Growing My Own Heat
By Cam Mather
I love having those “light bulb” moments when I finally “get” something. I’d lived off-grid for a number of years before I experienced a revelation about solar power. I had been watering our ever expanding garden from the dug well nearby. I would throw down a bucket on a rope, pull it back up, dump it in a bucket that held two of the smaller buckets, and once I had two of the larger ones filled up, I’d hike off into the garden, a bucket in each hand. It was a brutal amount of work, and a stupid use of my energy, but I loved it. Michelle likened it to Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in “Fantasia.” Mickey uses brooms to carry tons of water in buckets up the stairs. I was one of the crazy brooms.
Eventually Bill Kemp heard about this system of watering my garden, and he set about designing a better system by drawing some plans on a napkin at one of our meetings. Next thing you know I had a solar panel, a DC pump and a simple car/trailer plug, and the sun was doing the work for me. I put a foot valve on one end of the pipe that I put down the well, and I put a garden hose adapter on the other end of the pipe. This $80 pump (and 75Watt panel which was about $500 at the time but much cheaper today) can pull water from 10 feet down in the well, and pump it a good 300 ft. It can even lift it up about 40 feet to the rain barrels that are raised on a cedar crib I’d built. It’s brilliant. And it was the first time I finally clued into how much work a solar panel could do for me. In our house I didn’t have a point of reference. Solar power keeps my fridge running, but I’d never spent the winter cutting ice off a lake and storing it in sawdust in the icehouse to put into an icebox, so I can’t appreciate what’s it’s doing for me. And I’ve never had to wash my clothes on a rock, or with one of those old washing machines with the rollers that squeezed the water out of clothes.
But I had carried an insane amount of water around in buckets, and this solar pump displaced that human effort and I could truly appreciate how much I was accomplishing with the sun. It was very cool.
I had the same light bulb moment the other day when I took down a poplar tree out front. This tree was in a group of coniferous trees I’d planted 10 years ago. Pines and spruce love this soil and grow like weeds. Hardwoods are very slow, but poplars do really well here. But this lone poplar looked out of place and was getting too big to be that close to the house. So I cut it down. As I was cutting it up I was amazed at how big it was. I planted this 10 years ago and now I had a pretty good pile of firewood. In fact I started to think about how much “heat” was in this little pile.
Since it is poplar, which is softwood, it doesn’t have the same BTUs as hardwood. As I often do, I checked “The Renewable Energy Handbook” and “Appendix 1” tells me that poplar has 18,500 BTU/cord, versus 22,300 BTU/cord for Red Maple. That difference isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. So I’d say I that in the fall I’ll have 4 or 5 days worth of heat in this pile of wood and maybe in a cold January I’d have 2 or 3 days worth. So I started thinking about how many of these trees I’d have to plant to grow my whole season’s worth of wood. I would think if I planted two acres with poplar I could get a year’s worth of heat out of it after about a decade. So if you had 20 acres, you could plant two acres every year and be pretty much self-sufficient with firewood.
Now this is not scientific, it’s more of a gut feeling. And there are numerous variables such as how large and well insulated your home is, how efficient a woodstove you have, how cold the winter is, etc. But I think it would be quite doable. And if you were smart you’d plant lots of poplar but also intersperse some hardwoods like maple and oak in there too. That way after a decade as you started to harvest the poplar you’d have the hardwoods with a really good head start and once they didn’t have to compete for sun with the poplars they’d be ready to take off.
I think this is pretty cool. Managing a forest like this for heat. Harvesting it sustainably. Making a home for animals. Having these trees absorb CO2 as they grow.
I cut down the poplar now before it broke bud to make it easier to work with. But if you were trying to make yourself more independent you could wait until the leaves were fully out. Then you could pile all the branches with leaves in piles where you want to expand the garden and as they breakdown and decay they’d be building up the soil with the biomass that the tree had photosynthesized from the sun’s energy. It’s so cool.
I did my Solar and Wind Workshop at the Royal Botanical Gardens recently and I was excited to hear two of the participants talking at the break. I think they had been hesitant to think about heating with wood, but I explained how it’s carbon neutral. As a tree is growing it is absorbing C02 (carbon) and sequestering or storing that carbon in its woody mass. If it were to die and drop to the forest floor and rot, it would give off the same amount of heat and CO2 as it does when I burn it in my woodstove. I just speed the process up. And as long as you’re burning it in an efficient EPA-certified woodstove, you’re doing the right thing for the environment.
Now if you were to take some land and start planting your own trees, you’re actually going to be growing your own heat. How responsible. You’re not shifting the burden on to someone else to drill for natural gas and potentially cause dislocation to someone somewhere else. And you’re not going to take gas or oil that is carbon sequestered in the ground and burn it and release it to the atmosphere.
I realize heating with wood isn’t for everyone, but for people considering a move to the country I think it’s a pretty cool (hot) way to heat. And if you can get your property a few years before you move out to the country you can get started on planting trees and get a head start. Heating with wood reaches down to very primal level in most people. There’s something very primitive about gathering around a fire. Our Pacific Energy Woodstove has a glass door, which allows us to watch the flames. It’s large and stays very clean. And it keeps us very, very warm. Knowing where the wood came from and knowing I didn’t cause any negative impact on anyone else’s life to get that heat is a very satisfying feeling.