WASHINGTON — Now that cold weather has made its mark, the firewood peddlers are out in force and many Americans are considering adding to their woodpile, or starting one, as a source of both emergency warmth and nostalgia.
Wood burning may sound simple, but consumer and forestry experts urge caution both when shopping for and burning wood.
For folks who cut their own, wood is popularly known as the fuel that heats you twice--once with the exertion of cutting and splitting, and once again when it is burned.
Must Dry 6 Months
But the time for felling trees is past, since cut wood must dry for six months or more before it is right for burning.
A freshly cut tree can be as much as half water by weight. And when that is burned the water must be heated and evaporated before the wood is consumed--a process that wastes energy.
In addition, burning damp wood promotes the buildup of creosote in the chimney, which can lead to chimney fires later on, the U.S. Department of Agriculture warns.
So while outdoor enthusiasts may be planning ahead for next year, folks looking for wood to burn now are likely to be dependent on people offering it for sale or on the few dead trees they can find.
Green Wood Is Cheaper
Wood to be burned now should be advertised as seasoned, and it will pay to ask how long that was done. Buying green wood is cheaper, of course, but it still has to be dried for months.
The ends of cut firewood should be dry and perhaps cracked if it is properly aged, often this wood turns a slightly gray color.
Once the decision is made to buy, quantity is the consideration, and this is an area in which it is easy to get cheated.
The standard measure of cut wood is a cord, which is 128 cubic feet.
Generally, that means stacked, cut firewood in a pile eightfeet long, four feet tall and four feet deep, according to government foresters and consumer officials.
In reality, the buyer rarely gets a full measure.
Careless stacking can introduce excessive air space in the pile.
And to make a pile four feet (48 inches) deep would require three piles of wood cut in 16-inch lengths. Most sellers will offer two "face cords" cut about 18 inches long.
Size Is Negotiable
Consumer affairs officials say this is a matter for negotiation, but they stress insisting on something close to a cord of wood--do not buy wood in other measures such as a "load" or a "rick."
For example, a full-size pickup truck with a 4-by-8-foot bed, loaded with wood a foot and a half deep, contains 48 cubic feet of wood, only a little more than one-third of a cord.
In addition to volume and dryness, the type of wood is important. Hardwoods such as oak, birch, hickory and maple burn slowly with a minimum of smoke and give off more heat than softwoods such as poplar, spruce, aspen or redwood.
Many people also like to add some fruitwood to the fire for its pleasant aroma, so asking for some apple, cherry, beech or pecan in the load can be a good idea.
Of course, the chimney should be cleaned at least once a year, forestry officials stress, and check stovepipes to make sure that there are no cracks or rusty spots. Pipe joints should be burned and some experts recommend assembling pipe so that upper sections fit into lower ones--so that any liquid creosote can drip back into the firebox and be burned.
The Department of Agriculture operates county extension service offices in most parts of the nation, and they can be contacted for advice in buying and using wood. Local consumer offices and Better Business Bureaus may also be able to advise consumers.