Jim Beam -- honest, that's his name -- is a Waldorf homeowner who is tired of supplying his local electric and oil companies with expansion funds. In short, he is no different from hundreds of thousands of Americans caught in a wallet-emptying energy supply crunch.
So the 33-year-old Beam decided to buy a woodburning stove. In one fell swoop he joined a growing club of weekend Paul Bunyans. Move over, joggers, runners, health club freaks. Woodcutting is all the rage now. The moment Saturday arrives Beam may decide to join the hordes of firewood-seekers with a vengeance. The billfold dictates as much. And talk about a recreational activity -- nothing can compare with the exhilaration that overcomes you when a tree crashes to the earth -- provided, of course, that your feet are out of the way.
Fire up the chain saw. Wield that two-edged cruiser axe. Smash a 10-pound maul into rubbery, wet hickory. Boing! Boing! The damned monster splitter bounces back as if it were hitting a medicine ball. What fun. What exercise. What great savings.
In Beam's rural Charles County surroundings, the wood often comes free of charge. Well, almost free. And that's where the fun starts. Never mind the standard jokes; the cracks about first having to own a $7,000 pickup truck, a $300 chainsaw and $80 worth of axes and wedges. Or the sickies who say you'll average $200 in monthly doctor bills to have the back muscles put back where they belong. Beam and most of his fellow woodcutters pay scant attention to city wags. But just how free is "free" wood?
Suppose the trees have been supplied courtesy of a friendly landowner who wants to clear a few oaks from his property. Do not forget also the many state forests and national parks that will give away wood or hand out cutting permits that cost a pittance. Free wood, right? Wrong.
The Maryland Forest and Park Service recently offered a bit of insight into the subject. The state's foresters established a set of statistics that will have a sobering effect on wood-heating homeowners.
For example, their research shows that most of the tree-choppers haul their wood in a pickup truck loaded to 1,500 pounds. The average trip speed is 35 mph and the truck will average only 14 miles per gallon.
Gasoline costs now run at $1.26 a gallon, although the park service experts for some reason known only to them used a $1.10 figure. Truck operating costs (insurance, maintenance, depreciation) should be pegged at 14 cents per mile. Now consider that a cord of green hardwood (4x4x8 feet) weighs roughly 5,000 pounds and that it takes three or four pickup loads to bring home a full cord.
The average cost of cutting a cord of wood with a chainsaw is about $1.30 and another 60 cents for maintenance and quipment depreciation. Most woodcutters would probably estimate the oil/gasoline cost to be much higher, but for the sake of argument these numbers will serve nicely. Now add the 7 to 20 hours (an average of 10 hours is used in the park service's figures) it takes to to cut, split, load and unload one cord of wood and plan to pay yourself a low basic wage of, say, $5 an hour to cut the wood. How does your "free" firewood stack up now?
If you drive a five-mile one-way distance to get your wood, each "free" cord actually costs $66.36. If the one-way distance is 20 miles the cost per cord jumps to $109.74. If the distance increases to 30 miles -- not unusual for today's wood-burning fanatics -- the cost-per-cord now runs $138.66.
Hardly free, is it?.
But Beam's personal statistics, including a 20-mile average one-way drive to his source of wood and the approximately four cords of wood he'll need to heat his house while he and his wife are at home, show that he's still below his typical electricity/oil costs during the cold months. He could also use his free-standing stove to cook some meals, thus eliminating the electric range on occasion.
If the Maryland Forest and Parks formula of estimating wood cost is accepted, Beam's neighbor, who also heats his house with wood, would require about $436 worth of the "free" stuff during the cold months (December, January, February and March). The neighbor's electric heating bills for a like period would be roughly $630.
Is anyone really ahead of the game? Financially, only a little. But as far as personal satisfaction is concerned, wood-burning homeowners feel triumphant.
Bring on the rubbing alcohol and the Bandaids, friends. We'll need it as soon as we finish cutting up a little more of the free trees we saw down the road. Talk about the sporting life. This is it.