Burning Really Tiny Trees
July 27, 2011
Wood-burning stoves became popular during the energy crises of the 1970s. A lot of my friends and neighbors pulled out their fireplace hearths, crammed in a compact wood-burning stove, and turned their thermostats down to 65 degrees. Never mind that it was cold enough to hang meat in the rest of the house, that spot in front of the wood stove was toasty warm and smelled wonderful. Splitting firewood wood was good exercise too – so they told me.
I missed the revolution when stove manufacturers began selling stoves with stokers that burned wood pellets. When I was growing up, only the rich folks had stokers for their furnaces; the rest of us had to get up before dawn and start shoveling coal into the furnaces to get some heat in the house. Lord knows the wrath that would fall on the person who let the fire die out overnight. Some of us became better at stoking a furnace than the fireman on a steam locomotive. And we learned how to bank the fire at night so it would quietly smolder and be ready to roar back into life in the morning. Unfortunately, I lost those skills around the time Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog went to the top of the charts and life as I knew it was never the same again.
I first became aware of wood pellets when I got this crazy notion to build a steam-powered launch. I thought it would be neat to chug up and down the Chattahoochee River here in suburbia north of Atlanta. The boilers came in kits and they could burn coal, propane or wood pellets. We don’t have a lot of coal in Georgia (actually, none), and the thought of cruising around with a 25-gallon propane cylinder between my legs did not excite me one bit. So I looked into burning wood pellets.
What I found was that, on average, wood provides about 6,500 British Thermal Units (BTUs) of heat per pound. (One BTU will raise the temperature of a pound of water one degree Fahrenheit). The best woods (highest heat content per pound) were Beech or Birch, none of which grow in north Georgia. Oak was the worst, which we have a lot of in north Georgia. Pine (Douglas fir) was about in the middle, but it takes up 15% more room per BTU than Oak. I also learned that when it comes to wood pellets, you basically have two choices, softwood and hardwood. Hardwood pellets are more expensive but they provide more heat. As with most things in life, it’s a tradeoff between economy and efficiency.
Burning wood pellets would certainly allow me to claim I was part of the Green Movement, but I would never make that claim because in my opinion the “movement” is simply something that allows people to feel good about their otherwise spendthrift approach to energy consumption (and allows manufacturers to lure them into spending more for products with “green” labels). I think we are jumping on the alternative energy bandwagon a bit too quickly
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against alternative energy sources. I think they are a great idea. I mean, why run 1,200 megawatt nuclear power stations, drill 15,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico, fracture 5,000 square miles of Marcellus Shale, and expose coal miners to methane explosions, cave-ins, and black lung disease just so we can heat our homes in the winter? If my homeowner’s association allowed it, I’d have a windmill in the backyard and 1,700 square feet of solar panels on my roof. But they don’t, so I won’t.
Well I never built the steam launch, but I have considered installing a pellet-burning wood stove in my fireplace. A big plus is the 30% tax credit the government gives you if your stove is greater than 75% efficient. Now that doesn’t mean they are 75% efficient at producing useable heat, it means they are 75% efficient as removing particulate matter before the smoke goes up the chimney. When you start talking BTUs, it can cost 25% more to heat your home with a wood stove compared to natural gas. But I could live with that given that we only need heat four months out of the year.
Wood stove bloggers living in areas where they have nine months of winter and three months of poor sledding (by my definition, anywhere north of I-40) say they use about a ton of pellets over the cold months (that would be nine by my count). I think my house would probably need 25% of that, or 500 pounds (12.5 forty-pound bags) Now, although there are at least two other people in my house who can lift 40 pounds, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind who would be humping those bags from the storage shed to the stove.
The fans and automatic stoker on a late model stove use about 175 watts of electricity. If you don’t run them they don’t use any power, but then you have no heat. I expect my stove would run during the day and we’d bank the fire at night. So, 12 hours a day at 175 watts comes out to 2 kilowatt-hours per day. Multiply that by 30 days a month and four months of heat, and the stove would use approximately 252 kilowatt-hours. Down here in Atlanta we pay an average of 8 cents a kilowatt-hour in the winter, so the wood stove would cost about $20 to run through the heating season. Add in $90 for wood pellets and this begins to look like a fairly economical approach to heating my downstairs.
So what is the downside? Well, someone has to clean the ashes out of the stove and the creosote out of the chimney on a regular basis – and it won’t be you-know-who (the same “you-know-who” who won’t be hauling 40-pound bags of pellets). And there is that initial $3,000 to $4,000 cost to buy the stove and have it professionally installed so it meets building codes. I just don’t see the thing paying for itself in as many years as I think I have left on this Earth, and where I believe I will end up I sure won’t need any heat.
Contact Bob Ciminel: firstname.lastname@example.org
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