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Firewood: burn the right kind, the right way

It is late fall and the Indians on a small reservation in southwest Colorado asked their new chief if the coming winter was going to be cold or mild.

Since he was a chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets. When he looked at the sky, he couldn’t tell what the winter was going to be like.

Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he told his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect firewood to be prepared.

But, being a practical leader, after several days, he got an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked, “Is the coming winter going to be cold?”

“It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold,” the meteorologist responded.

So, the chief went to his people and told them to collect even more firewood in order to be prepared.

A week later, he called the National Weather Service again.

“Does it still look like it is going to be a very cold winter?”

“Yes, it’s going to be a very cold winter,” the man replied.

The chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of firewood they could find.

Two weeks later, the chief called the National Weather Service again. “Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?”

“Absolutely,” the man replied. “It’s looking more and more like it is going to be one of the coldest winters we’ve ever seen.”

“How can you be so sure?” the chief asked.

The weatherman replied, “The Indians are collecting firewood like crazy.”

My husband and I have collected our firewood and we are ready for the winter — be it mild, cold or very cold. We use firewood exclusively to heat the house, and for the last 27 years firewood gathering has been a part of the autumn chores.

I frequently get asked a lot of questions about firewood when I tell friends how I heat my house. I am no expert, but what I know has come from years of trial and error (or should I say, trial through fire).

What kind of wood should I burn?

It doesn’t matter what kind of wood you burn as long as it is seasoned. In the case of hardwoods, especially oak, it must be seasoned for over one full year. That means last year’s wood; not this year’s.

If you are wondering about which wood is really the best, or what causes the least creosote buildup, the answer is still the same: Properly seasoned wood produces the most heat, and produces the least creosote. Seasoned wood burns hot and clean.

If you are going to spend hundreds of dollars on firewood, it is important to know that the wood you are buying is seasoned. Seasoned wood looks dark, or gray when compared to green wood. When you split a piece of seasoned wood, it’s white on the inside. It’s brittle. It has cracks running through each piece and a lot of cracks on the inner rings. Unseasoned wood has a wet, fresh-looking center, with lighter wood near the edges or ends which have been exposed since cutting. When firewood is very fresh, the bark will be tightly attached. Avoid this. When you get cold, you’ll be miserable if your firewood does not produce the heat you need.

If you have trouble starting your fire, or if you have trouble keeping the fire going, you are probably using this year’s wood, which means that it is not properly seasoned. It will keep going out. It will smolder. It won’t put out heat. It burns poorly and inefficiently.

It is also the moisture in the wood which causes creosote to build up at an accelerated rate. The moisture content in the wood determines how much heat the fire will put out and how much creosote will build up in your chimney.

What really causes creosote to build up? Creosote is the condensation of unburned flammable particulates present in the exhausting flue gas (smoke). The actual cause of creosote condensation is the surface temperature of the flue in which the flue gas comes in contact. Like hot breath on a cold mirror, if the surface temperature of the flue is cool, it will cause the vaporized carbon particles in the flue gas to solidify. This condensation is creosote build-up. If the wood you are using is rain logged or green, the fire will tend to smolder. Wet wood causes the whole system to be cool and inefficient. But dry wood means a hot flue. And a hot flue means much less creosote. Of course, if you close the damper to “bank” a fire overnight, you are slowing down the draft flow. Normally, in an open fireplace, the draft created by the hotter fire moves the air up the chimney faster. Because it is moving faster, the flue gas does not have as much time to condense as creosote inside the chimney. A banked fire, of course, slows down the speed the flue gas goes up the chimney.

A chimney must be cleaned before winter and, depending on level of use, a second cleaning halfway through the wood burning season is recommended — particularly if you close the damper when you go to bed.

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