Myth: Building a Fire Is Eco-Friendly by Nature

Fired Up for a Greener Wood-Burning Experience?

Throwing a couple of logs on the fire may seem like the ultimate in green warmth, but the fact that wood is as natural as it gets doesn’t make burning it earth-friendly. That’s because inefficient old fireplaces and woodstoves lose a lot of heat, plus the smoke can make local air unhealthy to breathe. Generally speaking, a modern furnace coupled with smart thermostat use is the most efficient, cleanest way to cozy up your pad.

Does that mean stoking up a romantic fire or otherwise burning wood is a no-go for the earth-lover? Thankfully, not at all. But there are some major opportunities for us to improve efficiency in our use of wood. To learn how—and why to bother—we turned to a trio of experts from some especially wintry climes, including resource use analyst Eric Masanet, PhD, of Northwestern University in Chicago; Tom Burack, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services; and Craig Wright, director of New Hampshire Air Resources Agency.

First up, a little intel on the big problem with inefficient wood-burning.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes…and Lungs

A blazing fire can set the mood for love—and for local air pollution.

The quick fine print is that tiny, airborne particles of soot and ash accumulate in both the inside and outside air from wood burning. These particles can cause an array of health woes, from chest tightness to aggravated asthma, irregular heartbeat and even heart attack, according to the EPA. This particle pollution is linked to an uptick in ER and hospital visits, and can be especially harmful for people with heart or lung disease older adults, and children—especially those that are running around breathing a lot.

Interestingly, the teensiness of these particles is what makes them so sketchy: Anything less than 10 micrometers in diameter can get deep into your lungs, and potentially even into your bloodstream, therefore potentially affecting both your lungs and your heart. The fine particles found in smoke are 2.5 micrometers around or less. That’s 28 times smaller around than a single strand of human hair, points out the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, which advocates swapping out old wood stoves with modern, efficient options like these EPA-certified options.

This pollution builds up tremendously in outdoor areas where firewood is abundant. Craig Wright explains that in New Hampshire, a lot of people use wood stoves all night long in winter. Sometimes, a cold night inversion occurs, reducing air circulation and trapping in the smoke and particulates below in the valleys. It’s not just a New Hampshire issue, either. 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, with residential wood-burning accounting for 44 percent of total particle emissions, and nearly 25 percent of the most toxic emissions.

Building a cozy fire is a cuddly idea. But with many types of old fireplaces and woodstoves, a lot of that cuddly heat is actually sucked right out the chimney. It’s an uneven heat, too, so unless you live in a one-room cabin, even the most roaring of fires is not likely to keep you toasty in other parts of the house.

But Wait! Wood Can Still Be Eco-Good

Clearly burning wood can cause some eco-headaches—but it’s not the wood that is the problem, it’s how we burn it. Wright is among many policy-makers who believe there are indeed advantages to using wood—especially in New England states where the supply is renewable and locally generated. It’s just a matter of using wood resources more efficiently.

WetWoodIsWaste-BurnWiseFor starters, we can choose the right wood to ensure hotter, cleaner fires. The EPA’s BurnWise program recommends using hard, well-seasoned wood to ensure your fire burns hotter and with less smoke. You can tell wood is dry enough when it is lighter, has cracks in the grain on the end, and sounds hollow when knocked against another piece of wood.

The next step is to invest in newer, more efficient woodstoves, like those that the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services championed a couple of years ago with its woodstove “changeout campaign.” This is an important update because, as Commissioner Burack points out, until recently, companies that make wood stoves simply didn’t pay much attention to what comes out the stack. “There were no design requirements for burning clean,” he says. Now, however, there are plenty of clean EPA-certified options to consider in the effort to replace the 9 million dirty old woodstoves used in the U.S. today. The EPA picks are 50 percent more efficient, use a third less wood to generate the same heat, and result in 70 percent less smoke pollution. Bam.

Our experts reco woodstoves over fireplaces generally, but if you’re more of a fireplace type, ensuring you have a fireplace liner and fireplace fan is a big way to increase its efficiency.

Looking ahead, there’s even greater potential for wood as fuel on the horizon, judging by success stories in Northern Europe, for one. There, explains Masanet, central forced air is often fueled by an engineered wood-pellet burning furnace, which creates clean, efficient heat. One study commissioned by the New York State Energy and Development Authority, found that moving to clean wood-pellet burning furnaces helped Austrian boiler efficiency increase from 55 percent to more than 90 percent, far exceeding European standards.

As far as that cozy old-fashioned log fire? You can still do it! Just make the most of the wood resource you’re using by ensuring it’s super-dry.

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted

Building a fire indoors is not inherently eco-friendly because of its various environmental drawbacks, from unhealthy particulate pollution to excessive heat loss through the chimney. However, there are some great efficiency-oriented tactics you can use to make the most of the wood you use, and increasingly, regions with access to sustainable wood supply are finding eco-value in capitalizing on wood as a fuel on a larger scale. The bottom line is, building a fire may not be eco-friendly by nature—but you can make it green by design. 

One Green Thing

OneGreenThing-Firewood-EcoMythsWhen you want to cozy up next to a fire, score a more efficient burn by using hard, untreated wood that has been dry, split, and seasoned for at least six months. You can tell it’s dry enough if it’s light-colored, has cracks in the grain on the end, and sounds hollow when knocked against another piece of wood.

More ways to improve heating efficiency in your home:

  • Follow EPA’s Burnwise tips on how to properly dry wood
  • If you use a wood stove to heat your home, consider investing in an EPA-certified wood stove
  • To green an existing fireplace, install a liner and fan to increase efficiency
  • Weatherize your home so you can maximize heat by keeping it inside

The Multiplier Effect

Opt for wood with 20 percent moisture over 30 percent moisture, and you can reduce your fire’s air-polluting emissions by 67 percent, according to research cited by the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. (Use these EPA tips to look for wood with no more than 20 percent moisture content.)