Who Knew? Wood Is Still Main Heating Fuel For Some: A Roundup of Miscellaneous Articles on Wood Stove Use

Many of you have been following the great gas stove controversy (who actually decides which of the many health/environment/climate enhancing ideas to generate campaigns about?). Perhaps wood stoves are on the list. Perhaps they’re next.

It’s 0 F this morning where I live, so I’ve been thinking about our woodstove. It’s cheaper than propane and gets rid of waste wood, and that’s all I really need to know for now. But..

I ran across this article by some folks with the Census Bureau, published in 2018, with data from the 2016 census.. see the table above.

As I looked around, it wasn’t always clear who uses wood heat and who uses it as a primary source. Seems like many more folks would use it as a backup. But I’m not sure that there is literature on this.

Here’s what the American Lung Association has to say about that as of Jan. 3, 2023:

As the weather gets colder, thoughts of curling up with a mug of hot cocoa in front of a roaring fire become more appealing. Though indoor wood-burning stoves and heaters may have a quaint and traditional feel, they also produce harmful toxins that could damage your lungs and affect the air quality.

So, before you throw another log on the fire, it is important to understand how wood-burning devices work and how to protect your family’s lungs:

Health Effects Caused by Wood Smoke

The smoke from wood-burning devices, such as stoves and heaters, contains fine particle pollution, and hazardous air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides benzene and formaldehyde. Particle pollution is especially dangerous because these tiny particles can get deep into the organs, harming not just the lungs, but also blood vessels, the heart and brain. Wood smoke can cause coughing, wheezing and asthma attacks, and lead to serious health issues, such as heart attacks, stroke and premature death. Wood smoke also adds carbon dioxide and methane to the air, both of which significantly contribute to climate change.

Protecting Those at High Risk

Wood smoke is not good for any set of lungs, but it can be particularly harmful to those with vulnerable lungs, such as children and older adults. Additionally, those with lung diseases, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer are also more affected by wood smoke. Breathing the smoke can easily cause coughing and asthma attacks.

Outdoor Pollution Created by Wood Smoke

Wood stoves often run 24 hours a day, pumping wood smoke and toxins into the outdoor air. If wood-burning stoves or heaters are affecting your neighborhood’s air, take steps to protect your family: encourage children, older adults and those living with lung disease to remain indoors; use the recirculate function on air conditioners; and keep windows and vents closed.

Finding Wood Alternatives

To reduce indoor and outdoor pollution from wood-burning devices, switch to cleaner devices such as natural gas stoves and heaters, and make sure they are fully vented to the outdoors. If you are unable to switch, use pellets and dry hardwood for a cleaner and more efficient burn. You can also buy a cleaner wood-burning device. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adopted new standards for cleaner and more energy efficient wood-burning devices in 2015. Many devices currently meet the 2020 standards and have hangtags showing this certification.

This winter, make changes to your wood heater and stove so you and your lungs can enjoy a cozy evening.

So burning wood “contributes significantly to climate change” and natural gas is preferable- because it doesn’t have smoke, indoor or outdoor. For whatever reason, I don’t think people who use wood from fuel treatments (otherwise burned in the atmosphere in piles) are included in the Lung Association’s thinking on this.

Otherwise, I can see where they are coming from. Some of us live in urban areas where there is too much wood smoke. But…many of us do not. I think it’s good to be aware of the dangers, especially to people with breathing problems, but, on the other hand many people can’t afford to keep switching out heat sources,either more current wood stoves or other heaters. Further, having wood as a backup allows us to have heating diversity in case of price rises in either propane or electric rates. It seems important at the home level to not be locked in to one source of energy, especially as our sources are transitioning. Especially in parts of the country where heating is a matter of life and death.

Meanwhile, this report from the Guardian talks about what you can do to reduce the impacts (the Guardian is located Great Britain).

The government is phasing out the sale of wet wood, which produces more smoke, but the people in the study used only dry, seasoned wood. Wood and coal burning in homes is estimated to cause almost 40% of outdoor tiny particle pollution, but the new research is among the first to analyse indoor pollution in real-life settings. Almost 16% of people in the south-east of England use wood fuel, and 18% in Northern Ireland, according to 2016 government data, and about 175,000 wood burners are sold annually.

“Our findings are a cause for concern,” said Rohit Chakraborty, of the University of Sheffield, who led the study. “It is recommended that people living with those particularly susceptible to air pollution, such as children, the elderly or vulnerable, avoid using wood-burning stoves. If people want to use them, we recommend minimising the time the stove is open during lighting or refuelling.”

