Burn It Smart!

October 12, 2003

By Michael Jessen

Ah, autumn. Time to crank up the wood stove and heat the abode. Too bad you might be poisoning the neighbours.

But that's just what as many as three million Canadian wood stove owners do -- perhaps unwittingly -- through carelessness or lack of knowledge. Personal warmth and comfort comes first.

OK so what's so hard about putting match to paper and kindling, then plugging the wood stove with firewood?

Well with just about everything else in life, there are rules and guidelines that must be adhered to -- tips and advice that must be followed. And following proper burning procedures will result in burning one-third less wood, a substantial savings for your pocketbook!

Got wood stove? Then the best place to start is A Guide to Residential Wood Heating published by Natural Resources Canada that can be downloaded from http://www.canren.gc.ca/prod_serv/index.asp?CaId=103&PgId=576.

As the guide points out, the keys to safe and successful wood burning are good planning, carefully selecting a high-efficiency appliance, installing and properly operating the appliance, and practising clean-burning habits.

At a recent Burn It Smart! workshop in Nelson (sponsored by Nelson Clean Air Protection Action Group and the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection), twenty-two participants learned about the do's and don'ts of wood heating.

Taught by Zigi Gadomski, an instructor with the Wood Energy Technicians of British Columbia (WETBC), the three-hour workshop

The first thing your chimney should not be doing if you are burning wood is emitting smoke. Smoke is a sign of burning poorly seasoned wood or bad burning practices. And the effects on your neighbours can be devastating.

Wood smoke and fumes enter homes where stoves are not used. Small particles from wood smoke in homes without wood stoves reach at least 50 to 70 percent of outdoor levels, according to a University of Washington study in Seattle.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researchers suggest that the lifetime cancer risk from wood stove emissions may be 12 times greater than the lifetime cancer risk from exposure to an equal amount of cigarette smoke. Wood stoves are the second highest source of cancer risk from particulate air pollution, according to long-term research conducted by the EPA. Diesel exhaust is the highest source.

The age of your wood burning appliance also makes a big difference when it comes to air pollution. Stoves older than 10 years are likely to spew 60 grams of particulate emissions during every hour of burning while new efficient stoves emit only two to five grams per hour.

All wood stoves should carry two labels -- one a safety label indicating the distances it should be placed from walls and the other an US Environmental Protection Agency emissions certification label. The second label is required on all wood stoves in BC, the only province in Canada to demand emissions certification for wood stoves.

But then BC is the most mountainous province with population concentrated in valley bottoms. Wood smoke doesn't just rise up and disappear. It reaches a certain height and stays there due to air inversions. One wood stove burning wet wood can smoke out a whole valley.

An improperly located wood stove can also cause spontaneous combustion in house walls over a period of time. Just like a piece of toast won't burn during one cycle in the toaster, but will ignite after repeated cycles, so a wood wall can combust after repeated exposures to high heat from a wood stove. That's why it is important to follow the manufacturer's instructions regarding placement near walls. Also check with your insurance company regarding wood stoves and their placement, as an improperly located wood stove may be reason for denial of an insurance claim in the event of a fire.

So here are ten tips to make sure you don't smoke out or poison your neighbours in the name of personal warmth. At the same time, following these recommendations will ensure your home won't burn down.

 Start your fire with newspaper and kindling. Leave the door open a crack to get it burning hot. When burning hot, close the door. Add smaller pieces of wood first, and then gradually put big pieces into the firebox.

 Use only small amounts of newspaper and dry kindling to start your fire. Never use liquid fire starters. Burn small hot fires. When restarting fires in the morning, leave the stove door open a crack for 10-15 minutes.

 Avoid slow, smouldering fires. People sometimes stuff their stoves with wood and burn the wood very slowly overnight. This is one of the worst things to do. Smouldering fires are inefficient and dangerous— smouldering wastes wood and deposits creosote in the chimney, which can lead to a chimney fire. With seasoned firewood, careful fuel loading and proper air settings, it is usually possible to burn overnight without smouldering.

 Burn only seasoned wood (dried for one year and stored in a dry place) or manufactured logs. Burn soft wood on warmer days and harder wood on colder days.

 Never burn foil, rubber, pressure-treated wood, particleboard, plywood, plastic, plastic bags, milk jugs, diapers, or other garbage. If you're burning garbage, you're making poison! A wood stove is designed to burn wood, nothing else!

 Don't burn cardboard or office-type paper in your wood stove. It burns too hot, which can damage your stove and chimney and cause a chimney fire.

 Check your chimney each time you add wood to make sure no smoke is visible. Wood smoke is more toxic than cigarette smoke and is known to cause cancer.

 If you're not sure how to operate your wood stove, contact a hearth-products dealer.

 Have your chimney and stove inspected by an expert every year. If you have more than one-eighth of an inch of thick soot in your chimney, you may have a problem. A coated creosote glaze in your chimney is also an indication of problems.

 Clean and repair your equipment as necessary.

RESOURCES - The Nelson Clean Air Protection Action Group web site is http://www.ncap.kics.bc.ca. You'll find lots of tips about reducing air pollution, not just from wood stoves. The winner of the free cord of wood for attendees at the NCAP-WLAP workshop was Milan Kalabis of the North Shore. A number of other attendees won "Burn It Smart" toques.

Many Natural Resources Canada publications about residential wood heating can be found at http://www2.nrcan.gc.ca/es/erb/english/View.asp?x=469.

Want to get the most out of your wood stove? Consult http://www.fiprecan.ca/GettingMostOfWoodStove.pdf.

A Puget Sound Clean Air Agency fact sheet (http://www.pscleanair.org/burning/30-17-fact_sheet-burning.pdf) says wood heat is expensive compared to natural gas or high-efficiency electric heat pumps.

The FarmGate page http://www.tdc.ca/wood.htm has some interesting information about calculating the heating value and cost of various types of wood compared with other fuel sources.

Air Pollution from Wood -burning Fireplaces and Stoves available at http://www.city.toronto.on.ca/health/hphe/wood.htm describes the emissions from burning wood in the home and their potential health impacts. These emissions can affect the air quality both indoor and outdoor. The author identifies ways for residents and governments to substantially reduce emissions from residential wood burning.

The Canadian Lung Association pamphlet about heating with wood can be found at http://www.lung.ca/cando/content/FS_heating_with_wood.pdf.

Three great web sites are http://www.burnitsmart.org, http://www.wetbc.ca, and http://www.whpba.ca. Call the Hearth Products Association of Canada at (705) 788-2221.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson sustainability consultant who specializes in helping homeowners with waste-free living and businesses with waste-free workplaces. Telephone him at 250-229-5632 or e-mail zerowaste@netidea.com. His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at www.zerowaste.ca.

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.