All About Firewood: Great Fuel for Heating Without Electricity


Firewood is a renewable heat source that can truly be a long term solution to heating in a grid down situation. If you plan ahead and put a reliable system in place, you can heat your home with complete self-sufficiency. People have been using wood to heat their living quarters for many centuries.

Do you have the tools and resources to heat your home without electricity? There are many pieces of equipment that will help you produce heat without any dependency on electricity. If you plan ahead and obtain the tools necessary to efficiently put up your firewood, you can heat your home with firewood alone.

Heating with firewood is quite time consuming, and it is hard work. You can greatly reduce the time and effort by planning ahead and putting systems in place that lighten the load. Tools that perform well, the types of wood you obtain, and proper storage can help you achieve your goal.

Know Your Firewood

Knowing what kinds of trees are available for harvest in your area is an important step in heating with firewood. Different woods perform at different levels. Some woods:

  • Burn long and hot. 
  • Burn very quickly with little heat output
  • Burn clean
  • Create a lot of creosote, smoke, and ash

Take some time to identify the best wood sources for your needs. This will optimize the time and effort it takes to obtain your fuel.

BTU Ratings for Firewood

The measurement for output from a heat source is called “British Thermal Units” or BTUs. Each type of firewood has its own BTU rating. Hardwoods will typically have a higher BTU than softwoods.

Firewood BTU’s are measured per cord of wood. A cord of wood is a tight-packed stack that measures 4ft x 4ft x 8ft or 128 cubic feet.

Listed below are different species of trees in 3 BTU categories. Each has a brief description of burn qualities. They are listed from the greatest BTU output to the least.

Wood that Produces 20-30 Million BTU’s, Per Cord

  • Ash – easy to split, few sparks, low smoke
  • Pecan – hard to split, few sparks, low smoke
  • Walnut – easy to moderate to split, few sparks, low smoke
  • Birch – easy to moderate to split, few sparks, low smoke
  • Juniper – moderate to split, sparks, moderate smoke
  • Hackberry – easy to split, few sparks, low smoke
  • White fur – easy to split, few sparks, low smoke
  • Elm – moderate to hard to split, few sparks, moderate smoke
  • Mesquite – moderate to hard to split, sparks, moderate smoke
  • Tamarack – easy to split, sparks, moderate smoke
  • Cherry – easy to split, few sparks, low smoke

Wood that Produces 15-20 Million BTU’s, Per Cord

  • Sycamore – hard to split, few sparks, moderate smoke
  • Hemlock – easy to split, sparks
  • Maple – easy to moderate to split, few sparks, low smoke
  • Aspen – easy to split, few sparks, moderate smoke
  • Chestnut – easy to split, sparks, high smoke
  • Willow – hard to split, some sparks, moderate smoke
  • Alder – moderate to split, some sparks, moderate smoke
  • Poplar – easy to split, moderate sparks, moderate smoke
  • White pine – easy to split, sparks, moderate smoke
  • Spruce – easy to split, sparks, moderate smoke

Wood that Produces 10-15 Million BTU’s, Per Cord

  • Balsam fir – easy to split, sparks, moderate smoke
  • Basswood (linden) – easy to split, few sparks, moderate smoke
  • Cedar – easy to split, sparks, moderate smoke

Depending upon the sub-species of each tree, the rating may vary slightly. There are some great resources that provide more detail on heat output, but for me, I look more for the general ranking.

Free Wood is Good Wood

You may not have much choice of which wood you burn, depending upon where you live. We live in an area that does not have a lot of choice wood options, so we make do with what we have available.

Where we live, our top picks are Ash, Oak, and Birch. We seek out as much of these better-quality woods as we can, but we burn a lot of Poplar, Pine, and Spruce because it is abundant. Our motto is free wood is good wood.

Most folks that heat predominantly with wood will take advantage of what is available but will opt for a higher quality wood when purchasing. In a grid-down scenario, the wood that is easiest to obtain will most likely be your top pick.

Harvesting Firewood

Living deep in the woods of Northern Minnesota, we have no shortage of wood available. Depending on where you live, this may be more of a challenge for you.

Start by utilizing what is available on your own land. Look for dead standing trees, diseased trees, and blowdowns.

Tree Prunings

When you are pruning, assess whether or not the branches are usable as firewood. You would be surprised how much wood you can gather just from cleaning up your property.

Slashings

Another place we obtain a large portion of our firewood from is slashings. A slashing is an area of forest that has recently been logged. There is usually a lot of wood left behind during the logging process.

Make sure you gain permission from the landowner before harvesting from a slashing.

