Record high heating oil costs likely will force many home owners to turn to the hearth to supplement their heating needs with hopes of paying less to keep warm this winter.

But if you don't buy, store and use firewood properly, you could end up paying for much more than you bargained.

Size matters

First, buy firewood by the cord or you'll have no way of comparing prices or knowing how much wood you'll get.

A cord is 128 cubic feet of firewood, according to National Conference on Weights and Measures. A cord typically can be stacked in a pile 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long (4 X 4 X 8 = 128); or 2 feet wide, 4 feet high and 16 feet long (2 X 4 X 16 = 128).

The conference says you can stack the wood in other configurations to come up with a cord, provided the width times the height times the length (all in feet) equals 128 cubic feet.

You can buy half cords and quarter cords, provided the three-way measurement stacks up as a half or quarter of a cord's measurement, but avoid buying from sellers who use terms like "truckload," "face cord," "rack" or "pile." There are no standard measurements for those terms.

To help avoid getting burned, El Dorado (CA) County Department of Agriculture says when you buy firewood get a receipt that includes the seller's name, address, price, amount and kind of wood purchased. Get the seller's phone number and write down the license plate of any delivery vehicle.

Once the wood is delivered, have it stacked or stack it yourself to make sure it measures up while the delivery person is present. If it doesn't measure up, photographic or videotape the stack and contact the seller before you burn any firewood. If the seller tries to stiff you, contact your local weights and measures regulatory agency to file a complaint with your documented images.

If necessary, file a complaint with the National Conference on Weights and Measures at 15245 Shady Grove Rd., Suite 130, Rockville, MD 20850, (240) 632-9454.

Seasoning counts

Unless you plan to season unseasoned, freshly-cut wood by storing it unused for 8 to 12 months until it's dry enough to burn efficiently and give off maximum heat, purchase only seasoned wood.

Up to 50 percent of freshly cut wood is water, which cools the burning process and hastens the buildup of creosote, that black gummy stuff that sticks to the flue, says Julian Beckwith, a wood products specialist with the D.B. Warnell School of Forest Resources at the University of Georgia-Athens.

"Evaporating water cools the burning process. Over time, a hot fire can ignite a thick layer of creosote, causing a dangerous chimney fire" Beckwith said.

Gum-like resins in pine wood doesn't create creosote any more than harder woods -- provided the wood is fully seasoned, says Beckwith.

Closing the damper on a fully fired wood stove or fire place to reduce airflow and keep a fire burning all night, and lighting little fires to help take the chill out of the air, both hasten creosote build up as does burning unseasoned wood, Beckwith said. The hotter and the longer the fire the more complete the combustion.

You can tell the difference between seasoned and unseasoned wood in several ways.

Because of water weight, unseasoned wood is heavier than dry wood. Compare the weight of a piece you know is seasoned with one from a cord you are about to purchase.

There are also visual clues.

"Split a fireplace log and look at the split surfaces. Recently cut wood will have a darker, wet-looking center with lighter, drier-looking wood near the edges or ends that have been exposed since cutting," Beckwith said.

Wet wood is also easier to split than dry wood and it is easier to remove the bark from seasoned firewood than freshly cut fire wood.

Density, storage significant

As for what kind of wood to buy, all wood generates just about the same energy content per pound, measured in British Thermal Units or Btus, according to the Wood Heat Organization.

Higher density woods (Elm, Hickory, Oak, Maple, Beech, etc.) are heavier than lower density wood (Aspen, Pine, Cedar, Spruce, etc.) so you need less high density wood to produce the same amount of heat you'd get from more low density wood.

Again, seasoning is the key. The drier any wood, the hotter it burns and storage is the key to seasoning wood and keeping it seasoned, according to the Wood Heat Organization.

The best seasoned wood can be ruined if it's left exposed to rain and snow to reabsorb water, which can cause it to rot.

Stack firewood up, off the ground to allow air to circulate among the logs and help the wood season or remain dry. Store firewood away from the house and other wood structures to keep the wood borne pests away from your home and other structures.

Ideal storage is a wood shed, with open or loose sides to promote air circulation and drying. Outside, a sunny location is best, but cover firewood on rainy or snowy days. Be sure to remove the covering during fair weather to allow air circulation and to avoid trapping moisture under the covering.

With proper storage, seasoned wood can last three to four years, says the Wood Heat Organization.

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