Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Peak Oil and the Rising Cost of Cordwood

The thermometer hit 40F (about 4C) the other night, the time of year where smart residents of Western Massachusetts start thinking about how they’re going to heat their homes this year. Most years, I am not a smart resident – I usually wait until there’s snow on the ground until I order my cordwood. But there’s been enough news about the price of heating oil that I started moving wood around a few weeks ago to make room for two new cords.

For those of you who don’t live in cold places, the “cord” may not be natural unit of measurement. A cord of wood is a pile of tightly stacked, split hardwood, measuring four feet by four feet by eight feet – 128 cubic feet, or 3.6 cubic meters. If the wood is “seasoned” – air-dried for several months – a cord of wood will weigh 2 tons (1800kg); wet, it can weight a lot more.

Rachel called our wood guy this evening and arranged to have him start hauling over two cords of seasoned wood. Price per cord? $175. I opened our checkbook and discovered that last year’s cordwood cost $135. In other words, we just saw a 30% increase in the price of cord wood from last year to this one.

I’m not complaining about $175 wood – a quick web search turns up offers for $190 wood not far from me… and over in the eastern part of the state, where they light fires for atmosphere, not warmth, seasoned cordwood sells for a ludicrous steep $300 – $350 a cord. (For that price, I hope they stack it for you.) In other words, my wood guy isn’t screwing me over.

(Update: Tom, who’s selling wood at $300 a cord was good enough to stop in and explain why it’s so expensive in the comments below… doesn’t sound so ludicrous to me anymore.)

Instead, his costs have increased. With diesel fuel at $2.85 a gallon, it costs a pretty penny to haul four tons of wood from his house to mine. It costs more money for him to drive his truck into the forest as well, to run his chainsaw and his hydraulic splitter. In other words, the rising price of oil is responsible, at least in part, for the rise of the price of wood.

A cord of wood provides as much heat as 100 to 150 gallons of fuel oil. At $2.60 a gallon for fuel oil – up at least 60% from last year – my $350 pile of wood looks like $650 worth of oil.

In other words, it’s probably time to order two more cords. Which leads to another, little-discussed benefit of using cordwood to heat: the steroidal biceps I’ll have after stacking 8 tons of wood in my garage.

17 Responses to “Peak Oil and the Rising Cost of Cordwood”

  1. sean says:

    oh, come on ethan. you’ve always had the 23″ pythons. now they’ll just grow veins. ;)

  2. Betsy says:

    Wow, fascinating! We never bought cordwood growing up, always relying on our own autumn’s chopping for the winter’s heat. Now I buy pricey bundles of split logs, pre-wrapped in industrial Saran, at the grocery store for my aesthetic fires. Either way, I had never analyzed the efficiencies. Perhaps I should order some wood of my own!

    :)

  3. Tomas says:

    Perhaps part of the rise in the price of cord-wood comes from people replacing oil-based heating with wood-stove heating. At least here in Denmark, many people have a oil or natural-gas based heater, but also have wood-stoves, and when the price of fuel goes through the ceiling, they start heating with wood, which in turn increases demand and therefore price.

  4. Jearl says:

    The WALL OF FUEL effect in your garage after the stacking is a very cheering sight in the late autumn.

  5. We are in the process of installing a corn stove/wood pellet stove (more so to reduce our reliance on natural gas and electricity during a service disruption). A benefit is that we can use locally grown corn (about as cheap as you can get per BTU) or other biomass. Talking to a local wood pellet provider – a significant portion of the cost is shipping of pellets from far away places like Idaho. (We will have several fuel alternatives and be able to flex with changing prices.)

    I first became interested in pellet stoves several years ago when a friend of the family built his large home around a pellet stove in the mountains near Vail, Colorado. Instead of costing him a fortune to heat his home – it was remarkably cheap.

    My little post on some stoves.

  6. Ethan says:

    Stuart – I wish my setup was as efficient as a pellet stove. We’ve got a vast Russian-style fireplace (lots of air inputs, long chimney designed to pull heat out of the smoke) set in a huge stone hearth (lots of thermal mass)… but it’s still a fireplace. If I could figure out where to put a pellet stove, I’d do it immediately – I’ve been very impressed by the statistics I’ve seen regarding how cleanly they burn and how renewable the fuel is.

    Tomas, I like the theory that folks are buying wood in speculation about oil prices, but I’m not sure Americans are that thrifty. Perhaps we’ll see stories about lots of Northeasterners converting to wood this winter, but, unfortunately, I doubt it.

