When it is freezing out, what is the first thing you want to do? I bet you want to sit in front of a roaring wood fire and warm up. In fact, many US households depend on wood to heat their homes. Currently, there are 12 million wood stove and 243,000 hydronic heater (outdoor wood boilers) households. Add in the 29 million fireplaces in the US to the mix and you have a bonfire of a pollution and health problem.
A recent Australian study showed a 11% increase of asthmatic symptoms in connection with the use of wood stoves. So how can you still burn wood and reduce the health concerns? Read on.
Wood Burning and Pollution:
According to the EPA,
“Smoke resulting from improperly burned wood contains many chemical substances that are considered harmful such as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), fine particle pollution (ash), and volatile organic compounds (VOC).
- HAPs are an important component of wood smoke. A group of HAPs known as polycyclic organic matter includes benzo(a)pyrene, which may cause cancer.
- Particle pollution in smoke can damage lung tissue and lead to serious respiratory problems when breathed in high concentrations. In low concentrations, particle pollution in wood smoke can harm the health of children, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory diseases. EPA has created an extensive Web site related to particle pollution.”
The EPA further states that 20 old non-EPA certified wood stove emit more than 1 ton of particles into the air during the cold season. To make matters worse, 70% of wood stoves are inefficient and cause pollution.
In addition, wood stoves can create carbon monoxide poisoning. On average, 150 people die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning from combustible appliances which include wood stoves.
Asthma connection and burning wood
Children and the elderly are more susceptible to wood smoke. Children’s lungs are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight. Inhaling wood smoke can cause asthma The elderly, on the other hand, may have prior health conditions in which smoke inhalation can lead to chronic pulmonary and heart disease.
Maine is a perfect example of how wood smoke can affect its citizens. Half of Maine’s households heat their homes with wood.
According to the Maine Emergency Management Agency, one in three Maine households has either a household member that has asthma, chronic lung disease, or chronic heart disease. In fact, Maine has the highest childhood and adult asthma rates in the country.
Note, wood heating is not the only factor since 1 in 7 households allow someone to smoke in their homes.
How to have your wood fire and your health too.
Listed below are recommendations of healthier, safer less polluting options:
1. Upgrade your wood stove: The Wood Stove Changeout program is a voluntary local or regional program which offers rebates, discounts, or no interest loans for people to replace their old wood stoves. See here for the list of programs in both the US and Canada. Note, this is not a comprehensive list. Check with your county official to find out if your area has a program.
2. EPA certified Wood Stove Program. If your community doesn’t have a Changeout Program, consider replacing your stove with an EPA certified stove. The new standards cut emissions by 70% , are more efficient, and will save you money since the newer stoves only needs a third of the wood that old stoves required.
Look for the EPA certification label when shopping for a new stove.
3. Hydronic Heater Program: Replace your hydronic wood or biomass boilers (wood pellets, corn, sawdust, etc.) for a Phase 2 EPA qualified product. Under the Phase 2 program, models are 90% cleaner than unqualified models.
4. Wood Pellet Stoves: Consider replacing your old stove with a wood pellet stove that uses compressed wood waste. These type of stoves are considered the most efficient stoves with ratings exceeding 80%.
5. Fireplace inserts : Fireplace inserts reduce pollution: Most fireplaces are either mason constructed or low mass prefabricated fireplaces. These fireplaces lose about 90% of the heat of the fire along with much of the heated air in the room. Consider purchasing an EPA qualified fireplace insert which reduces 70% of the pollution caused by ordinary fireplaces. See here for a list of fireplace inserts.
6. Maintain your heaters and fireplaces : The US Fire Administration estimates on average there are 50,100 heating fires annually which accounts for 150 deaths, 575 injuries and $326 million dollars in property damage. Hire a professional to annually inspect and maintain your wood heater and chimney. Clean chimneys reduce the risk of chimney fires.
In addition, your chimney should be checked for cracks. Smoke can escape through the cracks in the chimney and enter your home.
7. Build a fire the right way.
- Always use seasoned wood that is at least 6 months old. Pine and Douglas Fir dries in about six months but other hardwoods take longer to dry.
- Wood should have a moisture content of less than 20%. (The video entitled “Wet Wood is a Waste” on the EPA’s Burn Wise site shows you how to test your wood.) You can buy a moisture meter here.
- Use the right tree species for your fires. See the chart below. Certain hardwoods are more dense and thus, have more energy per cord.
- Store wood off the ground and with the top of the stack covered. See here for a modular shed plan.
- Split the wood properly. See this video on how to properly store and split your wood.
Along with all the pointers above, always start fires with newspaper or dry kindling and burn smaller fires. After the fire is extinguished, store the ashes outside in a metal container.
Most importantly, don’t add certain materials like pizza boxes, colored newspaper, and painted wood to your fire. See here for a list of materials not suitable for a fire.
Join the conversation:
- Do you use a wood burning stove or outdoor boiler for heat?
- Have you upgraded any of your wood burning stove or installed a fireplace insert?
- Any tips for starting a non-polluting fire in your fireplace?
Photo from the EPA regarding wood burning emissions