By Michael Jacobson
Penn State Cooperative Extension

LIMERICK PA – With winter here, with temperatures dropping into the ’20s as they have so far this week across Limerick and  Lower Pottsgrove PA townships and the borough of Pottstown, and with more snow on the way, the demand is getting stronger for firewood to stoke the home hearth. In fact, the firewood market is fairly robust these days.

The definition of "coziness."

Just open the newspaper and you’ll see lots of firewood ads. Supplying firewood is an industry that provides part-time work and extra cash for families this time of the year. Many land owners also enjoy cutting firewood for their own use. It involves very little expense – to buy a chainsaw, safety equipment, wedges, a splitting maul – and use of a small pick-up truck or trailer.

Burning firewood for heat is environmentally friendly and offers good value for the money. Unlike coal, oil and gas, which are non-renewable fossil fuels that contribute greenhouse gas emissions, wood (if sustainably harvested) is a local and renewable energy resource.

How does a consumer decide what firewood to buy and where to buy it? There are three main considerations: price, quantity, and quality.

Pricing firewood

Firewood prices differ across regions and generally are higher in urban areas, more distant from the woods. Normally, prices are for wood delivered to a house, but check to see if there is an additional transportation cost, whether it is stacked or just dumped in a pile, and if the wood is split and cut to length to fit your heating appliance.

If you heat with oil, wood can save you money. If you use coal, wood won’t be as cost-efficient, but it’s a close second. Penn State Cooperative Extension draws these conclusions by measuring heating efficiency; it looks at equivalent prices per heating unit for alternative fuels.

For example, to get the same amount of heat produced by a $150 cord of firewood, in equivalent heating units you’d pay about $1.20 a gallon for heating oil or 90 cents a therm for natural gas. Of course, current prices for oil and gas are now much higher; heating oil sells for about $3 a gallon, and gas is more than $1 a therm. Compared to them at today’s costs, wood is a bargain.

A word of caution: if you buy or gather firewood, stay local. Much of Pennsylvania is under quarantine for the emerald ash borer, an insect that threatens ash trees. Another insect, although not currently found in the state, is the Asian long-horned beetle. If it gets here, could cause major damage to many of our tree species. Burning wood close to its source, therefore, makes sense and protects forests.

Firewood quantity

Tightly stacked wood makes for a good cord.

Wood is often sold by the cord. By state law, a cord is 128 cubic feet (4’x4’x8′), but can be sold in portions and must be accompanied by a statement or invoice certifying the amount sold and presented to the buyer at the time of delivery or billing. The law also says “firewood may not be advertised or sold by the truck load, the pile, the piece or any other method other than by the cord” or a fraction thereof.

The problem with the term “a truck load” is that it can refer to anything from a pick-up truck (a fifth- or a half-cord) to a pulpwood truck (carrying four or more cords).

How do you know you are getting a cord? You have to stack it. A 4’x4’x8′ pile of wood has lots of air spaces between individual sticks. The solid wood volume will vary by the diameter and length of sticks in the stack. Generally it will contain 80 to 100 cubic of wood. Haphazardly stacked wood will obviously have a lower wood-to-volume ratio than a tight and uniform stack. By insisting on having your wood neatly stacked, you get a better idea of whether it is a true cord.

Firewood quality

Here’s good news: Pennsylvania has high-density hardwood species, which are among the best burning firewood available.

Denser woods weigh up to 3 tons per cord, while lighter woods have about 1-1/2 to 2 tons per cord. Beech, birch, some maples, hickory, and oak are among the most common species in Pennsylvania and also among the densest. Many consumers prefer hardwood species for firewood because they offer more heat per volume and, when dry, are less likely to result in creosote build-up problems.

Firewood is best for burning when it has 20-percent or less moisture content, which takes a year or more of drying under roof and off the ground.

The moisture content for wood varies: green (wet) wood can have 50- to more than 100-percent moisture content; yes, wet wood actually can contain more weight in water than it does weight in wood, depending on the species. Air-seasoned wood is 20- to 25-percent moisture, and wood for furniture is about 4 to 6 percent. Burning unseasoned wood wastes energy, because the moisture has to be driven off before combustion can occur. Split wood dries out faster.

Wood can make for a happier and warmer winter. Before you make a purchase, though, check to ensure you are getting a cord worth of wood, make sure it is dry, is good quality hardwood cut to your needs, and is stacked upon delivery.