Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Don't Burn the House Down

Lets talk "ashes". Ashes, as in the by product of a wood fire.

As you know, I'm a wood burner. Hubby says that I have a fascination with burning things, but regardless, I've maintained a woodstove for most of my life.  Perhaps its in my blood since Granddad was a fire truck chaser. We have a small cast iron stove in the living area, a Morso Squirrel, that takes the chill off the house and helps keep the mold down. A bonus is that I can cook on it. I also run a small rocket stove for cooking livestock feed (roadkill, slaughter waste). And I also have a homemade TLUD stove for making biochar. 

All these stoves are carefully installed so that there are no burnable surfaces nearby and are set on nonflammable bases.  The rocket and TLUD stoves only run when I am present and on non-windy days. I keep a pile of soil and shovel handy plus a water source just in case a spark or ember should break loose. I have never needed either but it's good insurance to have both handy. 

All stoves are kept maintained, cleaned, and as safe as possible. Most stove owners see the sense in this but the one area that I have seen people make tragic mistakes is with handling the ashes. I know of a house fire, numerous lawn fires, and a garage that burnt.....all due to the ashes. Yes indeed! For real! 

My ash container is a metal garbage pail, with lid. I mention the lid because wind can blow ash and live embers right out of the pail on a windy day. I saw it happen to me once. So I'm careful now to get the lid on. If ash is kept indoor (no wind) then a simple metal bucket should suffice, as long as you don't have a toddler or dog........or clumsy spouse......who can knock the ash can over.

Some stories just to illustrate the danger of "cold ashes" and "dead fires". (Names are changed to protect my friends from being embarrassed yet again for their stupidity.)
1- First thing every chilly morning the ash was shoveled out of the stove and into a plastic bucket that "Jill" had been using for years. The bucket was then set outside the kitchen door while she went back to start a morning fire. One day coming into the kitchen to start breakfast, "Jill" noticed an odd smell. Thinking her neighbor was burning trash, she ignored it. 10 minutes later the smell was stronger, so stepping out the kitchen door to complain to her neighbor about the odor she discovered that the plastic ash bucket was melting and on fire. Thankfully it wasn't real close to the house and was sitting on concrete steps. 
2- Before starting the evening fire, "Jack" decided to run the chimney brush down the stove pipe. He then shoveled the soot, creosote, and ashes into a paper bag, taking it out to the garage. Back to starting the fire, making coffee, and watching a movie. When he smelled smoke he went to investigate only to find his garage on fire. 
3- "John" had forgot to empty is ash bucket that morning, so when he went to scoop the previous night's ashes out of the stove he had more than would fit in the bucket. Assuming the ashes were old and cold, he scooped the extra into a cardboard box. Yes, you can see where this is going. Yes, the ashes were set outside the front door. Yes, the cardboard box smoldered then ignited. The first the "John" knew about this was when his neighbor banged on his window to tell him that his door and porch were on fire. 

Then there are the multitude of grass fires. I know of lots of people who take their ashes outside and proceed the spread them about on their lawn and gardens. The ashes look dead, but tiny embers often lurk there just waiting for some fresh air. Ah-ha, another grass fire! Yes. It happens a lot, more than you think. 

I've rediscovered something that my ancestors were well aware of.....ash is a wonderful insulator. Embers can stay hot for hours, often a day or more under the right conditions. I've seen ash and embers sit in a bucket for a full day and still have some heat to them. Given some fresh air, and the tiny embers begin the heat up and glow. Something to think about. 
Back to my ash bucket. By the way, I have two. One in use, and the second to start using when the first one is full. It takes a week or more to fill a bucket, so it has plenty of time to really become dead before I spread the ashes. I also have an old metal frying pan with lid that I sometimes use. It comes in handy in the house. 

What do I do with the ashes once they're cold? I add them to compost. And I sprinkle them onto the pastures that need it. Ashes raise the soil pH rapidly plus provide some trace minerals and other nutrients. Ash is rich in potassium, a plant requirement. 

For these photos I set the ash containers on a garden rock wall. But that's not a safe place because of the dry litter from grass, trees, etc. Yes, I tend to be over cautious when it comes to burning my house down. Normally the cans set on a concrete pad outside the side door. 


  1. This reply is from Jimmy in Pa. ----

    Each cord of firewood you burn leaves you with 20 pounds of ashes or more, depending on your fuel source, heating appliance, and wood burning skill.

    Safety first:
    As with all aspects of wood heating, use vigilance and common sense in handling and managing your ashes. Store them in a covered metal container set on dirt or concrete a few feet in all directions from any combustible surface.

    Even though the ashes may appear cold, buried embers may remain live for days, even weeks.

    Using your ashes:
    Our ancestors learned to make lye, a caustic cleaning agent, at least 5000 years ago by running water through wood ashes, eventually learning to combine it with animal fats and water to make soap. Some hardy folks still do.

    Early Americans used ashes or homemade lye water for scrubbing wood floors, laundering clothes and bed linens, and soaking fresh-killed hogs to help remove the hair. For centuries, potters and ceramicists have used wood ashes to create beautiful glazes. Take a look.

    Instead of putting them out with the trash, put your ashes to use in and around your home. A few suggestions for modern use:

    Take wood ash from wood stove or fire­place in a metal bucket. Never store in plas­tic until ash is absolutely cool. This way you avoid burn­ing down buildings.

    Use only high qual­ity wood ash. No ashes from BBQ grills, card­board, ply­wood, painted, or pres­sure treated wood. Hard­wood ash (oak) is supe­rior to soft wood (pine) ash.

    Three Caveats

    1. DO NOT USE ASH IF YOUR SOIL HAS AN ALKALINE pH of 7.5 or higher. It will make the soil too alka­line or salty. Alka­line soils are found in low rain­fall areas in the West. Use wood ash only in loca­tions where soils are acidic, like for­est soils and moun­tain soils, or places where there is ade­quate rain­fall in the warm sea­son .…not in alka­line soils like the desert. If in doubt, con­tact your local Mas­ter Gar­den­ers

    If you have been farm­ing or gar­den­ing with chem­i­cals, check your soil pH. Most chem­i­cals increase the pH and will even­tu­ally salt the soil

    On the pH scale, 7 is neu­tral like pure water, below 7 is acidic with 1 being the most acidic like bat­tery acid; and above 7 is alka­line with 14 being the most alka­line like liq­uid drain cleaner. Nor­mal gar­den soil is typ­i­cally 5.5 to 7.5 pH. Wood ash typ­i­cally has 10.4 pH

    2. Don’t use wood ash near these and other acid lovers: aza­leas, rhodo­den­drons, blue­ber­ries, mums, marigolds, moun­tain lau­rel, oak, pecan, and sweet potato

    3. Sprin­kle wood ash before plants emerge, in win­ter or very early spring. Don’t plant seeds or seedlings until at least two weeks after ash has been applied, or wait until new plants are a few weeks old to spread it. The smaller they are, the more dra­mat­i­cally plants may react to the sud­den increase in pH.

    Wood ash has the same com­po­si­tion as lime­stone. Use it where you would use lime. If you put a pile of wood ash out­side, and it rains, it will turn to limestone.

    Use only high qual­ity wood ash. No ashes from BBQ grills, card­board, ply­wood, painted, or pres­sure treated wood. Hard­wood ash (oak) is supe­rior to soft wood (pine) ash.

    The secret to using wood ash is to SPRINKLE IT or DUST IT.

  2. Jimmy continued....
    Use wood ashes to:

    1. Spread finely on the soil on your prop­erty. Use a large cof­fee can or a box with nail holes punched into the bot­tom. Spread so it looks like fine baby pow­der on the soil. Wear eye protection, gloves, and a dust mask, and broadcast the ashes evenly on a dry, windless day. Mix them into the soil thoroughly before planting. Hose off any ashes that settle on actively growing plants to prevent burning the foliage.

    2. Enrich com­post. Enhance com­post nutri­ents by sprin­kling in a few ashes so it looks like a fine pow­der. Adding too much, though, ruins compost.

    3. Com­post­ing cit­rus rinds. In a bucket of wood ash, place rinds of cit­rus or any­thing that is hard to break­down. Make sure to cover the bucket.

    4. Cal­cium lov­ing plants. For calcium-loving plants like toma­toes, sprin­kle and spread out ¼ to 1/8 cup (NOT MORE) right in the hole when plant­ing. More is not bet­ter. It should look like a pow­dered baby’s butt.

    5. Block gar­den pests. Spread evenly around gar­den beds, ash repels slugs and snails. Sprinkled lightly about susceptible plants, wood ashes will irritate slugs’ moist bodies and repel them. The repellent effect will disappear after rain or irrigation dissolves the ashes.
    6. Con­trol pond algae. One table­spoon per 1,000 gal­lons adds enough potas­sium to strengthen other aquatic plants that com­pete with algae, slow­ing its growth.

    7. De-skunk pets. A hand­ful rubbed on your dog’s coat neu­tral­izes that famil­iar lin­ger­ing odor.

    8. Hide stains on paving. This Old House tech­ni­cal edi­tor Mark Pow­ers absorbs wet paint spat­ters on cement by sprin­kling ash directly on the spot; it blends in with a scuff of his boot,

    9. Clean glass fire­place doors. A damp sponge dipped in the dust scrubs away sooty residue.

    10. Make soap. Soak­ing ashes in water makes lye, which can be mixed with ani­mal fat and then boiled to pro­duce soap. Salt makes it harden as it cools.

  3. Jimmy continued....

    11. Shine sil­ver. A paste of ash and water makes a non­toxic metal polisher.

    12. Kill moss in the lawn. Sprin­kle lightly over lawns that have moss problems.

    13. Tooth­paste. In the old days before tooth paste, ash was used to clean teeth. The poten­tial bio-hazards in the mod­ern world are the chem­i­cals used in fire starters, newsprint, and mag­a­zine inks. Using bak­ing soda instead tastes much bet­ter and is a com­mon practice.

    14. Clean­ing white boards. Ashes are good for clean­ing white boards that have been marked by grease pen­cil or marker. It even works on per­ma­nent marker that has been mis-applied to a white board.

    15. Melt ice. My per­sonal all time favorite. Keep con­tainer of ashes in car (or on the porch for side­walks) in the icy sea­son to add trac­tion and de-ice with­out hurt­ing soil or con­crete under­neath. In Alaska, they car­ry a shoe box of fine screened ash to get vehi­cles out of ice. Sprin­kle hand­ful of ashes out about a foot in front of the tires that have power (4 wheel drive –all tires; front wheel drive –front tires; rear wheel drive– rear tires). Drive right out of trou­ble as if you were on dry pave­ment. Elim­i­nates the use of salt for icy sidewalks

    16. Clean glass and metal Hard to believe, but hardwood ashes make fast work of grease, grime and tarnish on glass, silverware, ovenware, grills, and glass stovetops, as well as gummy residues left by stickers and labels.

    Dip a damp cloth in wood ashes, or make a thick paste of ashes and a little water, scrub lightly with a cotton cloth, and rinse away with plain water and another cloth. Wear gloves for these scrubbing tasks to avoid caustic burns.

    17. Odor Control - Put in t-shirt material to insert in stored shoes. Also dust on pets that have been skunked - after having shampooed them with Nature's Miracle

    18. Dust Baths - place cold ashes where your birds can get to them, the dust baths will control bugs

    19. Cooking - As a "fireplace" user, we utilize the burning ember/ash bed as a cooking source. A dutch broiler, nestled into the embers/ash, is a great source for long term cooking, baking

  4. Jimmy continued.....
    Com­po­si­tion of Ele­ments in Wood Ash

    Mean and (Range) taken from analy­sis of 37 ash samples

    Macro ele­ments in aver­age %, range of 37 sam­ples, highest %

    Cal­cium 15 (2.5–33) 31 Potas­sium 2.6 (0.1–13) 0.13 Alu­minum 1.6 (0.5–3.2) 0.25 Mag­ne­sium 1.0 (0.1–2.5) 5.1 Iron 0.84 (0.2–2.1) 0.29 Phos­pho­rus 0.53 (0.1–1.4) 0.06 Man­ganese 0.41 (0–1.3) 0.05 Sodium 0.19 (0–0.54) 0.07 Nitro­gen 0.15 (0.02–0.77) 0.01

    Micro ele­ments or Trace Min­er­als in mg, range of 37 samples

    Arsenic 6 (3–10) Boron 123 (14–290) . Cad­mium 3 (0.2–26) 0.7 Chromium 57 (7–368) 6.0 Cop­per 70 (37–207) 10 Lead 65 (16–137) 55 Mer­cury 1.9 (0–5) . Molyb­de­num 19 (0–123) . Nickel 20 (0–63) 20 Sele­nium 0.9 (0–11) . Zinc 233 (35–1250) 113

    Other Chem­i­cal Properties

    CaCO3 Equiv­a­lent 43% (22–92%) 100% pH 10.4 (9–13.5) 9.9

    % Total solids 75 (31–100) 100

  5. My own comment......

    (Laughing and smiling) .... I've already received several emails to let me know that I have a very fancy ash pan! That all metal frying pan that I picked up at a yard sale for $1 cost the original purchaser $100 or more. Wow, who'd have known. Just goes to show you that I've got a classy piece in my livingroom.....even if it's just holding hot embers.