Lauren R. Stevens: Make wood-burning efficient, healthier


WILLIAMSTOWN >> That gray curl of wood smoke from the chimney, so Currier & Ives, may actually be a sign of incomplete combustion, which spreads pollution and can lead to health problems. But wait, the negative effects can be mitigated.

A short history of heating with wood inside a home, as opposed to in a cave, might begin with the box-like fireplaces of Colonial days that required countless cords of wood and were so inefficient you had to sit inside them feel the warmth. Most modern fireplaces are similar, only smaller — with less room to sit.

Ben Franklin came up with a metal box stove (1741) that could actually heat a room. Count Rumford, although a Massachusetts native, was a loyalist who departed these shores in 1776. He redesigned fireplaces in Europe to be shallower and therefore more efficient (1790s). Shakers relied on secondary heat from long stove pipes, on which you can knock your noggin at Hancock Shaker Village.

The EPA's rulings on stove emissions in the 1990s furthered stoves that burned their own smoke, thereby greatly reducing pollution and increasing heat. Either the smoke passes through the hottest portion of the stove or through a catalytic combuster, similar to that in your automobile tailpipe (not including diesel VWs), before exiting.

In addition, pellet stoves came on the market which, because the wood is quite dry, are even more efficient. Masonry heaters, in which a brief burn heats the mass, are actually the oldest heaters of all, having been used in ancient Rome, from where they spread to Russia and northern Europe. They, too, have migrated to our shores.

Fireplaces, counting cool-down time, generally remove more heat than they add. Their use should be limited to an occasional aesthetic experience. Firewood should be dried, under cover, for at least six months; preferably a year. For heat, use only the newer wood stoves, certified by the Canadian government or the U.S. EPA, which reduce smoke emissions by as much as 90 percent over older models.

Burning wood for heat intelligently reduces reliance on fossil fuels. Wood is potentially a sustainable resource, although that requires care in wood lot management.

Even though chain saws burn gasoline, they are far kinder to the environment than excavating mountaintops for coal or drilling for oil or gas, let alone fracking. Using locally grown wood sends far less carbon dioxide into the air than transporting fossil fuels long distances — or deploying our armed forces to protect supplies.

As a tree grows, it draws CO2 from the air; carbon makes up nearly half of the weight of a piece of wood. When the tree dies or burns, it releases that carbon back to the air.

So burning wood gives off CO2, but the carbon given off by burning coal, oil or gas was sequestered underground, whereas the carbon given off by burning wood is already in play in the carbon cycle. Therefore burning wood is carbon neutral and does not contribute to global climate change. Leave coal, oil and gas underground.

Those who burn wood should have a source available within 25 miles. They should replace older stoves with certified ones. They should burn seasoned hardwood; never trash. The stove should be sized properly to avoid burning at less than full temperature. The more complete the combustion, the less pollution, the less health risk.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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