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Thinking the unthinkable about wood heating

Household energy strategy in tough times

When homeowners fear high energy prices, winter power outages or loss of income they turn in big numbers to wood heating. It is a recognized pattern that’s been apparent each time people lose confidence in conventional energy price and supply. This response is perfectly logical for people living outside the urban core because a wood stove installation is relatively inexpensive, firewood can be bought fairly cheaply (or scavenged) and the wood stove can keep the house warm without electricity. The thinking is that if everything goes to hell in a hand basket a wood stove can help get you through. That makes firewood a strategic fuel resource for families.

When governments mention strategic fuel resources, they talk about ensuring access to adequate oil supplies at reasonable prices and enough super tankers or pipeline capacity to move the stuff. They might talk about reserves of coal and natural gas, or reliable supplies of uranium for nuclear reactors. It is a rare government indeed that sees firewood as a strategic resource. Likely influenced by urban environmentalism, governments across North America usually file wood heating under pollution problem or health risk. Burning wood is viewed as expendable because most of it is burned for ambience in dusty fireplaces that don’t heat anyway, isn’t it?

It would seem to be one of the many differences in the way families assess household security compared to how governments deal with national security.

So, why all this talk about hand baskets and strategic fuels? It started with a reference to home heating in a rather dark prediction about the near-term future by Connecticut energy specialist Jim Cameron:

“With home heating oil at $12 a gallon, people close off rooms in their “McMansions” and huddle in the few remaining spaces they can afford to heat, usually with wood stoves, which are also in short supply. Winter’s gloom is augmented by a constant gray haze of wood smoke.”

Cameron is not the first person to mention that if large numbers of desperate suburban households decided to heat with wood air quality would suffer, as would the forest resources. In fact, that prospect is probably the biggest reason why governments are shy about being seen to support the use of firewood for heating.

Then Dave Cohen, a regular columnist on energy and other predicaments we face wrote:

“The housing market is still unravelling, as foreclosures and delinquencies on underwater properties continue to rise. This is a direct consequence of the collapse of the Housing Bubble, yet it's been nearly 4 years since home prices first started to fall. . . But in 5, 7 or 10 years, the average cost of liquid fuels will be much, much higher than it is now. This is where things get messy, because in the future, I expect there to be a series of oil price shocks followed by periods of low demand and recession, just as we saw in the 2007-2010 period.”

But why, you might ask, should there be more oil price shocks? Richard Heinberg, noted author on the subject of peak oil (The Party's Over, Powerdown, etc.) recently offered this short answer:

“While the Earth still possesses a wealth of unexploited energy resources, the cheapest and easiest-accessed of those resources have by now already been used. All of these fuels are in the process of becoming more expensive, and the various energy alternatives are limited in one way or another in their ability to replace hydrocarbons. “

If we assume for the moment that Cameron, Cohen and Heinberg are right that we face an uncertain energy future, and along with that some economic unpleasantness, and if we predict based on past experience that very large numbers of households will begin to burn wood for home heating, what could be done to minimize air pollution and deforestation? Notice how just posing the question seems a little outrageous. But let us pursue it briefly based on the wisdom of the precautionary principal; i.e., plan for the worst, just in case the worst happens.

There is plenty of evidence that using the best available wood heating technology can reduce smoke emissions, although maybe not as much as some people would like. For now, the best available technology is wood stoves, fireplaces, furnaces and boilers that are certified as meeting EPA’s smoke emission limits. It has been illegal in the U.S. for twenty years to sell wood stoves and fireplace inserts that are not EPA certified, but the rules are full of holes that have allowed a lot of smoky equipment to be sold.

In preparation for the scary future we anticipate speculatively, regulations at all levels of government could become increasingly aggressive in banning the sale (or even resale) of conventional smoky wood burners and swapping out existing smokers for better burners. Handled badly, that kind of regulation can cause a huge public backlash.

The decades-long trend of building ever bigger houses will reverse as people try to heat smaller spaces to save fuel. The result will be lower consumption of wood per capita than might be implied by a straight projection from today’s data.

