Woodstoves: Stay Warm While
Cutting Pollution
by Andrea Lani

With heating oil prices creeping ever higher, more and more New Englanders
are dusting off the old
wood stove and hatchet, in hopes of a little cheap heat this
winter.  Before striking that first match, however, we would do well to look at the
environmental costs and benefits of wood burning.

Unlike coal, oil, natural gas and propane, sustainably harvested wood is
considered a renewable resource; as long as we replenish what we cut and
maintain forest health, we will always have wood to burn.

Wood also adds no net carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas implicated in
global climate change, to the atmosphere; wood spent its life as a tree absorbing
CO2, so the CO2 emitted when it burns is still part of the carbon cycle.

Despite these environmental benefits, however, burning wood can cause real
pollution problems both indoors and out.  Wood smoke contains high levels of
fine particulates (soot), mercury, dioxin and other toxic air pollutants.

Luckily, there are steps we can all take to make sure our stoves burn more
efficiently, reducing pollution and cost.

Weatherize Your Home, Select the Right Wood Stove

The first thing to do, no matter what kind of fuel heats your home, is to
weatherize with insulation, weather stripping, caulk and storm windows.
Weatherization keeps your heat inside instead of helping to warm up the
neighborhood.  A tight house also helps reduce the amount of fuel you burn.

Selecting the right wood stove is the next step. Newer wood stoves meet strict
federal (EPA) emissions standards through the use of a catalytic combustor or
recirculation of gasses and particulates.  Look for a sticker on the stove that
indicates it's EPA-certified and for information on heat output and efficiency.  A
more efficient stove will pollute less and save money on fuel in the long run.

Picking a wood stove sized correctly for the area it will heat will increase
efficiency and reduce emissions. A wood stove that is too large will have to be
damped down, creating more pollution from inefficient combustion and
increasing dangerous creosote build-up.

Proper Maintenance is Importance for Wood Stoves

Proper operation and maintenance will keep your stove running clean and safe.  
For a clean, efficient burn, build a small, hot fire with hardwood that has been
air-dried for at least six months.  

Small fires burn volatile gases more quickly, reducing safety hazards and air
quality problems. The optimum temperature range for gases leaving the stove
should range from about 300° to 400 F.  A simple, inexpensive stack thermometer
that sticks to the stovepipe with a magnet will help to monitor the exit gas

Keeping the stove clear of excess ash prevents clogging of the stove's intake
vents that supply needed oxygen.  Once or twice per year clean the stovepipe
and inspect the stove and chimney for warping, gaps in the baffle and creosote
build-up.  Replace catalytic combustors every two to three years.

Go ahead and snuggle up in that warm, cozy heat from the wood stove.  And rest
assured that with the right stove, seasoned wood and good operation and
maintenance practices your wood heat isn't giving someone else a bad air day.

About the author: Andrea Lani is an Environmental Specialist in the Bureau of Air
Quality with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.  
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