Life with a wood stove: his turn for the 2 a.m. feeding

After two weeks of smoke and ashes and broken fingernails, I can report that the addition of a wood stove changes one's home and family, much like a new puppy. It demands attention and careful nurturing, and can be annoying, warmly cheerful, and the source of much humor at the same time.

Moving from California to the colder climate of suburban Washington this year , we found our energy bills had more than tripled. The choices narrowed down to replacing a still-functioning but very inefficient oil furnace or changing to something wholly different. Solar was too expensive and impractical (what with lots of lovely tall trees around our house). So a wood stove seemed logical, not to mention cheaper than a new oil burner.

It is no news that wood stoves have become very popular in recent years. Besides being cost-effective, they are (like gazing through the L. L. Bean catalog) a way for urbanites to move a little bit ''back to the land.''

I would advise buying a stove from someone who has been heating with wood themselves and likes to joke about the storm of '78 when the plows couldn't reach their house for six days. That way you will probably get a more accurate picture of the burdens and glories of wood stove ownership.

We bought our stove from a small family business that includes two husky sons who wrestled the 420-pound black beast onto the hearth. They gave us some expert advice on the care and feeding of wood stoves, but once they left we were on our own.

The first fire filled the room with a pungent smell as the paint inside of the firebox burned off. I rushed for fans to suck the pleasingly warm but smelly air out of the house. Peering inside to see how the fire was doing, I was zapped with a hot coal that began sizzling the carpet. I sacrificed a handkerchief to pick up the coal and reminded myself to get a fireproof ''hearthguard.''

We are fortunate to have a neighbor who cut down a huge tulip poplar last summer, so we had plenty of free wood to start with. But poplar is too soft and low in potential heat content, so we ordered two cords (256 cubic feet) of split and seasoned oak. Chain saws and other wood cutting paraphernalia, plus scouting out places to scavenge free wood, seemed too much to deal with for now.

Writing large checks for a big pile of wood will take some getting used to (like paying $1.25 for a gallon of heating oil), but we were grateful to have the Wall Street Journal report that our cost for wood is less than half that in Chicago.

The stove has brought the family together in several ways.

I haul the heavy oak chunks behind the house and Carol stacks them neatly. Scotty, our five-year-old, helps out with his little wheelbarrow, and we all gather kindling on walks in the neighboring woods. Suddenly stately hickories and gnarled apple trees are seen in a new light, which is to say fuel.

The family room, which had been the coldest place in the house, is now the toastiest. We gather there to listen to the radio or play Scrabble as a tea kettle or pot of soup warms on the stove. We also gather there to shiver and fiddle with the various dampers, trying to figure out why the fire went out.

I am alone, however, at 2:30 a.m. when my eyes snap open and I pad down to stick more wood in. Carol thinks it only just, since she did most of the 2 a.m. feedings when Scotty was younger. She is a Norwegian forester's daughter and also finds it amusing when I try to split wood and get the maul tangled in the clothesline.

I guess this is part of regaining control over at least a bit of one's daily activity, another reason why we got the stove.

My neighbor (an engineer who has worked for the US Department of Energy) has been through a full year heating with wood and reports a $175 annual saving over his electric heat pump. In five years, he figures, the wood stove will pay for itself.

We should be able to do the same, I suppose. That is, if I don't cut down the shade trees, burn them in the stove, and mount solar panels on the roof.

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