Keep the Home Fires Burning?

By Price Hutchins

I am always a step behind the innovation curve. I purchased my first precision slide rule the same day my roommate purchased the first calculator I had ever seen.

In the 70s, I was all about wood stoves and heating with wood. The very first oil recession had passed. Jimmy Carter wore a sweater in the White House and turning the heat down below 76 degrees was patriotic.

Then, while I was outside splitting logs, someone made oil boilers and furnaces efficient. Simultaneously, air quality inside my house and outside worsened. I split and stacked my last piece of firewood and closed up my chimneys.

Things have come full circle on me — again. Last year, we spent $5,000 on fuel oil in our Lovell house and I remembered, with mixed sentiments, the days of picking up and putting down the same piece of firewood as many as five times before it actually combusted in my stove.

So, I am thinking about getting back to wood heat. I’m conflicted about air quality, carbon footprints, and using good wood like it was — well, like it was so much firewood! Wood stoves are purported to be wicked efficient now, but your heating plan is only as good as your operator. I am reminded of the lessons I learned as a 10-year-old.

Even in the 60s, when #2 was 24 cents a gallon, my mother believed that tending a fire was a skill that needed to be mastered, just like long division and canoe paddling. Today, at 92, she will scold you if you mishandle a hearth. I’m not talking about making a fire. Anyone can get a fire going in the backyard or a fireplace, though it sometimes seems they use more energy than the fire will ever generate. No, tending a fire is what you do with it for the rest of the evening. After my mother’s lessons, when I was out in the real world, I met “pokers” — people who tend fires like a horsefly tends a beachgoer. They constantly nudge, nag and adjust. “Pokers” also like to add kindling, in an effort to get the entire length of the wood ablaze. One of Ma’s early lessons included the value of split, dried cordwood. That lesson involved splitting, stacking and delivering firewood to the hearth until even algebra homework looked inviting. It taught you not to suffer a “damn fool” who used up your fuel. A good fire, once alight, should not need further caloric input. If it needs to be speeded up, then that is accomplished by adding air — the real fuel — to the mix.

This then brings about the topic of grates. Grates, those iron baskets found in all “damn fools” hearths, are a plague upon good fire tending. The reason they are so onerous is the same reason all “pokers” love them. They raise the wood above the hearth floor and allow anyone to make a fire by kindling a fire underneath. Hurrah for easy fire starting. But then, air continues to rush in and consume your wood sending the vast amount of energy up the flue.

“Pokers” need a bright, blazing, wood-consuming, inefficient fire. A proper hearth is equipped with a set of andirons. These hunks of iron must be completely buried in a pile of ancient ashes. I don’t think I have ever seen the butt end of the andirons in my mother’s hearth. She removes a small amount of ashes from the hearth only when it begins to migrate off the hearth and onto the floor. She shovels out so little of the ash that you’d be reminded of Humphrey Bogart in the movie, “Sahara,” doling out water to his men.  The mound of ashes insulates the fire, throws heat out into the room, and maintains even warmth throughout the evening. Ashes also valve off the flow of air to the wood, thus making the consumption of wood, and the heat released by the wood have a relationship any “damn fool” should understand. To a “poker,” a good fire appears to be smoldering when in fact smoke rarely emanates from a good fire. Ma’s fires never smoke.

At night, the fire must be banked — an impossible task with a grate. Ashes are cozied up to the remaining embers. This puts the fire to bed while allowing it to share its heat into the wee-hours of the morning. It also guarantees a hot bed of embers in the morning to start the fire-tending business anew.

We have plenty of wood here in western Maine and a dearth of #2 fuel oil. I think if my mother could build all the home fires in Maine, the open fireplace would exceed 80% efficiency.

I don’t know how all this will translate as I become a modern wood stove owner. I suspect it will be useless information. I am a buggy whip retailer operating next to Henry Ford’s Model A factory and I will remain, as ever, one step behind the curve.

Next time: What’s this all about pellets? I thought pellets only came out of the south end of a north-bound bunny.

Smoke gets in your eyes.

Price Hutchins is at the peak of a mediocre career.  This career includes restaurant owner, carpenter, stay-at-home dad, chemical salesman, entrepreneur, and Home Depot associate. Price and his wife, Ann, have returned to Bridgton while they continue the renovation of their Lovell house.

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