Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cold and heat

The past week has brought cold and snow, normal here for this time of year, though not so much snow as by this time last year. There's still not quite enough on the ground to ski on the old abandoned roads and the trails nearby. Inland there's been more snow.

The cold and snow (and ice, at times) concentrates movement around the buildings. The woodbox is constantly in need of replenishing. Outside there is the wood split and stacked under tarps, and the snow must be thrown off before it can be dug out and moved to the large woodbox on the porch, which holds about a 3-4 day supply that gets moved gradually into the smaller woodbox inside, and then into the stove. It's an old airtight Jotul 118, in the green enamel, which takes a 2-foot stick.

These Jotuls, and their smaller cousins (the model 602) were imported by the tens of thousands in the 1970s during the energy crisis and its aftermath, and put into the old houses that countercultural refugees from the cities moved into hereabouts. Even more popular among this segment of those "from away" who moved here then were the Vermont Castings stoves, which were advertised in a manner calculated to serve the values of this countercultural population, with an emphasis on fine craftsmanship and hints and tips on felling trees, splitting and stacking wood, and so on, for the do-it-yourself wood burner. In the long run the Jotuls proved more robust and reliable, but that is neither here nor there.
Woodstoves, despite their appeal various grounds, are worse polluters than oil furnaces; and the recent increase in outdoor wood furnaces is particularly troublesome, with neighbor complaints and local ordinances multiplying.

Later generations of transplants favored the more expensive stoves with the glass fronts, but as oil prices rose precipitously last spring and summer, many on the island and throughout the state as a whole bought wood pellet stoves, which promised an easier time of it: instead of having to work one's way toward stacked, split wood, one could buy bags of wood pellets that could be stored inside and set to feed the stove more or less automatically. There was a shortage for a month or two when the stove buyers who spent more than two thousand dollars for their stoves found demand for pellets had outstripped supply; but as this fall's drop in oil prices occurred, pellet bags were more easily gotten, and those who had planned to save a lot of money buy purchasing a pellet stove when the price of home heating oil was five dollars a gallon are going to have to wait until the next oil crisis comes around--possibly not very long.

Wood is cheaper than oil, of course. A cord of good hardwood will give off as much heat as 200 gallons of oil. When heating oil was $4.50 a gallon this summer, 200 gallons cost $900 while a cord of wood, cut, split, and delivered, cost a little more than $200, less than 1/4 of the cost of oil. Now that oil is down to $2.50 a gallon, wood is still less than half as expensive as oil. If you fell trees from your woodlot, buck them, and split them yourself, your only cost is labor time plus your investment in a chainsaw and splitting maul, axe, and wedges, while a woodstove is a lot cheaper than a furnace and ductwork, baseboard heat, and so forth.

But a woodstove will not, in an old and uninsulated house, keep it very warm overnight, so while you're asleep the temperature drops and in the morning it's either cool or cold when you rise to start the fire again. The airtight stoves like the Jotuls do hold a fire overnight, to the extent that hot coals remain in the stove in the morning and the next load of wood can be laid right over them and will start right up, vented all the way open for the first twenty minutes to burn out any creosote, then damped down. If it's a little chilly then you just bundle up and after an hour or less the house is comfortable again.

To me the best part of heating with a wood stove is the warmth of the radiated heat, which simply feels better than heat from any other source. Reading or sitting with a laptop computer and feeling the radiant heat is a kind of pleasant comfort, whereas heat from a different source is just there, unnoticed. The savings are an added bonus, as is the good exercise I get in felling trees, bucking and splitting wood, stacking it, moving it, and so forth--though on a very cold morning like today, digging it out from under the snow-covered tarps, tossing it into the cart to move it to the woodbox on the porch, and then moving it into the house is a lot less convenient than turning up the thermostat on an oil furnace.

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