John Harrigan: Too much time to think about all of this stuff

JOHN HARRIGAN March 29. 2014 7:51PM

THERE ARE a lot of neat things about heating with wood, one of which is that nobody really seems to know how many households do so. Last year, various state agencies combined forces and reported that about 33,500 New Hampshire households heat primarily with wood, or about 6.5 percent of all homes in the state. In Coös, Grafton and Cheshire counties, the figure is much higher, up to 30 percent of homes.

An old saw is that it takes a lifetime of burning wood to learn how to burn wood, and the other oft-repeated old saw is that firewood warms you several times, the mere hint of the utterance of which makes me want to run away slapping my ears, crying "I can't hear you, nah nah nah."

During my 66 years on the planet, I've run, or been warmed by, just about every variety of wood-burning device imaginable, ranging from primitive and wasteful Franklin fireplaces to kitchen ranges to elegant parlor stoves to seriously efficient airtight stoves.

During all those years I sought, as with every wood-burner I've ever known, to reduce the handling of firewood to the absolute minimum. These are counted as "touches" - as in, how many times you have to touch each piece before it goes into the fire. For many homeowners, the minimum is seven - (1) cut it to the desired length; (2) split it; (3) pile it up somewhere outside, under a covering (metal roofing is great) to dry; (4) move it inside somewhere handy to the house - a shed or garage - in late fall; (5) pile it up again; (6) lug it into the house; and (7) throw it into the inferno.

Now, there are many possible step-savers in this scenario, especially if you have a good place to dry wood indoors, say a connected shed with good breezes flowing through it, and a tractor bucket-loader, into which you can toss your wood immediately after splitting. But few homeowners have those options.

Longtime newsroom friend and co-worker (and now editor) Jim Adams asked me a question last week that stopped me in my tracks, if only for a moment, which was "Why do you have an outdoor wood furnace?" My short-form answer was that it keeps all the bark, dust, dirt and insects outside, and it's about the easiest, most labor-saving wood-burning device I've ever run. And (and this is a big "and"), I think I've achieved the Holy Grail of wood handling, having got the number of touches down to exactly two.

Please bear in mind here, flint-eyed readers, that I'm not talking about the wood stored in the shed adjacent to the furnace. That's my "Deep Winter Piggybank" - for use from New Year's to Mud Season. For the bulk of the heating season - early winter to late winter - I drag several logs at a time from log pile to furnace. I don't count hooking onto these twitches as a touch. And here's what happens: (1) I cut the tree-length logs into three-foot pieces, leaving them exactly where they fall, and then (2) snag them with a pulp-hook and toss them into the furnace as needed.

What's missing from this picture? Right - splitting. And here is where I've achieved the Holy Grail. But what's the catch (there's always a catch)? I have to have my trees on the ground at least two years ahead of time, preferably three, because it takes unsplit wood twice at long to dry, and the thicker the wood, the longer. Which is why my back barnyard looks like I'm in the firewood business. I'm not; I just have to think three years ahead. The biggest challenge seems to be remembering which pile was set down when. To overcome this challenge beneath even the simplest simpleton, I cheat, and keep a little index card on the shop wall mapping out which pile was dropped when.

Running this furnace is not as simple as it might appear. The trick is to get the best possible burn while creating the least possible ash. Running a "boom and bust" fire is the answer. The fire never quite goes out, but burns down to mostly a fine white ash with enough glowing coals lurking therein to start the process all over. This system allows me to get away with just two cleanouts per winter - one at New Year's, the other at the start of Mud Season.

And now along comes the pellet industry, just as thousands of Baby Boomers such as me are getting to the point where they've had enough of heaving firewood around or just can't do it any more, but still want to keep heating with a local, sustainable, renewable resource that creates jobs and keeps dollars revolving around the hometown economy.

I'm not there yet, despite increasingly not-so-subtle urgings from Go-to-Camp Gang members that it's time. I'm not ready for the Sunnydale Wood Pellet Home just yet. And when and if I do wave the white flag and go to pellets, it'll be to fire a baseboard hot water system, not hot air. I've been blowing enough of that around already over 45 years of newspapering and counting.

John Harrigan's address: PO Box 39, Colebrook NH 03576, or

John Harrigan

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