Wood heat

Last Fall we installed a wood stove in our home, and turned off the furnace. Yesterday, we lit it again, and broke out the long merino underwear. Both will remain in more or less steady use through May. Honestly, we missed the pleasures of the stove even in July.

soapstone wood stoveThis stove, about 500 pounds of handsome soapstone and iron, has completed our acclimation to Portland’s colder three seasons since we moved here from a balmy San Francisco microclimate in 2004.

Before the stove, in this drafty old house with loads of single-pane on the south, we spent the gray months in a tightwad dilemma of whether to run the thermostat high to hold the chill at bay, or low to feed a faltering conceit of hardy frugality. Even run high, blowing warm air all over the house offered only thin comfort. No more.

What does this have to do with biking? We can’t really tell where biking stops and the rest of life begins, but this connection to everyday biking feels as natural as that to, say, backyard chickens or slow food or knitting or beards. It’s just another thread of the Portlander good-life conspiracy.

Riding every day year-round means exposure to extremes: beautiful, bracing, invigorating, enervating, excruciating, sometimes all at the same time. Coming in from even a few miles of cold wet riding — the CSA pickup or Costco run, the soccer practice or swim lesson, the dinner-at-friends, the commute — often means coming in with a chill, or damp from rain and sweat, or both. And for banishing a chill, and drying out clothes, and brightening your insides, nothing beats the gentle, penetrating radiance of a heavy stone stove. hearthThe room we have it in — formerly almost unused — has become a living working hearth, the center of the household, where everybody wants to be. A dutch oven sits atop with soup or stew. Pillows and chairs and board games ring the wool rug in front, while coats and boots and slippers toast in the corner.

With forced air central heat, we tended to hunker down in the tepid drafts, layering on the wool, and avoiding the shock of opening a door. The uniformity of central thermostatic heating makes it unpleasant to engage and adapt bodily to the reality outside, isolating too completely from the season. In this respect it is akin to cars, whose mass, noise, speed, and enclosure deny their operators real presence in the places they pass through.

In contrast, using the stove instead of a central furnace builds cold tolerance and hardiness, making outdoor errands afoot or awheel that much less forbidding. With the stove, unless fired full tilt, all the far corners of the house aren’t a whole lot warmer than outside. The bathrooms are often in the 40s; the kitchen not much warmer. The bedrooms: better be under heavy bedding with your love or a sack of marbles heated on the stove. snowpocalypseDuring last winter’s freak Portland “snowpocalypse,” there was often ice glazing the far windows. None of this is miserable, though, because your comings and goings through these cold spaces end back at the stove, where you can be barefoot and sweating if you like. It’s like an open-air hot tub, a sensual delight. This constant exposure to wide temperature swings takes the sting out of Portland’s chill. Within a month of firing it up, in the mornings we’d marvel at how comfortable we felt working in the 50F kitchen in pajamas as the stove came back up to heat.

Riding your bike, growing and cooking your food, and heating your home with wood alike affirm that daily life processes of moving, eating and dwelling are best embraced actively and deliberately instead of by motor proxy or automated abstraction. laying it inWe laid in our heat in June, seasoned it, and will mete it out mindfully piece by fragrant piece in hundreds of slippered trips to the woodshed over the coming months. Sure it’s romantic, but utterly appropriate, practical, and sufficient, like getting around by bike in Portland.

While we’re more comfortable than ever, we’re bringing far less total heat into our home than before; the average temperature is way down. Since wood heat, BTU for BTU, is comparable in cost to natural gas currently, this means we save money. Secondarily, the cold kitchen means the refrigerator doesn’t work as hard; our bills for both gas and electricity plummeted last winter. Wood is a local, renewable resource, nearly carbon neutral over a cycle of decades assuming rational management (big assumption, unfortunately). Both the state of Oregon and the US government offer substantial tax breaks for installing high efficiency, EPA-approved biomass heating systems like this.

Local bikey blogger Jeremy Towsey-French began sharing his similar home heating project near the same time we installed our stove. Clever Cycles partner family the Mullins leapt with us, too; we share wood delivery now. So did local bike messenger Joel Metz: soapstone as well. So did my parents on the east coast: same model as Joel. It’s as if an odorless smoke signal to get wood stoves went up within our circle near and far, without any of us talking about it directly.