Wood burners cause less indoor pollution than open fires. “But every time you open the door, you reduce the stove to an open fire and particulate matter floods into the home,” he said. The peaks take an hour or two to dissipate. “But by the time it comes down, someone opens the door again to refuel and you get spike after spike,” Chakraborty said. Some burners have filters, but these only reduce the pollution being vented outside.

Meanwhile as of November of last year (according to this pro-woodstove UK site)

The use of wood-burning stoves is growing in popularity in the UK, especially so with the advent of highly efficient Ecodesign stoves and, more recently, with the growing instability of gas and electricity prices, people have found the idea of self-sufficiency very appealing.

That article rounds up what countries in Europe are doing. Like I said, these folks sell woodstoves. Still it’s interesting what they say about countries in Europe, for example…

The Netherlands – Like with other countries, there is a rush to buy firewood in preparation for the winter. The rush for wood in The Netherlands usually starts in September, but due to the war in Ukraine, people started this rush in July, according to one wood supplier. The Netherlands aims to ban fossil fuels for new heating insulations from 2026. This could mean an increase in Ecodesign stove sales – renowned for their green credentials. We already supply a number of our stoves to The Netherlands.

Poland – Due to the spiralling price increases in gas and electricity, there is a shift towards burning wood in Poland. This is the same for several other nearby countries. However, Poland is far less affluent than many of the aforementioned Scandinavian countries, and so a key driver for using wood to stay warm is financial.

Any other ideas for minimizing impacts without buying new stoves or switching heating sources?

11 thoughts on “Who Knew? Wood Is Still Main Heating Fuel For Some: A Roundup of Miscellaneous Articles on Wood Stove Use”

  1. A good illustration of how demonizing cleaner fossil fuels like natural gas is causing people to substitute lower energy density fuels that actually pollute far more. Michael Shellenberger talks a lot about this.

    • I’m burning western larch and ponderosa pine today, keeping the house toasty while it’s 19 degrees outside. My woodstove is “on” 24/7 from mid-October to May 1, at least. We have a propane furnace as a backup.

  2. I’ve been using wood stoves as a primary heat source for >20 years. We are able to gather waste wood from construction sites, mostly 2-by stock. No bark, dry. But it does produce small particles, released especially when clearing the ashes about every 10 days. We’ve up-graded stoves twice, working with a 2005 model now. But inflation is catching up with our mostly fixed income and another new stove would be costly. — Probably many others like me will continue burning wood, at least as a back-up. It would help if contractors piled waste wood available to collectors like me. Many do not like to have me collecting from the ground during construction due to real safety issues. If I don’t collect their waste wood, it goes to the landfill at some cost to them.

  3. Any wood diverted from the landfill I’d think would be a net plus. Wood smoke gives off CO2 but when buried in the landfill I’d think it mostly turns to methane.

    Our stove stretches out the season so we don’t depend on gas. The boiler is on December through February, the rest of the time we do fine with the stove. I figure we aren’t getting too much indoor air pollution as we live in a leaky house built around the time of the last Indian wars. It’s nice also to have one place in the house where you can get really warm.

    I’m just about out of wood, might have to actually pay for some.

      • I went to a local sawmill today and bought two bundles of slab, probably a little more than a cord of mostly pine, for $100. At that price I think it’s cheaper than gas. The mill owner said they’d been getting lots of wood this year, almost all of it already dead. Happy to hear they are turning a lot of that wood into lumber and posts.

  4. We heat primarily with wood and a ten year-old wood stove, but have decent passive solar, so the stove gets a rest most days. We live in a rural area with our closest neighbor 1/2 mile away. Our high temperature for January has been 35 degrees with several lows in the minus upper teens to minus 20s. We have three good air filters in the house, two of them are between the wood stove and the bedroom. They aren’t perfect, but they help a lot.

    I drive 10-15 minutes up the road to cut beetle-killed spruce and this year started using an electric chainsaw after my 10 yr-old Stihl had some mechanical issues. The Stihl is now my backup saw, as I really like my electric saw.

    • Mike, what e-saw do you have? I have a Milwaukie that works great, though I need to buy a high-capacity battery to get more cutting time. But my Stihl (or one of my many other gas-powered saws) will be my “daily driver.” I cut 5 – 6 cords a year, plus lumber with an Alaskan chainsaw mill. No electric saw can do that. Yet.

