Bidding Farewell to Our First Winter on the Farm 1

We will probably have another fire or two. Surely there will be a chilly morning sometime in late April or early May when it will feel good to fire up the wood stove again. But it’s mid-April in central Alabama, and it’s beginning to feel more like summer than winter. We’re looking at winter in the rear view mirror.

I was unprepared for how suddenly the heating season would end. Perhaps it was because cold weather lingered for so long this year. Right up through Easter, we were burning fires regularly and grateful for them. Then at Easter, it was if God turned off the winter switch; we haven’t had a fire since. I find myself doing a little grieving (sniff, sniff).

We learned that our tiny wood stove, a Regency F1100, has no trouble keeping our tiny 600 sq. ft. apartment toasty warm. We learned that we never needed to burn it all night, not even on the coldest night of the winter when the temperature plummeted (by central Alabama standards) to 15 degrees. We never needed a fire during the day, although we kept one going the day it snowed just because it was fun. (Later had to crack a window to keep it from being too warm.)

We learned that we don’t need to burn that much wood in our stove to stay nice and comfortable during the winter. We will finish the heating season burning a little less than five pallets, that is, about 1 1/4 cords of wood. And that’s after giving some of the wood away and taking big armfuls of it to our lake place to burn in the fireplace there. By the way, if you’ve never used a wood stove and have only burned wood in an open fireplace, the wood stove won’t seem that remarkable when you begin using it; it’s when you burn wood in a fireplace again that you realize how much wood you go through for such a tiny amount of useful heat. Most of the heat from a fireplace goes right up the chimney.

It won’t surprise you that I have reflected about what makes our wood stove so efficient. Why wouldn’t I, given that I seem to reflect on nearly everything else?

The wood stove has several things going for it. First, and perhaps most important, instead of being attached to a wall, the firebox has air flowing freely on all sides, bottom, and top. This sets up a convection current whenever the stove is burning. The cool air contacts the hot firebox and chimney and heats up, causing it to rise until it hits the ceiling; then it hugs the ceiling and fans out across the room. As it moves it forces the cool air downward, and it creates a vacuum around the stove, which pulls more cool air in toward the stove to be heated and dispersed. In this way, the coldest air in the room is drawn to the stove, and the warmed air is distributed throughout the room.

When I describe all that air moving around, it sounds like it would feel drafty in the apartment; it doesn’t. Unlike the air movement from a modern heat pump or furnace, the air movement is subtle, and neither Amanda nor I is ever aware of it on our skin. We know it’s happening, though. After the wood stove has been burning for an hour or so, the kitchen feels almost as warm as the area close to the stove, even though it’s all the way across the room.

Another advantage the stove has is that it pulls its combustion air from outside, not from the apartment. It’s a closed system where the cool air comes in, fuels the fire, and goes out through the chimney. If that were not the case, the stove would be trying to pull its combustion air through the windows and doors and make them less effective at keeping out the cold, and it would feel drafty in the room.

Finally, the stove’s firebox is a confined space where it’s easy to start and control a fire. We had thoroughly seasoned firewood that had been under cover since June, so it was perfect fuel. We learned that we could start a fire with 1/2 of a Strike-A-Fire starting stick (at a cost of 11 cents). Once a fire is going well, there’s no risk that the wood will go out the way it does in a regular fireplace. That means there’s no need to “tend” the fire. We just started the fire, closed the door, and let it burn. When the wood was down to coals, if we wanted it to keep burning, we just added as many sticks as we wanted and closed the door back. Later when we cleaned the ashes, we had full confidence that all the wood would be consumed, leaving just ash.

We learned that we can control the combustion rate with the damper, which will slow down the burn rate and prolong the fire. But using the damper always caused the glass to cloud up, so we used it sparingly. We were most grateful for the damper on those cold nights when we needed to leave the farm at night, to attend a meeting at church or to go out to dinner with friends. We could set a fire before we left, get it going well, and then close down the damper while we were gone. The fire would be glowing when we got back, and we could stoke it up or just enjoy the warmth already in the room. The glass would be thoroughly clouded over, but one good, hot fire will clean most of it off, so it kind of took care of itself. On that subject, I started the heating season cleaning the glass nearly every morning, but I gradually learned that burning hot fires would do it for me if I were simply patient.

We learned that any kind of wood is fine as long as it’s thoroughly seasoned. We burned oak, hickory, beech, sweetgum, dogwood, and pine. They all caught fire easily, burned clean, and provided the warmth we needed. Yes, the oak, hickory, and beech burned longer and more slowly, but we were fine with whatever was next up on the pallet. The jury is still out on the effect of the pine on the inside of the chimney. We will have Ken Craig and his friends at Professional Chimney Services come in June to clean the chimney, and we’ll know then how much tar we’ve deposited on the chimney wall. I’m optimistic that the deposits will be manageable, first because we haven’t needed to burn that much wood in the first place, and second because our fires tend to be nice and hot. I’ll let you know in June, though, when Ken has actually looked at it and given me his report.

Most of all, though, we’ve learned that there’s no substitute for a tiny living space. You can keep 600 sq. ft. livable and comfortable with a tiny amount of energy, and we would probably have been okay using baseboard electric strip heat to keep it warm. It wouldn’t have been nearly so fun, but we would have been able to stay warm.

Now that the winter is behind us, we await the heat of a central Alabama summer with a mixture of eagerness and dread; eagerness to find out whether our little apartment will be as comfortable in the hot summertime with only ventilation and a ceiling fan as it has been in the winter with the wood stove, dread that the sticky heat of July may be our Waterloo. More about that later.

July 28, 2010 Update.

Ken came this morning to inspect the stove and the chimney. The report could hardly be any better. All he found inside the chimney was dust and soot, which is an excellent sign. He says that for us to have that clean a chimney after a full winter means we’re burning nice, hot fires. He doesn’t need to come again until 3-4 years from now. This tells us that our general strategy of using the wood stove at night and in the morning is sound, and it also puts to rest the final doubt about burning pine in the Regency F1100. Pine is fine, and we can stop worrying about it.

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One thought on “Bidding Farewell to Our First Winter on the Farm

  • chuck

    My grandmother passed away several years ago at age 100. She had lived in the family house near Robinson Springs until age 96, when she had to enter a nursing home… and, for the first time in her life, an air-conditioned environment. I remember many summers on that dairy farm, learning how to cope with the heat. Just plan on doing all your work before noon, take it easy or run errands in the afternoon, and wear cool clothes.