21 thoughts on “Wood heat”

  • electric

    Convection heating is the most efficient way to heat a room and wood-stoves are great for that, but many of them have poor particulate emissions(you should beware of these particles indoors). You can see the emissions in small towns here when there is a temperature inversion the wood-stove smoke gets trapped above the city. I know there are much more efficient stoves around, EPA approved. There should be some service where you can purchase firewood that is certified carbon neutral. Another thing to consider is that to match BTUs with natural gas your firewood must not be damp and must be from older trees.

    Anyways, wood-stoves are relaxing and a great way to dry out wet riding clothes!

  • Snakebite

    Most excellent!!! It reminds me of my grandparents home growing up.

    The only surprising part is you're having your wood delivered and not picking it up yourself by bike!

  • Todd (admin)

    like this, snakebite? http://www.flickr.com/photos/cleverchimp/520192178/

    electric: ours is equipped with a catalytic converter to keep particulates down. it produces no odor and only thin white smoke resembling steam. it took some doing to find a good supplier, but now we have proper dried hardwood. yes, many people have very strong feelings on the subject of emissions. i probably have stronger feelings about using fossil fuel, and anyway they drive.

  • Pam Fahrner

    It's true that the process of heating exclusively by wood puts us into a lovely cycle...reminiscent of centuries of ancesters going through the same process. In spring, we too had wood delivered, but in our case, the tree tops, smallish rounds usually discarded. We then cut the wood, working together measuring to fit our woodstove. We then stacked it all-so it could finish drying over the summer. We too, fired up our stove within this last week and it will most likely be our source of heat and comfort until April or May. When the weather is good (like today-absolutely luscious!) we will fill our porch log holder and our inside log holder. During the truly cold winter here, we will fill our log holders many times (good exercise in itself)-going through an anticipated 4 cords of wood. In the spring after burning 4 cords of wood, our chimney will need to be cleaned and checked.

    It is true that the stove calls us as we read or talk-drawn to the comfort of the fire. There is something delicious about coming in from the cold and warming up. We have adapted our house so we can hang wet clothes to dry near our heat source. When our power goes out, we no longer need to go elsewhere for we can be warm and fed by our woodstove's capabilities.

    We have found that our 'modern' society and all of its inventions have their disadvantages (sometimes catastrophic). With our decision to heat in this ancient way, we feel a connection to a better way of living and a connection to our children as we seek to live more responsibly.

  • Donna

    There appears to be some sort of federal tax credit associated with this wood stove that is slated to expire on December 31. It's very attractive for both aesthetic reasons and because it's made in the US. I grew up in a house with a WESO ceramic wood stove. While it was both beautiful and useful, it was a major hassle to get parts from Germany when needed and I hear it's even more difficult since the lone US distributor stopped importing new stoves. I really miss being able to cook during power outages - ours even had a little oven on top!

    I never had stronger arms than when I had to split wood as one of my chores.

  • BAW

    Isn't wood smoke considered air pollution?

  • Jeremy

    thanks much for linking to my site, todd! to address the issue of air pollution, indeed, wood smoke is indeed a generator of potentially harmful carbon emissions. this being said, the proper fuel and the proper stove can dramatically reduce these emissions.

    as with todd's stove, our cast iron wood-burning insert is catalytic, so once it reaches optimal temperature, you activate the catalytic convertor, which ensures near complete burn of all potent particulates, leaving little to no smoke coming out of the chimney. not only does it produce a cleaner, more efficient and longer-lasting burn, it also requires fewer chimney sweeps --an added benefit.

    of course, fuel is important, and as todd notes, the more seasoned the fuel, the hotter it burns; the hotter it burns, the more complete it burns, also resulting in lower emissions. as featured in the articles on my site, our family moved to burning bear bricks due to the ultra-low moisture content and dramatically reduced particulates.

    true, these bricks require energy to make --to make them, the company compresses waste sawdust into dense bricks that burn like mad-- but they burn far cleaner than most any wood, hard or soft. you get far less ash accumulation and soot, and your stove's glass stays clean much longer (if your stove has glass). it's a great way to keep sawdust out of landfills and keep emissions out of the air, all while keeping warm.

