Got Wood? The Case For Firewood

I got home from work on Monday to two large bags, stacked full with firewood. As our new home came with two tiny ovens in the toilet and bathroom, and was otherwise only supported by a fireplace, we knew we had to restock before winter arrived in earnest. 

An air-to-air heat pump is on the list of upgrades we’ll do eventually. But since it was more critical to get some professionals to redo our electrical system, we will not get to it this winter. 

So alas, we are stuck with roaring fire as our primary source of heat. It can get a bit nippy in the morning, but fire makes up for that with cosiness factor in spades.

Although sometimes, I must admit I am struck by the thought of “Who let these irresponsible millennials run amok with a whole half of a house? And with a fireplace, no less??”

But I digress. 

Firewood as money

In many ways, firewood and forests can be viewed as very similar to money and financial independence. If you don’t own your own forest, you will have to buy firewood from someone else. 

On the other hand, if you own your own forest you could have a nice supply of firewood, so long as you manage your forest properly and don’t take out too much. 

It’s no good taking out too much “cash” (AKA firewood) from your forest either. Firewood is best if it has a water content of around 10-20%. It might be tempting to take out as much firewood as possible to keep safe, but if you don’t use it for several years it might have lost some of its best heat capacity. Much like cash looses to inflation over time. 

Stewardship

The relationship between firewood and forests is also an excellent example of why it is important to manage our planet responsibly, as opposed to just burning through resources like there’s no tomorrow. 

If you cut down all your forest this year, you might earn a pretty penny selling wood. But what is going to keep you warm next year? Or the year after that? Forests take time to grow. 

Frugasaurus wood

It should come as no surprise that a part of my dream and goal is to own enough land to support our household and then some. In both food and firewood. Ideally, we would have a forest (or areas we can re-forest) large enough so that the net carbon capture by the forest would exceed the net carbon release we supply by burning some of it.

We would probably supplement our energy consumption with solar and wind as well, but there is something more than heat provided by a dancing flame. Or perhaps that is just my Norwegian desire for “hygge” shining through? 

Sourcing firewood zero-waste

But how do you go about acquiring firewood in the best possible way when you do not own your very own forest? 

Stores and gas stations all over Norway start selling firewood in 60 L (16 gallon) plastic nets once temperatures start dropping in autumn. 

While this might seem like the easiest way, it is by far the most expensive one. Prices often lie around 70 NOK ($8-9) per bag, and you’ll need several bags to last you over a winter. 

One fathom, please

How do we usually save money in this frugal world of ours? By buying in bulk. It works for firewood as it works for food. Buying in bulk directly from the farmer is the easiest and cheapest way to source a winter’s worth of firewood. 

You might be amused by the unit firewood is sold in bulk for though. It is called a “favn” or fathom. Traditionally meant to indicate how much a grown man could “fathom” with both his arms outstretched. Along with “a man’s height”, “an arm’s length” and the foot, it is one of the oldest units of measure in Norway. 

It has been standardized though. A fathom of wood is supposed to be 1000 L (264 gallons) of firewood, stacked or un-stacked. Usually pure birch or mixed. 

Pro-tip: You can get a long way by asking what the mixed wood is made up of when you call around to find the best deal. Pine trees usually burn fast and don’t provide much heat per weight, but almost all leafy trees provide good, solid firewood.

I once read oak is the best, but who would take such lovely, expensive wood and throw it in the fire without building something out of it and using it for 100 years first??? 

For us, Mr. Frugasaurus was able to find a local vendor who wanted 600 NOK ($70-80) per fathom, with two fathoms as the minimum order when delivering (an extra 400 NOK) to us savage car-less barbarians. Hix mixed bag was mainly rowan, with some birch and beech tossed in. All dry and excellent firewood. 

Which means that, even with delivery, we got 2000 L worth of wood for 1600 NOK. Buying the same amount of wood in small 60 L bags throughout winter would have cost us over 2300 NOK, plus the added anxiety of having a small storage in house and “what if we run out?”. 

With our climate and willingness to put on woolen sweaters, my finger-in-the-air guesstimate (made from growing up chopping, stacking and burning wood) is that we should need about one fathom per winter. Meaning that, if we’re lucky, we have about two years worth of fuel currently sitting happily in our basement. 

The best part of the whole ordeal is that the farmer wants the 1000 L bag back. They’re not cheap, and they can offer a better prize if most of them are returned. They might be plastic, but at least they are re-used. 

Firewood as emergency preparedness

Power outages are becoming more and more common. We have built a society which is fragile and used to 24/7 shops and take-out delivery. 

This autumn, the Norwegian government actually saw the need to publish an emergency preparedness brochure. The whole thing smacked of second world war flyers, and one of the most important things is to make sure you have access to clean water (9 L per person, per day), food and, of course, a source of heat which is not based on electricity. 

As they point out in the brochure: You can survive without food and water for three days, but a Norwegian winter can kill you in three hours. If the power goes out, you best have some alternatives. 

So there’s that. Our move from apartment to old house has also made us more prepared and resilient to emergencies. We’re still not Frugal Pharmacists level prepared, but it is a definitive upgrade. 

