Sustainable Firewood Harvests and Wood Stove Safety

Brad Sylvester
Yahoo Contributor Network
Sustainable Firewood Harvests and Wood Stove Safety
Wood stoves can be a a cost-effective, safe, and environmentally-friendly winter heating option.

In New England and many northern states around the country, more and more families are turning to wood stoves to heat their homes. The wood stove uses a plentiful and renewable energy source, locally grown hardwoods. For those with a few acres of forested land, that wood is free for the taking.

Sustainable Firewood Harvesting

The old woodcutter's rule of thumb is that one acre of a mature, mixed deciduous forest can easily provide a full cord of firewood year after year, without being degraded. Taking more than that in a single season means the forest will require a longer recovery period and may even experience long term damage. I easily pull more than a cord of firewood across four wooded acres each year just from trees that are toppled or severely damaged by wind, snow, and ice. A cord is 128 cubic feet of wood, and as of the autumn of 2010 will cost about $260, in southern New Hampshire, for cut and split firewood, fully seasoned and delivered to your house. Prices can vary significantly by region.

Sustainable Wood Harvesting is Carbon Neutral

By preserving the health of the forest and allowing it to regenerate each year, harvesting about a cord of wood each can be effectively carbon neutral over time, since uncollected wood would release its stored carbon when the tree eventually died and decomposed. When compared to clearing the forest and using the land for other purposes it becomes not only carbon-neutral, but a strong positive for reduction of greenhouse gases. As long as the forest grown, it acts as a carbon sink, naturally removing it from the atmosphere and safely sequestering it.

Loggers and Environmentalists

Environmentalists and loggers who practice sustainable harvest methods, therefore, should be working together for mutual benefit rather than arguing amongst themselves. Using logging practices that allow the forest to continuously regenerate means it can be harvested again and again for logging profits, while preserving its value as a carbon sink and as a wildlife habitat.

Seasoning Firewood

Firewood should be cut fully six months before it is to be burned in a wood stove. By splitting, stacking the firewood off the ground, and covering it properly, the moisture content of the wood will be reduced enough to allow it to burn more efficiently and at a higher temperature. Not only will you get more heat from properly dried wood, but you'll produce less pollution and less creosote to line your chimney.

EPA: Wood Stoves Can Produce More Particulate Pollution

Even with properly seasoned wood, however, wood stoves, particularly older ones, may actually produce more particulate pollution than other types of residential furnaces, says the EPA. Of course, this is without accounting for the environmental effects of the mining, drilling, refining, and transporting of other fuel types that occurs outside of the home.

Particulate Pollution's Adverse Health Effects

"Particle pollution," said the New England Regional Office of the EPA in a press release sent to reporters by email on Monday, "is especially a concern because it can cause serious health effects, especially in children and older people. Exposure to particles can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections." See a live map of the EPA's Air Quality Index for New England here. Read more about the health effects of smoke and particulate matter here.

EPA-certified Wood Stoves Burn Cleaner

Modern stoves, such those built after 1992 or those with an EPA certification, however, burn much more efficiently. In these stoves, particulate matter, smoke and other gases are themselves burned before leaving the wood stove. This results in far less pollution leaving the chimney. It also means, says the EPA, that EPA-certified stoves require one-third less wood than older stoves to produce the same amount of heat.

Use Care in Operating and Maintaining Wood Stoves

Poorly maintained or improperly used wood stoves can also be dangerous. It is important to make sure that the chimney through which the wood stove vents to the outdoors is clean and in good condition before firing up the wood stove each autumn. A good chimney sweep will come to your house and remove creosote that may have built up in the chimney last season and will advise you of any problems with your chimney that might make it unsafe.

Carbon Monoxide and Chimney Fire Dangers

Creosote builds up in the chimney when the fire inside the wood stove is burning inefficiently. Burning at too low a temperature, smoldering fires, or burning incompletely seasoned wood can cause dangerous levels of creosote to build up inside the chimney in a very short time. This can be dangerous for two reasons. First, if the chimney gets blocked smoke and deadly carbon monoxide is no longer vented to the outdoors. When this happens, it can be released into the house where it can reach dangerous or even deadly levels. Second, creosote is flammable. When the fire is stoked inside the wood stove, sparks or flames may reach high enough into the chimney to ignite the built-up creosote causing a chimney fire.

Avoid Christmas Chimney Fires

Throwing such items as used Christmas morning wrapping paper into a wood stove or fireplace can be extremely dangerous. The lightweight paper tends to float up into the chimney as it burns bringing hot ash or flames into direct contact with creosote in the chimney. I experienced this firsthand as a child one Christmas at a friend's house. Neighbors came to knock on the door and report huge amounts of smoke billowing from the chimney after we had discarded wrapping paper into the fireplace. Nothing puts a damper on holiday festivities like having the fire department arrive to put out a fire. Closing the damper to restrict air flow to the chimney fire spread the smoke into the house and we had to go stand outside in the cold while it was all taken care of. Fortunately, no one was hurt and no major damage was done to the house.

Wood Stoves Can be Safe and Efficient

Wood stoves, properly maintained and used, are a safe way to heat one's home. An EPA-certified wood stoves fueled by sustainably harvested firewood can be both cost-effective and environmentally friendly. Increasing our use of wood for winter heating is also one way to help lower our dependence on foreign oil. Read and follow the EPA's complete list of Best Burn Practices to keep your wood stove's operation safe and efficient.

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