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Tales from an Urbanite Gone Rural: Becoming Less Dependent on the Propane Company and the Trade-Offs

By: Corey Lasley
Written: 4/2/2012
Last Revised: 5/24/2012

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Propane Heat = Expensive

Moving out to the country was a shock to my wallet when it came to heating costs (though admittedly, I had been warned about this from both the previous owner of the house as well as my parents who live up north and heat their house with propane.) Perhaps even more shocking was the fact that the winter of 2011-2012 was an unusually mild winter, with temperatures probably averaging in the low to mid 30’s. We had our propane tank filled for the first time on November 15th 2011, and it cost $675 (now keep in mind that this was under an introductory price that we had until May of 2012). Filling it up again just two months later in January cost $875, and then again in March (only 1-1/2 months from the previous filling) another $650. We had been keeping the house at only 68 degrees. Now 68 degrees isn’t too terribly bad, however my wife was often uncomfortable, and on the colder of days, I wasn’t entirely comfortable either, as the warmest room in the house seemed to be the room where the thermostat resides, the living room. The basement, where I spend most of my evenings working on my many projects, was generally around the 62 degree mark. So with all the money spent on propane, we were not entirely comfortable.

To add insult to injury, on particularly cold days we had been compensating heating into far reaching rooms, such as the office in the basement (which was an addition built on to the house with no heating vents) with an electric oil filled radiator, and the kid’s bedrooms upstairs, with a space heater for a couple hours (to take the bite out of the air at bedtime). This left an additional cost on our electric bill that appeared to be another $100 per month.

When we lived in Westland, we heated with natural gas, and in the coldest of winters kept the house around a comfortable 72 degrees. Our heating bills seemed to average around the $150 mark per month, which seemed bad enough at the time.

Possible Solution = Outdoor Wood Burning Boiler (OWBB)?

So what can we do? There is one alternative to heavy propane consumption which can be found in wood heat. Wood heat isn’t necessarily that appealing to most because it introduces more work into one’s life, but comes with some good tradeoffs. For starters, there is a big financial savings. Buying wood is a lot cheaper, and there is always the possibility of obtaining free wood which could make heating in the winter almost free. Secondly, the heat produced by the wood burning boiler is far superior to that of propane, because it is consistent. In addition (at least as far as I am concerned) working with wood for heating means would introduce a way for me to get some serious exercise, and possibly help to cure a little of the cabin fever that I typically develop in the winter.

I was introduced to the concept of using a large outdoor wood boiler from the previous owner of the house that I had purchased. He used one and told me that it was worth its weight in gold (he did however have a free source of wood.) Unfortunately, he didn’t sell the boiler with the house, but rather took it with him.

Wood burning boilers however are by no means cheap, and would be the next biggest investment made down from buying a car, so some serious research was needed. I spent a lot of time reading reviews and such of the various brands available and it seemed that there was little for consistency in opinion on any given brand. Going to brand websites naturally didn’t do much good either, because they all claim to be the best, and they all do a good job of making their competition look like peddlers of an inferior product. Visiting wood burning related online forums for opinions was also less than convincing, as it is difficult if not impossible to determine if a good review on a given unit is legit, or from someone working for, or associated with, the manufacturer being praised. And likewise, bad reviews could potentially be planted posts by associates of the competition. Talking to dealers was also a futile effort, because they are naturally going to push the product they carry. Therefore, if possible it seems like talking with a real live owner about their unit was the best form of research. To my luck, I just so happened to have discovered (upon making my interest in wood burning boilers known) that two associates of mine owned a certain brand, which just so happened to be the same brand that the previous owner of my house had, all who had been very happy with their units. Thus my decision on which brand to go with became virtually a no brainer.

Buying Firewood

Now fortunately I had connections to people who own an OWBB, and when I asked each of them what to do about buying firewood the advice was always the same: Do your homework and try to find someone who will sell a semi-truck load of 8 foot hardwood logs, as it will be far cheaper than buying wood that is cut and split.

Doing my homework to find a seller of logs turned out to be no easy task. Northern Michiganders don’t seem to have difficulty finding a supply of logs at a good rate, but for southern Michiganders such as myself, finding a seller of logs at a reasonable rate, had the wood to sell, and was willing to deliver it, was not an easy task.

