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What Are You Smokin'?

This one is for all my city friends who ask, when visiting the farm, "What are you smoking?" Now, now. If you know me, you know I can barely tolerate a glass of wine let alone smoke anything! But, I do enjoy a warm house...well, not as warm as William likes it!

This question used to throw me for a loop until I'd look to where the questioning person gestured. I'd realize they were asking about the little red building that sits between William's house and the shop. Then I would understand they weren't questioning my giddy nature or silly tendencies when they asked, "What are you smoking?" they were referring to the Heatmor Wood Boiler that functions to heat the house in the colder months. They were wondering if we had a few chickens or a dozen hams smoking in a smokehouse. In places where natural gas flows from a hidden network of pipes that meander mostly invisible under a city, the idea of heating the home from a building outside the house doesn't have context. When brains go searching for "What is that little smoking building?" the only brain hook it finds is smokehouse. Nope. It's not a smokehouse.

Where we live, wood is abundant, so for those who have the energy and equipment, burning wood is a way to be self-sufficient. In the country, off a village or metro grid, heating options include propane, electric, geothermal, solar, wind or wood. Where we live, because wood is plentiful and William ambitious, it makes sense for him to heat with wood. He also loves the opportunity to play with the toys needed to bring in firewood - chainsaws, log splitters, the Tool Cat or skid steer, loader tractor, and sometimes the dump truck. No, heating with wood is not practical for everyone as the there is a fair bit of equipment needed to get the job done and it is a lot of work! But look at that happy smile!

I'm no expert on how this system works, but in my basic understanding can tell you that the outdoor wood boiler heats water that is piped to the furnace in the house. I hear William talking about the "plenum" - cool word that implies some sort of thingy on the furnace that helps with heat exchange. Once the boiler water arrives at the furnace, it travels through pipes across the heat exchanger so when William cranks the thermostat to 74 degrees after coming in from cutting wood, the forced air furnace is able to send hot air through the house. Hot water from the outside boiler is also used to heat the water in William's hot water heater - that's where we have a side arm pipe to divert this hot water to the water heater. In the summer, William stops feeding the boiler and switches the hot water heater over to electric. If we ever get to the point where we can't manage the wood boiler, we can hook the entire system up to the propane tank.

Lately, wicked storms have left us a plethora of downed trees to harvest. In my yard, last week's storms took down two dead trees and a couple of sizeable branches. This is likely enough wood for my wood stove for at least a couple of months. We just have to get it cut, split and stacked.

At the Dirt Farm, I have three heating systems. I have two off-peak (heat at night when demand for electricity is low) electric radiators that heat a pile of thermal bricks stacked inside the system, an on-demand electric forced air furnace and this cast iron wood stove to supplement it all. Typically, I leave only one of the off-peak radiators on all winter, and heat with the wood stove unless it gets below zero then I run both of the off-peak radiators. I never use the forced air furnace preferring the wood heat instead - because of both cost and the comfort aesthetic of warm wood heat over dry air heat.

Out in the woods, trees die and fall all the time. There are more dead and downed trees than we could possibly use to heat our two houses, cook the maple sap each year and fire the pizza oven every now and then. Many of the trees that are dying and down are ash and elm, both trees that suffer diseases. It's less frequent to find our hardwoods (maple, oak, cherry, hickory or ironwood) down unless they've suffered some sort of interior rot, or the wind hit them just right. William is working to harvest a huge oak that went down in one of the storms last summer - a big tree - a big job. That's the wood I like to save for the pizza oven because it burns long and hot.

Burning wood in our part of the world allows us some degree of self-sufficiency, but I know, environmentally speaking, it's not the best heat source. Wood boilers have supposedly been banned by the EPA as of 2020 (those already established are grandfathered in) although they are still available to purchase all over the internet. I can imagine there is very little interest in policing this new policy. These systems will never be hugely popular as running and maintaining them takes know-how, equipment and ambition. It is unlikely that wood boiler use will expand much as those who own the forested lands have likely already made a decision to burn wood or not, and for newcomers to the country, this type of system is typically not something people want to mess with. If folks have the means, geothermal, solar and/or wind are the way to go environmentally speaking.

It just dawned on me. Maybe people who ask, "What are you smokin'?"do know that this little building is a wood boiler! When they recognize the amount of work it takes to keep it going, they think we're crazy so therefore ask, "What are you smokin'?" If it weren't for William, his tools and ambition, I wouldn't likely be able to run and maintain an outdoor wood boiler. In fact, if it weren't for William, his tools, machinery and ambition, there are lots of things that would give me headaches living out here in the country!

So, there you have it. No hams or sides of beef cooking over here. We're mostly just smokin' oak, ash or elm!

Enjoy your holidays, eat well, and take lots of walks. I'll be with you in spirit.

Sending love from the farm,


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