With fall around the corner, unemployment rates up, and environmental alternatives more relevant than ever, many Americans are considering installing wood stoves or fireplace inserts to help keep their homes warm this winter and reduce heating bills. But is wood burning really a green thing to do? And will it actually save money? We explore your burning questions.
ARE WOOD-BURNING STOVES AS GREEN AS WE THINK?
Wood is undoubtedly a renewable resource. Assuming it's sustainably harvested, it will be available indefinitely. This stands in stark contrast to non-renewable fossil fuels, like gas and oil, which are being depleted at an accelerating rate. A good argument can be made that using wood fuel conserves fossil fuels and reduces the environmental damage caused by mining coal and drilling for gas and oil. If the wood pile tips over and spills firewood in the backyard, there's no need to call the EPA. No toxins have been released. Nor does it have to be shipped here from a far-off state or a hostile foreign country. Wood is plentiful in many parts of the country. (Note: The risks involved with drilling for oil and mining coal are all too obvious. But drilling for natural gas, which has been billed as a green alternative by gas companies is just as bad. See the documentary Gasland
by filmmaker Josh Fox for more information about how drilling for gas is fouling aquifers and water wells in 34 states.
Given the information just presented, it would seem that wood heat should rate right up there with solar and wind power as a green source of energy. Unfortunately, wood stoves can also be significant sources of air pollution
. Many older stoves and some newer ones are inefficient at burning wood. In addition to wasting wood, they release unburned gases (what we call smoke) into the air, where they become a health hazard. Studies show that the tiny particles in wood-generated smoke can aggravate breathing problems, speed up heart rates, provoke blood clots and cause heart attacks and strokes. It's particularly bad for asthmatics.
What Manufacturers Are Doing About It
Improvements in wood-burning technology have improved the efficiency of many wood-burning appliances. Clean-burning wood stoves achieve high levels of combustion with a super-hot, stone-lined firebox and pre-warmed combustion air that's introduced at the top of the firebox from small holes. Just about everything gets burned. They are safer, too. Cleaner burns reduce the likelihood of chimney fires, along with the frequency of chimney cleaning. Another benefit of the new technology is that the door glass stays clear for viewing the flames.
ARE WOOD-BURNING STOVES REALLY COST-EFFICIENT?
The federal government's Energy Information Administration reports that the average household spends $960 a year on heating
. Buying a new, quality wood stove and having it installed can easily cost $2500 to $3700 -- although installing your own wood stove
, which would require being comfortable attaching the stove to the chimney and taking all necessary safety measures, can cut that cost in half. Either way, it's normal to wonder whether you can recoup that investment in a reasonable amount of time.
The answer is complicated. Burning wood can save you money -- if
you can obtain wood at a reasonable cost. Firewood is sold by the cord
(4' x 4' x 8' worth of logs), and the price ranges from $185 to $600 where I live in New England. (Check out Firewood Center
to find a firewood dealer in your area.) Prices are affected by delivery fees, whether or not the wood is cut and split, and the BTU content
(BTU stands for British thermal unit, a measure of heat value) of the wood species.
Whether you'll save money in the long run also depends upon how you currently heat your home, the efficiency of your furnace or boiler, and how much heat you use annually. For example, if you 're currently burning gas in an efficient furnace and plan to buy your wood, you probably won't save much at current average fuel prices
. That may change in the future, but in many places burning gas is less expensive than burning wood. On the other hand, if you heat with oil or electric baseboard heaters and live in a northern climate, you will see significant savings and recoup the price of the stove in a reasonable number of years.
For a detailed cost comparison of fuels, see the Energy Information Administration's Heating Fuel Comparison Calculator
. Formatted as a spreadsheet, it allows you to enter the efficiency of your heating appliance (furnace, boiler, heat pump, etc.), what you pay for fuel (natural gas, propane, oil, etc.), the local cost of firewood, and the efficiency of the wood-burning appliance you're considering. It then allows you to compare what you are currently spending to what you would spend burning wood. For me, a million BTUs generated by burning wood in a quality stove would cost about $15.40, assuming a cord cost of $220. To produce the same number of BTUs by burning gas in a high-efficiency furnace (which is what I have) costs about $16.30, assuming a natural gas cost of $1.50 per therm. So unless I were to gather a portion of my firewood myself, heating with wood will cost me only slightly less than heating with gas. If I were burning oil, however, the price of a million BTUs would exceed $25 -- in which case wood heat would represent a significant savings, even if I were to buy the wood.
How to Buy a Wood Stove
If you go shopping for a wood stove
, the first thing to check is whether or not it's an EPA-certified wood stove
. Such stoves are 80 percent cleaner burning, 30% more efficient
, and produce less than 7.5 grams per hour
(g/hr) of particulates--compared to the 40 to 60 g/hr of inefficient wood stoves. In fact, many models produce only 1 or 2 g/hr.
A Final Caution About Wood Stoves
Burning wood is a lot more work than heating with other fuels. If you're gathering your own wood, there's the physical effort of splitting and piling firewood and carrying heavy armloads from the woodpile to the house. You also have to regularly restart the fire and periodically clean out the ashes. If you plan to gather your own firewood
, you'll need a good gasoline-powered chainsaw, various kinds of safety equipment, a pick-up truck, and a strong back.
For more eco-living ideas for your kitchen, watch this video: