Friday, January 21, 2011


On these cold days and nights, almost everyone loves to see and feel the warmth of a wood burning stove or fireplace. But, recently, home heating with wood has received a lot of criticism. Some critics point out that indoor pollutants from wood fires can lead to respiratory problems. This has led organizations like the American Lung Association to issue warnings about wood burning in the home. They cite research showing how wood smoke is a health risk and contributes to air pollution in the United States.

Some cities have actually banned (or restricted) the use of wood fires due to concerns about environmental air pollution. The areas that have passed laws against burning fires in the home are mostly cities in the West. The burn-bans usually occur in late fall and winter, when the air is cold and still and air pollution is the highest.

Even those people who are trying to live a greener life are questioning the wisdom of wood stoves and fireplaces. Of course, wood burning for home heating has some real advantages. First of all, it reduces your consumption of electricity and lowers your utility bills. Particularly, wood stoves are great in that they allow you to live in outback areas that are off-grid. And, of course, they’re a lifesaver in emergency situations when there are interruptions in electric and gas supplies.

What’s more, wood logs constitute renewable fuel, and that’s a lot more eco-friendly than transporting oil from other parts of the world. And, if you live in the country, you probably have some trees that need to be cut back or removed, and already fallen trees are a great free source of firewood. For those who live in urban areas, firewood can sometimes be obtained free when a neighbor cuts down a tree or if a tree falls on it’s own and needs to be hauled away. Another plus is the exercise you can get from splitting logs.

Even so, eco-friendly people are concerned about environmental problems caused by wood fires. For all areas of the country, the bulk of backyard and patio fires are purely recreational and, as such, it's hard to justify them. Many people have reasons to burn wood for indoor heat, but even then, the smoke and heat that escapes out of chimneys and flukes is a real environmental problem. Out in the countryside, where houses are far apart, wood stoves and fireplaces are obviously useful and may not be so much of a problem for the neighbors. In rural areas, the most important point is that the stoves and chimneys themselves are safe and that the trees used for firewood are replaced by new growth at about the same rate they are cut down. (You'd better have a plan to help establish adequate regrowth because it's something that doesn't just happen, naturally).

But, in heavily populated areas, wood burning is usually an optional lifestyle choice that not only uses up wood resources (only a small proportion of commercial wood is adequately cut and replaced) but also creates important health hazards. Another problem is that all wood burning produces huge amounts of ash which needs to be disposed of properly. All wood ash is toxic and needs to be sealed in a metal container and stored outside. (For anyone who has the time and interest, wood ash is an ingredient for homemade soap.)

So, what can we make of this brief review of pros and cons about wood burning in the home? The information seems to be contradictory and confusing. The question is this: Do eco-friendly people just have to resign themselves to closing off their chimneys and living sadder lives, never again to enjoy the woodsy, crackling fire? Luckily, the answer is no!

We can still have our wood stoves and fireplaces. With some effort and investment in money, it’s possible to improve their efficiency and reduce the risks they have on health and the environment.

Take steps to make wood stoves and fireplaces safer and less polluting.
1. First of all, don’t be worried at all if you don’t use your wood stove or indoor fireplace very often. It won’t cause any real damage to the environment or harm to your health (unless you have a family member with a respiratory problem). Of course, recreational fires shouldn’t be burned in backyards and patios, even on an occasional basis.

2. For other people who regularly want, or need, to heat their homes with wood fires, it's possible to be safer and more eco-friendly by using energy-efficient wood or pellet stoves (obviously, pellets must be purchased). These stoves are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency, and being energy-efficient means that you get a lot more heat from the wood that you use - that's very important when you consider the scarce resources that you're burning. These stoves can be purchased for new chimneys or existing fireplaces can be retrofitted with an insert (a steel device placed in the fireplace that enables it to heat more efficiently and reduces pollutants). Also, an electric blower, which doesn’t use a whole lot of electricity, can greatly increase the heating capacity of wood burning fireplaces. There are even stoves that have a catalytic combustor that converts smoke into water and carbon dioxide. The problem is that these technological advances tend to be expensive, and some cost several thousand dollars.

3. Another recommendation by environmentalists is to burn only broadleaf, hardwoods and seasoned dry wood, and that's because they create hotter fires and release less smoke. Seasoned firewood should be dark and has cracks in the ends. Apparently, a lot of the firewood sold commercially isn’t properly seasoned, even when they advertise it as such. So, the best idea is to do-it-yourself. To ensure really dry wood, store it, elevated off the ground and covered, for at least six months before it's burned.

4. Better fire-building techniques can also make a difference. Fire setting should be done carefully, using clean newspapers and kindling. Never use colored paper, cardboard or manufactured logs because they emit dangerous chemicals. Wood fires should be kept quite hot with high flames, especially for the first 15 minutes. This lets the fire heat up enough so that the smoke goes easily up through the chimney. Otherwise, the smoke tends to disperse and enter the house where it accumulates in harmful amounts. Then, be sure to add several logs (and not one at a time) every time you stoke the fire. This increases the burning efficiency and lowers the amount of contaminants.

5. It’s important to get the stove, chimney, and vents cleaned every year. This will reduce the hazard of fire and assure better burning efficiency. If, at any time, the house begins to fill up with smoke, the fireplace or stove should be shut off at once and not used again until it’s been checked out by an expert.

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