Cozying up to a roaring fire sounds eco-friendly, in theory. After all, what’s a more natural fuel source than wood? Turns out, burning wood is really inefficient if you’re dealing with old fireplaces and woodstoves, which lose much of their heat through the chimney. Inefficient fires also produce excess smoke, which is not so hot in terms of local air quality.
Fortunately there is good news for earth-conscious fire-lovers: It’s not the wood that is the problem; it’s how we burn it. EcoMyths consulted a trio of cold-weather-dwelling experts (Eric Masanet, Ph.D., of Northwestern University, Tom Burack, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES); and Craig Wright, director of NHDES’ Air Resources Division) who helped us explain why—and how—to make the most of the wood we burn.
Smoke Pollution 101
A subtle smoke aroma is one thing for enhancing the cozy factor—but excess smoke in the air can cause some serious health woes. Those tiny airborne soot and ash particles can trigger chest tightness, aggravated asthma, irregular heartbeat and even heart attack, especially for people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children.
The particles may be tiny, but the implications can be huge. According to EPA Estimates, wood stoves and fireplaces contribute more than 345,000 tons of particle pollution into the air throughout the country each year.
Since excess smoke is a direct result of an inefficient fire, an inefficient fire doesn’t just waste fuel (in this case, wood)—it also contributes to particle pollution.
Burn It Better
Want to help protect local air quality, reduce wood waste, and stay cozy by the fireside? It’s all about updating the way you burn wood.
Another easy but powerful efficiency upgrade is to weatherize your home by sealing up leaks so that less heat escapes through cracks and gaps in doors, windows and floors.
For extra efficiency and public health credit, consider upgrading your old fireplace or woodstove to one of many new, clean EPA-certified options, which are 50 percent more efficient, use a third less wood to generate the same heat, and result in 70 percent less smoke pollution than the oldies. Prefer a fireplace? Make sure you have a liner and fan to significantly reduce heat loss.
So, fire-lovers, rejoice. You can green up your wood-burning routine simply by burning the right wood, the right way.
One Green Thing You Can Do: For a really cozy and low-smoke fire, use only hard, well-seasoned wood. Psst: For more on the science behind all this, read the myth.