By Bill Cook
MSU Extension Forester and Biologist, retired

Heating with wood is not only a passion for some, but also environmentally smart and helps keep dollars local.

Down to only a single winter’s worth of seasoned firewood, it was time to buy another truckload, which is around 10 to 12 cords. I prefer to buy my logs, rather than glean them from the woods. Although, that sort of harvest can also be a passion.

So, I called around and, with a bit of effort, surprisingly, I eventually found a 12-cord load of cull sawlogs from an area wood products company. I was a bit suspicious of the cull characteristic. Would these logs be ornery to split? As it turned out, no. The larger-than-usual logs split well.

By the way, a standard cord is a stack of eight-foot logs, four feet high, and four feet wide. Geometry dictates that smaller logs provide more solid wood than larger logs, but I took the load regardless.

Now, some might call me lazy because I pay someone to cut trees, process logs, and deliver the load to my driveway. However, I justify the decision by knowing that I can help support the local economy and save more than a little wear and tear on my pickup truck. Besides, I’m busy nosing around in so many other buckets.

In my mind, heating with wood beats the heck out of paying big petroleum for propane, although I use some of that, too, I must confess.

I also justify the decision by hand-splitting the firewood. This for odd recreation value. No, I don’t use a noisy gas-powered log splitter. I prefer my 15-pound monster maul, after I’ve bucked a few logs into right-sized pieces, albeit with a noisy chainsaw.

There are few activities more enjoyable to me than making firewood on a sunny day, under a clear blue sky, with a light breeze. And, making firewood is really good exercise.

Some folks argue about the best tree species for firewood. The fact is that, pound for pound, the energy values don’t vary much—about 8000-9000 BTUs for air-dried wood. What does vary is wood density. We usually process firewood by volume, not weight. With that in mind, I prefer sugar maple, or mixed hardwoods. Oak is really good, too. Denser woods have more energy per volume than lighter woods.

Actually, I’ll burn just about anything. As I cut dead trees or hazard trees on my own land, I’ll burn the wood for winter heat. The trick, more than anything else, is to burn dry wood. The drier the better. It takes a lot of energy to drive the water out of firewood before the wood begins to burn and the gases ignite. It’s all about physics. I let solar energy do its thing in my sheltered wood pile.

Yet, I’m always surprised to hear about folks who don’t properly season their firewood. It’s a lot of work to make firewood. I choose not to use my effort to drive-off water. I’d rather put that energy into heating my large living room.

Thinking beyond the needs of my own home and preferences, the same ideas of local economies and heating with wood can be applied to businesses and large spaces. Schools, health care centers, municipal buildings, small to medium-sized businesses are all candidates for environmentally-sound heat energy that is locally produced and promotes healthy forests. I cannot figure why more of this doesn’t happen.

Michigan spends nearly $37 billion on energy purchases, with most of those dollars exported. Heating with wood keeps some of the dollars working in the state, as well as helping the forest along.

In carbon terms, the wood in firewood was largely sourced from the atmosphere. It’s what trees do. Burning wood returns much of that carbon, and other materials, to the atmosphere from whence it came. It’s part of the natural carbon cycle, where carbon gets moved around among various pools. Fossil carbon, from fossil fuels, is not part of this natural cycle. That’s one big reason why heating with wood leaves me feeling that I’m helping to do my part.

We can heat with wood for a thousand years and not impact the carbon cycle.

As I sit in my easy chair, I feel a bit smug about not feeding the big oil machine. I also enjoy the wood stove heat, the bright flames, and finger or two of fine single malt. Fortunately, I haven’t any neighbors close by, so I don’t need to be concerned about drifting smoke smell. If I had neighbors, I would be neighborly and install a stove with a cleaner design, or a pellet stove.

Using wood, especially the low-quality wood, like my cull sawlogs, also increases the opportunities for better forest management, which helps provide for a healthier forest, more diverse wildlife habitat, clean water, enhanced recreation, and all the other benefits of well-tended forest landscapes.

Forest industry leads the way in using wood for heat and, sometimes, power. Two new wood-fired boilers recently came on-line in northern Wisconsin, using mill waste, rather than fossil fuels, to help provide energy.

In this age of concern about petro-chemicals monkeying with the climate, it’s comforting to know that we sometimes have eco-friendly alternatives. We hear a lot about renewable energy for electricity and, sometimes, about transportation fuels. Rarely do we learn about renewables for heating and cooling, which makes-up around a third of our total northern energy budget. Yet, the technologies and infrastructures for wood-based thermal energy are at hand, no economic restructuring needed.

The same goes for our wood inventory, to huge degree. We lose more wood to natural mortality than we harvest for wood products.

So, as I buck, split, and stack my firewood, I ponder these things.