Heating Your Home With Wood: The Definitive Guidebook


Heating with wood was once the only way homes were heated.  People spent hours felling trees, splitting logs and stacking wood for heat and cooking. Settlers used around 15 cords of wood a year according to Charles Brooks in Frontier Settlement and Market Revolution: The Holland Land Purchase.  Imagine being equipped with only a hand ax and having acres of wood to cut, split and store. It was a time consuming, exhausting task, and if there wasn't enough wood cut and stored, the family would perish during brutal winter months. Not only were homes heated with wood, wood heat was essential for cooking and survival.

Although modernization has created a glut of homes heated with gas, oil and propane, there are still plenty of homes that depend on wood for heat, and plenty of homeowners facing the work involved to heat their homes. In our push toward modernization, cutting and splitting wood has become a science, and homeowners are blessed with tools such as the Split Second Log Splitter, along with chain saws and other accessories. Wood collecting can transform from a year-round chore to a few fun-filled weekends with friends, enjoying the freedom power tools offer at wood cutting parties.

If you have never been to a wood cutting party— yes, it’s a real thing—imagine getting together with friends and using the latest technology has to offer to help in conquering your wood cutting. Your friends bring their chainsaws and you fire up your log splitter and soon the wood is knocked out. After a few hours of power tool fun, there’s no better way to end the day than with a few beers, some good food and, of course, a bon fire.

Although we can now purchase wood, either in a convenient grocery store bundle or in a large delivery such as by the cord, keeping up with demands of your fireplace, woodstove, or masonry fireplace may prove to be costly, so finding ways to reduce that cost is key in keeping heating costs under control.  Even if you don’t have a wooded lot, it is possible to cut these costs by getting creative.  Additionally, learning what type of wood to burn is important for your chimney health.

Safely burning wood requires knowledge of what types of wood you should burn, and what you houldn't burn. Some wood burns hot and fast and other wood, like hardwoods, burn longer and at a slower temperature. This bit of information is critical in learning how to build an efficient, effective, long burning fire.

Learning how to care for your fireplace, masonry fireplace or woodstove will ensure you have a safe place to burn, as regular inspections reveal any issues. Keeping your fireplace clean is vitally important for your fireplace/stove health. There are products available to help keep the chimney clean between the sweepings, insuring you burn safely.

Heating Your Home with Wood: The Definitive Guidebook is filled with helpful tips and tricks to help anyone build a better fire and heat the entire home effectively and efficiently. From regular maintenance, to which wood to burn, this guide covers it all. Whatever type of wood burning appliance is used, these hints will help you build a better, longer lasting, hotter burning fires to heat the entire home.

Table of Contents


Chapter One: How to get the Most from a Traditional Fireplace

Chapter Two: How to Burn Safely with a Woodstove

Chapter Three: How to Burn Cleaner with a Masonry Fireplace

Chapter Four: How Understanding Wood Helps You Burn

Chapter Five: How to Move Heat Using Fans

Chapter Six: How to Keep the Hearth Glowing

Chapter Seven: How to Build a Better Fire

Chapter Eight: How to Keep Your Fireplace Clean and Safe to Burn

Chapter One: How to Get the Most from Traditional Fireplaces

Heating your home with a traditional fireplace has been criticized for the amount heat lost during use, but offers ambience and aesthetics that woodstoves lack. Your fireplace may be equipped with blower fans, which are invaluable in returning heat to the home and reducing heat lost to the chimney.

One of the most important things to remember about heating with wood is that with traditional fireplaces a great deal of heat produced from burning wood is lost to the ventilation system. The exhaust containing CO2 is sent into your fireplace’s chimney and out of the home, keeping everyone safe from carbon monoxide poisoning, but taking warm air with it.  

In order to prevent heat loss, many home owners install fireplace inserts with blowers that capture the heat and return it to the home. When not in use, it is important to keep the flue closed, along with the fireplace doors, to keep out cool air in the winter and warm air in the summer. If you are going to add a fireplace that is intended to be your home’s only source of heat, make sure you take into consideration your home’s square footage.

In larger homes and homes with multiple floors, it is wise to add an additional fireplace or woodstove to the second floor, when wood is the only heat source. Although in some climates one fireplace may be adequate, you need to be certain that your home will have enough heat generated from that fireplace.

A traditional fireplace lends itself to stunning design, whether trimmed out in slate or sporting a carved mantel, your fireplace is an extension of your personality. Better Homes and Gardens offer a multitude of design ideas to help you bring out the very best in your fireplace, and show your personal flare at the same time.


Heating your Home Safely with Wood



Chapter Two: How to Burn Safely with a Woodstove

While a traditional fireplace can do an excellent job of heating a room, and even an entire home, many believe that the woodstove is the most efficient way to heat the home. A woodstove is completely contained and free standing inside the home, with only a bit of stove pipe vented to the outside, allowing heat to be released all around the unit and into the home and safer burning.

The amount of heat lost to the flue is minimal, and it takes less wood to create that heat. As with the fireplace, there are woodstoves may be equipped with fan blowers which help move heat throughout the home. Wrought iron stoves contain the fire behind a latched door to maintain fire safety. Because many love to watch the flames dance, glass doors are now offered in an effort to get consumers to keep the door closed while burning while satisfying consumer demand.

