Shivering my timbers

Wood heaters, eh?

In the month I’ve been living here in the Cottage I’ve developed a complicated relationship with mine.

I’ve learnt, now, how to get a decent blaze going with minimal fuss and there’s little nicer than curling up in front of a toasty fire on a cold night, glass of red in hand. The heat it produces is lovely, and when it’s working properly I can set it before bed and the house will stay toasty warm all night. Poking and prodding the fire into cooperation is fun and it’s immensely satisfying to get a good burn going on a cold night.

It’s less fun, however, on nights like tonight when the weather’s foul and I work late, and at 9 pm it’s still a little chilly even with the fire going. It’s been raining all day so the firewood is damp and the baffle plate on the flue has bent (yet again), jamming the flue wide open and significantly reducing the efficiency of my burn and heat transfer.

Heh, a month ago I had no idea what a baffle plate was, let alone what it did. I’d not spared much thought to wood moisture content or burn efficiency, and I’d never considered the price of firewood by the tonne (between $150 and $200, for the curious).

I still feel a little guilty about lighting the fire. In a State where my power is hydro-electric (not exactly environmentally benevolent, but a darn sight better than coal), lighting the fire is both less efficient (in terms of energy cost by yield) and generates a lot more emissions (CO2 and particulate emissions) than using electric heating.

On top of that, the wood I’m burning has to come from somewhere. The current fuel for my fire comes from a beautiful old eucalypt tree that had to be felled over at the House of the Gumtrees (mmm, free firewood!), however my ex-landlord only let me take what I could fit in my Corolla (a surprisingly large amount when you’re determined…) and I’m about to run out. Firewood sales in Tasmania are unregulated, with many sellers setting up trucks on the roadside with cheap loads for sale. Problem is you don’t know where that wood has come from or what condition it’s in:

  • Is is green, wet or rotten?
  • Was it illegally taken from State Forests, National Parks or trespassing on private land?
  • Were old hollowed trees felled that provide important habitat for wildlife (including several endangered species)?

And that’s without considering if it’s actually the tonnage they’re saying it is!


I know exactly where my last load of firewood came from (and how sad I was that such a beautiful old tree had to go)

There’s no hiding from the truth: the wood heater is not an environmentally friendly way to heat my home! It’s what I’ve got, however, so it’s up to me to make the best of it.

I’ve been researching wood heaters and firewood recently and I’ve learnt that:

  • The moisture content of your timber needs to be below 25% for an efficient burn.
  • Burning green or wet timber increases particulate emissions (as well as being much less efficient).
  • Even stored under cover, firewood has an amazing capacity to absorb moisture on rainy days.
  • Burning pine needles is fun.
  • Baffle plates significantly improve the heat exchange from your wood heater (and having it bend and jam open – again – is a bad thing. *sigh*).
  • Burning old painted fence posts is an environmental no-no, no matter how much free timber it is or how much your lovely new neighbours assure you it’ll be ok.
  • Accidentally throwing in an envelope with a plastic window results in noxious fumes: don’t do it.
  • You can’t add the ash and charcoal to your compost, but a small amount mixed with other things is ok in mulch.
  • There’s no regulation of the firewood industry in Australia, and there are a lot of dodgy vendors in Hobart (if the internet is to be believed)
  • There is a voluntary industry code of practice that sets out standards that wood will be sustainably harvested, in accordance with all laws and protective orders, stored correctly and sold with moisture contents below 25%, with weighbridge tickets provided.
  • There is one supplier in the whole of Tasmania who is signatory to the voluntary code, and they’ll deliver to my suburb.
  • The cold metal of my bed frame is very nice to rest my blistered skin on when I inevitably burn myself on the wood heater door/frame/handle
  • So. Many. Splinters.

