Heating the Homestead

Chickens 'helping' split wood (aka eating bugs and wood chips)

Chickens ‘helping’ split wood (aka eating bugs and wood chips)

Most of the time we heat our house from the electricity grid.  Yawn, I know. Passive solar does the trick on rare, glorious sunny Seattle days, but the rest of the time we use an efficient ductless heat pump for the main room, radiant tile floor for the bathroom, and baseboards for the ‘tiny room’ where guests sleep and the ‘den’ where we sleep.

Our ancient baseboard heater wakes me through the night with its loud ‘click-Click-click-CLicK’, so lately I have been employing two tricks; one is a warmer comforter so we can turn the heat way down.  The other is an evening fire.

There is a chimney in our main room, but it leads to the basement where there is no longer a coal-burning furnace. The fireplace in this old house is in a strange, sunken side room where we have chosen to spend our nights. But, heat rising and all, a sunken room is a great place to generate heat!

I grew up in a house in rural Ontario that was primarily heated by wood. The fireplace was in the basement and we moved our family room down there every winter to live closer to the heat. I have vivid memories of crouching in front of the open stove as I lit the fire after school, thinking about chemistry: energy of ignition, unstable equilibria. Lordy, science is cool. Or hot, in this case.

So I naturally think of wood as an alternative heating strategy. This fall I attempted to financially justify improving our fireplace with a wood stove insert or hearth stove. My primary motivation is improved air quality, both indoor and outdoor, but the direct wallet-output is a comfortable litmus test for home improvements.

Heating with wood is inexpensive, but electricity is dang cheap here. I calculated it would take 17 years to break even on the purchase of the stove! Plus it’s heck of a lot of work during the day to maintain. So maybe fires remain an evening luxury for the time being.

Two years ago, I researched wood to burn in our fireplace.  I felt lucky when we got a good deal on a cord of white oak from eastern Washington. A bit wet when it arrived, it was still hard to burn after drying out and requires splitting to burn well.  I have been using a sledge hammer and an old axe head to start things off, then a splitting wedge if that doesn’t finish the job.

I enjoy splitting wood, but I am sure there is a better way to do this.  I can’t split very much at a time without pulling my lower back and damaging my grip.  I cajole Scott into helping out, but I am a lot more motivated than he is to have fires.  It is so delightful to fall asleep with the fireplace dancing on the ceiling.

How do you heat your house?  Or how would you like to heat your house?  If you split wood, what is your favourite method?

The energy and aesthetic value of burning different wood types

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1 Response to Heating the Homestead

  1. Nancy says:

    We live in rural Ontario (inside the city limits). We use geothermal, running on electricity from the grid and from our solar panels. The water pipes under the cement/tile first floor make that floor comfy and keep the heat at whatever temp we want. Passive solar is terrific for both heating the house and providing power to put into the big grid. The bathrooms on the second floor are heated with electric coils under the tiles – closing the heat vents to steer geothermal to other rooms, it is an efficient way to use electricity to heat those two rooms as much as we wish – takes the power of a light bulb per day. And the sun hits that side of the house in the afternoon, adding heat through the many windows. When the power goes off, we have a gas fireplace with an automatic fan to keep the main (2nd) floor up to heat – the entire thing except the bedroom wing – the rest is all open-complex. Finally, we have a small but very efficient wood fireplace with an automatic fan on the first level, which helps heat the house when the sun is not shining or when the electricity goes out, or when we want to enjoy a fire before supper and/or in the evening (gets one away from the TV!) We are burning mostly ash, maple and elm. Whew! New house built to be energy efficient – twice the size as our original house, but uses way less power to keep it warm and lit than the older house did. It’s a challenge to keep a house efficiently warm in the winter in the wilds of Ontario, even south-eastern Ontario.

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