Saturday, February 11, 2006


Three degrees above zero, that’s what the weather says it was this morning in my town. When the temperature dives, things start to go wrong at my house. The clothes washer’s drain freezes so water backs up all over the utility room. The dishwasher freezes, and this time it is sending sheets of water cascading into the cellar.


But I have been waiting for a cold weekend to try burning wood in my combination wood-oil furnace. When I first bought the house, I was intrigued by this large metal contraption in the cellar and by the even larger stack of wood down there. But then I saw this episode of This Old House, the one where the plumber’s brother burns his house down, and—to my dismay—he had the same model furnace as mine. Of course, their strategy was to build the fire up high in the morning, then leave the house, returning only after the fire had burned down to nothing and the oil had kicked in. Not a good idea to stuff your firebox full, then leave the house.

Living alone, it takes a long time to get accustomed to new systems in the house. Like what to do when the washer drain and the dishwasher freeze.

So I waited, biding time until I could have the chimney cleaned and the furnace serviced. Each professional who came through counseled me, Be careful! Don’t build the fire too big! But each one encouraged me that burning wood was just fine. Better than fine. It’s the Vermont way. Of course, you want to burn wood.

The man who sold me the house knows wood well. He makes furniture for a living, and left the cellar lined with neatly split logs as well as bags of small stuff from the factory. I always figured I would have to haul it out of there. But then again, why not try burning it? The former owner always said how nice it was on a very cold day to have a wood fire to keep the toes toasty, and being a native Vermonter, he meant a day like this when the temperature drops toward zero and below.

An hour after I started, I was still struggling with newspaper and kindling trying to get them under the big logs that I had thoughtless chunked right in there. I have built fires before, but somehow it is easier in a fireplace, when the whole operation is in front of you rather than deep in a metal firebox…and you have been warned not to build above its doorsill. Hours later, I found the directions, online—honestly, isn’t it amazing?—and another set in my file cabinet, thoughtfully left by the former owner. Oh, yes, perhaps I should read this. And what does a water softener do, anyway?

The wood in the cellar is as nice as you could possibly want. Cut to the proper length for the furnace and split, oh so nicely. Big logs. Piles and piles of them, three layers deep against the cellar wall. Aged for at least two years now, nice and dry, well aged.

It’s five o’clock now, and I have been luxuriating in warmth all day long. This is not the way life is for me when I burn oil. I keep the thermostat at an aerobics-encouraging sixty degrees when I burn oil, but when I burn wood, the thermostat serves only to provide more or less air to the spectacular, intense blaze down there in my furnace.

I had to call my friend, T, and exclaim, “My house is warm!” She understands. She knows far better than I do the cold, clammy, insidious fingers of Vermont winters, creeping in through mousehole and crevice, but in fighting them off, she is a pro. A lifer. She heats her house with wood all the time, or rather with wood and several golden retrievers. It’s generally pretty cold there, because like other native Vermonters, T’s response when the temperature drops is to put on another sweater. Now it is my response, too.

Today, she was ranting about another friend on the end of a telephone line, a friend who was complaining about how cold it was. “Only sixty degrees!” (Yeah, right…) “And last night, it was down to twenty-five degrees! How do you stand it up there?”

At the very instant that T was relaying this lament, I was walking with my trusty cell phone (911 pre-programmed just in case I need the fire department) to the front porch, where I was mightily encouraged to see that the temperature had risen to a bearable twenty-five degrees. I burst out laughing, then had to explain, “I was just thinking. Now it is twenty-five degrees, so it is warm enough to take the dogs out for a run.”

It’s all in your expectations, isn’t it?

Still, being able to take a day to be toasty—and better yet for free—as you burn cheerfully through the wood left in the cellar. That is a day of riches.

I might do it again tomorrow.

“Half your wood and half your hay by Groundhog Day.” T intoned this piece of Vermont lore over the cell phone today. I think I’m okay. Plenty of wood for a few more toasty days. And no hay eaters to put us off, to cause anxiety to intrude in our slow, steady passage to spring.

1 comment:

David St Lawrence said...

Wonderful imagery!

We are in our first-ever wood-fired house and it gives us both entertainment and comfort.

We have a wood stove rather than a furnace, but the economic joy of burning "free" wood warms us almost as much as the heat from our stove.

One point you might look into. If you can supply outside air to the furnace you will cut way down on the cold drafts coming in through the cracks. If the combustion air for the furnace comes from within the house, it creates a vacuum which sucks cold air in through every door and window.