With rising fuel costs and wildfires in a lot of forested areas, whether you buy firewood or cut your own, you’re almost sure to see an increase in the cost of the wood you burn this year. So whether that firewood is your primary source of heat or just cheery ambiance on a cold night, it pays to invest wisely and then protect your investment.
If you buy firewood, there are a number of different sources where you can locate it. Many people turn to their local newspaper, Craigslist or maybe a community bulletin board. Other — and sometimes more reliable — sources of firewood include local tree-trimming services, fireplace shops, and retailers that sell and service chainsaws and related cutting equipment.
Firewood is sold by the cord, which is a stack of wood 4 feet high, 4 feet deep and 8 feet long (128 cubic feet). Firewood is obviously irregular in shape, so the stack also includes the air spaces between the pieces.
That’s what a cord should look like in a perfect world. Ideally, the dealer you’re buying the wood from will deliver it in a truck that makes verification of the load easy, such as a 4-by-8-foot truck bed, with wood stacked 4 feet high. That doesn’t always happen, and you need to be careful when you see a truck roll up with wood tossed in the back: A sloping pile of firewood in a standard pickup truck may contain only 3/4 of a cord.
The other thing you’ll be looking for when you buy your wood is whether it’s dry, also sometimes called "seasoned," or whether it’s "green." Dry firewood has been out in the air for a while since it was cut, allowing a significant amount of the wood’s moisture to evaporate, typically down to a moisture content of around 20 percent or less. Green wood still has a lot of the moisture in it — as much as 40 percent — so when you burn it, the fire has to first evaporate that moisture. Therefore the wood burns cooler, and you get less heat energy per cord.
Visually inspect the wood that you buy. Dry wood feels light, has loose bark and darkened ends with clearly visible splits, and makes a very definite "thunking" noise when you hit two pieces together. Wet wood is just the opposite, and will sound dull and heavy when knocked together.
You’ll typically pay a little more for dry wood, but it’s worth the cost if you plan to burn it right away. If you’re going to store the wood for burning next season, then you can save some money by buying green wood and letting it dry.
There are a couple of other ways to save some money when you buy your wood. If you have a truck or a trailer, you might be able to pick the wood up yourself at the dealer’s lot and save delivery charges, and also verify your full cord at the same time. If you have wood delivered, there’ll be an extra charge for stacking, so do that chore yourself if you can. Also, you can usually get firewood in full rounds, or pre-split. If you’re ambitious, consider getting rounds — they’re cheaper, and you can get some great outdoor exercise by doing your own splitting.
Storing and seasoning the wood
Most people store a good portion of their wood supply outside where it can continue to dry and season, and keep a small portion nearby where it’s accessible and ready for use.
Long-term storage areas should be located outside where wind and sun can help with the drying. However, to minimize danger in the event of a wildfire, and also to protect your home’s siding in case the firewood contains any insects, the wood shouldn’t be stacked directly against your house. Also, wood that’s left out in the elements, even if it’s dry, will reabsorb water from rain and snow, as well as from the ground. This will cause it to become too wet to burn efficiently, and eventually it will rot.
Ideally, consider creating an outdoor storage shed for your firewood, with a raised floor, a sloped roof for runoff, and open sides for easy access and unimpeded air circulation. Make it large enough to hold a year’s worth of wood — typically two to four cords, depending on your burning habits.
After the wood is dry, most people create a smaller storage area inside the house, such as in the garage or basement. Depending on your habits and the accessibility of your outside supply, the inside supply could be as small as two or three days’ worth, or large enough to accommodate several weeks of wood.
Finally, create some storage right at the fireplace or wood stove. One very nice solution is a canvas carrying bag with enclosed ends and sides. The wood is stacked in the bag for carrying, then the bag hooks over a decorative metal frame near the fireplace for storage, containing the wood inside the bag to minimize the mess.
You might also consider a decorative metal tub or other container to hold one or two nights’ worth of wood while keeping the dirt and chips contained. While not quite as neat, there are also a number of very attractive open metal storage racks offered by various manufacturers.
Any wood that you store inside needs to be far enough away from the fireplace that it can’t combust. And most importantly, never store newspapers, kindling, pinecones or other easily combustible fire-starting materials next to your fireplace. They can and do start house fires!