Plus there is a decent-sized stream with fresh water running just down the hill from our house. So we have that covered too. 

Nostalgia

I will not deny that part of my love for the fireplace is probably because I grew up with it. Most houses in Norway are equipped with one, even if they have other heat sources installed as well. We never really did make a national grid for gas for cooking and heating like in the UK and other places, so wood stayed on. We have copious amounts of forest too, and with careful management, they can keep lots of people warm. 

Do you have a separate, non-electric source of heat if the power goes out? Do you even need one in your area? Or are you so central that you live by the assumption that they’ll get it fixed ASAP? Did you grow up with fireplaces and firewood? I’d love to hear fire related stories to keep me warm in the rapidly chilling season! 

8 Comments on “Got Wood? The Case For Firewood

  1. This post really resonated with me. In fact, in my latest blog post (https://wp.me/pa0UBS-5P) I also stressed the multiple forms of wealth forests present. In that post I reference the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reduce Global Warming, which presents solutions as ranked by an international team of scientists. Of those 100 solutions 5 of them in the top 40 relate directly to forestry.

    Beyond harvesting firewood (which is awesome – and if that picture in your post is of your own fireplace – nice work!) I would love to find ways to invest my retirement funds in forests. There is so much wealth in forests from firewood, to morels or other high end mushrooms, medicinal herbs and barks, and so much more that we can sustainably harvest for our personal use and to convert to cash when needed, while as you point out, simultaneously benefiting our environment.

    While researching that blog post, I looked into the stocks of a couple of timberland companies that claimed to be sustainable. One of the larger, better known ones – Weyhauser – recently took a case to the U.S. Supreme Court fighting a decision by our Fish and Wildlife Service to designate a small portion of the land Weyhauser owns in Louisiana as a future habitat (a kind of insurance policy should it’s current habitat ever prove uninhabitable) for the endangered dusky gopher frog (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/theyre-great-little-animals-the-dusky-gopher-frog-goes-before-the-supreme-court/2018/09/29/b928b9b4-bc4f-11e8-8792-78719177250f_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e198f31d9fea). I presume this company’s impact is still overall far more beneficial for the environment than the likes of Coca-Cola, Shell, or Newmont Mining, but that court case was enough to stop me from investing in Weyhauser. I’d like to find truly regenerative (not just greenwashing) investment options.

    One Drawdown solution in particular to me seems like it has the potential to be a very FI oriented investment – # 28 Multistrata Agroforestry. This refers to the “layers” of plants that make up forests at all levels – tall trees, shorter trees, shrubs, ground cover, etc. In addition to planting food forests on my own property I could see purchasing some land for young permaculturists or others interested in agroforestry to maintain and then we split the profits. Having multiple layers and types of plants in that ecosystem would help mitigate the risk of mono-cropping. Wouldn’t it be great to see The Land Geek and others in our FI community well versed in land acquisitions partner with regenerative enterprise experts to come up with some truly regenerative investment models for those of us flocking to your site and the few others like it in our FI blogosphere hungry for these types of options? So many cool options like this already exist for wealthy accredited investors. I’m sooo ready to see some innovative options created for us non-accredited investors to steward our money in meaningful ways.

    • Thank you so much! I am glad I am not the only wood geek around! I think forests are super important. One thing I really want to do is buy land and reforest most of it. It can be a bit tricky with Norwegian farmland laws enacted to protect our self-sufficiency, but food forests can provide lots of crops too. I love the multiple layers of plants as well. It is so much healthier for the ecosystems – and much less weeding for lazy gardeners such as myself!

      My only fear with this new house is that I will grow too attached to it. Especially if I put a lot of work into the garden. But there is enough garden here to sequester some amount of carbon at least.

      PS: I heard you on a podcast the other day, super inspiring! We just moved to a place where we know there are several good dumpsters, but I love my sleep pattern a bit much to get out of the house after store closing hours!

      • Thank you!!! I’m so glad you enjoyed the podcast episode. It was a fun one in which to participate.

        I too very much value my sleep and am usually in bed around 10 pm. Probably 90% of my dumpster diving occurs between 9 am to 9 pm while stores are open and often in broad daylight. I primarily dive 2 places – my locally owned health food store and Aldi. I started diving at the local health food store at night after it closed on weekends when it closes a couple hours earlier. The 1st or 2nd time I was there one of the employees closing the store that night came out and saw me and did not shoo me away. The next time I chatted with him a little bit and found out that many people, especially lower income or homeless people had been dumpster diving there at all times of day for years.

        I continued to dive there in the evenings after the store closed because my sense was that was when it would be the most full with treasure. I got to know a number of staff people and even brought some of them kombucha or dehydrated fruit that I made with dumpster produce. I always made a point to not make a mess and in fact help pick up trash around the dumpster. I heard at one point that I was quite well-known by name amongst the store staff. One night the manager came out while I was standing on one of his milk crates reaching into his dumpster and I greeted him with a friendly “Hello.” He greeted me back and simply warned me to be careful because he believed there was broken glass in the dumpster.

