Heating with wood—a politically-ignored option

Bob and Sonia Vogl's antique cookstove.

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl

President and Vice President

Illinois Renewable Energy Association

We’ve heated our home with wood for 30 years. It’s more work than turning a thermostat, but similar to the coal furnaces we grew up with. It also adds to a sense of self-sufficiency that using fossil fuels can’t.

We have an indoor wood furnace. Some friends have outdoor wood furnaces or indoor wood stoves. All work well to keep our homes warm.

Our furnace operates similarly to a gas furnace. It has an automatic damper and blower, and uses the same heat ducts and cold air returns that the old fossil-fuel furnace did. The area surrounding it is insulated to protect from overheating.

It’s different in that each morning we walk downstairs to the basement and build the fire. During the day, we add wood as needed. During most of the heating season, it keeps our home warm.

We also have an antique cookstove in the kitchen for aesthetic purposes and for cooking and backup in an emergency. Meantime, it serves as storage for pots and pans.

This year, we added a fireplace insert. Not only does it cover a source of heat loss, it provides comfortable, even heat with or without the blower—another bonus if power fails.

Outdoor furnaces are stoked twice a day. They heat water that is pumped through underground tubes to a heat exchanger, which then blows warm air through the house.

Wood stoves are free-standing and usually used as space heaters.

Those of us who heat with wood enjoy the even warmth, the fire itself, and the sense that we actually manage it. A friend recently told us, “I can’t believe we didn’t heat with wood before.”

An inexpensive wood source is essential. We use dead timber from our woods. Others either own woodlots or obtain their fuel by hauling it themselves or through the exchange of favors. Wood should be allowed to dry for a year before burning. Wet wood will produce soot and less heat than dry.

Wood heating is nearly carbon neutral as trees capture carbon dioxide from the air and store it. Stacks of wood or the smell of wood burning are the only signs of its use. An efficiently-managed 1-acre woodlot can produce a half-cord of wood per year. A cord is 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet high. A very energy-efficient home can be heated with 1.5 cords of wood per year.

New wood burners meet EPA standards for emissions release. They are twice as efficient as 1970s heaters, and emit 8 percent of the pollutants. A new design feature prevents soot buildup on ceramic glass doors. According to The Wood Heat Organization, wood burned as fuel has a ratio of 32 units of energy output for one unit of energy invested. Natural gas has a ratio of 8-to-1.

Wood heat has a downside: some gases are released when the door is opened. Individuals with asthma or other lung conditions may not tolerate the fumes. Some pollutants are also released to the outdoor air; some communities will limit widespread wood burning.

A wood-burning system should be certified as meeting safety standards and installed according to local zoning codes. Be sure to seek approval from your insurance company.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Jan. 6-12, 2010 issue

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