Enjoy a Winter's Worth of Warmth Without Getting Burned

Now that you've got the logs, you need something to hold them: Black Labrador andirons ($199).
Now that you've got the logs, you need something to hold them: Black Labrador andirons ($199). (Source Perrier)
By Denise DiFulco
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 1, 2007

There's nothing like warming yourself in front of a crackling fire on a winter's day, but as with most of life's little pleasures, some advance planning is necessary. Without an adequate and well-maintained supply of firewood, your stash and your hearth-side comfort are likely to burn out long before the final frost has melted away.

Unless you're the ambitious outdoorsy type determined to cut your own, chances are you're buying logs from a supplier, and that can be tricky. Firewood is often sold door-to-door by independent dealers, so the consumer has to decide how much he is willing to pay, and for how much wood. Buying logs from a garden center or from a dealer you're familiar with minimizes the risk of paying too much for too little.

A cord of wood -- a load that is four feet high by four feet wide by eight feet long, or 128 cubic feet -- generally ranges from $150 to $200 in the Washington region, says Jonathan Kays, an extension specialist in natural resources for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. Prices are lower in other areas. In Hagerstown, where Kays is based, for instance, it averages about $120 per cord.

Some suppliers will sell what is known as a face cord, or a rick, which is about a third of a cord. The wood generally stacks four feet high by eight feet long, with an average log width of 16 inches.

The wood must be stacked, either by you or your supplier, before you can calculate its volume. Expect to pay extra for stacking, rather than dumping. Then measure the stack and multiply height by width by length to be sure that it's about 128 cubic feet.

Be skeptical if you find a vendor who sells only by the truckload, Kays says. A cord is much more wood than a standard pickup can carry. "If you see someone drive up with a half- or three-quarter-ton pickup truck, it's not a cord of wood," he says.

Well-seasoned oak or another quality hardwood, such as ash, generally is the best choice for firewood, as it burns the most efficiently and generates the most heat. If you plan to cut your own logs, you probably should wait until spring, because split logs generally take six months to a year to dry properly. Burning wet or green logs is a bad practice because they won't give off as much heat and will leave behind more creosote, a tar-like, flammable deposit that builds up inside chimneys and flues. Unseasoned logs are also difficult to light and are likely to cause your fire to die out more quickly.

The key to proper drying and seasoning -- and to maintaining dry and seasoned wood so it burns efficiently -- is proper storage. If the aesthetics of storing a cord of wood outside your home is a concern, you may want to investigate the numerous racks and sheds on the market made of a variety of materials. Or you could build a rack from pressure-treated wood and cover it with a tarp.

Hollis Brown, owner and operator of ThoroSpec home inspections and the Bethesda-based Home Inspector Training Academy, says wood should never be stored in a tool shed, on a porch or anywhere near your house. Brown has even seen homeowners keep a winter's worth of logs in basements and garages.

"Yes, that keeps it dry, but it also brings in whatever insects are on it," he says. The logs can harbor or attract carpenter ants and termites. Wood also can host ambrosia beetles and bark beetles. Brown advises keeping your wood piles at least 10 feet from your home.

Brown says whatever storage system you choose, you want to be sure of the following:

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