Saturday, February 25, 2012

Facts About Firewood for Woodstoves and Fireplaces In New Mexico

These cool mornings I get up and light a fire in the wood stove first thing, turning off the central heating by 6:30AM when my "on-peak" electricity rates of 15 cents/Kwh kick in.  My kindling is usually small branches of Piñon. The smell of Piñon burning is sweet and aromatic.  There's nothing quite like the intoxicating smell of Piñon Pine burning in the air of New Mexico.  

I then add cut lengths of well-seasoned Juniper, both One Seed Juniper and Alligator Juniper.  They burn hot, quickly warming the main rooms of house.  The smell of Juniper is also very aromatic, similar to cedar smoke. Sometimes New Mexicans call our local juniper Cedar and the interior of the gray-barked wood is sometimes red like cedar.

Piñon trees in Manzanita Mountains just east of Albuquerque

Piñon trees in my front yard

One-Seed Juniper (more than 100 years old) in my front yard

One-seed Junipers in Bear Canyon in northeast side of Albuquerque

Alligator Juniper with it's distinctive alligator skin bark

The wood of the One Seed Juniper burns the hottest of our native woods with a value of 21,958 BTU's per cord of dry wood.  The Gamble Oak is the next hottest with a value of 21,163 BTU's per cord.  Utah Juniper and Piñon Pine (Pinus edulis) follow with  20,149 and 18,737 BTU's per cord respectively and Alligator Juniper has a heat value of  17,288 BTU's per cord. The softer firewood available in New Mexico with lower heat values include Douglas Fir (15,330 BTU's), White Fir (14,212 BTU's), Ponderosa Pine (14,085 BTU's), Aspen (12,576 BTU's), and Englemann Spruce (10,880 BTU's) per cord. 

Purchasing Firewood: If you don't cut your own wood, you can always get it from a firewood dealer. A full cord is 128 cubic feet and is usually measured stacked 4x4x8 feet.  Sometimes an advertised cord of wood may only be a face cord which is only 1/3 of a full cord.  Some wood sellers with a pick-up truck of wood for sale along the roadside only have a face cord which measures 4 feet tall by eight feet long, but is only one length of cut wood deep, usually 16-18 inches, once you stack it.  When you have it dumped in a pile at your home, you may not know that it is not a full cord until you stack it.  Ponderosa pine is usually about $160-180 a cord, but as I said, often it is not a full cord.  Mixed pine and juniper is about $170-185.  Juniper is about $185-200.  Oak runs about $220-240.  This should include delivery but not stacking.  Expect to pay about $20-40 for stacking.  Make sure the wood is well split and the proper length for your stove.  It's such a pain to find you must cut and split the wood once you get it delivered. You can order wood from a reliable wood seller, pick it up yourself or have it delivered.  Each season, beginning in late summer, wood sellers park their trucks in parking areas or along roads to sell their wood. Make sure the wood is well seasoned (at least one year from being cut).  A few unscrupulous wood sellers along the highways may have a cheap price for their truckload, but they may have cut the wood recently and illegally.  Unseasoned wood will yield 18% less heat and quickly build up creosote within your chimney or stove pipe that may start a dangerous chimney fire.

A clogged chimney cap after burning unseasoned wood

Wood ash and creosote build-up inside the stove pipe after burning wet wood
Through "trial and error, I have found reliable wood sellers with a good product along the roads in the East Mountains where I live and I take their card or name and number to reorder. My last two deliveries were a full cord of well-seasoned  juniper, delivered and stacked for $220.  More firewood facts for residents of New Mexico who burn wood for heat are here.

Storage of Your Wood:  Cover your wood to keep it dry and off the ground.  If you are in a rural area and there is a danger of wildfire, keep the main wood pile at least 30 feet from buildings as part of your defensible space plan.

Building and Maintaining a Fire: When I first got my wood stove (a Pacific Energy high efficiency wood stove), I wasn't certain about its operation and how to start and maintain a fire.  There is no one right way to light a fire and through trial and error you will find the best method for you and your stove. Some people buy "fire starters" as an easy way to get a fire going quickly. Here is information on lighting a stove with newspaper and kindling.  I find the "top down" method works very well. Maintaining a fire just requires you to adjust the damper lever to appropriate level of air feed. Highest when starting a fire, then turn it down to mid-level after about 30 minutes, turn it to lowest level for overnight fire or when you need to cool down the stove.  A good bed of glowing coals provides the best and most consistent heat so adjust your damper level to get that effect rather than just feeding it logs to create a big flaming fire.

The Cost Advantage of Wood for Energy: Through the use of our woodstove during winter, along with a "Time of Use" meter installed by our electric co-op to take advantage of lower demand of electricity (2/3 of our electrical use is "non-peak" at 5 cents per Kwh), we have lowered our overall energy bill by 25-30%.  The heat is warmer than that from our heater, the dancing flames are delightful, and the smell of pinyon and juniper is sensual!


  1. That alligator one is fabulous. We burn wood at the cabin. Cedar but fir too. Most of it is just what the logging companies have left behind so it is free if you are willing to work your butt off to cut it, load it, unload it back at the cabin and then split and stack it. Whew. Glad I don't do it.

  2. I love Alligator Juniper trees. They're rarer than the other juniper. Junipers can grow for several hundred years if they're not cut down for pasture and firewood or burned in a wildland fire. The huge trunk of an old Alligator Juniper is so wonderfully textured.

  3. Great post. I have always loved the scent of a piñon fire...especially at night. It's such a comforting, intoxicating, exotic scent to me. It is pure New Mexico.
    We have many juniper trees on our property, but only a handful of piñon trees. I would rather have more piñon, although my llamas and goats do love the juniper berries. Oddly enough, my horse also loves the bark on the juniper, but will not chew the bark of the piñon tree.
    I look forward to the harvesting of piñon nuts and will take a long hike in the forest during the Fall with my bucket just to gather enough to last me most of the winter. Mmm! Piñon nuts are so tasty!


  4. This all brings of mostly fond memories for me of our wood furnace and Franklin stove in our old house. I love the smell from the Franklin although failure to check for downdrafts when lighting caused me some recriminations when all the fire alarms went off.... :)

  5. Is pinion wood good for a bonfire? I'm planning to have a huge bonfire in the mountains with my friends. I've heard that pinion wood might make for good firewood. I have a bunch of it in my backyard, so I would like to use as much of it as possible if it burn really well.

    1. Pinon makes for a great outdoor fire, very fragrant. If your pinon is fresh cut (not seasoned and dry), it may not burn well and there will be lot of sparks and smoke.