So, after a little research and environmental guilt I’ve come to the following positions:

  1. The wood heater only gets lit if (1) the temperature is below 10oC and (2) I’m going to be home all night (no fire on taiko training nights!)
  2. Use discarded newspaper from work and household waste (loo rolls, paperwork from the last lease, letters from politicians) to get the fire started
  3. Pay the extra to buy firewood from the lone code signatory supplier; it’s not that much more than other suppliers and I know it’s as ethically sound as I’m going to get.
  4. Keep my garden prunings to burn next winter: at least the damn invasive vine I cut down will be useful!
  5. When the fire’s lit, actively enjoy it.

Hence I’m writing this sitting on my couch, watching the flames over the top of my monitor instead of working with the lap-top docked in the study. If I’m going to commit environmental crimes in the name of keeping warm I may as well keep the most of it, and once Winter properly arrives and the fire is going during the day on weekends I intend to try my hand at cooking on the coals. I’m thinking coal-roasted foil-wrapped eggplant (that’s aubergine for the northern-hemispherians) is going to be a beautiful thing. Baba ganoush for all!

This weekend I’m going to buy my first load of firewood and spend far too much time hauling and stacking the stuff in the little space under the house, and I’ll be talking to my landlord about getting that warped baffle plate replaced this time instead of another attempt at repair. Right now though I’m going to finish this post then put another piece of tree on the fire, sit back and watch the flames while I finish the glass of red that’s mysteriously appeared in front of me. 😉


I really want to be sure my future heating doesn’t come at the cost of protected forest or threatened wildlife.

Have you ever lived with a wood heater or fireplace? Got any firey tips for this recovered teenage pyromaniac?

Come sit with me and tell me all about it. There’s enough red wine to share and though my couch may be fat and bulky it’s pretty comfy.


9 Comments on “Shivering my timbers

  1. Great post Toni! We’re attempting to burn hideous wood that is apparently waste from southwood. Not good at all. Better than burning habitat maybe… But we love having the brick wall behind the fireplace get all toasty then radiate warmth all the next day. I’m off to click on your links now, love the way you think, write & share!

    • Hello and thank you! Mm, I really like the idea of having a brick wall behind the fire to retain the heat. Sounds like good sustainable design to me, making your fire far more efficient by providing radiant heat the next day. *sigh* If I ever own my own place I just might borrow that idea.


  2. We had a wood stove in the old farmhouse. It was a lot of work, but I still miss the heat it provided. (Our wood stove is still in our barn where its stood, unused, for 10 years. I can’t get rid of it.)

    A few tips from our years of using wood & a wood stove:

    * Always stack your wood off the ground. Use pallets or some other cheap/easy platform, but get and keep the wood off the ground. This helps with keeping the wood drier and with deterring snakes from taking up residence at the base of your wood pile.

    * Wood takes the better part of a year to “season”, or dry out sufficiently to burn properly. Keep this in mind when ordering firewood and ask how long the wood has been seasoning.

    * Collect newspapers. Take a sheet or two of the newspaper, folding it to about 12-18″ or so, then roll it up tight. Twist the long roll of newsprint so it won’t unroll. These make great kindling/starters in your wood stove.

    * US regulations call for a wood stove to be three feet away from the nearest wall. You should also have the wood stove on a heat-resistant pad. Both are meant to keep the room warm but not the wood frame of the house. (See below)

    * Dry wood burns cleaner and hotter. Wet wood burns, but it boils the remaining sap. That sap evaporates and rises, eventually collecting against the sides of your slightly cooler chimney. The remaining black, hard, shiny mess is called creosote. Creosote is bad.

    * Creosote is bad because, unless it is scubbed off the sides of your chimney, it will eventually catch fire. A chimney fire is bad for two reasons: First, a fire in your chimney can cause nasty bad damage to the flue — nasty bad as in “this chimney is unsafe and unusable.” Second, chimney fires frequently cause house fires. The worst part about that? The house fires usually happen hours after the chimney fire has been put out. The surrounding wood of house frame continues to store the heat until it reaches a flashpoint.

