Why I Heat My Home With Wood

I like to think of myself as something of an environmentalist. I turn off the lights when I leave a room. I use cloth bags at the grocery story. I reuse plastic bags and bottles. I recycle. And I heat my home with wood.

Some of my environmental friends wring their hands with woe and recount the many ways in which I am sinning against the environment and Gaia, our Mother Earth. Burning wood is dirty, they cry. I’m going to pollute the air. I’m going to deforest the entire northern hemisphere. I’m contributing to global warming, and all the coastal lowlands will be inundated. The earth is nigh-unto doomed, and it’s all my fault!

I’ve heard those warnings, but I burn wood anyway. Some of my reasons for heating my home with wood are selfish. I recognize that and I’m okay with it. There are worse guides for one’s path through life than enlightened self-interest. But not all of my reasons are selfish. Let me explain.

I feel more self-reliant when I accept responsibility for heating my own home. If the power goes out in our neighborhood, some of my neighbors will get cold very quickly. But my family and I will stay warm. I feel a certain amount of comfort knowing that I don’t need to rely on the power grid in order to keep my family warm. There is satisfaction in that. Last time the power went out, I invited some of the neighbors over to keep them warm. There was satisfaction in that, too.

Another reason is financial. It’s cheaper to heat with wood than with electricity. My neighbors who heat with electricity pay between $300 and $400 a month for power during the winter. I pay between $100 and $150. By the end of the second year, my stove was paid for. Even counting the cost of a chain saw (I got a good old-fashioned cross-cut saw a couple of summers ago, too) and the extra wear and tear on my pickup, I’m money ahead.

I feel like it’s good exercise, as well. I’m going to be 70 this year, and every time I swing an axe or push a saw, I’m getting exercise I need to stay alert and keep my body healthy. In many ways I live a relatively sedentary life style, but whenever I throw a chunk into the back of my pickup or split a log, I feel like I’ve done my heart good. That’s important to me. I don’t know how many more years I’ll be able to cut my own firewood, but as long as I can do it, I intend to keep on doing it.

Not all my reasons are selfish, though. I like to point out to my friends that wood is a renewable energy source. As long as trees grow on the mountain, I’ll be able to heat my home. The money I save on my electric bill represents electricity that did NOT need to be generated by a multi-million-dollar power plant burning coal or foreign oil. When I bring a truckload of firewood down off the mountain, I have not only made myself a little more independent: I have also made a small contribution to our nation’s energy independence.

Modern wood stoves aren’t nearly as dirty as some of my friends believe, either. The stoves you buy today aren’t your grandfather’s wood stove, belching out smoke and creosote. My stove burns hot enough that it burns cleanly, and then it re-burns its own smoke so that only a few grams of particulate go out the chimney per hour. Probably 90% of the exhaust up my chimney is carbon dioxide and water vapor.

CARBON DIOXIDE! I can hear the howls now. “Don’t you know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas? Your carbon footprint must be enormous! You’re contributing to global warming!” Yes, I know that, and I am concerned about global warming. But I don’t think my carbon footprint is nearly as large as my friends think it is.

The biggest reason I’m not terribly concerned about the size of my carbon footprint is that I only cut trees that are already dead. I prefer them to be dry enough that the bark is starting to fall off. The day that tree died, it started giving up its CO2 to the atmosphere. As its sap evaporates, it gives off volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. The xylophagous ants and grubs and worms and termites that gnaw their way through the dead wood give off CO2. The mold and fungus that break down the wood and rot it give off CO2. The very process of decay itself is nothing more than a slow oxidation process that gives off CO2. By the time that a log has lain on the forest floor for 40 or 50 years, it will have given up probably 90% of its carbon to the atmosphere. It’s only that small residue that’s left that really adds to my carbon footprint, because whether the CO2 goes up my chimney or goes into the atmosphere in the forest where we can’t see it, it’s still going to end up in the atmosphere. And, of course, if a forest fire happens to burn across that section of forest—as they tend to do once or twice every century around here—even that small residue will go into the atmosphere as well.

Combine that with the fact that I use less electricity that was generated by the burning of coal or oil, and I’d suspect that heating my home with wood has very close to a neutral impact on my carbon footprint.

And the last reason I think that burning wood is not one of the seven deadly environmental sins is that by burning dead wood that would otherwise rot in the forest, I make a positive contribution to healthy forest management. I’m not clear-cutting the forest or inflicting slash-and-burn on the Amazon. I carefully and selectively remove trees that are already dead. The dead trees I remove clear the way for new trees to grow and start sucking up carbon of their own. I also remove dry, dead fuel from the forest, reducing the likelihood of a forest fire. And you can be sure that a large forest fire will generate more CO2 and smoke and particulates in one second than my stove would put out in a century or two.

But all those “reasons” for heating my home with wood are just excuses. Rationalizations I make for myself. The real reason I heat with wood is that I like it. The warmth of a wood fire soaks into my old bones and warms them in a way that no electric heater ever could. And whoever thought of putting on a little soft music, dimming the lights, and snuggling with his sweetie while they watch a nice romantic electric heater? Not me. I’ll take the flicker of firelight every time. And I intend to keep on enjoying that flicker as long as I can.

Of course, none of this will convince the true environmental believers that I’m not single-handedly destroying the world. They’ll continue to regale me with their dire predictions of doom. And when they do, I’ll put on my most concerned face, furrow my brow in concentration, and say, “Oh, really? I guess I never thought about that.” And then I’ll smile and thank them for their concern. And go home and snuggle with my sweetie in front of our fire.

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