Blowdowns

Where we live, there are tens of thousands of acres of forested state land all around us. You can obtain a permit to harvest blowdowns in many states, but make sure you look into your state’s regulations before you cut.

Clean Up

Another resource can be offering to help people with cleaning up their land, especially after a storm. Most people are happy to have the help and will allow you to take the wood that is cleaned up as payment.

Purchase Firewood

We have never had to purchase wood, but it is an easy way to get a good store of wood put up in a hurry. It is also far less work than felling, limbing, and transporting it on your own.

Hazards Associated with Cutting Wood

Harvesting firewood can be very dangerous work. You need to be diligent about assessing the hazards every time you head out.

Find a Mentor

If you are new to cutting firewood, seek out a trusted individual who is willing to show you how to safely go about felling a tree, and the safe handling of the tools you will need to use. A good mentor is a very valuable asset.

Safety Equipment

It is important to have the proper safety equipment to reduce your exposure to injury. Eye protection, hearing protection, gloves, and chaps are a must.

Never disable safety features on your equipment.

Safety Assessment

Be observant. Always assess where you are cutting to avoid hitting a rock or foreign object. Plan your escape route when felling.

Situational Awareness

Safety should always be the number one priority. Before you cut down a tree, ask yourself these questions:

  • Which way is the tree leaning?
  • Which way is the wind blowing?
  • Are there any obstacles that may deflect a falling tree and cause it to kick back at you, or fall in a way that could put you in harm’s way?
  • Are there any widowmakers (detached or broken limbs or treetop) that could get knocked loose?

All of these questions should be asked about every tree you cut. It only takes a split second for things to go wrong. With good situation awareness, it is possible to perform these tasks safely.

Plan for the worst and shoot for the best when cutting down trees. If you approach each tree with caution and respect, you can reduce the risk factor.

Be Careful and Watchful

If you are cutting with someone else, make sure they understand the hazards as well. You must be aware of where they are at all times. Teach them to stay out of the line of fire. They should know to stay well back when a tree is being felled and never stand in front of someone while they are running a chainsaw.

Clearly communicate with one another to avoid putting each other in harm’s way. My husband and I spend a lot of time cutting wood together, and that is something that has been vital to our success. I trust him to inform me of his next move, and he trusts me to take the necessary precautions to stay clear of the hazards.

Chainsaws

We cut about 20 cords of wood each winter. This requires a lot of work, and we have learned through trial and error, a few things that help ease the load. We use 2 chainsaws, a small one for limbing and a larger one for felling and cutting.

The Huskvarna 455 Rancher is our big saw and it gets to be quite heavy for limbing, so it helps a ton to have a small saw for the light work. We use a Stihl MS170 chainsaw for light duty. The big saw is nice for the larger cuts because the weight of the saw aids the cut.

Maintain Your Equipment

Maintaining your saws is a must! Keep your chains sharp, your bar oiled, the sprocket lubricated, and the saw free of debris.

Before you head out, make sure to inspect your saws and the chains. Check for damage, and that things are sharp, clean, and oiled. If you take good care of your saw, it will make your job a lot easier.

Transporting Firewood

Now that you have your trees down, limbed, and cut to length, you need to get it home. This requires some forethought and planning as well.

We cut our logs to a length of about 14-16 inches. This length works best in our fireplace and fits in our wood sled nicely. We have a verity of sleds and trailers that we use because most of our wood is cut in areas that we can’t access by vehicle.

We often have to haul it out of the woods with a hand sled. Our ATV and snowmobile are irreplaceable for getting the wood back to our house.

You need to have a way of getting your firewood from where you cut, it to where you will be burning it. This is actually one of the most labor-intensive parts of harvesting your firewood. By having a good system and the proper equipment, you can reduce the amount of effort it takes to transport your wood home.

Our transport equipment:

Splitting Your Firewood

When you split your firewood, it’s good to have an idea of what size burns best in your heating setup. We aim for a piece that is 14-16 inches long and about 4-8 inches thick. This size range is what we have found to work best in our fireplace.

We have found that the higher the density of the wood, the smaller we need to split it to achieve a good burn. Try out different diameters and lengths to see what performs the best for you. You may be able to reduce the time it takes to put up your wood supply, by making your pieces a little larger.

Hydraulic Log Splitter

The first 2 years we heated with wood, we split it by hand. Twenty plus cords of wood is a lot to split by hand over the course of a winter. Our backs told us it was time to upgrade to a hydraulic log splitter.

If you live in a cold climate, think about investing in a log splitter. You won’t regret it! It not only saves wear and tear on your body, but it also speeds up the process as well.