    the greater point in heating with wood is the fact that while growing, trees consumer huge amounts of carbon dioxide, making them carbon negative in many respects (read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_dioxide_sink#Forests). when you burn trees, you are potentially releasing less carbon into the air than they consumed. comparatively, natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel that while potentially cleaner burning than oil, is still a fossil fuel. in this manner, it is introducing 'new' carbon into an atmosphere that was previously free from the very carbon created by burning the gas.

    i'm not bashing natural gas here --gas is a far cleaner fuel than most any option available, but it's not everything that northwest natural would like you to believe. natural gas is essential for our society 'right now', but it is only a single component of our energy plan and is not a silver bullet. it is non-renewable, fossil-derived, and in ever-increasing amounts, it is coming from foregin sources. heck, the vast majority of the natural gas used in the united states comes from three states alone, with the rest coming from canada, and an increasing portion coming in the form of liquified natural gas from foreign countries --many of which feature unstable governments. sound familiar? look back at the oil timeline... different form, same source, same issues.

    conversely, wood and wood fuel products like bear bricks come from the forests directly surrounding us and can be burned very cleanly and responsibly. what's more, they are renewable, and in the case of bear bricks, are up-cycled from a waste product. wood is a viable solution as part of a rich energy diet. enjoy the fruits of oregon --responsibly-- and treat fossil fuels like you treat sugar in the food pyramid: small amounts, not too often.

  • Mike C

    loads of single-pane on the south

    I've had good results from those 3M insulating window film kits. Cheap, easy to install, and made a *dramatic* difference in an apartment full of big single-pane windows through a New England winter.

  • amyk

    I am curious, which brand / model is your stove? We are looking for one to buy before the tax credit expires. We have been looking at a Finnish model that is pure soapstone with an oven attached but it is so expensive!
    We lived in the NL for a few years and had a free standing heat stove (gas powered) and I have never felt better than theoe years of biking every day and life without central heating.
    Here is more information about old wood burning stoves and the new, clean alternatives:

  • Todd (admin)

    Amy, ours is linked in the first paragraph ( http://woodstove.com/pages/wood_stove_palladian.html ): the Palladian by Woodstock Soapstone Company. No complaints at all.

  • Gretchan J

    Tell me more about the install requirements and retrofit of your existing fireplace.

    Is this realistic to do yourselves?

    Thanks for all the posts folks. Here's to keeping warm and fit in Stumptown.

  • Todd (admin)

    Gretchan, Portland building code and manufacturer's recommendations call for:

    * installing a full stainless liner all the way up the chimney
    * siting the stove 18" from any combustible material
    * placing the stove on a non-combustible pad of sufficient thickness to protect the floor/subfloor. Prefab hearth pads are available, but we contracted with a stone mason who laid down 2 thick natural slabs of bluestone, rough finish, working them just enough to fit together and the space. there's a thick soft pad compressed beneath to protect the fir flooring.

    Additionally we installed an outside air intake so the stove doesn't send warmer inside air up the chimney. We routed it through the ash trap of our 1910 chimney; drilled a hole to the outside. Hard to describe... I don't remember whether code requires this, but there's an Oregon tax credit available if you do install it this way.

    We deliberated whether to undertake the liner install ourselves, and in retrospect could have pulled it off, but we were too nervous to risk messing it up or missing some important safety issue in our inexperience. Plus our tallest ladder wasn't really tall enough to do it. If in doubt, I'd say you should pay to have it done.

    Feel free to drop by some cold evening or maybe one of our off days (ask) to check it out.

  • [...] fuel, heat, solid fuel, stove, wood stove Todd Fahrner recently published an excellent update on the Clever Cycles blog, outlining his family’s experience augmenting their central heating system with a [...]

  • Jeremy

    Gretchan, we also elected to have someone else install the chimney liner for our cast-iron, fireplace-inserted wood stove. Small price to pay for the expertise.

    Nevertheless, Todd's excellent post inspired me to provide a little more perspective on the different methods for using wood stoves, as well as a few considerations. Check the article out here:


  • Andy B from Jersey

    Late to the party on this one but I'd like to say that I too try to heat my house with wood as much as possible. Our Winters are much colder out here on the East Coast, so my stove only supplements the gas heat. I'm hoping to reside my home and insulate it while also installing a new stove so it may be possible for me

    A couple of points I'd like to make

    Wood may be renewable but I don't think it is sustainable. If everybody in Portland decided to heat their homes with wood, it wouldn't take long to strip your local bare of trees. I learned in one of my forestry classes that it takes approximately 6 acres of forested land to sustainable heat one efficient 2000sq ft home with wood. In fact in New England wood use for heat is so prevalent that it is a real concern of many foresters.