First off, I had asked the dealer of the OWBB that I bought if he had any connections to a firewood log seller, and his answer to me was “You might try searching the internet.” Well jee thanks for the great advice (sarcasm intended.) I would have assumed that a dealer in OWBBs would have all sorts of firewood dealers asking him to give their business cards to his customers. Unfortunately, most firewood dealers and loggers haven’t joined the modern web age as of yet, and one will not find a lot of websites of local firewood dealers. Unless one has posted an ad to an online classified service (that you happen to search) or post an ad on craigslist, good luck.

When I went up north to visit my parents in West Branch, I browsed the classifieds in their local newspaper and quickly found two dealers of 8-foot hardwood firewood logs, which was exactly what I had been looking for. Since they were selling semi loads of 10 full cords for $750 compared to what would amount to $1500 down my way via local processed firewood dealers, I figured that at a several hundred dollar freight premium I would still be saving money. I attempted to call these contacts, left messages, and unfortunately my messages went ignored. I did manage to successfully locate 3 websites of firewood log sellers via Google, and though none of them were nearby, I contacted all three with my information of my need and willingness to pay a premium. The first responded with a short and sweet message saying “I don’t deliver to your area,” the next responded and said “fuel prices are killing me, find someone closer,” and to my surprise, the third actually lectured me about how I had been duped into thinking I could save money heating with wood and that the ONLY way I might find return on my investment is if I get wood for free. He then told me that it should be easy to simply get in contact with local tree services and they would be happy to dump “waste” trees on my property for free. This of course was a common recommendation when I was doing my research as means to obtain wood. However my findings seemed to indicate that tree services out in the country are a little more resourceful than some take them for.

I had contacted local tree services offering to PAY for trees they removed from jobs, and was ignored in every case, so sending them messages asking for FREE trees surely wouldn’t arouse their interest! I found one local tree service in the area who advertised that he sells logs for firewood, but after contacting him he said that since his supply of logs comes from tree removal jobs and not a steady source, he had a back log of potential firewood log customers, and I would be added to his list, in which I would be around 40th mark. Another tree service responded to a post I left on craigslist seeking to buy firewood logs, and he told me that he sells logs he obtains from tree removal jobs, and could add me to his list of log buyers if I wanted.

I did end up finding a seller of 8 foot logs, however the problem was that he would only deliver 20 cord load minimum (a tandem semi fully loaded). However as luck would have it, someone a couple miles down the road from me offered to buy half the load if a 20 cord load was all that I could find. So I ended up making a deal at $100 per cord delivered (received it the first weekend of May 2012). Not too bad, however who knows if this will be an option for me next season or not. So the stress of locating and buying wood is over for the 2012-2013 season, but I won’t know what will be in store for me next year.

Fuel Savings with an OWBB Calculator

The following calculator helps to give you a possible rough idea as to how much you would save by burning wood as opposed to propane. It also helps you to see just how long it would take for the investment of an OWBB to pay for itself. To get an idea of how much a cord of wood goes for in your area, my advice is to search for firewood via craigslist. Based on my experience with firewood, most tend to price it by the face cord (4’X16”X8’) which is generally about 1/3rd the amount of a full cord (4’X4’X8’). Based on my research, the average number of cords per year seems to be anywhere from between 5 to 10 full cords of wood. Actual wood consumption would be based on a few factors including the size of the house, insulation, MBTU rating of the wood being burned alongside of its dryness, and efficency of the OWBB.

Wood Price Per : $
Estimated Seasonal Cost of Propane: $
Estimated Cost of Wood Burning Boiler with Installation: $
Calculate Savings & OWBB Payoff

Growing Firewood

If you are like me and have a big empty field, planting trees for firewood means that it will be at least a decade or two before you will be able to have trees that may be ready for harvesting. So making sure that you plant the right trees (that will grow the fastest and give you a high BTU rating) is critical in getting a payoff in the effort. Not only is choosing the right species of tree important, but diversifying the species you plant may also be important. For example, if you plant a single species, and suddenly a disease, fungus, or parasite infects the trees, you could lose your entire crop. Diversification means that you will have trees with resistance to various problems, and you will not lose your entire crop. Based on my research, the following are trees would be a good choice, at least where I am located in southern Michigan.

