Using Wood Heat as a Primary Heat Source

Heating Your Home With Firewood is a Viable Option

Budget-conscious home-owners are getting in touch with their wood-burning roots. But while the majority of wood stove users burn wood to supplement their primary heating systems, there are a number of dedicated home-owners who burn wood as their only heat source.

Indeed, there are thousands of people across Canada and the United States who use wood as their only source of heat. And not only are these wood stove enthusiasts saving money, but they are also one passionate bunch!

This two-part series discusses:

• The financial benefits of heating with wood
• The personal benefits of heating with wood.

Financial Benefits

primary heating systems

In order to understand the financial benefits of heating with wood, home-owners must think in the long-term. This is because purchasing a modern wood stove can be a substantial cost. However, the purchase of an efficient wood stove is a one-time cost, which is followed by lower annual costs. Over the long-term, wood heat is generally a more economical way to heat one’s home.

The Gordon Family

Take the Gordon family, in Phoenixville, PA, as an example. Darren Gordon, his wife Malia, and their young son live in a 2500 square-foot open-concept home, which they heat entirely with wood. A few years ago, the Gordons purchased an EPA-certified wood stove, a chainsaw, and everything else needed to successfully heat their home with wood. Their purchases totaled just over $3,000.

But now it’s a few years later, and the Gordons have already paid for everything needed to heat their home. With a year’s supply of free firewood stacked and ready to burn, the Gordons anticipate that the family’s heating expenses over the next year should be, in the words of Darren Gordon, “almost zero.”

So the Gordons won’t have a heating bill this year. Nor next year. Nor the year after that! And, if they continue living in their home as they are today, in fifteen years their story will sound a lot like the Ballenthins’ story below.

The Ballenthin Family

Jim and Jean Ballenthin live outside of Backus, MN, and have been heating their home with wood since 1990. Being without a monthly heating bill for the past eighteen years, the couple conservatively estimates that they have saved between $20,000 to $30,000 in heating costs.

Is it actually possible to see such substantial savings by switching to wood? Consider the following example, using today’s numbers:

• Average annual home heating costs in the United States range from $3 000 to $4 500 per year.
• Multiplying $3 000 per year over an eighteen year period adds up to $54 000 in heating costs!

Firewood

A key factor in both families’ savings is that both households have access to free firewood. Both families obtain their firewood supply for free off their own property or through connections (and hard work).

Darren Gordon jokingly calls his firewood-collection methods “scrounging.” Gordon confides, “Once you get good with a chainsaw, you also have an instant side business; people will pay you to remove fallen trees from their property, and you get free wood at the same time.”

Jim Ballenthin, on the other hand, cuts all of his family’s firewood from their own property. “I rarely cut down live, healthy trees,” says Ballenthin. “I take down diseased, dying, or storm damaged trees.”

But, unlike the families mentioned here, not all wood burners have access to free firewood.

Nonetheless, purchasing wood is still a financially viable option. Estimates suggest that it’s common to cut one’s energy bill in half by purchasing firewood instead of oil or natural-gas.

Darren Gordon is pleased with his family’s financial savings. But, with a smile, he warns, “I must admit, I wouldn’t do this for the money savings alone. It’s simply too much work. I heat with wood for a long list of reasons.”

Energy Efficient Replacement Windows

Krypton or Argon-Filled, Low-E, Double-Hung Energy Star Units

Windows aren’t what they used to be. Plenty of contractor-grade windows are installed by residential building contractors, but an upgrade to a krypton or argon-filled, low-e, double-hung model will quickly pay for itself.

A residential energy audit will quickly point out which windows will benefit most from replacement.

Why Krypton or Argon-Filled Windows?

Argon is in fact a very useful gas. It’s used inside incandescent light bulbs to keep oxygen from degrading the tungsten filament. It’s used in processing the silicon to make the semiconductors that make reading this article possible.

With the advent of double-paned windows, manufacturers originally flushed the cavity with nitrogen or simply filled it with air. But they quickly discovered that a slower-moving gas reduces conduction, thus minimizing the transfer of heat and cold from the inside to the outside of the dwelling.

Both krypton and Argon fit the bill. Both are non-toxic which places them in the green building arena. Krypton is the more efficient of the two gases, but more expensive, so it is used in cases where the cavity space between the double panes needs to be reduced.

