and Our Hearths Warm
by Mike Minchin
Winter in New England brings with it memories of sitting around a woodstove, sipping hot chocolate or warming cold toes. The scent of wood smoke can stir fond memories or serve as a reminder of the hard work of splitting and stacking cordwood. Wood can provide a satisfying and efficient way to heat a home. But wood smoke, which contains a variety of toxic chemicals, isn’t good for our lungs, and smoke rolling out of chimneys indicates wasted energy.
The 2010 US Census showed wood was the fastest growing heating fuel in the country, so it’s more important than ever that we do it responsibly. Fine particles from wood smoke are harmful, especially for people with heart and lung conditions, children, and the elderly. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says, “short-term exposures to particles (hours or days) can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.”
Still, most of the roughly twelve million woodstoves in use in the U.S. are older, polluting models, which send an estimated 336,000 tons of emissions into the air each year. Modern, EPA-certified woodstoves, which are designed to burn smoke before it ever hits your chimney, are up to 90% cleaner than older models, and they are up to 50% more efficient, saving a lot of fuel.
The current EPA emissions limit is 7.5 grams per hour. There are already stoves on the market, some produced right here in New England, that produce less than 3 grams per hour. Recently, the EPA proposed a gradual tightening of their standards to reduce smoke emissions for all new woodstoves to 1.3 grams per hour. Older (pre-EPA) stoves, however, can emit a shocking 50 grams of smoke an hour. So possibly the most effective way to reduce wood smoke emissions is to replace those older stoves.
Replacing old stoves is not always easy, as it can cost a few thousand dollars to replace a woodstove, prohibitively expensive for many owners. Help is available, however. In 2009, the Vermont Burn Clean Woodstove Change-out Program gave out $450 vouchers to help support the purchase of a new, EPA-certified woodstove. About 200 woodstoves were replaced.
Massachusetts’s very successful Commonwealth Woodstove Change-Out Program gave vouchers of up to $2,000 to replace non-EPA-certified woodstoves. The vouchers could be used at a number of woodstove retailers, and over 750 older woodstoves were replaced.
Without federal or state dollars, it may be up to individual communities to fund and initiate change-out programs. Some towns, like Keene, New Hampshire, have done just that, since Keene had a particularly bad wood smoke problem.
Even if you have an EPA-certified woodstove, it needs to be operated properly to work efficiently. To check, just go outside when your stove is running and look at your chimney. If it is smoking, you are paying for fuel that is being lost as pollution. The stove may be to blame, or the chimney, the wood, or possibly technique. Modern woodstoves should emit no visible smoke, except for a few minutes when they are being lit or reloaded. With good technique even that smoke can be minimized or eliminated. You may see steam on the coldest days, but you should not see thick smoke rolling from the chimney.
Dry wood can go a long way to helping you achieve a clean burn. Ideally, wood that is about 20% moisture. If you have any doubt judging dryness, consider using a wood moisture meter (around $20). They are simple to use and more accurate than eyeballing cracks in your cordwood. Just split a piece open and take a reading from the center, not from the surface that has been exposed to air.
Burning wood cleanly and efficiently is in everyone’s interest, and it may be the best way to avoid a future of regulations regarding woodstove use. Some states already have laws restricting smoky chimneys. WashingtonState allows a maximum of 20% opacity for smoke exiting chimneys, except for lighting and reloading, making it illegal to smoke out your neighbor’s yard day after day.
We have the technology to burn wood efficiently. We owe it to our neighbors to utilize that technology properly. It’s up to us to keep our air clean, our communities healthy, and our hearths warm.
For more on wood heating issues, the author recommends www.woodheat.org.
Mike Minchin is a cardiovascular technologist, writer, and woodstove enthusiast. He earned his MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His fiction has received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train. His poetry has appeared in the journal Avocet. He lives in Bethel Vermont with his family.