Heating your home with a woodburner - what you need to know

heating
woodburners
wood
stere
winter

(James Higginson) #1

Buying a French property whether as a maison secondaire or a permanent home, is often the start of a change in lifestyle and downshifting is often part of this. Embracing a degree of self-sufficiency is a wonderful way to both enjoy your time in France and save money. But, for those of us who have little experience of ‘growing your own’ and keeping livestock, the idea of self-sufficiency can be a little daunting to say the least. So why not start with something that doesn’t need watering or shutting away at night, that will keep you warm and save you money? In rural areas, the majority of your neighbours will be doing it and they will all be able to offer help and advice. What are we talking about? Heating with wood!

Using wood as a heating method has been popular in France for a long time. This is unsurprising as it is widely available, cheap or even free and the French have a long cultural tradition of not wasting anything. With climate change and soaring energy prices hitting the headlines on a daily basis, heating with wood is enjoying a revival.

Wood is a carbon neutral fuel. As it burns it releases CO2 (around the same amount as if the trees had died and rotted) but the CO2 is absorbed by new trees. Young, growing trees will absorb more CO2 than mature trees so it is essential to replace harvested trees with new stock. Wood has a good energy ratio; in other words it can be produced locally and require little processing and transport. It also provides a habitat for wildlife.

Most French properties will have a fireplace in some shape or form. If the chimney has not been used for some time, it is usually not too difficult to get it up and running again. Check the structural condition of the chimney stack and always have the chimney swept before first using it. If you are confident about doing this yourself, the necessary equipment can be bought in the larger DIY stores. However, a visit from the chimney sweep, le ramoner, will cost around 70€ and include a Certificat de Ramonage. This certificate is valid for a year and is a requirement of your household insurance policy.

Now you need to think about getting some wood but before you do that, you will need to think about how much wood you are likely to need. This is a tricky subject and one that is hard to get right the first year! However, answering the following questions will help…

When will we use the house, i.e. is it going to be occupied all year round or for a number of weeks?

When do we require heating, i.e. from October to April? A longer / shorter period?

Is wood going to be our sole form of heating or will we light the fire in spring / autumn before using the main heating system?

What is our lifestyle like? Are we going to want the house to be warm all the time? Are we out for long periods of time?

How well insulated is the property? A well insulated property will use far less fuel.

Remember that if wood is going to be the main form of heating, rather than a top-up to another heating system, it will probably be best to consider installing a wood burning stove.

Before ordering or acquiring the wood, you will need to think about how much space you have available for storage. If you are planning to have wood delivered direct from a local supplier, this may not be an issue and you may be able to order a corde, equivalent to around four cubic meters, at a time. However, wood can become scarce as the winter goes on and prices can increase by 10€ a stere or cubic meter. If you are planning to ‘faire le bois’, in other words, cut, chop, stack and store your own, then storage space does become important.

Ideally, wood is stored for at least a year and the longer the better within reason. This is why seasoned timber commands a premium. It is also why many French homes have wood piles that look as if they would last for years to come! The reality is that these piles will not be burnt for some time, until the wood is suitably aged. In the meantime, new piles of recently cut and unseasoned green timber are being created to take their place. You will also need a place to store kindling. If you are have a large fireplace and are planning to use big logs, then you will also need an area for stacking small dry logs to get a blaze going. Whilst the bulk of the log store will be quite happy outside, if you have a covered area then so much the better. Certainly the kindling will need to be kept dry and if logs have been stored outside, they will ideally be dried off for a few days before burning. Therefore it is an excellent idea to create a small covered area close to the house. Ideally this will be situated as close to the entrance that will be used to bring the logs into the house, as possible.

Now you need to find some wood! If you are planning to buy wood, the best place to start is by asking neighbours. In many rural areas wood merchants rarely advertise, so word of mouth is really the best way to start. Neighbours are also usually happy to advise on the quality of wood that is available and the going rates. Local supermarkets and feed stores such as Gamme Vert often have notice boards where bois de chauffage will be advertised. Adverts will usually specify the type of wood available and the price. Local newspapers are another option but they often cover a wide geographical region so you will need to ask if they can deliver to your area. Delivery is generally included in the price of wood which means that most vendors are reluctant to go too far afield.

