Sunday, September 27, 2015

Cutting Firewood for Heat

Heating a home can be a huge expense if you have a large house, an old house with little or no insulation, or an all electric house. I have a poorly insulated all-electric house so my heating bills can be quite high. My house was built in 1973 when electricity was fairly cheap. Also, the electric provider gave a substantial discount to home owners of all electric houses for the first ten to twenty years. This was to encourage new home builders to build all electric houses.  In the long run, the electric company knew they would recoup all their discount and make substantial profits on these houses.

My electric bill, in the winter months, averages between $300 and $400 a month; but I have no other utility bills to worry about. Still, I needed to lower that bill if I could. The house had a masonry fireplace installed when it was built. But fireplaces are not efficient at all and can actually cause additional heat loss up the chimney if the damper is left open. After I bought the house I installed glass doors on the fireplace and that helped a little, but not much. So in 2011 I bought a fireplace insert and installed that. The insert cost a bit under $600 and came with an internal blower to move more air around the firebox to pull off more heat. It is one of the smallest inserts I could find because I didn't want to create too much heat. The house is a single floor ranch  house and there is very little natural air flow and the living room would get too hot.

I installed the insert myself, not a job for the new, inexperienced handy-man.  Getting the insert put together and in the fireplace was a chore but not overly difficult. What was hard was installing a chimney insert to make the insert "draw" better. I found out that the massive brick chimney cooled down the smoke too much and the smoke did not go up the chimney very good. So I figured creating a smaller flue that was insulated from the ice cold brick would do a better job. Installing that was a several hour long, dirty job. But it is in and other than a yearly cleaning I have had no problems with either the insert or the chimney flue.

With this fireplace insert I can heat most of the house and hold a temperature of 70-73 degrees while the fire is burning. The fire will burn unattended until about 2:00 o'clock in the morning and the warmed walls (I have plaster walls and ceilings) keep the room temperature above 65 degrees until the morning. Keeping the fire going most of the day reduces my electric bill by half so the cost of the insert was paid back in the first 4-5 months I operated it.

I am fortunate to have my own source of "free" firewood off my own land. Nothing is really free, the cost of cutting, transporting the wood, and my time are a factor. But I greatly enjoy being in the woods and working on developing my wood lots so I consider it more of an entertainment expense then a heating expense.  I also cut about four cords of wood for my dad each year. For those of you new to firewood, or cord wood as it is sometimes called, a "cord" is a stack of wood that is four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. Who came up with that unit of measure is a mystery.

I usually wait to cut wood until the cooler weather begins. When I was a boy, that started in late August or early September. Now it is just getting tolerable in late September. I cut wood today and it was 76 degrees and the gnats were a pain in the butt. The only reason I started already is because my dad, who is elderly and chills easily, starts a fire every morning to take the chill out of his living room so he can read his daily newspapers in comfort. His wood shed is almost empty so I need to start filling it even if it is uncomfortably warm still.

Last summer, I bought a well-used Power King tractor for my wood cutting chores. I had been using my dad's much larger Kubota but with the front end loader and its larger size it was not very maneuverable in the woods. I wanted something smaller but bigger and more powerful than a lawn tractor. The Power King 1617 model that I have is nearly perfect; four-wheel drive would have made it perfect.

 This small tractor has a 17 horsepower engine (not a lawn mower engine like the so-called garden tractors you can buy today) and all-gear drive. It is a 4-speed with a nice Category-0 three point hitch. I have a snow plow and two mower decks; a four foot and a five foot deck.  I can pull a fully loaded trailer of wood with no strain on the motor at all. I will buy or build some other 3-pt attachments for this tractor to do other work on my property such as a harrow and a cultivator for putting in food plots for the wildlife. (Update: I was fortunate to find a small plow for sale shortly after I wrote this post. It is a 10-inch moldboard plow, originally sold by Sears for their Suburban line of garden tractors (1970s). I tested it out on my dad's garden and it did an excellent job turning the soil. (The plow had never been used before and still had the preservative grease on it.) The furrows were cleanly cut and all the weeds and grass were buried. I was impressed. The PowerKing didn't have any trouble pulling the plow in 2nd gear; no strain at all.)

I built a 40x60x36 inch trailer for hauling wood. A cord is 128 cubic feet of wood. If I do a good job stacking the wood in my wagon I can haul 50 cubic feet of wood; not quite half a cord. On a good day, I'm 55 years old now, I can cut two trailers of wood; but I generally only cut one because I have other chores to do and I'm only home one full day a week. So I spend about 15 days a year cutting all the wood my dad and I need to get through the winter. That is not too bad really. It's good exercise, gets me out in my woods, and pays back about half my electric bill for 4-5 months out of the year.

How does firewood cutting impact your food security you might be asking by now? Well, in multiple ways. I already stated that it saves me several hundred dollars a year in heating costs; so that is money I can use to buy food. Cutting wood gets me out in the woods where I spot good foraging areas. I forage berries, nuts, and greens so getting more familiar with my property is always a good thing. I also use the time in the woods to improve my property (for game animals and wildlife in general) as well as to scout the areas I will hunt.

