From Engineering on December 29, 2008 in Air Conditioning & Heating
At the turn of the century, roughly 90 percent of American families used wood to heat their homes. By 1970 the total was down to one percent. The energy crisis of that decade, however, revived wood heating in the American conscious. Here in the new millennium history is repeating itself as, in the face of record energy prices (despite the recent decline), homeowners once again turn to wood and other renewable fuel sources for warmth.
Still there is much debate about how beneficial for the environment wood heat actually is. Many municipalities feel it is detrimental to local air quality and have passed measures limiting the use of fireplaces, wood stoves, and other wood burning appliances. Just last month, The Bay Area Air Quality Management District initiated a ban on wood burning on certain winter days in the nine counties surrounding San Francisco. This came with a healthy measure of resentment from many area homeowners and members of the local wood heat industry.
So is wood heat the cheap, renewable, efficient heat source that proponents claim? Or is it a real danger to local air quality and public health? What are the pros and cons?
- Cheap. Wood heat is inexpensive. According to this calculator (at default settings energy costs and savings will vary by location), wood heat’s annual costs are roughly one-third the amount of oil and electric heat, one-fourth that of propane, half the cost of natural gas, and about $150 cheaper than coal.
- Renewable. Wood is a local and renewable resource. Carbon dioxide released by burning wood is recycled back into young trees. Essentially wood contains stored energy from the sun which, upon burning, is released back into the cycle.
- Local. Rather than sending a check to some large corporation, money is circulated among the local economy in terms of extra money you have to spend locally and the money you give your neighbor to cut and/or deliver the wood.
- Independent. Should the energy grid fail, a home with a fireplace still has available heat.
- Promotes Informed Energy Efficiency. It takes responsibility and attention to detail to really save money while effectively heating the home. Newer fireplaces and wood stoves rival other energy sources in efficiency as well. Arguably, wood burning homeowners tend to pay more attention to their energy consumption.
- Romance and Tradition. In addition to the more pragmatic approach, there is also the benefit of romance, nostalgia, and family unity that can result from a winter night around the hearth.
- Inefficient. Older fireplaces have as little as five percent efficiency. They suck warm air out of the home for combustion and send it up the chimney and out of the house, effectively defeating their very purpose.
- Pollution. Fireplaces are a significant source of pollution, especially in winter months when smoke is trapped low to the surface by clouds, causing respiratory problems and other health risks. They can also cause indoor health risks such as buildup of carbon monoxide in the home.
- Fire Safety. Wood burning appliances increase the risk of a home fire, usually via proximity to combustibles or failure to maintain cleanliness and clear air flow.
ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE
It is fairly plain to see that the positives far outweigh the negatives. Furthermore, simple steps can be taken to mitigate those negatives.
- True, older fireplaces are very inefficient. Yet new EPA-certified wood burning appliances can reach 80 percent efficiency and fireplace inserts are available to beef up masonry fireplaces.
- Pollution is a real problem with wood heat. Yet a properly burned fire emits very little smoke. Educating homeowners about sizing, loading, and maintaining a fire may be more effective than an outright ban.
- Fire safety can also be corrected with some simple steps. First off, require a professional to install new fireplaces or wood stoves and ensure annual cleaning by a professional chimney sweep. Again, make sure users of wood heat are educated about safety. It is mostly common sense and most people are well aware already.
It is understandable that local municipalities be concerned about pollution and safety and, to give them the benefit of the doubt, they are probably doing what they feel is best. And just as wood heat is a local resource, so is it a local issue that should be solved by local residents. But it is important to note that every night that wood heat goes unused is another night that fossil fuel heat is used; a non-renewable heat source that is proven to have a much more far reaching effect on health and environment.