Wood Stoves and Pellet Stoves
The question of wood burning as an eco-friendly heat source is one we’ve seen generate some passionate arguments on both sides. Those against say the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is too fast, the particulates in the smoke and exhaust gasses destroy air quality, and felling trees for fuel is further damaging the environment.
Those for it say wood burning is carbon-neutral, because the tree first removed CO2 from the air and is only releasing what it absorbed when alive as it’s burned, that the CO2 is released as the tree dies and decays anyway, albeit more slowly, and that wood from managed forests is renewable.
Then those against come back with “managed smanaged!” When you start burning wood in your new stove, you’ll just keep on burning it, and chances are you won’t know where your wood is coming from. Most people buy their wood from firewood vendors, and there is no guarantee that it’s coming from responsibly managed forests or wood lots.
But there’s nothing quite like a nice fire in the fireplace on a cold winter’s night to warm up a home. What’s an après snow shoveler to do?
You could consider a natural gas-fired stove or fireplace. Chances are you already have gas piped into your home to feed your furnace. Approximately 70% of U.S. homes use natural gas to power the furnace. If you already have a gas hookup, routing a line to a fireplace or freestanding stove would not be difficult, but consider this: the production of natural gas (drilling for it, finding it, and getting it to market) is said to have peaked in the United States in 1971 and in Canada in 2002. A December 2003 report by Walter Youngquist and Richard C. Duncan appearing on the Minnesotans For Sustainability website says that North American overall gas production is in decline.
This is corroborated and well documented in Julian Darley’s book “High Noon for Natural Gas.” (Chelsea Green -September 1, 2004) This means we can look forward to continually rising natural gas prices and eventually supply problems. Maybe you don’t want your house entirely dependent on petroleum products for its heat. Perhaps it would make sense to diversify your home’s heating portfolio.
And there’s also that certain something about wood heat. It does feel good.
So, if you were going to burn wood for heat, how would you do it responsibly?
The two critical factors in the equation are:
1. efficacy of your wood source
2. efficiency of your stove or fireplace
Make the effort to find a wood supply that comes from already-downed or waste wood, or from a verifiably managed forest. Look in your local yellow pages for professional foresters or call your department of natural resources to find certified forests and forest products operations.
Don’t buy wood from someone who is just out there hacking down trees to sell the wood.
I did a quick search for certified forests and forest products companies in Michigan using the Metafore online database.
We have six companies and forest locations that are certified as responsibly managed by one or more of three global certification bodies. Each listing includes contact information. While these companies may not specialize in firewood, they work in forests managed for sustainability and would be a likely place to start a search for “responsible” fuel wood.
Now, how about that stove? First, a traditional hearth and andiron fireplace is not going to be very efficient. To achieve an efficient burn and heat output, you’ll need a stove or an insert for your fireplace.
Stoves used to be quite inefficient too. The old barrel-on-legs with a chimney pipe running through the ceiling can cough up some heat if you start a blaze therein and keep jamming split logs into its mouth, but you’ll also be spewing plenty of heat and smoke up the chimney.
MetaEfficient.com, an independent reviews web site (http://www.metaefficient.com/heating/efficient-wood-burning-stoves.html ) , tells us that older conventional stoves emitted 30 to 80 grams of particulate matter (that would be the smoke that gives your neighborhood that festive, autumnal flavor, but in high concentrations makes your air unhealthy to breathe) per hour while newer, EPA approved stoves have reduced that output to as little as 3 grams per hour. Okay, that’s a significant (90%) reduction.
The metaefficient.com site then goes on to say that wood pellet stoves burn approximately three times (3X) cleaner than the efficient EPA rated stoves. We haven’t been in the wood stove market for over twenty years, but it sounds like this is a place where technology has made dramatic improvements.
The February/March issue of “Mother Earth News” has an informative feature article on installing and heating with wood pellet stoves. While they do require electricity (about 100watts during normal operation) to run a fan and worm drive to move the fuel from a hopper through the burn box and to disperse the heat into your living space, they are still notably more efficient than other types of stoves and fireplaces at converting wood (and other organic materials) into heat.
The article points out a couple of vital pieces to a happy pellet stove experience:
1. Have it installed by a professional, and run an eight to ten foot vertical exhaust flue up an exterior wall, even though the specifications don’t require it. This protects you from gassing yourself should the electricity go out and the exhaust fan stop working. The fire will go out should this happen, but the gasses and fumes that accumulate while it does will escape into your house. Not good, dangerous in fact. But if you have a tall vertical flue, the natural draw will sufficiently vent the gasses to the outside while the fire dies.
2. Get good pellets. They should be compressed from mill leavings, sawdust, and should be high energy, low ash, preferably hard wood. A brand called Cubex is apparently a reliable fuel source. Keep them dry. If they get wet, the expand and don’t burn as efficiently.
We don’t have a fireplace or woodstove in our house, and don’t like the idea that a gas shortage or extended blackout could jeopardize our ability to heat our home.
An efficient wood stove and a supply of “responsible” wood stacked up in the back yard would help take care of that concern.
We could also go with a pellet stove to more efficiently convert the wood into heat, but to do it right, we’d need a backup electricity source to keep the stove heating should the power go out.