You can spend a lot of money on wood cutting tools; which is fine if you have it but most of us don't.  There are many brands of chain saw out there and most of the more familiar brands are all good enough for small property owners. I have used an 18 inch Sears chainsaw, the same one, for about 14 years now. The only repair it ever had was to replace the fuel line, which basically dissolved (caused by the alcohol in Ethanol gas) and fell apart last winter. I replaced the cutting bar a few years ago and of course you go through cutting chains. (Update: Shortly after I wrote this my saw broke. The engine still runs but the gear that drives the chain broke. I can fix it, but since I was pressed for time I bought a new Craftsman chain saw. It is still an 18-inch but with a slightly larger motor; 46 cc. A good buy at the price and it has common parts with my old one and another one that I inherited with my house. I have pulled parts off of that one already to make repairs on my old saw.)

Don't buy more saw than you need but don't go too small either. For general firewood cutting a 16 inch or 18 inch is good enough. The bigger and heavier the saw the more work you are doing man-handling it to do your cuts. My dad has a new Poulan that I like, it is light weight and has very good vibration control. How long it will last is unknown. I suppose Consumer Digest has evaluated chain saws a some point so that is a good source and of course you can read product reviews on most Online sites. Another good place to ask is your local small engine repair shop, ask them which brands they repair the most and get their opinion.

Engine size is important and it is given in cubic centimeters (cc). My Sears chain saw is older and has a 35 cc motor, which is actually under-powered for an 18 inch cutting chain. I think their current 18 inch saws have a 55 cc motor, which is a bit over-powered. The 35 cc motor would be best on a 14 or 16 inch cutting bar size saw. I said to buy a 16 or 18 inch saw but a 14 inch bar would be plenty long enough too. The problem is that generally, any saw with less than a 16 inch bar is more or less considered to be a pruning saw and the motor will be too small for serious wood cutting. If you could find a saw with a 14 inch cutting bar and a 45 cc motor you would have a great firewood saw.

Safety equipment is a must but the catalogs sell more stuff than I would ever feel a need to wear. I always wear good hearing protection, gloves, eye protection, boots, and some sort of stiff hat to protect my head from branches. What is also recommended is a hard hat and chaps to protect your head from falling objects and your legs from getting cut. Proper cutting techniques will protect your legs and heavy chaps, to me, will just weigh you down and make you tired faster. A hard hat is probably a good idea though.

As with all cutting tools, drills, knives, chisels, etc. a sharp blade is a safe blade. Chain saw chains have a series of cutting teeth linked together like a bicycle chain, sort of. Every other cutting link faces right or left, which keeps the cut straight. Between the cutting link is a gauge link, which sets the depth of the cut.  As you can see the cutting teeth are flat on top with the ground cutting edge on the underside of the tooth. The teeth are very hard but hitting a stone, cutting into the ground (when a log lays on the ground and you go through it), or cutting frozen wood will dull the edge quickly.

Fortunately, the cutting teeth can be resharpened. If you don't cut a lot of wood, you can get a chain sharpened for $10-$15 dollars at a hardware store or repair shop. Or you can buy the tools and sharpen it yourself. I used a round file initially, they cost less than $15. When you get them sharpened at a shop they usually use an automated chain sharpener and it takes off a lot of metal. You will probably only be able to sharpen a chain twice at a shop and then there is not enough metal on the tooth for a third sharpening. If you do it yourself, take your time and only remove as much metal as is needed to true the tooth and get the correct edge on it, you can probably sharpen the chain five times (that is my average). An 18 inch chain costs about $20-$24 dollars so if you can extend its life by cautious sharpening you can save a lot of money.

I started out sharpening chains with a round file and guide. It works as well as any other method but is seriously tedious. I have been using chain saws since I was eleven years old. When I was a kid and teenager, I didn't mind spending an hour in the barn sharpening a chain with a file. 


But as my free time became more limited, I appreciated faster methods. I next bought a hand-held sharpener than ran off the 12 volt battery in my truck or tractor. That worked okay but not great. The first resharpen was fine but each time I retouched it up it got worse and worse. A lot of these sell so to be fair I will have to say that perhaps I just didn't have the right technique.

Then I got serious about the task and bought a table mounted grinder. These range in price from $199 (mine) to many hundreds of dollars. I got a Harbor Freight model. I'm not a huge fan of the Chinese made tools that Harbor Freight sells, but I have to say that the grinder I bought has earned its keep in my workshop. I have sharpened probably 40-50 cutting chains with it so far and while I do have to frequently make adjustments to the tool it has done a great job on the chains. At $15-$20 a chain at a shop this grinder has paid for itself a couple times over.


 In the end, the important thing is to only cut with a sharp, straight cutting chain. (If your cut starts to curve, it is time to resharpen the chain.)

Cut wood needs to be dry before you burn it. If the wood is green (from a living tree) or wet from being on the ground, it will not burn cleanly. A lot of the heat energy that you want to warm your house will be wasted drying the log before it will burn. Also, a cool fire causes much heavier creosote to build up in your chimney, and this is dangerous.

Green wood needs to be stacked and allowed to "cure" for a full year. If the log is greater than five inches in diameter it needs to be split or it will take longer than a year to cure (dry out).

Dead wood that is wet also needs to be stacked in a manner than it gets good air flow and is covered to protect it from the rain.  If you go back through my blogs you will find a posting I did last year on the wood shed I built out of pallets. This shed protects the wood from rain/snow and allows plenty of airflow to dry the wood.

Splitting wood. This is a whole subject that I should probably cover in a separate posting. Look for that in the future.

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