    * This means you will need to have your chimney cleaned once, perhaps twice a year. (We bought chimney cleaning tools in our first year. Cleaning the chimney became one of my favorite jobs — despite the mess and inconvenience. I found it immensely satisfying.) (I still have my chimney cleaning tools, too.)

    * Wood heat is dry heat. If your wood stove has a flat top area to it, get an old pot or a dutch oven and keep it filled with water. I liked to add pumpkin pie spices and orange peels to the water. It made the house smell wonderful!

    * Potatoes, wrapped in aluminum foil, and baked in the coals of a wood stove, taste better than any other way of baking them that I’ve ever tried.

    That’s about it for now. You know where to find me if you have questions.

    Enjoy the reds.

    • Thank you for a really informative comment! I didn’t know anything about chimney cleaning beyond the real estate telling me it had been done recently and I didn’t need to worry about it. And creosote is not nice stuff! I’ve tried out your newspaper kindling trick and it worked rather nicely (coupled with a little real kindling) – this will help stretch my kindling supply further and save me having to collect more in a hurry.

      My wood heater is build into the old fireplace, so I can only get to the front of it. It’s a shame though: if I could access the top I could slow cook on it, increasing the efficiency of burning wood. So sad.

      Also, I think you’ve motivated me to finally get contents insurance. The thought of losing everything in a fire gives me the willies.

  3. when I was about 11 my family moved into a big house that only had a wood heater for any kind of heating. It was ridiculous really, you had to close all the available doors to get the living/kitchen/dining room to heat up to any reasonable degree and the bedrooms were already freezing – oh except for my parents room, they had an electric column heater in their room 😛

    As much as we romantisize having a wood fireplace, I know it’s a poor choice in terms of efficiency, but mostly back then I hated it for the sheer inconvenience of it. As you have obviously learned, the time and effort it takes to get a fire burning, settled, and burning at a temperature that is high enough to warm the room means it is not worth it unless youre going to be home all night. I hated so much that when I got home from school on freezing winter afternoons that the house was no warmer than it was outside, and it would take an hour before there was any kind of warmth at all in the place and even then only standing in the immediate vicinity of the heater – really there is nothing worse than coming home from a cold day out, especially if you’ve gotten wet for any reason, and the house being cold and having no means to heat it up easily….

    I would suggest its better to be pragmatic… get an electric column heater at least, they are pretty cheap to run and depending on the size of your house/room they will heat the place up quite nicely. That way you can still have the fire when you can be bothered but you wont freeze when you cant.

    Alternatively, buy a lazypatch 😛

    • Wow, I’d never consider using wood to heat a big house! The Cottage is tiny, so the wood heater heats the entire place nicely and is far more effective than plugging in my electric heater (hence why I’m bothering with it in the first place). The other big benefit of the wood heater is that it’ll keep the house warm all night, while the electric heater gets turned off when I go to bed and the house gets cold quickly (because I have NO INSULATION – madness).

      I’m really not silly or stubborn enough to be using a heat source that doesn’t actually work for me. This house is well-designed, warming up really well during the day due to huge north-facing windows (so even with NO INSULATION and no fire going it’s warm when I get home), and if I really want to get warm quickly (or can’t be arsed with the fire) I can have a hot shower then settle into one of the smaller rooms with the electric heating on. This is what happens most work nights.

      Also, I just googled “lazypatch”… ZOMG! It’s a bogan snuggie!

  4. I felt warm and cosy just reading this post!

    As I’m from warm places (northern NSW and Qld) I’ve never had a wood fireplace :(, I’ve always had a romantic idea about them I have to admit. Enjoy your red!

    • There’s something utterly lovely about curling up in front of a fire that just can’t be replicated by any other sort of heating. It’s lovely, but it’s messy, expensive and hard work too. This is the first time I’ve lived with a wood heater (being northern NSW/SE Qld born & raised) and it’s nice, but requires a bit of thought about how best to use it.

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