When properly installing your woodstove, ensure you have adequate space to place it, and that the area it is to occupy has been appropriately prepared with fire resistant wall and floor covering.  You must properly measure and comply with safety regulations that require your stove to be placed a certain distance from the walls, and the area around the woodstove be properly fireproofed with a masonry or stone hearth. Following these mandates ensures your woodstove will burn safely.




Chapter Three: How to Burn Cleaner with a Masonry Fireplace

Masonry fireplaces, also referred to as masonry heaters, are an intelligent design combination which incorporates the traditional fireplace with the ventilation piping encapsulated in masonry, keeping them inside of the home, similar to the design of the woodstove. By keeping the exhaust piping inside the home instead of outside, heat is captured by the masonry case, which heats up and releases it to the home, making the fireplace much more effective.

These fireplaces are much more efficient and also built to be a show piece in the home, with the masonry taking center stage in the design. The masonry stack contains ventilation exhaust tubing that is surrounded by fire blocks, and is finished over with different materials including stucco. Some homeowners opt to simply paint the blocks, keeping the bricks exposed for better heating.

By moving the majority of the exhaust piping inside, heat is kept inside and not lost as the CO2 is vented out like in traditional fireplace ventilation. Each brick heats up and releases heat slowly into the home. The bricks can hold heat from 12 to 24 hours, releasing warmth and keeping the home comfortable overnight.

With new regulations from the EPA, masonry fireplace design has dramatically reduced the toxins, smoke and waste being sent into the atmosphere. Not only do they burn well and provide outstanding heat, they are the most environmentally friendly of the three wood burning appliances discussed here.

Additionally, the stack can also be designed to complement a home’s tile work, or be covered in a wood look laminate, or any number of materials. Your designer will have some great ideas on how to turn the masonry stack into a centerpiece showcase design for your home. Some of these masonry heaters take a grand space in the home, providing an aesthetically pleasing design while serving the vital function of getting heat to the entire home.





Chapter Four: How Understanding Wood Helps you Burn

Purchasing wood for fuel can become expensive. Wood is sold by the cord, which is a stack of wood 4 ft by 4 ft by 8 ft. The total area of the cord is 128 cubic, however because air is taking up most of the space in the cord, only about 85 cubic feet of the cord is actually wood. Although firewood is sold by the cord, the cords sold for firewood are variations of the standard cord.

Every stack is sold as a 4 ft x 8 ft stack, but wood stove wood pieces are only 12 inches long and are referred to as ‘stove cords’. There are also ‘face cords’ and their pieces measure 16 inches. Finally, wood can also be purchased in what are called ‘furnace cords’ which are 18 inches.

So, when you hear a vendor is selling stove cord for $70.00, the cord price for this wood can be found by dividing the length of the wood, in this case 12 inches, by 48 inches, the length in a full cord. This number is then multiplied by the price, in this case $70.00. These calculations yield a cord price of $300.00. In general, most wood will cost $200-$250 a cord at the time of this printing, depending on the area, supply and demand.  It is fairly common to buy wood by the half cord as well, but this increases the price and costs more in the long run.

In this example, the price of wood was inflated by ten dollars. This doesn’t seem like much, until you do the math and find that this price can be nearly $100 dollars higher than the going market rate.  Keep in mind that in some areas, the $300 cord is the market rate, but if you feel you are being overcharged, call around to see what other vendors are charging.

Now that you understand how much you are paying when you purchase your wood, knowing what types of wood to burn is the next lesson toward becoming a wood burning aficionado. Not all wood burns the same, and some wood should never be burned in your fireplace, as it can cause creosote to build up in your chimney and possibly catch fire. Knowing which wood you can burn, and being able to recognize it keeps you from burning what you shouldn’t and helps reduce creosote buildup.

Most pine trees and overly sappy trees should be avoided. While you may be tempted to burn your Christmas tree in your fireplace after the holidays, keep in mind that burning these gooey trees causes creosote to buildup, presenting a fire hazard, a lot of smoke and lots of popping and crackling. Also steer clear of green wood for the same reasons. If you have green wood you wish to burn, you need to cure it first by letting it age for at least one season before storing. Leaving cut wood in the sun helps the wood release water, which is the goal of curing. Seasoned firewood contains very little water, only 15-20%.

When you burn green wood, it produces a lot of smoke as well as explosive pops caused by the moisture inside the wood heating up to the point where it becomes a gas, expanding exponentially and breaking out of the restrictive area. These tiny explosions send hot coals flying, often escaping the fireplace screen and burning the floor or furniture. Seasoning greatly reduces the risk of fire, so even if you are out of seasoned wood, leave the green wood alone.

A great way to gather wood to burn is to check with your local forestry department. This is where all the branches are taken after a storm has hit and where the city’s wood trimming end up. It is also where many landscaping companies dump their tree limbs if they aren’t run through a shredder. Not only is the wood you select from the forestry dump free, you can take what you like, allowing you to pick and choose. Additionally, asking your neighbors for their storm torn limbs is a great way to get free firewood. Get creative; there are many ways to get your firewood for free or practically nothing.

