March 21, 2018
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More Mainers heat with wood than thought

If you heat your home by burning wood, you are already thinking about that coldest night of the next winter. You know that unless you cut, split (or buy), stack and store your firewood over the next few months, the wood stove in the living room or kitchen will be of little use.

Since Maine is the most forested state in the lower 48, we have a special relationship with firewood. But a more comprehensive study of that relationship, and its potential to wean Mainers off their high dependency on oil heat, is needed.

A recent radio talk show on WERU-FM hosted by the Cooperative Extension’s Ron Beard gathered two College of the Atlantic professors and two COA students to talk about their recent study of wood heat in Hancock County. The take-away is that more people use wood heat than previously thought.

Gray Cox, COA professor, said 10-year-old census data showed that about 11 percent of Mainers heated with wood, a statistic state policymakers have been relying upon to guide their decisions. He believes, based on a survey of Hancock County households, closer to 55 percent of Mainers use wood heat. Of those, half use wood for at least half of their heat.

Interestingly, only 35 percent of those who burned wood cited cost as the reason. Instead, Mr. Cox said, there are cultural factors at play.

The view of some who do not use wood heat could be summarized as, “I don’t heat with wood. My time is worth more than that.” Those who did use wood liked or took pride in the work involved, as seen in the old adage, “Wood heats you three times — when you cut it, split and burn it.”

The difference between those with oil heat and wood heat was further teased out in the COA analysis. The former were characterized as a “modern consumer family” who like turning a thermostat to make heat. They see heat as a service provided by professionals. Those who burn wood, the self-reliant “Maine Yankee” types, see heating as an activity, “something you do for yourself.”

The modern consumer family expects heat to remain constant and even. The Maine Yankee family likes getting near the stove to get warm. The Yankee family also accepts a certain amount of ash and dirt around the stove.

The modern family sees heat like a waiter in a restaurant, at their beck and call. The Yankee family is engaged with wood heat, likes the look and feel of the wood, even enjoys the smell of smoke and revels in the stove’s ambiance.

Far from being a vanishing tradition, wood heat has a place in the 21st century. Given the supply of firewood and wood pellets in Maine, more can be done to maximize our use of it.

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