Low-Emittance (Low-E) Coatings as a Radiant Barrier

Low-e coatings are metal or metallic oxide layers that are microscopically thin and almost invisible to the naked eye. The manufacturer applies them to window and skylight glazings. The end result is a reduction of the U-factor by quelling radiant heat flow.

In this respect, low-e coatings, combined with a gas-filled void, function in a manner similar to radiant barrier foil or paint used in conjunction with attic insulation.

There are two categories of coatings which should be taken into account when selecting energy-efficient windows. High solar gain glazing is more effective in winter, but low solar gain (also called sputtered) wins the prize during the summer.

The home’s dominant weather pattern should determine which type will result in lower utility bills.

The Role of Window Frame Material

energy-efficient windows

Many homeowners focus exclusively on the window and its thermal properties. But consider that the frame itself comprises anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the unit’s surface area. It’s no surprise that the material has an impact on efficiency.

Aluminum: This material is extruded so it’s a good choice for complex arcs and other shapes. A disadvantage is high thermal conductance. It’s also notorious for condensation and even frost inside the home in very cold weather.

Aluminum with a Thermal Break: In an attempt to reduce thermal conductance, the inside of the frame is separated from the outside and a less conductive material is place between the two sides.

Vinyl: Actually this is polyvinyl chloride, or the familiar PVC used in residential plumbing applications. It provides a good insulating factor and the color is permanent since it goes all the way through; there’s no need to paint.

Insulated Vinyl: This is the same as regular vinyl with an insulated core designed to improve thermal performance.

Fiberglass: This material is also known in the industry as glass fiber reinforced polyester. It’s extruded like aluminum, but offers superior thermal qualities.

Wood Window Frames: Wood is the most traditional of all frames. Since it needs to be painted, changing the home’s color scheme is a snap. It can also be fashioned into complex shapes. Routine maintenance is important since wood is susceptible to rotting.

Add an Outdoor Room to Your Home

Outdoor rooms add area and allow a connection with the outdoors

Yards can be used as additional rooms (living, kitchen, dining, etc.), adding square feet, a connection to the outdoors and as an alternative to cranking up the air conditioner. No longer are yards solely the domain of grills and plastic chairs. Today, many are outfitted with ovens, refrigerators, lamps, heaters and sofas.

outdoor rooms

Think about the type of room you would like to add. What are your needs? Think beyond the grill. Outdoor rooms should reflect your lifestyle. How will it be used? Do you entertain a lot? Are you a red meat aficionado? Is pizza your thing? Will this outdoor space be used solely for lounging?

• The range of appliances available is enormous. Explore all of your options. An outdoor kitchen does not have to be limited to a grill and a fridge. Think about a warming drawer, beer dispenser, wood-fired pizza oven, sideburner, smoker, rotisserie, refreshment center or ice machine.

• While you can grill almost any day in some climates, outdoor kitchen appliances are typically only rated to 32 degrees F, so warranties become void in many states due to extreme temperatures, wind and moisture.

• The room/space should be protected by architectural elements such as overhangs and partially enclosed areas. Not that you will necessarily be entertaining outdoors in February, but it does not hurt to block wind and the occasional sprinkle of rain.

• Anything connected to plumbing will need to be winterized (disconnected, blown out and stored). This is a major consideration if you decide to add water lines for sinks, ice makers and more.

• Limit material choices to those that can survive being hosed down (think after-party clean up, mid-summer rainstorms and winter snow as well). Stainless steel, stone, pretreated and exotic woods and brick are perfect for storage and the structure itself. Think about materials that survive well in the climate in which you live.

• Use waterproof and fade-resistant materials for furnishings, cushions and rugs as well. It is better to invest in sturdy pieces rather than replacing them every other season.

• Lighting is crucial. Entertaining and cooking often occur in the transition time between day and night. Add direct lighting to shine on the grill and over the countertops. Consider ambient or mood lighting for seating areas. Many manufacturers make lamps specifically for outdoor spaces.

• Heaters and fireplaces extend the season and allow you to stay outside longer. To create a cozy gathering spot, consider a firepit. For heating and lighting, think about a heater/lamp, which can be used separately or together.