Note: The opinions expressed on this website are those of the author. It is best to gather information from several sources before making a decision to purchase rural property, and this website does not purport to discuss all the issues that might arise. This information is provided on a "use at your own risk" basis and the author assumes no liability for subsequent use of the information provided here.

Bob Foster

Sales Representative for
Century 21 Lanthorn RE Ltd. Brokerage
in Belleville, Ontario.

Cell: 613 921 3933
Office: 613 967 2100

(or "Bob's Adventures in Using Wood Heat")

Click to enlarge.

The distribution of natural gas is pretty much limited to urban areas, so that leaves rural dwellers with the following choices: electricity, oil, propane, wood (incl. pellets), or solar heating. Of these, I have only had direct experience with three: oil, electricity and wood heat. As you will find in the story that follows, most of my experience is about dealing with oil or electricity, finding it too expensive, and changing over to wood heat.

When I arrived at my first farmhouse north fo Stirling, Ontario, back in 1976, I found that the residence was heated entirely with oil. The house wasn't large, but it was older, having been built back in 1922, and the combination of poor-to-non-existent insulation with single pane windows only sealed with grout, was a poor one.

Getting oil was not a problem. The Shell Oil dealer lived across the road from us and his farmhouse was the only one we could see in our neighbourhood. Still, we weren't there for long before the cost of the oil led us to putting in a fireplace.

In those days, there were no inspections for fireplace installations, and I did the work myself. While I followed the advice given at the local lumber yard, the installation was really very deficient by current standards. For example, I wanted metal fireplace to be closer to the wall than the clearance specified in the installation instructions. No problem, they told me to just put in a 4'x8' sheet of that handy material, asbestos. Since the fireplace was anything but airtight, my guess is that all the work we put into collecting and processing wood in those years resulted in a negative effect in terms of heating the house. All the warm air was being sent up the chimney while the cold air came in around the windows and door frames to replace it.

In 1982, I returned from a three-year stay in Germany and our family settled in a home near Trenton, Ontario. The house was heated with oil but there was a wood stove and chimney. Being a bit older and a little more cautious, I asked the local fire chief to come by to inspect the set-up. His assessment was that I should never light a fire in the stove and he was amazed that the home hadn't burned down long ago!

Fortunately, our next-door neighbour, Tony Wielemaker, was a mason, and it wasn't long after we moved in that he arrived with his chainsaw - which he used to remove a wall and improve air circulation in the house - followed by his bricks, chimney-liner and bucket of "mud". We soon had a new wood stove and chimney that worked great, and our oil consumption decreased considerably.

It was also in Trenton that I learned about the use of hardwood slab as a fuel. Slabwood is what is left over after lumber is processed into boards, so it consists of the rounded outside edges and the bark. It tends to come in all sorts of thicknesses from paper thin to about 8" thick. Softwood slab is not useful for heating. It burns too quickly and has so much resin in it that you are constantly cleaning creosote from you chimney. Hardwood slab is another matter, and I prefer it to all other wood sources.

You can use the thin pieces as kindling and the sticks with small dimensions to get a good fire going very quickly. The larger pieces serve to keep the fire in an airtight stove going well overnight. The biggest advantage of hardwood slab is that about 95% of the wood can be used directly after cutting it in a wood cutting cradle (pic below). This means that I only need to split about 5% of it, and that is just fine with me. I don't need to purchase or rent a log splitter, and my time spent swinging an axe, maul or sledge hammer is minimal.

Critics of the use of slabwood say it contains so much bark that the amount of wood fuel is reduced, but I find that it stacks more tightly, so I think a bush cord of my stacked hardwood slab, weighs just about as much, and thus delivers just about as much heat energy, as a cord of regular cut and split hardwood.

The biggest problem with hardwood slab is finding it. Mills mainly cut softwood, so finding a good, reliable source can be tricky. Ask around, but don't ask me. I really value being able to call my lumber yard and getting all the hardwood slab I need. If I put its name on this website, I know they will run out very quickly!

In 1988 our family moved again when we built a large waterfront home near Belleville, Ontario. This time, we went for the convenience of an electric heat pump, which supplied most of the heat at a rate less than a regular electric furnace, but it was still very expensive. We had a woodstove, but since there was really no place on the property for handling, cutting and storing wood, it's use was occasional and more decorative that anything else.

In 1999, and in circumstances that soon saw me remarried and step-dad to a whole new batch of teenagers, we set up our current homestead on a 33 acre parcel of land north of Belleville, Ontario. For several years we tried to deal with the all-electric heating in our home, then, in 2004, we had a fireplace converted to an airtight woodstove in one part of the house and a new chimney and woodstove installed in another part. Pictures of our start-up year, and the innovative method we used to create dry outdoor storage, are available in a picture gallery here. The storage method has worked just great and the structure has survived high winds. The cutting method in our second season is similar, but we are now up to two wood cradles and Tana and I have his and hers chain saws.

Since most of this story has been about my experiences in using wood heat, I should say something about the drawbacks. It takes a lot of space to receive wood, process it and store it, so this really isn't something you can do on a property with a small lot. If you decide you want to skip my recommendation about slabwood and use wood from your own property, you will likely need to have about a 10 acre bush to sustain the harvest needed for heating a good-sized home on a continuing basis. Above all, do not get into heating with wood, if you aren't prrepared to use your muscles and commit some time to it.

As a friend, Marty Grogan, pointed out to me several years ago, the trick to handling wood is to pick it up as few times as possible. For us, that means getting wood 1) onto the cutting cradle, 2) from the cradle to the woodshed, 3) from the woodshed to the greenhouse in buckets, where it warms before going into the house, 4) from the greenhouse to the kitchen martially area, 5) from the kitchen to each of the fireplaces, and 6) from the buckets, piece by piece into the fires. Since we use about 7 cords of wood in a season, and each cord weighs about a ton, that means our family lifts about 2000 x 7 x 6 or 84,000 pounds each season to heat with wood.

With this work, our hydro bill is not yet reduced by half, but we are paying about $1500 - $2000 less per year, and that benefit will only increase in time as hydro rates continue to climb. This means that, after purchasing our hardwood slab, our investment in the two woodstoves will be paid off in about 4 or 5 years. After that, every time we pick up 50 lbs. of wood, we will be saving ourselves $1.00.

Other Options:

Many people in the country heat successfully with propane. The relationship of its costs to other forms of fuel is uncertain given the volatility of oil/ gas/ propane prices. By all accounts, however, the objection to its use based on safety should not be a main one. The outdoor storage tanks seem to work well enough that you do not hear about any problems with them, and propane can also be used to power your barbeque and indoor propane fireplaces. If your home is heated with propane or you think it mightbe an option for your new home, be sure to find your own Hank Hill - a dealer in propane and propane accessories - who has the knowledge to ensure that your installation is safe and inspected on a regular basis.

If I build a home again, I would be strongly tempted to look at active and passive solar heating options along with wood heat as a supplement. The wood heat would provide a guarantee of warmth if the solar option couldn't keep up with the demands of the deep cold of winter, and the solar component would drastically reduce the amount of work to be done in processing the wood.

Some people who like the comfort of wood heat, but don't want to get involved in all the work associated with processing wood themselves have heaters that use compressed sawdust pellets or corn as a fuel. These stoves are a bit more complex in their operation than regular wood heat because they need and auger to feed the fuel to the point where it is burned, as well as a means of isolating the waiting fuel from heat at the ignition point. Their advantage is that you may not need to construct a traditional chimney and you cn therefore save the considerable amount of work that has to be done each year in cleaning a chimney. As with most other things, you are best off getting information about these options from an expert.