Wood may be available for collection from the seller and this usually reduces the price by around 5€ per cubic meter. You will generally have to load it yourself; you can also sometimes reduce the price for opting for larger logs and splitting them yourself. If you opt to do this you will need a log splitter, or a very strong forearm and an axe!

There are also several other ways that wood can be obtained. If you own woodland, then you obviously have a ready made supply. You will need specialist equipment, at the very least a powerful chainsaw and protective clothing, as well as a means of removing the cut wood from the land. As safety is paramount, a tree felling course is highly advisable and at the very least, it would be sensible to ask an expert for advice. All of this can be a considerable investment of both time and money. Another solution is to allow someone to come and cut your wood. They will take between half and two-thirds, leaving you the rest, cut and stacked. In these arrangements, the wood is generally left where it has been cut so you will still need a way to get it off the land. The wood cutter is also only likely to use prime trees and there well may be a large quantity of waste wood (small branches and the like) that requires disposal. If felling trees, remember that they are best cut in the winter when the moisture content is lower. The trees can then be cut, logs split and left to dry. If they are required for the following year, storing them under cover for at least one summer will reduce the moisture content to around 25%.

If you do not own woodland, it is often possible to suggest that you cut other people’s trees in return for a share. You may also be offered free wood if you are willing to go and cut fallen or unwanted trees. Renovation projects are another good source of free wood. In theory second hand construction timber should not be used as firewood, as it could release toxic fumes if it has been previously treated with chemical products. However an old French farmhouse that has not been touched for hundred’s of years is a fairly safe bet. Old roof timbers may be too rotten to be used as construction materials, but they will make excellent firewood. Much of this timber is likely to be oak and thus top grade where heat output is concerned. Make sure it is stored well away from buildings as it is likely to contain termites.

In some communes the residents have the right to cut wood from local forests. The wood that can be cut will be strictly regulated but this is an excellent source of cheap wood. Communes may also have reduced price wood available to those on low incomes. Ask at your local Mairie to find out the details of schemes in your area.

Measuring Wood:


Stere = 1 cubic meter


Corde = 4 steres




Vocabulary:


Log splitter - Fendeuse des buches


Axe - Hache


Chainsaw - Tronconneuse


Heating wood - Bois de chauffage




Types of wood


Oak - chene


Ash - frene


Cherry - cerise


Beech - hetre


Hawthorn - aubepine



Copyright - Catharine Higginson


(Brian Milne) #2

Right about capricorn André but they also fly and lay eggs at random, I splatted a few in our house this summer. There is no guarantee for anything with them, plus once the holes are visible the microscopic sized newly hatched larvae have been in the wood, grown to full size and are on the way out as new beetles.


(Brian Milne) #3

Keep logs raised anyway, does not prevent termites but helps. Keep chickens near the wood, they scratch the blighters out and eat them too...


(Terry Williams) #4

Our boiler has a stand-by silo attached to it which holds just about enough for one day. The seven -tonne main silo is linked to the boiler by some sort of fan system which blows the pellets through flexible tubes into the stand-by silo as needed, which is usually once a day unless it's very cold. The noise it makes is no louder than light rain on our conservatory roof and last no more than five minutes. The only noise from the boiler itself comes from the fans blowing air into the combustion chamber. If anyone's interested it's made by an Austrian company called Ökofen which has reps throughout France.


(Ian SMITH) #5

Might it depend on how the pellets are transported? I believe some installations might need to move the pellets from the silo to the boiler using archimedes screw systems, and perhaps this type of thing can be noisy? I don't see why the boilers themselves should make any noise.


(Terry Williams) #6

I have a wood pellet heating system installed on the ground floor right under the living room. There's no special sound proofing and we can't hear if it is working. It's a lot quieter than the old oil-fired system which we heard roaring into action on a regular basis. Sounds like something might be wrong with your friend's system.


(Gordon Barnes) #7

Just in case anyone is thinking of installing a heating system using wood pellets the one I have seen in a friend`s house makes an unbelievable noise when burning - make sure if you have one it is well insulated away from your living accommodation.


