The Basics of Using an Outdoor Woodburner to Heat Your Home

Outdoor Woodburners

When my father died two years ago, I took over his 4200-square-foot house. The house has a gas furnace, but he also installed an outdoor woodburner so that he could heat the house without spending a fortune on natural gas. I live in Northern Ohio where winters are long and bitter, and I thought I'd share the pros and cons of using wood to heat your home. I am not a professional, and I don't work in the woodburner industry. The purpose of this article is simply to provide a first-hand account of what having an outdoor woodburner entails.

The Pros

1. Inexpensive heat.

Each family will have to look at the amount of money they currently spend each year to heat their home and hot water to determine if a woodburner is a sound investment. Large outdoor woodburners often cost around $6000 - $8500. After installation, however, the only cash outlay will be for the electricity required to run your blower and circulating pump, and the water required for the coil. I go out and collect free wood, but if you want to purchase wood, that will be an additional expense. Parts wear out and break, of course, but there are not a lot of parts to replace on a woodburner, so that's not a major expense.

For me, using the gas furnace is not an option. My house is a single-story, 4200-square-foot, 50-year-old cinder block house. Last February, the blower motor died on my woodburner, so I used my gas furnace for one month, with the thermostat set at a constant 65 degrees. When I received my gas bill for that one month, I nearly fainted when I saw that the bill was for $1,356.00! My normal gas bill when I use the woodburner is about $80.00. For some people, spending the initial money to get and install a woodburner may not be worth it, but for others (like me), it's absolutely worth it.

2. Autonomy

I don't know if anyone else feels like I do, but I hate relying on external utility companies to meet my needs. If I could, I'd make over my entire house to rely solely on self-generated power. Converting an old house into a solar house is quite expensive, however, so I can't do that quite yet. However, I like the fact that I don't have to rely on the gas company to keep me and my family warm. I enjoy that sense of autonomy that the woodburner provides.

3. More than Ambient Heating

Outdoor woodburners can be hooked up to heat more than just the air in your house. Mine is hooked up to my gas water heater, so in the winter when I'm using it, I can turn the gas off and just use the woodburner to heat the water. Woodburners can be hooked up to heat hot tubs and pools as well.

4. Abundant Fuel Source

Depending on where you live, there is a lot of free wood that you can collect and use. Even if you choose to purchase cut wood, there's not much chance of a severe wood shortage anytime soon.

The Cons

1. Collecting Wood is a lot of Hard Work

If you are going to go out and collect your own wood instead of buying it and having it delivered, it is an enormous amount of work that seems to never end. If you intend on collecting your own wood, you will need:

  • a good chainsaw (preferably two)
  • a hardy pickup truck
  • good leather gloves
  • space to stack your wood
  • a logsplitter (not absolutely necessary, but very useful!)
  • A chain sharpener for your chainsaw (again, not necessary but extremely useful). I purchased a nice one from Northern Tool for about $80.

2. Smoke

I have an old Taylor Wood Stove, and it can get very smoky, especially if I burn scavenged scrap lumber. It's all outdoors, so it doesn't affect me inside the house, but it can smoke up the neighborhood at times. However, newer models have high standards for emissions nowadays, and I hear that that is becoming less of a problem. Ask your dealer about the emissions on the stove you intend to purchase. It should be noted, as well, that some cities will not allow outdoor woodburners. Before you make your investment, be sure to ask your local zoning office about any possible regulations on outdoor woodburners.

A Taylor Wood Stove

http://www.taylor-waterstoves.com
http://www.taylor-waterstoves.com

How They Work

Even though I have the instruction manual for my own woodburner, it still took me a while to completely figure out how the whole thing worked.  Maybe most people wouldn't have that problem, but just in case, let me tell you what I've learned about how woodburners work.  Of course, the details vary based on brand and features, but here are a few of the basics.

Actually, woodburners are pretty simple.  See the general diagram below for how the Taylor Wood Stove is designed.  You burn wood in the front firebox, the smoke travels through tubes (called flues) into the back and up to the top to go out the chimney. 

How a Woodburner Works

Water surrounding the firebox gets heated and pumped into your house.
Water surrounding the firebox gets heated and pumped into your house.

Installation and Maintenance

Since woodburners are fairly simple, they are easy to install and do not require much maintenance.  Installing a woodburner simply requires you to set it in place, hook up the electric which will run the blower motor and circulating pump, then running the water lines from the burner to your existing furnace in the house, which will serve to act as the blower to blow heat throughout your house.  You can also run the water lines to your water heater if you want to use it to heat your water as well.

The only regular maintenace required is to clean out the flue tubes in the back of the firebox.  Depending on what kind of wood you burn, this has to be done about every two weeks.  Some wood, such as pine, creates a lot of creosote which will clog up the tubes so that the smoke can't travel through the tubes.  You can do this by hand, or you can buy a flue auger from companies like Dodds Brothers Sales and Service in Falcon, MO.  They sell a long drill bit that you can put on any drill to easily clean out your tubes.  Also, you can buy creosote powder to put on your fire that makes your creosote turn to ash for easy cleaning.  I get a tub of creosote powder at Tractor Supply for $10.

Addirionally, you also need to keep checking to make sure the water coil is filled at all times.  Water sometimes leaks or escapes as steam, so be sure to check the water level weekly.  If you don't have enough water, you won't have as much heat!

Additional maintenance involves replacing parts when they deteriorate.  My blower motor died last year, so I had to replace it, which cost about $100.  I've also replaced the gasket seal on the door (under $20).  My woodburner is starting to rust, so next summer I will put some anti-rust coating on it and probably re-paint it as well.  However, these are things that only need done every three or four years or so. 

Collecting Free Wood

The biggest advantage to using a woodburner is the low cost of heating.  If you purchase your wood, your source of heat might become expensive.  I have never purchased wood, so here are some tips for getting free wood for your woodburner.

  • Put up a sign that says, "Got Wood?  We need free wood!".  People will contact you when they have trees that fall or get cut down, etc.  Often, they'll even deliver it themselves. You can advertise in newspapers and community bulletin boards, in online ads like Craigslist, and more.  Be creative and get the word out. 
  • Be on the lookout for fallen trees.  When you see one, stop and talk to the property owner and offer to cut it up and haul it away for free.  After storms, there are usually a lot of downed trees, so always drive around after a storm to look for wood.  Most people are happy to get rid of their trees for free instead of having to pay a tree company to come take care of it.
  • Contact tree removal companies and lumber companies.  Ask them if they have extra wood you can have.  Some tree removal companies look for ways to get rid of the trees they cut down.  Lumber companies often have leftovers (i.e., the outer bark) after they use the main part of the trees to make lumber.

Testimonials of People Using Woodburners

Conclusion

Woodburners are an inexpensive way to heat your home and hot water, and I hope I've given you an idea of what's it like to own and operate one.  For me and many others, it's a great way to heat our homes, and we wouldn't do it any other way.  We no longer rely on the gas company to provide warmth for our families.  However, heating with wood is more labor-intensive.  Gathering and preparing wood is a year-round job, and in the winter, you have to go outside at least twice a day to stoke your fire.  But for many, the trade-off is well worth it! 

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