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Burning wood efficiently will reduce pollution, minimize health risks, and give you more warmth for less money.

By Eartheasy Posted Jan 5, 2010

wood-heating-tips

Woodheaters and open fireplaces are often the major contributors to outdoor air pollution levels in cities and towns during winter.

The health effects of wood smoke exposure include increased respiratory symptoms, increased hospital admissions for lower respiratory infections, exacerbation of asthma, and decreased breathing ability.

In residential areas, wood stoves and fireplaces contribute the largest portion of particulate matter air pollution. In addition to the particulate matter in wood smoke, emissions also contain carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde and known carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxin.

The American Lung Association recommends that individuals avoid burning wood in homes where less polluting heating alternatives are available. If you heat your home with wood, the following steps can be taken to minimize the expense, health and environmental effects of indoor wood burning:

1. Never burn:

  • Plastics
  • Glossy magazines or newsprint
  • Painted or treated wood
  • Foil or metallic-coated gift wrap
  • Particle board
  • Household garbage (diapers, plastic bags, etc.)
  • Plywood
  • Rags or fabrics made of synthetic materials

These items release toxic chemicals into the air that can be harmful to your health and damage your stove or fireplace.

2. Split your firewood

Wood dries from the surface inward, so un-split wood dries very slowly. The more surface wood is exposed by splitting, the faster the wood will dry. Stack the wood loosely to promote air circulation.

3. Burn seasoned firewood only

The time it takes freshly split wood to become fully seasoned will vary with the type of wood, its thickness, and the weather. As a general rule, however, one should allow a year for wood to dry for efficient, clean indoor burning. Cracks in the ends of the wood are an indication that it is fully seasoned and ready for burning. You can also test whether the wood is fully seasoned by striking two pieces together. Dry wood gives a sharp ‘crack’ while unseasoned wood sounds more like a dull ‘thud’.

Unseasoned firewood provides less heat energy when burned, yet releases more smoke and contributes to hazardous creosote buildup in chimneys.

4. Store wood outside, covered on top with sides open to air

Cut, split and stack firewood in a place sheltered from the weather, but not covered on the sides, so as to optimize air circulation. Block up the bottom row of wood several inches off the ground. During snowfalls, throw a tarp over the woodpile to keep blowing snow out of the stacked wood.

5. Store only a small amount of wood inside your home.

Bringing large amounts of firewood into the home to ‘pre-dry’ is counter-productive, and may release excess humidity into the room. When lifting from the woodshed into the carrying box, or wood sling, a quick tap against a hard surface will release any spiders that otherwise will be brought into your home.

6. Split wood into pieces 4-6 inches in diameter.

Firewood will burn cleaner when more surface area is exposed to the flame. Use the smaller split pieces to get the fire started, and only use larger pieces of wood once the fire is well established.

7. Make sure your fire is getting enough air.

This will ensure it burns hot and clean. Check the air intake of your heater to ensure there are no blockages from dust balls and spider webs. If you have a through-floor intake, check to see that the screen is brushed clean and not obstructed by insect debris or spider webs.

A properly burning fireplace is hotter, produces less smoke and is more efficient. This means more warmth for less money and less impact to your health.

8. Don’t stuff too much wood inside the firebox.

Overloading the firebox can reduce the amount of air needed for ideal combustion. Refuel more often with smaller loads with the air inlet open wide to keep the fire burning briskly. If you need to shut the fire down, wait until it is well-established before turning down the damper. If you throw a fresh log in just before closing the damper, it may smolder for some time before reaching a cleaner combustion stage.

9. Let your fire go out at night.

To reduce the level of wood smoke pollution in towns and cities it is recommended that you do not burn your wood heater overnight on reduced air flow. This will save you some wood and help your stove and chimney remain cleaner for a longer period of time. It will cost less to let your wood heater go out over night and run an electric heater in the morning for 2 hours, than to keep your wood heater burning through the night.

Common Wood Burning Questions:

How does wood smoke rank in comparison to other air pollutants?
There are many types of air pollutants, and wood smoke is ranked in comparison with the other types of air pollutants. In the northern US and Canada, residential wood smoke is said to account for 25 percent of all fine particulates, 15 percent of the volatile organic carbons (VOCs) and 10 percent of the carbon monoxide.

In certain communities, there have been cases where wood smoke has been the source of most of the particulate matter found in the air. This has occurred in densely populated urban areas and in valleys that are pinned in by mountains so that the wood smoke doesn’t dissipate; instead, it settles back on the town.

heaterIs there much difference in the efficiency of different woodstoves?
In response to the public concern over pollutants caused by wood burning, the Environmental Protection Agency issued rules in 1988 that forced manufacturers of wood stoves to improve their products. The older stoves, pre-EPA-certification, would typically emit 40 to 60 grams of fine particulates into the air every hour. After manufacturers were required to meet EPA standards, the allowable limit was set first at 8.5 grams per hour; in 1990, that limit was cut to 7.5 grams per hour (4.1 grams for catalytic stoves). These newer models are also safer to use because cleaner burning fires produce less creosote buildup in chimneys, which is a leading cause of chimney fires.