Those of us that heat with wood could learn to burn a lot better than we do now. On average, we collectively do a lousy job of wood heating; our firewood is too wet and it is not split small enough to burn properly. And we run our stoves, fireplaces, furnaces and boilers in ways that produce more smoke than necessary. Bad fuel and operating practices can mean that even advanced technology appliances smoke more than necessary, albeit less than older conventional equipment would under the same conditions of misuse.

Sure, there are some people who have paid attention, practiced and learned to burn wood without making a lot of smoke, but the rest of us who don’t know how to burn wood properly are not learning from them. Heck, most of us don’t know that we don’t know how to burn wood. In rural areas there are people who have heated with wood all their lives, and their parents before them, yet they have no clue how to burn wood properly, as signalled by the plumes of smoke from their chimneys.

If governments thought of firewood as a strategic fuel that could help relieve some of the economic and social pressure that our dark scenario suggests, they would support research to find out from the people who know how to burn and pass it on to those who don’t, and do it in a way that makes it easy. Is that so hard? Apparently it is because no one has ever done serious research into the practice of building and maintaining wood fires.

There is a lurking assumption among some decision-makers that there is no real technique involved, but these are normally people who don’t heat a house full time with wood. The assumption is manifestly incorrect as evidenced by the plumes of smoke so depressingly common in small towns and rural areas now. There is obviously quite a lot of technique involved, but it has never been authoritatively documented. The result is that no one can say with confidence, “this method of building and maintaining a wood fire will result in lower smoke emissions”. A secondary result is that the public information materials that do exist were developed by technical people and are necessarily superficial because they are based on opinions and assumptions. Believe that or not.

If firewood was considered a strategic fuel, governments would be a lot more interventionist than they are now. This would probably drive a lot of wood burners crazy, especially those with a strong independent streak, which could be a high percentage.

At the community level it might be possible to form cooperative firewood production and seasoning companies aimed at ensuring that the majority of the community was burning high quality firewood, meaning wood that is dry and the right size. In some regions such an idea might gain traction, but in others it might be considered socialist.

The industry that supplies appliances, chimneys and the other products used in wood burning has so far been unable to create good operating guidelines, mainly because there is no financial incentive to do so. We hear bitter complaints from new owners about how the user instructions supplied with modern wood stoves are almost completely useless, having apparently been written either by the engineering staff or lawyers, groups not noted for clear communications skills. Maybe some kind of partnership between industry and government could muster the necessary resources to research and develop some decent public information on how to run a wood burner.

Experience over the past thirty years suggests that without the leadership of government in the field of wood heating, not much changes. This effect is most noticeable in the regulatory and professional training system established in Canada during the 1980s and in EPA's intervention on smoke emission limits in the same period. Those interventions produced dramatic change for the better, change that could never have happened without them. Maybe governments will see the need this time and step in to provide leadership during the energy transition that looks likely.

More likely, though, governments will continue to take advice from the Wall Street types who have been wrong so often, and to ignore the writing on the wall until it is too late. They will continue to push back against wood heating, unwilling to be positive enough to say it is something worth doing properly. They will continue to go through the motions of informing people about reducing smoke pollution using the same superficial advice that has not worked for the past thirty years.

In general, governments don’t use the precautionary principal in their planning. It is not good for the stock market to talk about prospects for a looming energy crisis, economic contraction, high unemployment and inflation. Even though there are plenty of qualified people offering dire warnings about the consequences of peak oil, climate change and access to water, to name just three, it seems politically inconvenient to act on them. As a result, it is equally unlikely that governments will take steps to mitigate the possible bad effects of mass adoption of wood heating.

The heads of households will do what they must to protect their families in times of trouble. If they calculate that burning firewood is the right way to keep their family safe, then that is what they’ll do, despite any whining from government about smoke pollution.

Lacking the political will and resources to invest in good public information and creative regulations that support effective wood heating, governments might resort to simplistic bans and other draconian restrictions. The result of that could be some very serious blowback from people who see their household energy security differently than the government does.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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