How and where and how to buy firewood

Consumer Reports News: January 23, 2008 03:09 AM

If your supply of firewood is running low, make sure it’s the logs that get burned after your next order. The usual spate of firewood scams have occurred this winter, perpetrated by vendors who take advantage of homeowners whose only connection to a “cord” is the one that supplies power to their toaster.

“Anyone with a pickup truck and a chain saw can call himself a firewood dealer,” warns John E. Meyer Jr., director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures for Oneida County, New York. In his pocket of the state, as in other cold-weather climates, rising fuel and electricity prices have motivated more homeowners to use wood-burning fireplaces and stoves to supplement the heat in their homes. Some people will burn through 5 to 20 cords of wood this season, according to Meyer.

(We don’t advise that you use your fireplace to provide supplemental heat. Most fireplaces are only about 25 percent efficient. What’s more, a heated chimney draws heated air from your home, increasing air infiltration and driving up your heating costs. Read our buyer’s guide to learn more about wood- and pellet-burning stoves.)

While most firewood dealers, says Meyer, are honest, the spike in demand creates an opportunity for crooks. Follow his advice to make sure you get your money’s worth:

• Request the right wood. Hardwoods, such as maple, oak, and cherry, burn longer and cleaner than softwoods, like pine, aspen, and poplar. Softwoods tend to create more creosote in the chimney; if you don’t eliminate the creosote regularly, it can become a fire hazard. The Wood Heat Organization’s Web site includes a list of the best-burning species and helpful tips for building and maintaining wood fires. Firewood pricing varies (in New Jersey, for example, a delivered full cord costs $135 to $175), so the usual rule of comparing quotes from several vendors applies.

All firewood should have been seasoned for six months, at which point it’s moisture content will be around 20 percent, resulting in efficient, low-smoke fires. If you buy bundles of wood at a gas station, supermarket, hardware store, or elsewhere, let the wood dry out before you use it. Wood wrapped in plastic might be too moist to burn optimally.

• Get what you pay for. A full cord is a unit of cut wood that measures 128 cubic feet, or a stack roughly 4 feet high x 8 feet long x 4 feet deep. A face cord is 4 feet high x 8 feet long and as deep as the individual logs—typically 16, 20, or 24 inches, depending on the dimensions of the fireplace or stove. Be home when the wood is delivered and have the vendor identify in writing the type of wood you’re getting. Wood species can be difficult to identify. Hardwoods tend to be denser than softwoods, so a simple heft test can provide a helpful clue. Also, many softwoods have a telltale piney scent. Well-cured wood is grayish on the end, with radial cracks.

• Have the vendor stack the logs. You’ll pay more for the service, but you will be able verify how much wood got delivered before the delivery guy drives away. Be on the lookout for loose stacking, which is a trick crooked vendors use to short change unsuspecting customers. If you’ve ordered a face cord, check that the logs have been cut to the specified length. To prevent termites and other insects from invading your home, stack firewood away from the structure, preferably in a sunny, exposed spot; you can use a plastic tarp to keep the top layer dry.

• Obtain a receipt. The bill of sale should include the vendor’s contact information, the sale date, the type and quantity of wood, and the purchase price. A reputable vendor won’t object to the request.—Daniel DiClerico

Essential information: Click below to read out Scam Alert so you don't get duped by an unscrupulous chimney sweep.

Avoid a fraudulent chimney sweep

The scene: A chimney-sweeping company contacts you and offers to clean your wood-burning fireplace for the low price $35. You figure, “What the heck” and make an appointment. Upon arriving at your house and taking a quick look up the chimney, the sweep tells you, “You’re chimney is so dirty and covered in creosote that it’s a miracle your family isn’t dead from carbon-monoxide poisoning! For $2,000, I’ll get it spotless and make it safe.”

Your reaction: While this scenario might convince you to get the work done on the spot, we suggest you whisk away any sweep who uses scare tactics or one shows up without the basic tools, including a flashlight, brushes, and a special vacuum. Also beware of a pro who presents a low bid or an excessive proposal detailing a laundry list of repairs. A basic inspection and sweeping will cost about $150 to $300 and last up to 90 minutes.

Here’s what to look for in a reputable sweep:
• Before the sweep starts work, he should ask you about any known chimney problems, past repairs you’ve had made, and how often you’ve used the fireplace since the last sweeping.

• He’ll place drop cloths around the work area and shut off the furnace.

• Next, he’ll head up to the roof to inspect the chimney and flashing and look for potential problems, such as overhanging tree limbs.

• He’ll clean the chimney from the roof, then come inside and clean the firebox using brushes and that special vacuum.

• After cleaning the chimney, the sweep will examine it using a mirror and flashlight. He’ll point out any other problems but won’t pressure you to do the repairs.

You can find a certified chimney sweep on the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s Web site. Also watch the CSIA’s video primer on chimney sweeping.

Photo courtesy of the Wood Heat Organization

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