At West End Firewood in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, kiln-drying firewood began as a packaging issue. Wet wood wrapped in plastic molds right away, and “when grocery stores see mold they fly off the handle,” Duane VandenAkker said. He and his brother, Bruce, are partners in the wholesale packaged firewood business. “Dry wood can sit wrapped in plastic even months before it’s sold,” he added.
West End’s markets cross state lines into grocery and convenience stores, hardware chains and do-it-yourself centers like Lowe’s and Home Depot. The company also serves state campgrounds and parks with high-quality, seasoned, kiln-dried, insect-free packaged firewood.
With dry warehouse storage for over 180,000 bundled packages, the brothers are always at the ready, even when New England’s winters are at their worst and wettest. West End moved into kiln-dried operations for firewood years before state regulations began requiring it for cross-state vendors, making them a leader in the industry.
“I bundle all my firewood, so if I wasn’t kiln-drying I couldn’t get it dry enough to bundle,” VandenAkker said. “Now, with the heat treatment state regulations, we all have to heat-treat. There’s no choice.”
Heat-treating kills invasive wood-boring insects like emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle and gypsy moth. Since West End heat-treats, it can legally move firewood all over New England and into New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Throughout the Northeast, where hardwoods are plentiful and desired by loggers, the push for heat treatment facilities is on. A kiln is simply an isolated chamber that vents heat and eliminates moisture. The heat source may be a boiler that’s run on oil, natural gas, propane or wood byproducts. There’s no licensing required to operate a kiln.
While the focus of the New England Kiln Drying Association (NEKDA) at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) is drying lumber, professor Bill Smith said using kilns to dry and heat-treat firewood could see a significant uptick. Dry wood sells better; it burns better because there’s more energy in it; heat treatment kills mold and wood-boring invasive insects; and grocery stores, retailers and even brick-oven pizza shops only purchase dry, sterilized, bundled firewood. In addition, possible new regulations could require anyone who operates a woodstove to purchase only an Environmental Protection Agency-approved energy-efficient stove.
“If EPA’s regulations come to pass in the next several years, you would really see a change,” Smith said. “New required stoves would create a market for kiln-dried wood.”
The NEKDA, which has membership throughout the New England states, New York and into Canada, formed in 1951. NEKDA members include companies involved in hardwoods, softwoods, kiln-drying operations (though largely for lumber, not firewood) and furniture manufacturers, as well as vendors who sell kilns. The NEKDA started because of furniture makers’ need for properly dried wood. The association holds conferences in the spring and fall, as well as workshops and plant tours in various locations from Maine to New York. In recent years, a couple of sessions have addressed kiln-dried firewood.
When the housing market slowed during the recession, so did the lumber business. Some mills closed, while others cut back production. Many had kiln space available where firewood could have filled a void and offered an additional income stream. Lumber must not be overdried to avoid splitting and cracking, but that’s not an issue with firewood. Smith advised considering what business you’re really in. “Stick to what you’re good at,” he said. “It’s tough to do two things at once.”
However, for a farmer with a woodlot, firewood could be a valuable add-on if there’s enough business to justify the buy-in. Downtime in the winter months could be filled by kiln-drying firewood. Such an operation could also minimize seasonal layoffs.
Elsewhere in New England
Colton Enterprises in Pittsfield, Vermont, has been selling Vermont firewood since 1974 and kiln-drying firewood since 1983 – the first in the country to do so – and has become the largest distributor of Vermont kiln-dried firewood in New England. This winter, the plan is to dry 6,000 cords of firewood and sell 300 to 400 cords of green wood within the state-required 50-mile radius. Since Vermont is not a quarantined state, the company has an agreement to send firewood into New Hampshire.
Owner-operator Ray Colton began kiln-drying firewood to supply the Killington, Vermont, area with enough dry firewood to last the winter. The company couldn’t keep air-drying it. “There was too much demand,” Colton said. “We had to [kiln-dry] it. We took a chance and it worked. When we started, there were skeptics. I was one of them, but it worked, and it’s worked well.”
Colton Enterprises’ first kilns were self-designed and used until four years ago. The homemade kilns were getting “tired,” Colton said. “We had to do something. With the onset of the insect and heat treatment regulations, it was time to make a move.” That’s when the company invested $400,000 in three new SII drying kilns.
There’s one building with three side-by-side bays and a kiln in each. Two boilers – fired by recycled sawdust and wood chips generated during the splitting process – run the three kilns. Each holds 27 cords, or 54 baskets – the steel baskets were designed and built by Colton 25 years ago. He dries 81 cords of wood every two days and burns 60 tons of wood chips a week as the fuel source. “Literally nothing is wasted here,” Colton said.
Logs from the yard are placed on a conveyor and enter the mill, where they are cut, split and dumped into half-cord baskets. The baskets then go into the kilns. During the process, over 1,000 pounds of water is removed from each cord. The kiln-dried firewood is dried to an average of 25 percent moisture content. This increases the burning efficiency by nearly 1 million Btu per cord over green firewood and increases the heat value by 25 percent. The dried wood is stored under cover in a cooling shed until it’s delivered. Half his market is wholesale; the other half is retail sales from headquarters.
Colton starts running the kilns in the middle of August. If he waits until September, he’s out of dry inventory by the middle of November. “There’s big demand, and the wood is there,” he said. “But there aren’t the loggers. We need more of them.”
Colton added, “You can stay small and sell firewood to your local area, or you can decide to take it across state lines. You have two choices.”
West End’s evolution
In 1988, the first year West End prepared and wrapped bundles of dry firewood, the company produced 2,000 bundles. The count was up to 40,000 bundles the second year. These days, West End packages 2,000 bundles a day.
The first two kilns were oil-fired hay dryers a farmer would have used. Each one burned 5 gallons of oil an hour, but could handle 12 to 14 cords of wood at a time. It was cost-effective as long as oil was cheap, but when VandenAkker’s oil price began climbing over $2 a gallon, something had to give. He was using 10 gallons of oil an hour and burning 240 gallons a day in a 24-hour operation – consuming 1,000 gallons of oil every four days. His fuel costs were $500 a day. VandenAkker knew he had to change or get out of the business.
The impetus for change came in 2005, when the building where the dryers were housed burned down. The fire started, VandenAkker said, because the structure’s wood became so dry that it combusted. The safer setup, he learned, was to have the kiln in a separate room from the heat source.
They rebuilt the operation with a wood-fired boiler that creates steam. The system runs 12 pounds of steam at 230 degrees through coils while fans circulate air inside the two kilns. The boiler is fired on recycled sawdust, a byproduct from the operation.
The two kilns have the capacity to heat-treat 48 cords at a time. Drying periods depend on the species, but logs that have been air-dried ahead of time can dry in the kiln for just a day; green wood may take up to four days.
One difference between kiln-drying and heat-treating firewood has to do with meeting the standards imposed by state regulations, including testing, monitoring and recording temperatures and times that cure the wood and kill invasive insects. Depending on the species, the wood needs to reach a temperature of 140 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for 75 minutes in Massachusetts. “By then, everything is dead,” VandenAkker explained.
He sticks probes into the coldest spot in the kiln to monitor temperature. You also need to get the moisture ratings right. The goal is 10 percent, VandenAkker said, but he prefers 15 to 20 percent. “We find the two work closely together,” he said. “If it’s not dry enough, it’s not hot enough.”
West End was the first kiln-dried firewood operation to be USDA-approved, which means “we’re doing it correctly,” VandenAkker said. “We’re definitely ahead of most.”