covered porch, shared with his siblings.   His story isn’t unusual for that time.

1920s New England Homestead. Image by

These days (call it being soft if you will) we enjoy a bit more shelter during the winters, and our house at the Flying T has quite the mish-mash of fuel types to help give that shelter some heat.  Down in the basement, we have a boiler fueled by a 250-gallon fuel oil tank that supplies hot water baseboard heat in several zones throughout the house.  We have small electric oil-filled space heaters for certain zones that we don’t wish to keep heated by diesel all the time.  Our hot water is supplied by an instant hot water heater, fired by a propane tank that also feeds the stove and oven.

However, the bulk of our heating is supplied by the woodstove in our living room that (at least in our limited experience in the new house at the tail end of last winter) does a pretty good job of keeping our living spaces warm.  It’s a HearthStone stove that circulates air to maximize efficiency and uses natural soapstone to store and release heat.  In addition to the more even radiant heat this provides, another benefit is that we can get the stove nice and hot in the evening, pack it up with wood and close the damper before we go to bed, and it will still be warm when I wake up to toss more wood in in the morning.  The chief drawback is that if we let the fire go out, it takes a longer time to get the stove warm again.

As this will be our first full winter in the house and seasoned firewood can be tough to find and expensive to buy in February/March, I’ve made sure we have plenty of wood for the winter.  We still have about an eigth of the cord of “seconds” I bought when I first arrived, as well as a full cord my parents gave us as a true “housewarming” present.  At the beginning of Summer, we purchased another 3 cords of green firewood and stacked it in open criss-cross fashion to dry.  It’s cracking nicely which tells me it’s pretty well seasoned.

To that, we’ve added another roughly three cords of wood cut, split, and stacked from our woods throughout the year: about a cord and a half of Red Maple, another of Pin Cherry, and a half of odds and ends we pulled out in the cleanup after Irene.  That’s stacked in another location on the property, and from the looks of it, should be plenty ready by the end of Winter when we need it.

A good cord of well-seasoned hardwood stores about the same number of BTUs as 150 gallons of fuel oil.  Given our oil boiler’s tested efficiency of just over 80% and a conservative rating of 70% for the stove (it’s advertised at 80%), that means we pull about the same amount of useable heat from each cord as we do from 130 gallons of diesel, so I figure our firewood stacks are worth about 850 gallons (given that the Irene stuff isn’t all hardwood).  Click here to read a pretty good article on these calculations on the National Ag Safety Database… it’s an old article, so don’t laugh or cry too hard when you see the prices. 

We’re getting a quote of about $3.65 a gallon delivered to pre-buy fuel oil through the winter.  Seasoned hardwood goes for around $250 a cord delivered, but green wood dries out just fine over the summer and costs only ~$175.  I estimate we use about a gallon of gas/oil in my Stihl per cord and another half gallon of tractor diesel to get it out of the forest and to the wood pile, at which point we pay our son about $10/cord to stack it (almost all of which he puts in his Haiti missions jar).  That might only be $15-20 in direct costs, but given the hours spent sharpening, oiling, cutting, hauling, and splitting (with mauls and axes – we think of it as saving on a gym membership), I think $175 is pretty fair for a cord of green wood whether we cut it ourselves or have it delivered.

Bottom line: Our firewood stack represents about $1225 in money and time.  The equivalent 850 gallons of fuel oil would cost about $3100.  Savings: $1875.

Time to cut some more wood.

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