Black Locust (Best)

Growth Rate: Fast, 2'+ per year, some sources have stated as much as 5' per year in its youth

MBTU/Cord Rating: 23.2 to 27.9

Deer Resistance: Occasionally Severely Damaged

PROS: Great MBTU rating for growth rate.

CONS: Suckers, and produces thorns. Considered a weed/invasive tree by many because new growth spreads easily.

BUZZ: Seems to be a top choice in tree to grow for the purpose of firewood due to its rapid growth, MBTU rating, and its regenerating ability when harvested. At least one study online talks about its fuel benifits titled: Black Locust: An Excellent Fiber Crop by James W. Hanover

Thornless Honeylocust (Best)

Growth Rate: Fast, 2' per year.

MBTU/Cord Rating: 23.7 to 26.7

Deer Resistance: Seldom Severely Damaged

PROS: Comparable MBTU rating to the Black Locust, seems to be more resistant to desease, parasites, and even browsing than the Black Locust. The Kansas Forest Service's info on the Honeylocust claims it could be firewood harvest ready in 10-15 years.

Osage-Orange (Best)

Growth Rate: Fast, can grow almost 3' per year
MBTU/Cord Rating: 32.9

Deer Resistance: n/a

PROS: Grows fast and has a huge MBTU rating!

CONS: Produces very large, inedible fruit. Does not grow to be very large, possibly 50' (thus may not produce as much wood as other species.)

BONUS: Is very rot resistent, and is also good for fence posts, bows, and rustic furniture. Another source claims that if the fruit is scattered around the foundation of a house it helps to repel insects and spiders.

Red Oak (Good)

Growth Rate: Fast, 2' per year

MBTU/Cord Rating: 22.1 to 24.6

Deer Resistance: Occasionally Severely Damaged

Pin Oak (Good)

Growth Rate: Fast, possibly more than 2' per year

MBTU/Cord Rating: Comparable to Red Oak

Deer Resistance: Probably similar to Red Oak

Sawtooth Oak (Good)

Growth Rate: Fast, possibly more than 2' per year

MBTU/Cord Rating: Possibly comparable to Red & Pin Oak (I could not find a source listing a BTU rating for the Sawtooth)

Deer Resistance: Probably similar to Red Oak

BONUS: Will start producing acorns in as little as 5 years, which will be attractive to game such as deer and turkey.

Paper Birch (Ok)

Growth Rate: Medium-Fast, From 1-1/2' to 2' per year

MBTU/Cord Rating: 20.3

Deer Resistance: Rarely Damaged

Red Maple (Ok)

Growth Rate: Fast, 2' per year

MBTU/Cord Rating: 18.1 to 20

Deer Resistance: Seldom Severely Damaged

Silver Maple (Ok)

Growth Rate: Fastest of all maples maybe as much as 3' per year

MBTU/Cord Rating: 17.4 to 19

Deer Resistance: Occasionally Severely Damaged

Hybrid Poplar (Poor)

Growth Rate: Extremely fast, 8' per year!

MBTU/Cord Rating: Low, not even on most BTU charts!

Deer Resistance: n/a

PROS: Fast growing means trees could be harvest ready after 5 years. Self regenerating, meaning that when the tree is cut down, it will grow back on its own.

CONS: Lower BTU rating, meaning nearly twice is much wood would be needed to generate the energy of a more common firewood such as white oak. Its self regeneration means that it could be difficult to stop an unwanted tree from coming back. Poplars have a tendency to sucker.

BUZZ: It seems that those who really sing the praises of hybrid poplar as being a great source of firewood are either those who don't have much experience heating their homes with wood, or those who sell cuttings and/or seedlings. Online forums related to the subject of firewood generally reveal that growing hybrid poplar for firewood means a lot more work (double the cutting, splitting, hauling, and loading) than other more typical firewoods such as Oak, Locust, Ash, and Maple. Even an online seller of poplar cuttings, a proponent of poplar for firewood, admits on his website that he heats with propane despite the expense because dealing with firewood was too much work.

Sources for some growth rates:
[Book] Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses by Michael A. Dirr

Sources for BTU Ratings:
[Website] Sweep's Library: Firewood BTU Comparison Charts
[Website] Heating With Wood: Species Characteristics and Volumes by Michael Kuhns
[Website] Firewood BTU Ratings Charts for Common Tree Species

Other Sources:
[Website] Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station