One final firewood note, moving firewood can introduce harmful insects, allowing them to become invasive. Visit Don’t Move Firewood.org for more information, including how far is too far to move wood.







Chapter Five: How to Move Heat Using Fans

In older homes, it is rare to find the fireplace equipped with a fan blower. In these instances, homeowners may be able to find an insert to help capture the heat and return it immediately into the room. There are many different styles and types to select from. If it isn’t feasible to add an electronic component such a blower, there are passive systems available to capture some of the heat that an older, traditional fireplace loses to the chimney ventilation system.

For some, blower inserts are simply not an option. In these instances, putting up ceiling fans in each room and in hallways will help move the warmed air throughout the home. Sometimes the room your fireplace is in can become quite hot, but the rest of your home is much cooler. When this occurs, placing oscillating fans in the same room as your fireplace can get the warm air out of the room and into the rest of the home.

Having ceiling fans set to bring warm air down will greatly aid in getting the rest of the rooms of the home heated.  Set your oscillating fan far enough from the fireplace to allow it to circulate the heated air. It may take another oscillating fan to pull that air out of the room and into the rest of the home.

Finding a balance is a matter of trial and error. Another type of blower that can help send more heat into your home uses tubes that replace your fireplace grate. The heat from the fire is transferred from the tubes and through a blower placed near the fireplace. This option is cost effective and anyone can install the tube blower, making it a great alternative to a blower insert.




Chapter Six: How to Keep the Hearth Glowing

There is something welcoming and comforting about a wood fed fire. The familiar crackle and dancing of the flames give us much more than heat. When it comes to heating your home with wood, deciding on what to do with your fire overnight can pose a problem. When wood is your only heat source, letting it go completely out overnight may not be a realistic option, despite the insistence of the fire safety experts who assert your fire must be extinguished before turning in.

If you find yourself among those who rely solely on wood for heat, you may need to keep your fire burning overnight. If this is the case, you should be vigilant in doing so as safely as possible. When burning your fireplace while sleeping, make sure you have your screen pulled closed completely. If your fireplace has glass doors, close them tightly. If you don’t have doors, employ a secondary fireplace screen that is free-standing and placed at the front of your hearth.

The most important thing to remember is never add so much wood that your fire collapses and logs roll out. You may be tempted, but don’t do it. There is nothing more alarming that being awakened by the crashing sound of your logs rolling out of the fireplace and onto the hearth. A slow burning fire is the goal for overnight heating.




Chapter Seven: How to Build a Better Fire

Before building your fire, clean out your fireplace. There are convenient fireplace tool sets that keep your fireplace tools handy, right by your fireplace of woodstove. For a look at some lavish fireplace accessories, enjoy Ken Fulk’s New York Times slideshow.

Scoop the ash into a metal bucket in case there are live coals hiding in it. Never use a plastic or wood bucket, even if you believe the fire is completely out. Coals can smolder for hours and are capable of starting fires and melting plastic. Now that your fireplace is clean, there are a couple of methods to use that make lighting your fireplace a snap. There are basic steps used in all methods of fire staring and include:

Make certain the flue is open. Even seasoned fire starters forget this once in a while and the entire home ends up bathed in smoke. If you forget, it won’t be long before the smoke reminds you.
Prep your chimney by lighting a few, healthy wads of newspaper, using more or less depending on how cold it is, or simply light a chimney sweep log. This heats up the chimney and prevents the cold air outside from pushing smoke into the house.
For an old fashioned fire, wad paper loosely and fill the firebox below the grate and one layer on top of the grate.
Lay small kindling twigs in a crisscross pattern that allows oxygen to fuel your fire. As you place kindling, gradually increase the size of the kindling so the largest kindling, or one inch diameter sticks and larger are balanced on top.
Using a fireplace match or lighter, lite several places under the grate. As the fire flames up and catches the kindling, add smaller pieces of split log. Tend your fire with a poker while it builds, ensuring no logs roll out, adding larger logs as the fire allows.
Spread coals as they accumulate with the fire poker to help fire burn evenly.
Add wood as needed.
Some people use fire starting products such as EZ Fire to aid them. There are several different brands available. I have found with enough paper and good kindling, you don’t need it.





Chapter Eight: How to Keep your Fireplace Clean and Safe to Burn

It’s a dirty job, a Mike Rowe kind of dirty, the semi-annual inspection and professional chimney sweeping. Having this done for your fireplace twice a year helps keep you on top of its condition and alerts you of any needed repairs. Even though many wood burners use products such as chimney sweep logs to remove creosote and help prevent buildup, a well-used fireplace will need to be cleaned.

Having your chimney swept reduces the chance of fire from buildup and reduces pollutants that are emitted from your chimney. A clean, obstruction free chimney increases its effectiveness in venting out deadly CO2 emissions and encourages healthy fires. To keep your fireplace clean during the burning season, you can help keep your creosote levels down using chimney cleaning logs. For tips on hiring a chimney sweep, visit the Chimney Safety Institute of America.





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