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Straight answers to tough questions about wood heat - Part 2

Wood stove dealers are often faced with challenging questions from customers or from reporters about the environmental suitability of wood as a home heating fuel. We thought up some really hard questions and answered them as briefly as possible. Vanessa Perciival, Ontario distributor of Jotul stoves and other brands, allowed us to publish the first five Straight Answers here on Nov. 23. Today's post is of answers six through ten. Here is an MS Word file of the whole set. Feel free to distribute the article provided you give suitable credit and don't alter it without permission.
John Gulland

When a local journalist asks for an interview you never know what kind of question you might be asked. With negative news about wood smoke pollution in the media these days, there is a good chance you will be asked an awkward question. You don’t want to be stumped, first because it is embarrassing and second because you’ll miss an opportunity to set the record straight. You might even be asked difficult questions by customers who need assurance that wood heating doesn’t have to be ‘dirty’. Here is a list of awkward questions you might be asked:

  1. Shouldn’t we be using new sources of energy instead of going back to older, polluting sources?
  2. If everyone heated with wood, wouldn’t the air be polluted and wouldn’t the forests be destroyed?
  3. Shouldn’t we be planting trees to combat global warming instead of cutting them down and burning them?
  4. Isn’t the idea that advanced technology, EPA certified appliances limit pollution to acceptable levels just spin put out by industry lobbyists, supported by gullible bureaucrats?
  5. Isn’t it selfish for a householder to heat with wood to save a bit of money when they are polluting their neighbours’ air in doing so?
  6. When all the time and work and maintenance expenses are considered, isn’t it just as expensive to heat with wood as with oil, gas and electricity?
  7. Greenhouse gases are emitted when wood is burned, so when you cut down a tree and burn it, aren’t you contributing to global warming?
  8. Doesn’t wood heating cause a lot more house fires than oil, gas or electricity?
  9. Isn’t the fact that the Lung Association says wood stoves pollute indoor and outdoor air a convincing argument for restricting wood burning?
  10. With landfill sites filling up fast, and the costs of disposal rising, isn’t it practical to reduce household garbage by burning paper and cardboard in a wood stove?


6. When all the time and work and maintenance expenses are considered, isn’t it just as expensive to heat with wood as with oil, gas and electricity?

Possibly, but it depends where the household is and how much work its members are willing to do. If a household in a large urban area bought their firewood split, seasoned and delivered, they would probably pay at least as much as they would for the equivalent heating with natural gas. However, a household in a rural area that was prepared to harvest the trees and process the wood themselves could save a lot of money each year.

But heating with wood is about a lot more than home heating and saving money. It is a tangible expression of self-reliance and a rejection of sedentary, push-button convenience. It also provides heating cost stability, and security in case of electrical power failure.

7. Greenhouse gases are emitted when wood is burned, so when you cut down a tree and burn it, aren’t you contributing to global warming?

True, carbon dioxide (CO2) is released when wood is burned, but the carbon content of the wood was absorbed from the atmosphere by the trees as they grew. About half the weight of dry wood is carbon from the CO2 the tree absorbed.

A woodlot receives energy from the sun that powers its growth through a process called photosynthesis. The woodlot ‘banks’ carbon every year, so its carbon savings increase annually. We can withdraw some of that carbon in the form of firewood to heat our houses, provided we never take as much as the woodlot banks in a year. That is how a well-managed woodlot that may have supplied a household with firewood every year for generations can improve in value over the decades.

On the other hand, when trees fall in the forest and decompose they release the same amount of carbon dioxide as if they were burned. In heating our houses with wood, we are simply tapping into the natural carbon cycle in which CO2 flows from the atmosphere to the forest and back. When considered over the roughly 50 to 100 year life cycle of trees, wood energy can be considered almost greenhouse gas neutral.

For every cord of wood used for home heating instead of oil, more than a tonne of carbon is kept out of the atmosphere. Households outside large urban areas could easily cut their carbon emissions by four tonnes each winter by substituting firewood for two 200 gallon tanks of fuel oil.

8. Doesn’t wood heating cause a lot more house fires than oil, gas or electricity?

No, but it used to. Wood heating systems caused many house fires in the 1970s and early 1980s when tens of thousands of homeowners turned to wood heating in response to the first energy crisis of those years. The problem back then was that there were virtually no safety systems in place to help in the correct installation of wood heating systems. Homeowners tended to think that wood heat safety was just a matter of 'common sense', so they installed stoves themselves without much guidance.

Starting in the early 1980s when it became apparent that there was a serious safety problem with wood heating, government and industry rushed to develop safety standards. These led to much better stoves, fireplaces and furnaces that were accompanied by reliable installation instructions giving safe installation clearances. The industry is now much more sophisticated. Wood stoves are tested and certified for low smoke emissions as well as safety. Installers and chimney sweeps have become professionally certified by attending courses and passing examinations. The result has been a dramatic reduction in house fires related to wood heating. Today, a correctly installed, operated and maintained wood heating system is no more likely to cause a house fire than an oil, gas or electric heating system.

9. Isn’t the fact that the Lung Association says wood stoves pollute indoor and outdoor air a convincing argument for restricting wood burning?

It is true that the Lung Association has been critical of wood burning, and some of its regional representatives have made extreme comments* in the media, but the Association itself is remarkably moderate, considering that it is a special interest group dedicated to respiratory health. Their web site says wood burning “can release pollutants into the air we breathe, especially when poor burning techniques and wood burning appliances are used”. The Association promotes the use of EPA certified appliances and other methods to reduce exposure to wood smoke pollution. This is consistent with the position of the Canadian wood heat industry, which since 1990 has promoted legislation to control the emissions from new wood heating appliances, similar to the EPA rules. Yes, the Lung Association advocates for restrictions on wood smoke and so does the wood heating industry.

* Louis Brisson, director of the Quebec Lung Association, called the particulates from wood-burning stoves “a silent killer; it’s killing our children.” The West Island Gazette, November 27, 2008

Mr Brisson’s comment is out of step with the position of the national association. While the damage this kind of comment does cannot be dismissed, it should be seen as coming from a local representative who got carried away in a media interview and who does not speak for the national organization.

10. With landfill sites filling up fast, and the costs of disposal rising, does it make sense to reduce household garbage by burning paper and cardboard in a wood stove?

No, burning waste of any kind can produce serious environmental consequences. Paper and cardboard can have toxic inks, plastic coatings and unknown chemical additives. Few if any of these contaminants are destroyed at the temperatures common in wood stoves. The result is an unknown toxic cocktail of smoke from the chimney. Wood stoves are tested and certified for use only with clean, seasoned, uncoated firewood. Small amounts of uncoloured newspaper can be used to light fires because newsprint is usually the least processed form of paper and some newspaper inks are vegetable-based, although others still contain petroleum. The best way to reduce household waste is to reject heavily packaged products and recycle the packaging you do buy.

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