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Multi-Functional Living: Wood Heat

This year Emma and I are taking something we did last year and making it more functional: We are heating with wood, full-time. Previously, we often had fires at night, giving the heating system a break and enjoying the atmosphere, but it was noncommittal. Some nights we didn’t bother. We used the wood-burning cook stove even less than that, though we did love the event it made of a meal, as well as pulling a couple of rocking chairs in front of stove while dinner was bubbling. It was all in an effort for us to learn the ropes with building, using, and maintaining fires.

Winter has hit hard and early this year, but we have yet to let the heating click on. We’ve set the thermostat at 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius), to prevent any freezing damage or some such thing should we fail to keep the fire stoked. And, in addition to new lessons in heating 100% with fire, something much more involved than nighttime romanticism, we are becoming more and more in tune to the multiple functions heating with wood has. It seems very much in keeping with our permaculture principles.

Function #1: Clean Up

We live in the forest. So do our neighbors. So do the strangers down the road. Throughout the year, a number of trees have fallen. They fall across roads. They fall into gardens. Limbs drop in yards. Leaning red oaks threaten houses. And, trees—regardless of who’s around to hear it—do fall in the woods. A number of factors go into the fact that throughout the year, lots and lots of firewood can be produced by purely cleaning things up. Here are some examples:

  • Over the last few years, several oak trees have fallen across the gravel road that leads to a friend’s house. He cuts them, pushes them to the side of the driveway, and lets them season. A couple of weeks ago, I lent him a hand sawing and busting up the tree trunks to make several truckloads of wood, one of which went to our woodpile.
  • One of my (three) part-time jobs is helping to take care of a property. After an ice storm last week, several large limbs—honey locust and black locust, great firewood!—fell in the yard. The small crew I work with would normally just toss this down into a hollow and out of the way. Instead, by the end of the day, I’d been paid for half a day’s work to cut up my own firewood.
  • With today’s climate issues, wildfires are becoming more and more an issue, so folks are really keen to have the forest understory tidy, particularly by homes. Just below the cabin we rent, Emma spotted a bunch of dead and/or fallen rhododendron. They are ready for harvesting and perfect for the two of us, who cut our firewood by hand rather than chainsaw. They are also ideally sized for the cook stove. Harvesting the right sized pieces give us something to burn, and it gets the dead wood down to the ground to rot rather than be a fire threat (Function #2).

Objections Overruled

I know that some environmentally savvy folks have objected to the idea offirewood being green; however, Emma and I avoid many of the unsustainable issues. Most of our wood is cut by hand, so no gas is required for chainsaws or wood splitters. For larger pieces, I help someone with equipment, and as I said, this is done in a clean-up effort. The wood we burn is found near home (or work), typically by the wheelbarrow full rather than truckload. However, the energy for driving a few hundred feet doesn’t seem insurmountable.

Furthermore, we are moving towards using a cook stove, which utilizes small diameter wood, and once that transition is completely (hopefully next year), we’ll be able to cut it all by hand. The cook stove will add even more functionality for the energy we are producing with wood, which in turn means less resources used.


Function #3 & #4: Heating and Cooking

 Unfortunately, our situation now isn’t perfectly constructed for this. We have a fireplace insert, which works much better than the standard open-hearth fireplace, but it definitely isn’t ideal. Right now, we build a fire, and in order to get the benefit of the heat it generates, we have to turn on an electric fan that takes the heat from insides the firebox and blows it out into the room. It heats well when the fire is going and the coals are piled, but it is severely lacking when the fire dies down. Not only is there no residual thermal mass heat happening with it, but also we aren’t able to use that heat for much else, save drying clothes (Function #5?).

Photo: Cook Stove

When we use the wood-burning cookstove, which unfortunately isn’t placed centrally (or well at all for heating) in the cabin we rent, it provides a lot more heat. The stove warms the room up very quickly, and because the thick, cast iron cooktop absorbs the warmth, that continues to heat the room even when the fire is dying back. Moreover, it doesn’t require electricity to run a fan. Plus, we are able to cook a pot of beans, bake some bread, boil a kettle of water, and sauté some greens. We’ve designed our cabin (we are building soon) to have a wood-burning cook stove as its wintertime centerpiece.

Designing for Fire

We’ve just purchased a 4.6-acre (2 hectare) property, which is mostly wooded with a little over an acre already cleared and a stream-fed dam already in place. We’ll be leaving the remaining 3.5 acres as natural forest, from which we can harvest small diameter firewood, leaving broken down twigs and trunks to feed the forest regrowth. There are a lot of mountain laurel and rhododendron, both of which are great firewood and grow in the shade. (Burning these woods is sometimes debated because they are poisonous when ingested, but the toxin burns up at fairly low heat and the logs burn very hot.)

We’ll also be growing plenty of nitrogen-fixing trees—mimosa, locust, etc.—that can be coppiced to augment the naturally occurring fuel supply from basic cycles of the forest and an edible bamboo hedge that’ll need annual control measures.

Function #6: Garden Supplement

 Wood ash can be a fine fertility builder in garden beds, beneath the trees in the food forest, and within the compost pile. We are now saving all of the ash we produce and adding it to different projects. Wood ash is particularly useful in our oak-pine forest, which has acidic soils. The wood ash adds potassium, potash, and trace elements. It can also be used in place of agricultural lime to raise the pH levels of soil.

