EPA: How to Burn Wood Safely and Efficiently
As cooler temperatures return in the Northeast, more and more New Englanders are turning to wood as a cost-saving, renewable source of energy.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminds New Englanders and others that wood heaters may emit more pollutants into the air than the heat sources they replace, such as oil or natural gas. By following some easy recommendations and tips, users can help ensure that wood is burned in a manner that is both safe and efficient.
Burning wood in older (pre-1992) and non EPA-certified wood stoves typically produces smoke, which contains particle pollution and other contaminants. Particle pollution can cause serious health effects, especially in children and older people. Exposure to particles can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.
To help inform residents about particle-pollution levels, EPA provides maps at www.epa.gov/ne/aqi/index.html showing real-time particle levels and air-quality forecasts throughout New England. EnviroFlash, a free service provided by EPA and the New England states, provides air-quality alerts via e-mail or cell phone to those who sign up on the website.
To reduce exposure to particle pollution, EPA recommends that people replace their old wood stoves with professionally installed EPA-certified wood or pellet stoves. All wood stoves manufactured since 1988 must be EPA-certified. These certified wood stoves have better insulation and air flow so that more of the toxic gases and particles are burned inside the stove, producing less smoke. As a result, they use one-third less wood than older stoves for the same amount of heat and also emit 50 to 60 percent less air pollution. EPA-certified stoves are easy to identify because they carry a special label and white hang tag. You can also check EPA’s list of certified wood stoves on EPA’s Burn Wise website.
Some New Englanders may also choose to heat their homes or businesses with outdoor hydronic heaters (also called outdoor wood heaters or outdoor wood boilers). These heaters are usually located in outdoor sheds. Typically, they burn wood to heat liquid (water or water-antifreeze) that is piped to nearby buildings to provide heat, hot water, or both. Hydronic heaters may be located indoors and may use biomass fuel other than cordwood, such as corn or wood pellets. Although the concept may be appealing, hydronic heaters commonly produce excessive amounts of smoke and can negatively impact nearby residences.
EPA has a successful voluntary program that encourages manufacturers to produce cleaner hydronic heaters. The program is now in Phase 2 and offers heaters that are about 90 percent cleaner than older, unqualified models. Like EPA-certified wood stoves, EPA-qualified hydronic heaters (Phase 2) have a white hang tag and are listed on the Burn Wise website.
Regardless of the type of wood-burning appliance used, everyone can take measures to save money and protect their health and the health of their neighbors. Here are a few tips:
- Consider pollution emissions and potential health effects as well as cost when selecting a heating source;
- Upgrade to an EPA-certified woodstove or other clean-burning technology;
- All firewood should be properly seasoned and dry, which means it should be split and securely covered for at least six months;
- Never burn trash or treated wood, which can emit toxic air pollutants;
- Only use a clean newspaper or dry kindling to start a fire, never gasoline, kerosene, charcoal or a propane torch;
- Never let a fire smolder – this increases air pollution and does not provide heat;
- Have your heating system inspected once a year with particular attention to vents and chimneys - don’t just rely on a carbon-monoxide alarm;
- Reduce your overall heating needs and heating bills by improving the insulation in your home; caulking around windows, doors, and pipes to seal air gaps; and adding weather-stripping to doors and windows.