        I eventually started shopping outside of the store in the dumpster during the day before I went inside to shop. Then I started checking the dumpster anytime I was in the area. It’s always hit or miss. There’s no consistent day or time when I am guaranteed to find something so the more I check it the better my odds are. Store employees frequently see me when I am out there during the day and many people drive by the dumpster in the alley while I’m diving. The manager has seen me out there during the day as well and nobody has ever tried to stop me from diving. (Not even the policeman who discovered me one night.) I recognize that this store’s openness to respectful dumpster divers is not the norm, but it may not be as rare as we expect.

        Aldi on the other hand in general is not so open to dumpster diving. Many under privileged people along with sustainably minded souls like myself dumpster dive at Aldi. I’ve encountered other divers at Aldi dumpsters about 25 % of my time diving there. I was told by one Aldi employee that the store had a serious problem with people retrieving the non-food items from the dumpster and returning them in the store (without a receipt obviously) for cash.

        I also dive Aldi at night and during the day tweaking my approach based on each store’s set up. The Aldi closest to my house is a stand alone store and it’s dumpster sits in an area behind the store that is highly visible to the parking lot and some incoming traffic. I usually only dive there during store hours when I am on my bicycle and can be in and out of the area quite qucickly. The lead picture for this blog post I wrote on dumpser diving (https://wp.me/pa0UBS-3l) shows my set up with baskets on the front and back of my bike along with the folding trash grabbing stick and collapsible stool I keep in them. (Not shown is a headlamp, which is especially helpful at this time of year when it gets dark out earlier.) If I am out in my car at night after the store has been closed long enough for all of the employees to have left I will drive up near the bay where the dumpster is located and park to dive.

        Sometimes, Aldi stores are located in strip malls, which makes me more comfortable driving up and parking near them during the day. This can also make it less appealing to dive there alone at night when the area is not visible to the rest of the world and feels much less safe. If I see an Aldi employee out back on break or putting things in the dumpster I will wait 5 to 10 minutes if I have the time and then check to see if they have gone back inside. Aldi store employees have found me diving about 10 – 15 times. Mostly, they just tell me that I can’t be doing that and I need to leave. One time a manager at the Aldi near me threatened to call the police if my boyfriend and I didn’t put back everything we’d taken out of the dumpster and leave, which we did. So far, the response of Aldi store employees when they find me has not been strong enough to deter me. Before and after holidays store dumpsters are often bursting with food. For anyone interested it could be a good time to get started. And it’s such a shame to think it would otherwise go to waste.

        PS – I am glad you like your new home enough to think it could tempt you away from your initial vision. That’s a nice position to be in knowing that in either direction there is a large amount of contentedness that awaits you. Plus, you are young. You may find ways to have it all that you haven’t even conceived of yet.

        • Interesting! I am not sure if dumpster diving is socially accepted enough for us to go there during daylight hours. Stores often lock their bins if they discover people are rummaging around, and I’d feel terrible if I ruined a perfectly good dumpster for everybody else if they locked it because I went there during the day!

          It is a great place to be in to be sure. The garden is large enough that we can grow a substantial amount of food. Especially if our downstairs neighbor stays since she likes the idea of growing food as well, and is happy to share the large garden for that.

  2. We don’t have anything like your winters, three hours?? Wow! So my current emergency planning to do list includes finding heat sources that aren’t electric OR fire because our emergency is most likely a terrible earthquake that will break power and gas lines and probably take out the running water as well. I’ll probably start with a stash of pocket warmers as the safest small scale warmers and I have one of those sleeping bivvies that reflects heat but we definitely need more. It’s next to the flameless heating element for food on my list.

    We do have a lovely fireplace but burning wood here is rather taboo for air quality reasons so we haven’t spent any money fixing it up to use. It’s a shame, I do miss a crackling roaring fire.

    • Three hours is if you’re outside without proper clothing, but yeah. Depending on where you are in the country, the cold can be pretty harsh.

      Interesting that you can’t use your fireplace for air quality reasons. Norway is sparely populated, even in the cities. But in London everybody heated their home by burning gas, so I definitely understand where you’re coming from! Fireplaces are very common in Norway, so people researched cleaner burning fireplaces instead of outlawing them outright.

      As Mr. Frugasaurus mentioned as well – a good heat source is good jackets and sleeping bags too, not just a source of heat. We have several sleeping bags and lots of blankets and wool, so we would survive for days even without a fireplace. I would get really tired of cold/frozen food though!

  3. Interesting article thanks. Only thing i’d like to point out to people is that stacking wood too close to a woodburner, it can catch fire as it did with us. I believe it was birch that caught fire. Luckily we were in the room & realised. We’ve burnt through a lot of oak as we were allowed to keep an oak at a park that fell but was no good for anything else. It burns for much longer and kicks out more heat. Got some applewood from a neighbour, that was beautiful to burn.

    • Good point, though wood catching fire has luckily never been a problem for us!

      Oak would be a great source of firewood, but there isn’t that much of it around here, so unless you get it for free it would be very expensive to heat your house with. Same with fruit trees. Fruit trees are gorgeous for carving though!

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