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Are more people turning to wood heating?

The opening paragraph of some newspaper and magazine articles about wood heating make the claim that more households are burning wood due to the high cost of conventional energy sources. This assumption is logical enough considering there is plenty of income insecurity and increasing costs lately. But a review of the few available sources of statistics calls this conclusion into question.

One of the problems in tracking the popularity of wood heating is that there are few reliable sources that collect and report statistics in a consistent way from year to year. The other issue is that some people burn wood in fireplaces for aesthetic purposes and this sometimes leads to uncertainty about how many people actually use wood as an energy source for home heating.

Despite the limitations of the available statistics, there are some indications that residential wood heating is in decline in North America.

Below is a chart showing a steady decline from 1989 to 2005 in the number of Americans who burn wood at home. The only exception was a small bump in 1999 to 2001 when concern about the Y2K problem prompted a lot of people to buy wood burners.


From: Industry Profile: Residential Wood Heaters Draft Report August 2010 prepared by RTI for EPA. Source: U.S. Housing and Urban Development [HUD].

And below are summary figures from Statistics Canada reports from 1997 and 2006 showing a very slight increase in wood burning in rural areas (less than 10,000 population) and an almost 18 percent reduction in urban areas.

Comparison of 1997 and 2006 Surveys: Percentage of Canadian Households Reporting Burning Any Wood

1997

2006

% Change

Total Canada

<10,000

42

43

+2.4

10,000+

22

19

-17.6

Total Canada

28

26

-7.1

Compiled from: Residential Fuelwood Combustion in Canada, TNS Canadian Facts for Environment Canada, April 1999 and 2006.

People involved in the hearth business have said many times that when economic times get tough and conventional energy prices rise, people turn to wood heat. We at woodheat.org have made that claim because past evidence seemed to support it. The last few years certainly qualify in terms of economic uncertainty and high fuel costs, so what has happened since middle of the last decade when the above figures were published?

Sales have continued to fall, according to an editorial in the January 2011 edition of Hearth & Home magazine. Editor Richard Wright reported that in 2009 cordwood appliance sales dropped a whopping 35 percent and, although the slide slowed for the first three quarters of 2010, sales still fell three percent from the disastrous year before.

Sales in Canada didn’t collapse as much in 2009 as they did in the US, but 2010 overall hearth sales were down another four percent from the lousy year before.

These figures raise two interesting questions. First, why doesn’t the conventional wisdom about wood heater sales in tough times hold true any more? And the other question is, why do journalists think a big increase in wood heating is still underway?

I don’t have any hard data on which to base answers to these questions, but I do have a theory that I’m willing to share in the form of two more questions.

Is it possible that all the negative news about wood heating pollution on the internet and other media has seeped into the public consciousness to the extent that the first thought that crosses people’s minds when they think of wood heating is unhealthy smoke, and that this turns families who might otherwise consider heating with wood against the whole idea?

And is it also possible that all the columns and letters to the editor from the increasingly well-organized anti-wood burning activists across North America, combined with campaigns by government health and environment departments and health industry NGOs, have created the impression of a rapid increase in wood heating that journalists have picked up on?

The cosy warmth of a wood heater used to elicit positive feelings in most people and even envy on the part of people whose urban location made heating with wood impractical. People actually used to say they liked a hint of wood smoke in the air. But now I hear hearth dealers, even those in small towns, saying that when some customers are shown a wood burning appliance, they respond, "No way! Wood is a filthy polluting fuel that I won't use because it damages the environment."

An internet-based news clipping service fills our email inbox with notices of media articles on wood heating and wood smoke. The overwhelming majority of the stories that greet me when I open email in the morning are negative about wood burning. Maybe this daily onslaught of bad news is what leads me to the hypothesis that fewer people are heating with wood because it is seen in a negative light, while the media thinks so many more people are turning to wood burning that air quality is under threat.