  7. Tom says:

    Sorry , at that $300 price …no stacking! lets see, since you checked out my web site to get the $300 per cord lets break it down…$ 37000 dump truck, 2 saws $1000, $ 5000 wood splitter, $rented land,$workmans comp,$liability insurance,$labor, $85 per cord for log lenghths delivered into yard, $getting sued by california for polluting there air with firewood smoke from massachusetts ( $1700 per day for 3 years)double fuel prices from last year….tell me how much an hour do you make…better yet how many cords would I have to sell to by a home in Massachusetts! PEACE

  8. Ethan says:

    I hear ya, Tom. Given those costs, I don’t know how my guy manages to do it at $175 a cord. And I’m too lazy to fell and split stuff on my own land, so I’m glad folks like you make it possible for other folks to buy cordwood. Just was surprised by the price differential from one side of the state to the other.

  9. Bob says:

    Put in a woodstove last year, partly to reduce costs and partly to provide peace of mind in case the power goes out (we’re all-electric). Last year didn’t have enough wood to burn all the time, but when we did burn we saw a 50% reduction in our electric bill. This year I’ve got five cords cut, stacked, dried, and ready to burn, plus another two+ cords stacked in rounds and more wood lined up to cut. Haven’t paid out a dime for wood, just fuel costs to drive the truck to/from wherever the trees are and to run the chainsaw. Splitting only cost me $10 for a new handle on my maul (old handle was coming loose from all the use). I’ve got people calling me up begging to have their trees taken down so I can pick and choose my wood (that $2 ad in the local paper was definitely a good investment). I’ve kind of overdone it (I figure I can get through the winter on three cords – we live in northern Ohio) but I’d guess that someone in a similar climate could get through the winter if they took down about a dozen 12″ trees and got them cut, split, and dried out. For me that’s about six days of work if I can take down one tree in the morning and one in the afternoon, plus some time after work to split and stack. Three weekends and I’m pretty much done with my winter heating chores.

  10. Salvatore says:

    Do byou really think 3 cords will do it? I got kindof a 2 for one deal after the season this year. I purchased a 42000 BTU biomass stove and a 115000 BTU add on wood furnace for the price of most pellet stoves. My company gets a LOT of materail packed with wood. So for the cost of driving my truck 200 yards, and the time to sift the oak out of the pine, I get all the “square trees” I want for free. All ready seasoned and most of it cut to size.
    I am guessing I have about 4 cords worth (most of it 4×4 with a number of impressive 6x12x24inch oaak logs). As for corn, it turns out that a lot of that split corn that people buy for stoves at the feed mill can be had for free. I have a buddy who rents out 280 acres of farm land. Aparrently the farmer PAYS the feed mills to haul off the split corn becuase they can not sell it.

  11. One thing oil burners do is keep the liability costs for fire and casualty stable. Wood is hard to predict. You’ve got to have the proper shielding or you’re opening yourself up.

    http://absolute-insurance.info

  12. andre says:

    come on to CANADA where wood is free and lots of it iff you bother to pick it up and to run you own chain saw and log splitter.. Long winters but who cares great country and the moose sosage and a fresh home brewed beer make’s life better than heaven.

  13. Ron says:

    Oil will never go below $85 again. In 2010 oil will be over $250 a barrel and gas will be $10 a gallon. Even though reserves are rising which should make oil prices drop the fact they don’t drop in price is because the political tensions are rising. With that you will either buy a hybrid which will still be expensive to operate or ride your bike or take the public transit. There are ways to reduce your fuel cost.

  14. Andrew Mayerat says:

    $300 per full Cord? I live in Western New York as a firewood seller and user i find those prices ridiculous. I sell a FACE cord of hardwood for $65. (There are exactly 3 face cords in a full cord) A face cord is 4′X8′X16″wide. If anyone is interested in buying wood at a lower price call 716-592-3410. I live in East Concord, New york 14055 which is about 25 miles south of Buffalo.

  15. James Millen says:

    I am a manufacturer of Compressed Wood Energy Logs “Unadillawood”
    they burn cleaner , longer and hotter than cord-wood. 30 cord worth of heat on one tractor trailer ,No Bugs, No Mold,No Bark,No Splinters,No problem Unadillawood is here to Help Save a tree and Burn Me, Unadillawood@earthlink.net

  16. matt says:

    Cordwood is junkwood. The tree guy gets paid to cut it down, then he gets paid to haul it away, then he gets paid to drop it off to someone else. There are multiple revenue streams in the lumber business, and cordwood is the last resort, often it is left on site and you HAVE TO PAY TO HAVE IT REMOVED!!!! You don’t get rich selling cordwood. Period. Its what the tree guys do when there’s nothing else.

    The reason he can get $300 a chord for wood in Mass is because these idiots are heating for ambiance. At $300 bucks a chord he should be filing the stove! Get a grapple-load delivered, green lumber, for $100 bucks a chord, split a year’s worth ahead, and your off! Of course, I’m in NH, but the price of fuel isn’t that different.

  17. The solution in that rising cost of cordwood is having an electric log splitter. and not only that, it can also make your work easier and faster.

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