Question — Will Your Home’s Wood Fireplace Help You Save on Your Heating Bills?
(And treading lightly here) “Well, depends.” I have heard it suggested that with the right wood and a little experimentation with your fireplace’s damper, it is possible. Others might tell you further, you could add a blower or some radiant panels (aka a fireback), etc. to your fireplace, hence muscling up its output.
While those are surely topics that could start a raging debate, or at least ignite another post, I’m here today instead to assure that your fireplace does do one thing, OK, a few things, well. Fireplaces offer a huge opportunity for the addition of architectural detail, they certainly add ambiance to any room (when in use), and they, without a doubt, are a great source of high-quality, close-proximity radiant heat. Close Proximity Radiant Heat (when in use).
For the rest, I’ll let Wikipedia sum up:
It is a common misconception that a fireplace leads to energy savings by reducing the heating load on a home. In fact, a fireplace moves large amounts of air out of the home which must be replaced by outside air. The outside air, presumably at a lower temperature, must be heated by the home’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system.
If you are thinking about burning wood for the primary and/or even the ancillary purpose of helping to heat your home (in an effort to save on home heating bills), it is best for you to look elsewhere. If this is your ultimate goal, see the fireplace’s brother — the wood stove or its cousins — the pellet stove and/or the gas insert. All have made huge strides, as we are finding in tandem a greater understanding of building science, in recent years.
* The Anatomy of a Fireplace and Simple Science
One of the most important parts of the fireplace is the damper (aka flue). The damper keeps the cold out when there is no fire in the firebox. To start a fire you must first ensure that the damper is in an open position and that a draft (aka a chimney effort or stack effect) can be created. Creating an open pathway, when a fire is lit, allows air and eventually smoke to pass safely up and out of the house through a chimney. Simple.
It is not wise to close the damper as long as there are still embers in the firebox, as that will force the smoke back into the house. Simple — Smelly and dangerous.
Playing with the damper, it has been suggested, may minimize excessive air pull (hence the “it may be possible” from above). At the same time, only opening the damper part-way may also minimize the build-up of creosote — the blackish and tar-like byproduct of organic fires (in the chimney). Simple – Seems logical, but still requires some experience.
For this article, let’s assume all we know of the damper is opened and closed.
* How to Use a Fireplace — It’s in What You Burn
Wood Storage Barn with permission :: American Country Barns
Regardless of what we know about how to use the parts of a fireplace, and/or even if we know the single most foolproof (boy-scout approved) method of starting a fire . . . under any circumstance, outside or in, the net value of a wood fireplace may however come down to one simple thing.
What type and quality of wood you choose to burn in your fireplace. A skill perhaps – How good are you at selecting and then handling the right firewood? When selecting wood for your fireplace, the goal — select firewood that produces a “hot and clean burn.”
This is achieved by using a dry, dense hardwood.
* Fireplace Maintenance for Safety
If you are careful in selecting your firewood, you’ll be able to build and burn fires that the entire family can enjoy, safely, while generating less headaches and less mess.
With choosing wood wisely, we can minimize ash and creosote, but this is only one part of the story. Please remember that fireplaces and their chimneys need maintenance. I’ve heard it recommended that you should inspect and clean once a season, once a year. Cullen Davis from Clean Sweep says, “Have your chimney professionally cleaned every 20 or 30 fires. That’s around a cord of wood.”
Cullen points to logs available at home and garden centers that when burned will supposedly help clean your chimney. These however should not replace getting the job done right – have a pro clean the damper as well as the chimney (with a specialized brush). Cullen offers his inspection service for $150 in Greater Baltimore — a small price to pay for peace of mind.
I’ll finish by quoting from the page: http://forestry.about.com.
“You will get the best results and more heat per wood volume when burning the highest density (heaviest) wood you can find. Dense firewood produces the highest recoverable BTUs. But all wood must be “seasoned”. Seasoning lowers the moisture content. Meaning – there is less energy used to drive off water which limits heat efficiency.”
Thanks & Additional Resources
Thanks to Britt at CalFinder, Cullen Davis, Barry Morgan, Joseph Perrone, Ryan McCracken, Jason Whipple, Jane Griswold Radocchia, David M Lyons, Joan Worthington & my Dad John Bartkowiak, Jr for help on compiling the information and images for this article. I also found these and various other resources on the internet useful:
- Ordering Firewood: Getting What You Pay For on Old House Web
- How to Choose and Season Firewood on the DIY Answer Guy
- Best and Worst Firewood from Bob Vila
Hope this helped and happy fires. ~jb @BuildingMoxie.com
Outtake :: Storage Options for Firewood
It is ideal if you have outside space for dedicated storage. The goal of course would be to keep dried wood dry. You do this by keeping wood covered in a location that still has and can promote air movement. Ground—contact rated railroad ties or scrap 2x4s are good options, for elevating your stash. But make sure the ends, too, of the pile remain exposed.
When cover is not easy to come by a (blue) tarp is always an option, but the tarp itself should preferably be elevated using 2x4s or the like… and open at ends and set parallel to natural air movement.
Wood racks are available in varying sizes at home and garden centers. Place them either outside or inside the home. I use a wine crate for my “next to the fireplace” indoor storage needs. Another friend employs a pair of large storage containers. They work great for small quantities of thoroughly seasoned wood.
He actually uses two of these blue tubs, one outdoors and one indoors. Employing this method, it is easy for him to grab additional wood as needed — storing only about a dozen pieces inside at a time.
Note: In certain areas of the country, in New England for example, you may also bring in such unwanted pests as carpenter ants and other insects. All should be mindful of this when handing our woods. (To read more about wood damaging insects, our articles – What to Know about Termites or Other Wood Damaging Insects.