(Chris Kaley) #8

Good site here, if anyone's seriously interested in advice and experiences in woodburning, fireplaces, stoves, chimneys, etc.

http://www.hearth.com/talk/forums/the-hearth-room-wood-stoves-and-fireplaces.6/


(Joe Bergin) #9

Thanks Toni and Ian. I should have remembered this as we paid 40 euros to have our done in September. It took less than 10 minutes. Sounds like a lucrative occupation. :)


(Toni Ressaire) #10

Joe, exactly what Ian said. People start getting their chimney's swept in August before they start using them for cold weather. My husband has a permit to ramonage and issue a certificate accepted by the insurance companies for the reason Ian stated below. Actually, he starts some cleaning in May, after the cold weather has finished, for the early birds.


(Ian SMITH) #11

Ramonage is chimney sweeping. You need a certificat de ramonage to prove to the insurers that you had your chimney swept, and therefore the fact that you had a fire is not because you had not maintained the chimney properly. Toni's husband does chimney sweeping, so the requirement to have a certificate means people get it done, hence he keeps busy. Is this the mythical 4th or even 5th time that wood heats you - the effort to sweep the chimney?


(Joe Bergin) #12

For Toni, What is a certificate of ramonage? And why would it make him busy August through December?


(Toni Ressaire) #13

Excellent and very thorough article, James. My husband (french) is famous for stopping along the road and cleaning up fallen trees. This is my first winter in France and I found this habit frustrating, until it got cold. We heat our house only with wood and two wood stoves. I was also frustrated by the huge stores of wood in the garden and garage, again, until the house got cold. As someone mentioned, the french have a long tradition of not wasting; my husband never cuts a tree (he refuses), but finds plenty of fallen wood, and with permission, cleans up the landscape. His job is plomberie, chauffage, and ramonage, so he often asks neighbors or clients if he can take the fallen trees. Most people welcome this offer--it cleans up their properties. He doesn't have a trailer, but because he is usually taking only one or part of a fallen tree at a time, it fits in the back of his truck. He does this all year, so we have plenty of stock. It's just part of his daily routine. He uses a chainsaw to make quick work of it. This year he bought a gas generator so he could cut at the site, if needed.

And he says, yes, you need to have a certificate of ramonage for the insurance companies in France. If they don't ask for it, get one anyway. This requirement keeps him very busy August through December.


(Brian Milne) #14

Corvée duty remained in place until relatively recently in the UK for tenant workers on aristocratic estates. If they did not do their one day of unpaid labour each year then they had penalties such as not having feast and festival days off or sharing the Christmas box (which is where that tradition began). Here is France it was supposedly ended by the Revolution but given how easily some of our neighbours 'tug their forelocks' then give the local 'important' people a ready hand.


(Ian SMITH) #15

Don't worry, they have all the meanings covered:

corvée /kɔʀve/ feminine noun
  1. (activité pénible) chore;
    les ~s ménagères household chores;
    aller les voir, quelle ~! it's a real bore ou grind (familier) to have to go and see them;
  1. (travail obligatoire) duty;
    Mil fatigue (duty);
    tu es de ~ de patates (familier) it's your turn to peel the potatoes;
    être de ~ pour faire to have been roped into doing;
  1. Hist corvée (peasant's day of unpaid labour (British spelling) for feudal lord).

(Andrew Hearne) #16

Wordreference - usually pretty good but sometimes, fortunately not often, they're way off the mark. Corvée is a word my OH uses all the time (not always where I'm concerned thankfully!) Paying the peasants, what ever next :-O


(Ian SMITH) #17

Yes, Andrew, I'm sure! Wordreference also has an old definition, which is a day's unpaid peasant labour for the feudal lord. Things must have moved on. I don't remember the peasants being paid...


(Andrew Hearne) #18

Ian, une corvée is a chore, one you don't like doing ;-)


(Ian SMITH) #19

Hmmm. Is this what my friends refer to as a corvée? Is this land owned by the commune? And the 5 euros is a fee to the commune? I understand that here you can put your name on a list to have the right to go and clear part of the commune's land, and you do it in this fashion, everyone mucks in and in return you get a share of the wood.

You'd pay more like 60 to 70 if it's delivered cut to your house and all you do after is stack and burn.


(Joe Bergin) #20

Marijke did you mean 50€ and not 5. Even so that's cheap. In four months I would expect to use four stere for our single burner but, 15 / 20 stere? ?