“You know, I’d be able to brag about you more if we didn’t buy our firewood already split.”
It was -32C and I had just come in from changing the oil in the generator and topping up the batteries that store our solar energy. I was on my way to the control panel in our laundry room to force a bulk charge so I could test them in a few hours to see if I needed to equalize before I left for a trip to see my Mother who lives back east.
I stopped, looked at my sweetheart who had just spoken those words and started to laugh. “Nutbar” was my retort as I continued down the hall.
A few years ago, we had decided to buy our firewood for the cabin. When we checked on pricing, we found that for an extra $25, we could buy it split. It was a no brainer. And so, as we listened to people joke about ‘buying wood to take out to the woods’, we coughed up the $350 it cost for a cord of split firewood.
The first year we owned the cabin, we had to remove the old wood stove. The bottom of the firebox was so thin, hot embers would fall through onto the piece of metal it sat on. Plus, no one would insure us as it wasn’t…and couldn’t be, WETT certified. WETT stands for Wood Energy Technology Transfer, and refers to an inspection required for insurance purposes for all wood burning appliances. The inspector must be certified and will inspect your appliance to ensure it is safe to use and that it has been properly installed, generally by a licensed technician.
So, that first year, we installed a wall mounted, direct vent propane furnace. With little insulation, plexi glass windows and the propane heat, we struggled to heat the place up each Friday night and keep the place warm enough to use each weekend. We’d run our two table top propane heaters, turn on and open the oven and stay in our snow pants, parka’s and big boots until things thawed and it was warm enough for fleece jackets and flannel lined jeans! Boots generally remained on until bedtime.
The following year, deciding we needed more space, and better heat… we closed in the screen porch and turned it into a living room. We insulated the walls and installed real windows…hand me downs from our accountant who had just replaced all the windows in her house. In addition, we installed two very heavy sets of old wooden framed patio doors that we picked up from the side of a street where they had been set out for the garbage. I just happened to be sick the day they went in so our older daughter and her Dad installed them. Years later when Ron and I removed one set, I was shocked at the weight and surprised that the two of them had managed the installation on their own!
Once we had the room closed in, we bought a new wood stove and brought it out. A beautiful stove, a Vermont Castings Defiant.
Top load, fireplace screen and catalytic converter … it was perfect. And heavy. And expensive. But then we had to have it installed by the company we purchased it from…and buy the stove pipe and chimney. At the end of the process we were $5000 poorer, but kept our insurance in place.
When we bought the cabin, there were two big stacks of logs, all tarped, on the property. The spring we installed the stove, we built a couple of sawhorses and bucked up one of the piles but then realized a lot had to be split as well. Growing up using wood and an oil drip stove for heat, I knew how to split wood. I also knew that would be a far easier job in the winter, so we left it and the following winter each time we were at the cabin, we would both haul out the axes and split some of the wood. At -20C a light tap makes for easy splitting. The frost gets in the wood and makes it almost brittle to the fine honed edge of an ax. At 30 below it’s even faster…and you stay warm doing it!
Once we had gone through all the wood in those piles, it was time to get our own firewood. Where we live, it is illegal to cut wood without a permit. And, even with a permit, you have to drive over an hour to get to an area designated in your permit. We did that – once. After that I checked, and found that we could gather deadfall, or cut dead standing on our lease, so that is what we did. We’d take the snow machines out in the spring and find dead felled trees along and off the many snowmobile trails. We’d get as close as we could with the machines and then often hike thigh high through snow to limb and cut up a fallen tree with the chainsaws into five and six foot lengths. Then we’d drag them back to the machines and roll them into the toboggans and pull them back to the cabin where we’d stack them and let them sit until fall when we’d start the process of once again cutting and splitting.
Eventually, we bought a small electric wood splitter that was on sale at Canadian Tire. We found it would handle up to about a 12 in log without issue, and since most of the trees we found were smaller than that, splitting wasn’t an issue. We’d set it up beside the lake so we didn’t have to pull the logs to the top of our ridge, and then we’d bring down the small generator to run the thing. We still have that same splitter all these years later. We found we never needed the big gas powered splitters that can cost nearly $2000! This little one was a tenth of that price.
Of course, the other thing we were missing was a woodshed to store the wood once we had it split. Many people don’t bother and just let their firewood season in a pile or stack outside, but given our winters and snow, we wanted it undercover. Keeping budget in mind, and difficulty in getting things to our little cabin, we tried to recycle as much as we could. When we torn off the old rotting deck and steps, we salvaged as much of the lumber as we could, the rest we hauled to the dump. We couldn’t burn it as it had been painted with oil paint. Luckily, we had just enough 2×4 boards to frame two rudimentary woodsheds…that were just that…lean to frames. We had some old plywood scraps and a piece of corrugated metal we’d found on the side of the road, so we used all of that for the roof on each shed. The second year we had them we hung a tarp on the northeast side to help keep the snow off but those little scrap sheds served us well for almost 12 years!
In 2013, when we installed the solar system, we built a three room shed, 20 feet long by 8 feet deep. In the centre we made a generator room which we insulated and installed a double propane light for heat. It was all we needed to keep the generator warm enough to start. On either side was a 7 x 8 foot woodshed. Because of the height, we could squeeze almost 4 cords of wood into each woodshed.
At our current home, we also installed a propane stove for shoulder seasons when a wood fire would drive you out of the house. It also provides peace of mind on days when neither of us can be home to stoke the wood stove, and ensures the house won’t freeze up if the fire goes out before we get home.
We have off grid friends that use wood, propane, oil, or wood pellets….or a combination. For us, propane makes the most sense as a supplementary heat source. Propane also runs our on demand hot water heater, our kitchen stove and our back up generator. It’s really about personal preference, cost and access. With the type of winters we have in Canada’s north, the length of them, and the fact that we live off grid, having reliable heat is critical to being comfortable…and safe.
Today, we still buy our wood split, but we also continue to harvest deadfall and enjoy the warmth of a wood fire. And my sweetheart can brag about all he does. … because it’s a lot.