      • Steve, I’m using Greenworks with an 18″ bar. I put a good Oregon chain on it. I looked at a lot of reviews and it seemed like it was a better all around saw than the electric Stihl and Dewalt. I cut 5-6 cords of wood a year too. I cut down a couple dead spruce that were 20-22″ DBH without a problem. It doesn’t quite have the power of my Stihl, but it does quite well and it starts with a push of a button and never vapor locks. I’ve been cutting for a long time and was a certified Class C sawyer at one time (and a sawyer on fires when we went out), so I know what I like in a saw and I was surprised at how much I like the Greenworks. I carry two high capacity and one smaller battery with me. That means I’m not saving money with the Greenworks. One stupid thing about the saw is the bar oil cap falls off (it’s a known issue) and I lost mine within an hour and couldn’t find it. Luckily, I had a 2 cycle engine plastic oil bottle in my truck and the cap fit better than the one made for the saw. Haven’t had a problem since.

  5. Way back in 1990, the Sierra Club Legal Defense fund decided to sue the Naches Ranger District to stop their personal use firewood program. I got to do the economic analysis for the EA.

    Learned a lot. Here are some of the best tidbits.

    1) If you sue the Forest Service as the Yakima Clean Air Coalition, you really should use a 509 area code phone number instead of 206! Lost lots of points with the locals just on that one.

    2) I was worried that I could not find data on firewood use. I was wrong.

    BPA did a firewood survey of all the major cities in Washington state that was statistically valid and included a ton of data. BPA was interested in how much “heat” was provided by wood. BPA was worried that a NO BURN day in Washington state could result in the grid going down.

    The answer was YES.

    Quietly, BPA ended changing some of the Clean Air regulations and beefed up power lines serving the Puget Sound area. The amount of wood used to heat in the Seattle metro area was much higher than imagined. That rain does wash a lot of the particulates so people don’t notice the smoke as much.

    3) It takes a minimum of two years to dry forest wood to minimize the particulates produced. Under the year of the injunction, wood burners in Yakima switched to orchard wood. I was stunned at how much “wood” was produced by orchards in those days. Trees grow?? Who knew?? Hopefully, the new trellis systems for orchards produce less firewood. It takes a minimum of two to three years to dry orchard wood. Air pollution got worse in Yakima that year due to the shift in my opinion.

    4) In those days firewood, was going $50-90 delivered in Yakima. The breakeven point for heating with electricity at 4.85 cents a kilowatt hour was $180 a cord. The solution is cheap electricity. Nobody burned firewood for heat in Douglas county where the electricity was 1.8 cents a kilo-watt hour and the break point was $30 a cord. In Spokane County in those days, they were close to the break even point with LOW natural gas prices.

    5) The Sierra Club argued that not burning wood, would result in people using electricity generated by hydro to heat their homes. Sounds just like today.

    Yakima’s electricity came from Colstrip in Montana, which is a coal plant. Well, at least the crap floated into the mid-midwest instead of the Rockies. Yeah, coal plants are dirty, real dirty.

    6) The Sierra Club argued that there was scientific controversy about the health effects of wood smoke and therefore we should do a EIS. Folks, there is NO SCIENTIFIC CONTROVERSY about wood smoke. It is BAD for human lungs.

    7) Yes, you the public can influence a Federal judge. He was so eager to get out of the case that he lifted the injunction and we were in and out of the courtroom in 15 minutes. I think he was tired of being talked to by the locals in his personal life.

    By far, the most fun I ever had working on a environmental document.

    Learned a lot about the electrical grid and associated issues.

    • Several corrections to Vlad’s recollection of events 33 years ago.

      Clean Air Yakima was the plaintiff, not the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. Susan West, a long-time Yakima resident and respiratory therapist, retained SCLDF to represent her group in the case.

      SCLDF is not a part of the Sierra Club — it is and always was a separate organization. About 30 years ago, SCLDF changed its name to Earthjustice. Although SCLDF’s Seattle office has a 206 area code, Clean Air Yakima and Susan West had a 509 area code.

      There are actual health concerns associated with PM2.5 pollution from wood stove use in Yakima, especially for children with asthma. These real people with real health problems were Susan’s real patients.

      The judge issued an injunction. CYA and the Forest Service subsequently settled the case with the FS agreeing to comply with NEPA, as described in this High Country News article (see page 4).

      And, yes, I worked on the case while employed at SCLDF.


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