Quality Hand Tools

When splitting by hand, keep your ax sharp. It makes a world of difference. While my husband uses a splitting ax, I prefer to use a splitting maul.

It seems strange, that being a lady, I would choose the heavier tool, but the weight of the maul helps split the wood. I don’t have the strength to swing the ax with enough force for splitting, so I need the added weight to help me.

If you have never split wood by hand, make sure you get tools that work well for you. We have several different axes, but we each have our favorite.

When we were hand splitting, we found that if we waited for the temperature to drop well below 0, it was much easier to split. The colder the better. The moisture in the wood expands and it makes the wood pop open much more easily.

Firewood Seasoning and Storage

Firewood needs to be well seasoned before you burn it. Seasoned wood is wood that has been given a year or two to dry out. Dry wood is going to provide the most heat and burn the cleanest. By burning green wood, you increase the risk of creosote buildup, and that creates the danger of a chimney fire.

To season your firewood properly, you will need a place to get it out of the rain and snow. Although you can use a tarp, this is not the best option. It slows the drying process by trapping moisture, and the rain and snow can still work their way in.

Build a Woodshed

We chose to build a 12ft x 20ft woodshed. We are able to fit about 15 cords in this space. If you only burn a cord of wood each season, a woodshed of this size may be overkill. Last winter we had to tap into the overflow pile due to the severity of the winter. The amount of space you need will depend on your climate, your wood stove, and the square footage you are heating.

Store Firewood Away from the House

Firewood can often house pests that you don’t want getting in your house. This is why it is best to keep your firewood away from your main structures. As tempting as it is to stack it up along your house, you may want to consider the pests that inhabit a woodpile.

Termites, carpenter ants, beetles, and other bugs often will make their home in the trunk of a tree. If the pile is up against your structure, they will eventually make their way in.

Also, the gaps and spaces within the stacks provide fantastic housing for mice, snakes, squirrels, and many other critters that will be more than happy to move into the shelter the piles provide. It’s best to keep them well away from your home, so you don’t invite unwanted guests.

Storage Life of Firewood

Firewood begins deteriorating after 4-5 years, so even though it would be nice to store enough wood for the next 10 years, it is not a realistic goal. Because of the fact that it will deteriorate over time, as well as the space needed to store that much wood, a 2-3-year supply is more realistic.

Kindling and Fire Starters

An assortment of kindling and fire starting material should be available at all times. We like to keep a small stock in a couple of old crocks next to our fireplace.

Kindling

Our favorite kindling consists of small twigs and branches (pine is fantastic because of the resin it contains), and small scraps of clean lumber. You don’t want to use pressure-treated or painted woods. They emit toxic fumes and can cause buildup. You will need a small hatchet to make your kindling.

Kindling Options

Some good kindling options are fatwood, paper, commercial fire starters, homemade fire starters, or my favorite, birch bark. Birch bark is fantastic. It has a long burn time, it is easy to ignite, and is very easy to obtain.

Anytime we are fortunate enough to get our hands on a birch tree for firewood, I strip the bark and store it in garbage bags in my woodshed. It’s an easy way to amass a sizable supply of free fire starting material. I also stop and pick it up when I find some from a fallen tree.

You never want to strip a live tree of its bark. It will kill the tree. The loose pieces are harmless to remove, but avoid peeling too deep.

Fire Starters

You will also need something to start the fire with. A lighter, torch, matches, or even a flint and steel are good options.

Wood-Burning Stove Types

There are different options when it comes to heating with wood. Typically, a woodstove is going to be far more effective at heating than a fireplace. Depending on the size of the woodstove and the square footage you intend to heat, it is quite possible to heat your space with no reliance on electricity.

A wood-burning stove gives you the ability to keep your living space comfortable during a grid-down scenario or power outage.

Outdoor Woodstoves and Boiler Systems Require Electricity

Even though outdoor woodstoves and boiler systems are fantastic wood heat sources, they need electricity to operate. Unless you have an off-grid power source, they will become inoperable during a power outage.

If you are savvy and able to produce a source of power, an outdoor wood stove is a great option. They are very efficient, add a layer of safety, and the mess is kept outside. Many people in our area have outdoor boiler systems in place and absolutely love them.

Fireplace

We heat the main floor of our home with a fireplace. Our fireplace has a few features that allow it to be more efficient than a traditional setup.

The insert is essentially a free-standing wood stove in a stone surround. The firebox is set into a large hollow space surrounded by fieldstone. There is a large intake vent at floor level below the firebox, and a large outlet vent at the top. This setup allows air to move around the firebox via convection.