Here is one example from the past two days. The story got its big launch in North America on February 5, 2011 when the American Chemical Society published the results of a Danish study in an article titled: Air pollutants from fireplaces and wood-burning stoves raise health concerns

The report then went viral as major news agencies, blogs and medical groups picked it up and gave it their own spin. A sample:

UPI: Cozy wood heat may harm health

Fox News: Wood Stoves May Cause Cancer, Heart Disease

The Medical News: Wood smoke may create adverse health effects in humans

Top News: Beware! Your wood-burning stove may be harming your health

This is but a small sample of the dozens of articles we've reviewed, all prompted by a short article that didn't reveal anything new about the health effects of wood smoke, considering that concerns about some constituents of wood smoke being likely carcinogens has been public knowledge for at least 25 years that I am aware of.

It is self-evident that the number of users can’t be declining and rising at the same time. But is it possible that wood smoke pollution is increasing; that each household still burning wood is making more smoke? In this context it could be noted that the rise in anti-wood smoke activism coincided with the remarkable popularity of outdoor boilers, which are notorious for making a lot of smoke and driving the neighbors crazy. Certainly, the majority of people emailing woodheat.org looking for relief from their neighbor’s wood smoke have said the source is an outdoor boiler. While it seems that smoky outdoor boilers have spawned plenty of anti-wood heating sentiment, it is hardly fair to lay the full blame on just one category of heating equipment.

Maybe the public’s sensitivity to wood smoke is increasing, even as the amount of smoke in the air is reduced. After all, it has now been more than twenty years since EPA forced stove manufacturers to produce cleaner burning products. Although it is a slower transition than many of us would prefer, the number of conventional (pre-EPA) heaters still in use continues to fall as they are changed out for new stoves. Even outdoor boilers are now being emissions tested and new designs are available.

There is a constant drumbeat in the North American media about the terrifying health impacts caused by wood smoke. Some writers, and even researchers writing for a North American audience, seem to blend together reports of health impacts of wood smoke on women and children in developing countries with complaints of wood smoke in U.S. and Canadian cities. This practice may not be intentional in all cases, but it is seriously misleading because millions of people in developing countries cook their food on unvented (open) wood and dung fires, often right inside their houses. The health impacts are terrible. But in rich countries like ours, cooking over open fires is rare, except for outdoor barbecuing, which is entirely discretionary. It is apparent that some writers quote from articles about conditions in developing countries and try to make the case that residential wood heating in North America has exactly the same effects.

Now, maybe I notice this apparent hysteria about the health horrors of wood smoke just because I seek out media mentions of wood heating, but, having tracked media mentions for some years now, I can report that the number of scary articles about wood smoke has grown noticeably, as has the aggressive tone taken by activists.

Of course, one doesn't want to over-react to the rush of articles that adopt a negative tone about wood heating. After all, there is hardly an energy source that doesn't get thoroughly trashed in the media these days. Consider the resistance to nuclear energy, tar sands, Middle East oil, outrage over the Gulf oil spill; natural gas fracking; the vicious backlash against wind farms and even solar farms; wasted subsidies on ethanol; mountain top removal coal mining and on and on. It seems that virtually all energy sources are viewed with skepticism. The big difference with residential wood heating is that all the other energy sources being attacked have friends in high places to defend them. Wood heating has few friends aside from the households that depend on it for low-cost warmth.

At a time when the available evidence suggests that fewer families heat their homes with wood, the public is getting the message that wood smoke is a growing threat to everyone's health. The majority of articles we reviewed make no mention of improved technology that reduces smoke emissions from EPA certified wood stoves. The Fox News headline above "Wood Stoves May Cause Cancer, Heart Disease" nicely illustrates the way all wood stoves are implicated, not just the old conventional models.

This relentless vilification of wood burning - of the one energy source that regular people can have some control over - seems to be gaining momentum. We wonder where it will all end. Is the real wood fire for home heating headed for extinction?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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