Large split logs of wood are stacked haphazardly in a pile behind a house on a sunny day. The house has wooden shingle siding and is a tan color. A person in dark clothing stands on the left side of the wood pile. They have light skin and dark hair.
Heating with firewood can be an economical option in Maine. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

Home heating oil is currently averaging $3.10 a gallon statewide and the cost has some people thinking of turning to wood heat.

But that does not mean you should immediately abandon your oil or propane heat without doing some research into what it takes to heat with wood first.

“The key is preplanning,” according to Matthew Scott, owner of Evergreen Home and Hearth. “We are all creatures of habit and you can wake up one morning, feel that it’s getting cold and think, ‘I should have gotten a wood stove this summer.’”

Maine has an abundance of wood fuel and according to the Governor’s Energy Office, it can cut your heating costs in half if you are currently using oil. While summer is the best time to install a wood heat system and prepare for winter, it’s not too late to convert now.  

When it comes to heating with wood fuel, there are two options — a traditional wood stove that uses cord wood from harvested trees, or a pellet stove that uses biomass. Biomass pellets are made from wood residue, including sawdust, shavings and other byproducts of wood processing.

Both are good options, according to The Professional Logging Contractors of Maine and the Maine Pellet Fuels Association.

With four wood pellet manufacturing plants in the state, there is more than enough biomass fuel to go around, according to Matt Bell, owner of Northeast Pellets in Ashland.

“We have a strong inventory on hand,” said Bell, “And our wholesale prices have remained very stable over the last 15 years.”  

Cord wood remains the cheapest average cost heating fuel in Maine statewide at $275 a cord, according to the Maine Governor’s Energy Office. Biomass pellets are close second at $268 a ton. To heat an average home, you would need roughly three cords of wood or 2-3 tons of pellets for every 1,000-square-feet of living space.

“Highly efficient cord wood heating applications are a practical and affordable heating option for many Maine homeowners,” said Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. “These locally sourced, renewable heating options are not only cheaper alternatives to fuels like oil and propane, but also support hundreds of local jobs and allow Maine’s working forests to be properly managed by strengthening the market for low grade wood fiber.”

But before you run out and purchase a wood or pellet stove, there are some things to think about, according to Scott.

For one thing, wood fires produce smoke.

“You need to find a good spit within your house to vent the stove,” Scott said. “It’s critical to consider how the smoke will get out of the house.”

Existing chimneys can be used, but even then there are considerations. Under Maine fire codes, a flue can only vent a single heating fuel. So if your oil or propane furnace is venting out of your chimney already, you may need to install a new chimney system for the wood heat.

Having a wood-stove installer visit your home first is a good idea, Scott said. That person can tell you exactly what you need to do to safely use wood heat and the best spot in your house to install a wood stove.

Then there is the matter of the wood fuel you want to use.

“A lot of people are interested in burning wood when they come to buy a wood stove,” Scott said. “The first thing we ask the is, ‘Do you have the wood?’”

Too often, he said, people this time of year tell him they plan to buy it now, as winter is approaching.

“It really does not work that way,” Scott said. “Most wood providers are already taking orders for next year.”

The risk with any wood currently available is that it’s unseasoned or green. That means it was recently cut and has not had a chance to properly dry. Burning wood with a water content greater than 20 percent is very dangerous. It promotes the development of creosote, a highly flammable byproduct of wood fires that can build up in chimneys and cause housefires.

This is why it is very important to not only burn dry wood, but also regularly clean the chimney.

Opting for pellets, Scott said, can be a less risky choice as the fuel arrives ready to use in bags.

“Pellet stoves also put out a very powerful amount of heat,” Scott said. “It’s more of a forced air heat and not the radiant soft and warm heat of a traditional wood stove.”

Whether it’s cord wood or pellets, space is needed to store it. That space needs to be dry and easily accessible throughout the winter.

There is also the cost associated with converting to wood heat.

Wood burning stoves can run between $400 and $1,500. For installation, plan on budgeting between $1,200 and $3,500 if you are using an existing chimney. If you need to construct an entirely new chimney, those installation costs can rise to between $2,300 and $7,000.

Pellet stoves cost between $1,500 and $7,000. According to Scott, the costs of installing a pellet stove tend to run less than those of a wood-burning stove because in some cases a pellet stove can be vented without any chimney modifications.

Since wood and pellet stoves come in all shapes and sizes, you are going to want to figure out which is the right one for the area you want to heat.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry has several  online resources to help compare the different types of wood fuel and calculate how much you are going to need.

There are also federal and state incentives for using wood heat through the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Efficiency Maine, respectively.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.