It will put out enough heat to quickly melt a candle. The fieldstone also provides radiant heat long after the fire has gone out. Often times, the stones will still be warm in the morning when we get up.

We have plans in place to install an additional cast iron woodstove to increase our heating options. A cast-iron stove, Franklin stove, or potbelly stove are all fairly easy to install. With the help of a knowledgable individual, you can achieve a heating system that is reliable even without power. It is important to seek the advice of an expert to ensure that you meet the required safety standards.

Maintaining a Woodstove

It is important to maintain your woodstove. Frequent cleaning and inspections will ensure that it is operating safely and efficiently.  If you are not diligent about inspecting your system, you open yourself up to the risk of a fire. Even in the best of times, this would be a terrible event, so a few safety precautions could save your life.

Keep Flammables Away from Stove

First, maintain the space around your stove. Clutter and debris can create fire hazards. Keep combustibles well away from your stove. Wood produces a lot of debris. Little bits of bark, leaves, and splinters will fall off, and if you don’t clean this up on a regular basis, it can ignite from a wayward spark. Also, keep rugs and kneeling pads well back from your woodstoves access door.

Remove Ash Regularly

Don’t neglect to remove the ash buildup from the firebox. Ash buildup can cause your woodstove damage, and it will reduce the lifespan of the firebox and grate.

You will need a good fireplace scoop and an ash bucket to transport the ash. Plastic will melt if it comes in contact with a hot ember, so it’s best to stick with metal.

Embers can remain hot for a long time. Always allow ash to COMPLETLY cool before disposing of ash near flammables.

Keep Glass Clean

If your wood stove or fireplace has a glass front, you will want to keep the glass clean. You can use the wood ash from the firebox as a cleaning agent, or there are glass cleaners designed specifically for woodstoves.

I like to use oven cleaner because it does a fantastic job. I then finish up with some standard glass cleaner, and it is spotless. While cleaning the glass, inspect it for cracks and chips that may cause the glass to fail.

Inspect and Maintain Door Gaskets and Firebox

Inspect your door gaskets on a regular basis. A poor gasket can cause smoke to escape into the room, and it can reduce the stove’s efficiency. Also, make sure the door latches are functioning properly.

Inspect the firebox and stove for cracks and gaps. If any are detected, the stove should be taken out of service until repairs can be made or the unit is replaced.

Inspect and Clean Chimney and Flue

Inspect your chimney and flue. Look for creosote buildup, cracks, and poor connections. Make sure the chimney cap is in place, and not built-up with debris and creosote. The cap is important because it controls sparks and keeps embers from escaping and igniting a fire outside your home.

It is important to sweep your chimney a couple of times each year to keep the risk of chimney fires to a minimum. Make sure flues and dampers are fully operational.

Miscellaneous Tools and Equipment

Some additional tools that you will need are a good fireplace kit with a poker, shovel, grabber, and broom. There should always be a fire extinguisher at hand. You may also want a firewood rack inside the home.

A bellows is helpful for blowing embers back to life. I like a log bag for hauling wood from the woodshed. All of these things are handy tools to have available. You may also want to have a cup of hot cocoa available. It makes the fire that much better.

Consider the Practicality of Wood Heating

If you have been considering the practicality of a wood heating option, now is a great time to start researching the system that best suits your needs. Wood heat is always a great option. Not only does it provide the ability to keep your family warm during a power outage or crisis, but it is also a great way to reduce your heating costs.

We heat our 2800 sq ft home almost entirely with free firewood. We do use a propane furnace, and off-peak electricity when we are away, or to fill in the gaps when we don’t have a fire going. To be able to heat a home in Northern Minnesota for a couple hundred dollars a year is amazing. Most folks around here will spend that much in a month or two.

Heating with firewood does require quite a bit of labor, so take that into consideration if you are thinking about adding wood heat. If you are able, I recommend heating with wood.

Enjoy the Security of a Warm Fire

We love sitting by a warm fire on a cold night, and the security of having a reliable heat source is also very comforting. Make sure that you follow safety regulations and inform your insurance provider.

You will most likely have to adjust your homeowner’s policy, and there may be some loopholes with your insurance company. Both of these things are easy to take care of.

Beth Lestico

Beth is an avid outdoorswoman who spends most of her time hunting, fishing and homesteading with her husband and 2 children. She is passionate about self-sufficient living, gardening, food preservation, learning about wild edibles and traditional skills. Being a high energy and curious person keeps her motivated to constantly learn new skills and methods of doing things. She loves hearing from others about new ways of doing things as well as sharing her experiences with anyone who is interested.

Recent Posts