    As I use wood for my heat I recognize this reality but still us wood for several reasons. Mostly, the wood that I use would go to waste anyway and decay or be ground up for mulch. People falsely believe that decaying wood doesn't release CO2 but that is far from the case. The microbial processes that happen as wood decays releases CO2 anyway. So I feel it is better for me to burn the wood and release the CO2 in a way that allows me to enjoy the heat energy. It also allows me to prevent burning a non-renewable carbon based fuel. In my case that is natural gas.

    Also, I don't tend to burn wood too much in the warmer months of Fall and Spring. Yes it is often cold enough for the heat to come on but if I were to burn wood, the house would become unbearably hot and I would be forced to open the windows. Instead of wasting that precious wood heat out the windows I simply allow the conventional forced air heat to come on, which it does only occasionally and is much easier to regulate. If it gets cold at night, typically bellow 42F, I'll make a fire and have it burn through most of the night. Only if the forecast is for high temps below 45F during the day will I consider burning a fire during the day as well.

    Finally and what I found most interesting is that you bring up burning wood in the first place. Here in New Jersey I know of at least 4 bicycle shops that use wood to heat their shops. For one, my wheel builder, it is the main source of heat if not the only source. There is something about being a cyclist that makes one keenly aware about the conservation of energy; whether that is in keeping ones momentum while on two wheel or heating ones home or workplace.

    Keep the home fires burning!

    My best,


  • Andy B from Jersey

    Ugghh! I really should have proof read that before I hit submit. You get the idea.

  • konrad

    Congrats on the stove! Don't let anyone tell you it pollutes more than conventional heat! It pollutes a lot less. How much pollution do you think is involved in producing and transporting 200 hundred gallons of heating oil to your house? Or how about electricity. Don't even get me started on the natural gas. We use a couple of fans to move the heat around our house. Scrounge for wood! Often if you see a treeservice taking down a tree they're happy to dump it your house because otherwise they have to pay to get rid of it. I run a grounds department and I save all the wood we cut from dead and fallen trees. Every day I carry some home on my Big Dummy and that accounts for most of our firewood.

  • Ann

    When I retired I left the east coast for the northern US Rockies; choosing to live in a 2.2 million acre national forest west of Glacier National Park. I purposely downsized (or should I say right-sized) to a comfortable, moderately-sized house. I swapped out the old inefficient wood stove in it for a new EPA stove since propane is so high (I call it the California affect, higher prices on many items in the West seem to stem in part from that huge consuming behemoth's insatiable appetite). I'm fortunate that my house has an open floor plan that allows the wood stove to heat the entire house. [IMG]http://pic50.picturetrail.com/VOL442/7447283/14154973/333404307.jpg[/IMG] I buck and split my own wood, cutting downed trees (I don't try to fell any). I conserve as much as possible. I supplement my transportation using my mountain bike, much more after installing power assist this summer (hills and my knees didn't agree). I'm fortunate to have fruit trees that I can harvest and freeze the fruits to enjoy year round. I also have two greenhouses to grow vegetables. Even though I have to do a lot more physically to sustain my lifestyle, I can say I'm far happier and healthier than I was when I was an urbanite. Cities, and the lifestyles they promote, aren't very healthy.

  • Gretchan J

    We are close to finalizing an order with Woodstock Soapstone Company ( www.woodstove.com )and are wondering if anyone else is too. I'd love to negotiate a discount for group order if we had 2 or 3 folks interested.

    Contact me this week if yes.

    This blog singlehandedly (along with Todd and Jeremy's additional posts) convinced me to bring a clean burning woodstove into the house this year. Thanks all.

    gretjksn at aol dot com

  • Todd (admin)

    Congrats Gretchan -- you'll love it I'm sure. This is the 4th wood guy we've dealt with, and the only one we plan to deal with in future: alex: (971) 226-7626. wood is as described, and helps stack. neither the cheapest nor the most expensive, but see "wood is as described and helps stack."

  • [...] for four. Why? Because they can be towed by bike! We think water, fire and bikes are already key parts of living well in Portland; we love how the Dutchtub ties together all three in a virtuous spiral, “sober and [...]

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