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Pros and cons of using firewood for heating

January 24, 2011
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

Is firewood the best fuel choice for you? As winter tightens its grip, the cost of keeping warm increases. And this year’s escalating energy prices have many homeowners re-evaluating their fuel options.  

Among the possibilities: firewood.

“Wood is a renewable resource that when used with modern catalytic stoves can be an environmentally sound and cost-effective source of home heat,” said Jonathan Kays, a natural resources specialist with University of Maryland Extension, part of the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. However, the cost-effectiveness of firewood depends on several factors.

The heating value of any fuel is measured in British thermal units (Btu); one Btu is the amount of energy required to raise a pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit. Different types of heaters burn fuel at different efficiencies.

For example, the average airtight wood stove burns at an efficiency of 50 percent, an oil furnace burns at 65 percent, natural gas at 75 percent and electricity at 100 percent.

I should mention that the new EPA-approved wood stoves are typically more than 70 percent efficient and greatly reduce chimney fires. Combined with good fuel-preparation systems, burning firewood can be safe, efficient and save significantly on heating costs. These factors have resulted in a comeback in the use of fuel wood.

But knowing this is not enough. You also need cost information.

The costs of various forms of energy are evaluated differently, which makes comparisons difficult. Such comparisons are further complicated by variations in the cost of wood.

According to a recent survey of classified ads in newspapers throughout Maryland, prices for oak firewood — cut, split and delivered — range from $130 to $200 per cord. And these prices might increase as winter progresses.    

However, comparisons of the cost of various heating fuels can be made on the basis of their heat equivalents as expressed in dollars per million Btu. A recent comparison of different fuel sources based on current prices in the central Maryland area shows firewood — even at $150 a cord — is a competitively priced and economical source of heat, especially when compared to liquid propane, natural gas, fuel oil and electric baseboard heat. Firewood can be used to supplement your existing high-cost heat source and provide significant savings on weekends and evenings.

Before making a decision about switching from one heating method to another, however, you need to take into consideration the cost of installing a new heater or making your existing system safe.

If you think that firewood might be the best alternative for you, you’ll have to buy a wood stove or fireplace insert. In some cases, you might have to have an extra chimney installed or have an old chimney repaired and cleaned.

 However, if you already have a wood stove or fireplace insert, you might incur only the minimal costs involved in cleaning and inspecting the existing chimney and stove. And if you are in a position to legally collect your own wood, the savings will be even greater.

Until next time, curl up with a good book, your favorite warm beverage in front of a roaring fire. Nothing heats like wood and it is hard to beat the smell of oak smoke — outside the house, of course.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at jsemler@umd.edu.

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