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.
Stere = 1 cubic meter
Corde = 4 steres
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