HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VI – Winter Wood-Working

By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid?  Part VI – Winter Wood-Working

          Nighttime winter temperatures along the coasts, here, can get down to 60° F.  Add the cooling effect of clouds and rain, and on the eastern side, at least, you can expect nights in the 50s. As you get above sea level, anywhere, ambient temperature falls 3° F for every 1,000 feet up, so many places here are downright chilly in the winter: Volcano, at 4,000 feet, gets frost!

          But homes in Hawaii don’t have furnaces, and few if any are insulated against cold (or hot) weather.  Other than wrapping yourself in heavy clothes, if you want to stay warm indoors, you’ll have to generate heat, and the easiest way is to burn wood.

          You could soak all day in a wood-fired hot tub, but more likely you’d want to sit around the house near a modern wood stove or fireplace that’s engineered to send a lot of heat into the room, instead of up the chimney.  They’re are sold in specialty stores in Hilo and Kona, and can be ordered through home-improvement stores, too.  You must get a commercial model, and not build one yourself, because it has to meet strict local construction codes, and the building-inspectors here are very finicky about anything that could be a fire-hazard.

          What isn’t widely available, however, is wood.  You won’t see cords of firewood stacked outside supermarkets and garden supply stores, as you do on the mainland.  (A true cord, by the way, is four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long.)  Sometimes, a classified ad in one of the local papers will offer firewood.  Just make sure that the pieces are cut small enough to fit in your firebox.

          You could, of course, go out and cut your own firewood.  Unless you have an especially dense stand of trees on your land, that you really don’t want to keep, you probably will have to go elsewhere.  Obviously, you can not go logging in Hawaii’s forest reserves or parks; and until you’ve lived here a while, you probably will not know or hear about neighborhood trees that have to be cut due to land-clearing, hazard-removal, and so on.

          You should certainly consider cutting weed-trees, though.  Many property owners – maybe you, too? – have thickets of rose-apple or waiawi that they’d like to get rid of.  Waiawi (“vy-vee”) is strawberry guava, an especially hard wood that burns hot; but the trunks are not especially thick, and hence not easily split by hand.

          A client of mine purchased a house whose long driveway was lined with tall cedars and pines.  These exotics were probably intended to be harvested as Christmas trees, but had not been cut in time, so they stood over 50 feet tall, deeply shading the driveway, and blocking half the view from the house.  He had them professionally cut down.  The branches and leaves were ground up into mulch, which was piled up near his garden; and the logs were cut to fit in his fireplace.  Citing the old adage that you get warm first from the exercise and then again from burning the wood, he now spends an hour or two each autumn and winter month with an axe, maul and wedge, happily splitting those logs.

Getting a pro to cut your fire-logs frees you up to split and burn them.
Getting a pro to cut your fire-logs frees you up to split and burn them.

          He doesn’t use a chain-saw, however.  In the popular imagination, you aren’t really living off-the-grid if you don’t have a chain-saw.  But you probably won’t need one; and unless you are already experienced in operating one, or have someone who can teach you to use it carefully, you probably should not get one.  The ease with which a chain-saw cuts through wood makes it a very compelling tool, especially for inexperienced users who are all too likely to take on a challenge they can’t meet, or in some other way get into an accident.  Moreover, it’s a tool that requires a lot of
care: ensuring that the cutting-edges are sharp, keeping both the engine and the chain properly lubricated, etc.  Like installing electrical circuits or plumbing, cutting wood with a chain-saw is a task best left to experts.

View Other Posts in the “Could You Live Off-the-Grid?” Series

One Reply to “HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VI – Winter Wood-Working”

  1. Up here along the SouthShore (of Lake Superior) many of us burn wood as a primary or backup source of heat. Living in the Great White NorthWoods the heating season is long, the wood is abundant and inexpensive.

    Couple comments. Wood burners/ fireplaces require maintenance to prevent or reduce the chance of a chimney fire. I would not burn any high pitch(resin) type of wood like the pines we have. White, Red and various balsams and firs. Also, seasoned (very dry) wood burns cleaner. Creosote build up rate can be reduced by burning dry, low resin hardwoods. Chainsaws accidents happen too frequently around here. Beginners to professional loggers. I wear protective gear and still feel very vulnerable. The maintenance requirements, limited sources of wood and probably high costs plus if you are already off the grid would have me leaning towards investing more dollars into the electrical generating system. Heating with some type of electrical heat may in the long run be less expensive and more convient. My house is primarily heated by an electric powered heat storage system. No noise, minimal fire danger and energy efficient.

    The site of a woodburner on a tropical island brought a smile to my face. Then one spring while spending some time Upcountry on Maui I realized it gets a bit too cool some nights.

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