By Teri Olcott
If you live in an area where wood is abundant, heating your home with a wood burning stove may be an appealing option. A wood stove is one of the few heating systems that does not require electricity and maintenance and upkeep is minimal. Starting a wood fire does require a little bit of work, but once it’s going, you can sit back and relax and enjoy the warmth. The following tips will help you get the maximum warmth and enjoyment out of your wood stove.
Wood Stove Safety
A wood stove can be a safety hazard if not installed properly. Concerns about fire safety may cause you to make smaller fires which means your stove isn’t being used efficiently and can increase the risk of chimney fires. Have your stove and chimney inspected by a qualified technician if you have any doubts about its installation, and keep flammable items as far away as possible. Your home insurance company can recommend an inspector if you don’t know who to call. You need to be able to load up the stove and leave the house or go to bed without the fear of something catching on fire. Small fires will burn less hot which can lead to smoldering rather than burning. Any smoke that makes it way out of the stove and into the chimney will condense as creosote and enter to the great outdoors as air pollution.
You will need to either cut or buy firewood to fuel the stove. If cutting your own, make sure you cut it early enough so it has time to dry by the time you need it. Wood that’s cut in the spring is usually dry enough to be used in the fall. The wood should be at least three inches shorter than the firebox on the stove. The average log length is 14 to 16 inches, and the diameter should be from 3 to 6 inches. You will want wood of different sizes to help regulate heat. The larger the stove, the larger the wood can be, but you don’t want wood so large that’s fills the entire stove.
When stacking the wood, make sure it’s off the ground. Green wood can be stacked in an area that receives a lot of sun and wind to help it dry. Don’t stack green wood in a shaded area as it will not dry properly which can lead to mold and bug infestation. You can cover just the top of the stack with a tarp to keep it dry from the rain. Avoid stacking the wood higher than four feet as the pile can become unstable. Once the wood is dry, it can be moved to a shed for storage and protection from rain and snow. Avoid storing large amounts of wood in your home as mold and bugs can be an issue.
Avoid burning softwood such as pine and cedar as it will burn up quickly and not allow the stove to heat up. Hardwoods such as oak, hickory, maple, and ash are very dense and will burn for several hours. Once the stove is hot, it will continue to radiate heat, even if the fire has gone out.
How to Start a Fire
The following materials are needed to start and maintain a wood fire in a wood stove:
- Regular newspaper (Don’t use shiny or coated paper!)
- Matches or a fire stick
- Dry kindling
- Seasoned firewood
There are several ways to start a fire, and one is as good as the other. The conventional way is to crumple up newspaper, place kindling on top, and then small logs on top of the kindling. Light the newspaper, open the ash pan door on the front of the stove to allow oxygen into the woodbox, and then wait until the top logs are burning. You can then place larger logs in the stove and close the ash pan door. Adjust the damper on the chimney to keep all the heat from going up the chimney. A second way to start a fire is to place small logs in the woodbox first, kindling on top of the logs, then newspaper on top of the kindling. The idea is that the newspaper will still ignite the kindling which will drop down onto the logs and start them burning.
Whatever method works for you, just be sure that you use regular newspaper (avoid shiny or coated paper), and very dry kindling such as small pine or cedar branches. The kindling should burn fast and hot to catch the larger wood on fire. The success in getting a fire started is making sure it has enough oxygen in the beginning. If the fire goes out or starts to smoke, make sure the damper or vents are open, the ash pan is empty, and air is being pulled into the stove. Practice makes perfect, and it won’t take long before you’re an expert fire starter.
How to Regulate Heat
Controlling the amount of heat a wood stove generates can be a little tricky at first. Some types of wood burn hotter than others, and the amount of wood and how you place it in the stove will determine how hot it will get.
For a quick fire to take the chill off in mild weather, loosely stack small logs in a crisscross pattern so the wood will burn fairly quickly. Once the house heats up, you can let the fire go out.
For an extended fire in cold weather, such as overnight or while you’re away, place medium to large logs close together and parallel to fill the firebox. A wood fire can burn for up to four hours and will leave a bed of hot coals in the bottom of the firebox. Simply place more logs on the coals and they’ll be burning in no time. You may need to adjust the damper and vents on the stove to limit or increase the amount of oxygen.
Some stoves have built-in fans to help move the heat away from the stove. You can also place small fans throughout the house to help circulate the heat. Adjust the amount and size of the wood placed in the stove to match the amount of heat you want. Sometimes it’s best to let the fire go out. A well-insulated house will stay warm for many hours. This will save you wood and keep the house from getting too hot.
What to Do with Ashes
As wood burns, it turns to ash and drops into an ash pan. Make sure you empty the ash pan and remove ash from the fire box frequently. Hot ashes are the main cause of accidental house fires. Make sure you dump the ashes into a metal container and place the container away from any combustibles. Never put ashes in a cardboard box or paper bag because hot embers can lurk in the ashes and catch fire when exposed to oxygen. Ashes make great fertilizer for gardens and can be used to treat slippery sidewalks and driveways.
Using a wood stove to heat your home does take a little bit of knowledge, but once you have mastered the art of fire starting, it will become a daily routine. Being able to start a fire with a single match and watch it turn into a glowing fire that quickly heats up your home can be quite satisfying. Not only are you saving money, but being less dependent on electricity is always a good feeling as well.
Images used with permission, courtesy of Teri Olcott and www.shutterstock.com