Is it OK to burn designer logs?
Designer logs have low amounts of energy output. If you are burning logs simply for ambiance, then designer logs will work adequately. However, they are not recommended for meeting your heating needs.
Unlike pellets that are made of sawdust bound together by the natural cellulose within the wood, designer logs are often bound by spent bitumen oil. If you do not know the ingredients in your fake log, it is recommended that you do not burn it. There are no statistics on how the deposits may damage your stove or fireplace, or about the toxins released from the binding agents.

Conclusion

Burning wood for home heating is still the most practical choice for many people in North America. To minimize the pollution from wood smoke, and to maximize the heat energy potential of the wood, homeowners can benefit by understanding the basics of efficient wood burning and woodheater maintenance.

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  • GoogleAdwordsConsult

    Burning firewood is undeniably causing a lot of pollution to the environment. Maybe it's time that we take the initiative of using other sources of heat for our house that gives out less or no pollution. Take for instance, solar heating, might be costly at first but would surely be more practical in the long run.

    If we really can't avoid using firewood for heating, we must at least use the tips provided here to lessen the smoke the burning produces.

    • GadgetGeekGirl

      Wood burning stoves are actually more of a carbon neutral energy. A decaying tree in the forest produces more carbon in the atmosphere than burning it does.

  • elway

    Here's another tip: Before building a fire, remove excess ash from the firebox; never let ash build up to more than two inches.

  • Party Decorations

    We are looking to get a woodburner installed in our small house. We have worked out that the saving we would have from our other heating will really save a considerable amount of money each year.

  • Tammy

    I love my Wood burning stove it saves me so much money and plus it smells good . Plus it has been so cold and we have the heater on 60 and so our Wooden Stove is the best ….I have it on all day and night . Dont have to put to much wood in it .

  • maryj

    The article said that bringing in wood with moisture on it may release humidity in your home. Have you ever heated and lived in a home in winter weather? You always want to keep your house moist in the winter, because it is so dry. Summer is the opposite.

    • Greg Seaman

      Hi Maryj,
      Apparently you live in a region where the prevailing winter weather is dry. Here in the Pacific Northwest, moisture is the one thing we can count on during winter. It may be mild or cold, foggy or snowy, but it's almost always high humidity. If we go away for a weekend, we come back to a damp, cold house which takes over a day of heating to bring back the warmth and dryness.
      Have I ever heated and lived in a home in winter? Yes, for over 30 years!
      My wife's parents live in Bend Oregon where it is very dry, it's a high desert region. In winter, they store firewood outdoors and bring it in only in small amounts because it's either frozen or very cold. This may release some moisture in the house, but it also introduces more cold, which they don't want.

      • jswap

        I have to second maryj’s opinion. In places that have “real” winters (i.e. not the south and west), adding humidity to the air in winter is desirable. As to “introducing more cold”, I’d like to see some facts on which is worse: introducing the cold to the house or introducing the cold into the wood stove.

  • Holly

    Solar heating is the future. In Croatia we invest a lot in this kind of energy as the new Government also give support to people who likes solar and wind energy.
    I am sure this is the best way to save the planet.

    • Miro

      "the new Government also give support to people who likes solar and wind energy." Does this government gives any tax benefit for private investment in such energy?

  • Deej

    Great article although I do burn artificial logs :P Nothing better than sitting down writing “poems about life” next to a warm fire whether the logs are real or not.

  • http://www.needcooling.com/ Aubrey Erickson

    artificial logs get old, they don’t look as cool! but it saves and it’s easy!

  • Clarissa Brooks

    This was very interesting. I would never have imagined that fireplaces emitted so much pollutants. I have never had the luxury of owning a fireplace but is something I always hoped of way day having. I would think that a fireplace for use as a heating source is still the most earth friendly option over electric and propane company’s. This is a great topic and found it very informative and hope one day these are tips that I can apply.

  • http://www.kaminofen-normatherm.de/ Kaminofen

    Modern water based ovens are capable to heat up an entrire house cause they deliver the heat in the water at the first place and then transport the heat within the water to all rooms. These modern heating systems use cheap firewood and fullfill the strongest environmental regulations in germany and switzerland.
    So heating is economical and ecological as well.

  • MNheat

    We have an indoor wood burner in our basement, it heats our entire house. There is almost always a constant ashtray smell. It’s horrid! I dont mind the wood burning smell but the ashtray smell is just rancid. I notice at times when I go down to fill it that the a log or two will be just smoldering as apposed to burning. How can I fix this smell. We have to heat with it but it’s ruining our belongings.

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Burn well-seasoned, dry wood and there will be no ashtray smell.

      • MNheat

        Thanks, when the propane prices sky rocketed we had to rush to get the wood burner in in the middle of the winter. We are currently only able to cut down dead popplers on our land. Next year we’ll have the whole summer to collect and dry the wood as needed. Didnt realize something so small could make such a big impact. I appreciate the response.

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