Wood ash can be a wonderful garden additive, but it can also be easily overused. It shouldn’t be added to already alkaline soil. According to Mother Earth News, it shouldn’t be used on soils with a pH above 6.5, and one should never apply more than 25 pounds per 1,000 square feet (approx. 12 kilos to 100 square meters). And, if plants are acid-loving, such as blueberries and potatoes, wood ash should be skipped altogether. But, for many things, like beans, peas, root vegetables, and fruit trees, it can be great.

Fiery Aspirations

Admittedly, this is just the beginning for us. We see that we’ll struggle at times to keep the flames burning: I woke up twice last night (and have done so nights before) to get the fire going again because the temperature outside had dropped to 23 F (-5 C), and the old cabin we are in certainly isn’t air tight or sufficiently insulated. It’s a good lesson to have learned before we start putting our home together. We’ve also been shuffling firewood under the porch roof every couple of days to keep it from getting wet in the rain, so a covered storage space is a must-have.

The optimistic side of us also sees many more potential functions that our cook stove can perform. We hope to design a thermo-siphoning water heating system (Function #7) that could use the pipes as radiators for heating the bathroom. The hot water tank, we hope, might be stored in and help to heat our attached glasshouse/mudroom (Function #8), which will have winter plants and spring seedlings.

In other words, as we should, we are finding ways to make heating with wood provide as many functions as possible. It’s an exciting process, and we’d love to hear any pointers or added benefits we might derive from the practice.

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Great article, good on you for trying to keep your wood supplies as eco friendly as possible! Just a couple of tips, if I may. You talked about using an electric fan. Do you have these available where you live? They’re great at blowing heat into far-flung reaches of the house!

    Also, you mentioned that you want to insulate your new build. This is great, but can I also suggest getting some serious thermal mass in as well? We live in a cob (adobe) house, only the roof is insulated. Winters frequently get down to -20C and we never need to heat the house at night. In fact some parts don’t have any heating, they’re South facing and use passive solar heating onto cob walls to stay warm. These parts only got below freezing on one night last year.

    Good luck, and stay warm and toastt!

  2. where i live now, northern michigan, a person needs at least 10 acres of ‘wild’ forest to sustainably harvest a continuous supply of firewood. since i only own about 3 acres it is sometimes necessary to buy a truckload of 8 foot lengths (8-10 full cords), which will last 5-7 years, with supplementation from other sources. a place to keep wood dry is required, but that is another story. i supplement by hiring out to neighbors, cleaning up after storms. the best sources i have ever found are the wood dumps kept by municipalities and golf courses, if those are available to you. it is necessary to maintain a small truck and a 2 wheel utility trailer. keep the rig small to make it easier to get into, and most importantly, out of, obstructed areas. 4 wheel drive is almost always required. i have been doing this for about 45 years total. stack the wood on pallets to keep it off the ground, away from other buildings to minimize hazards with rodentia and forest fires. never stack firewood under the eaves of a building, you are inviting snakes and rodents into the house or other building, not to mention fire hazards. free pallets are almost always readily available, it is only required that you search for them. some trucking companies and lumber dealerships have a stack of waste pallets they are glad to get rid of. always remember: do not inhale any residues from rodent nests, they are a source of hanta virus. squirrels carry the infectious agents of lethal prion diseases, there is no known cure, among other nasties. some people like to eat squirrels, never eat squirrel brains, or the brains of any animal for that matter. wet decaying wood is a source of blastomycosis, a yeast pneumonia. stay upwind, whenever possible. keeping a dog will keep many nasties away. keeping 2 dogs is easier and considerably more effective against rodents: one male and one female will work together and entertain each other, to prevent the formation of the neurotic behaviors that i have noticed in dogs that are forced to live alone, especially on the end of a short chain. keep children educated as much as possible regarding health and safety hazards, if this is relevant to your situation. clean the chimney spring and fall, and inspect at least monthly during the burning season. remove creosote and soot promptly. keep written maintenance records readily available, easily
    accessible to record any relevant information. be sure your carbon monoxide detector works properly. too much information here? pardon my 45 years of experience, including one dangerous chimney fire.

  3. I live in inland South Australia which can get quite chilly in “winter” (nothing like the winter I am used to from having lived in northern Europe most of my life) and I bought a ” supra” wood heater before I moved here, with no fan, thank goodness. Most Australian wood heaters operate with a fan… It keeps the house nice and warm, and over night I leave a big piece of wood (mostly gum tree) which still has hot ambers on the inside after 6 – 7 hours, sometimes even more depending on the density of the wood, it is easy to restart the fire with that!

  4. I just recently upgraded to a larger cook stove that i am going to run water through a heat exchanger to heat with radiant tubes in my cob floor.. Props for making the leap. We love it and it’s our only source of heat, except the sun and mass in our strawbale house.
    I would recommend considering a cool stove with a larger firebox vs. the old style with the little box.. it’s really hard to keep the heat going all night with those.. voice of experience. I live in Western Colorado where it gets pretty cold at night.. our new stove we MIGHT put wood in once in the middle of the night.. but it’s big enough to fill the box and shut the stove down… goes all night with coals in the morning.. I would be happy to share more..
    Happy wood burning.. !

  5. Great post! Whenever we go travel to cities where winter wouldn’t let us go to sleep, we always make sure we have enough woods to support the warmth on the fireplace. Thanks for sharing its other functions! :)

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