Learn How to Burn Better

February 11, 2015

The fuel for heating the home is costly, so many residents look for alternatives from traditional fuels like oil, gas or electricity. Outdoor Wood-burning Furnaces (OWFs) and wood stoves are some common alternatives. However, new OWFs are banned in three of our four district towns (Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge.) Bethany allows them but specific rules must be followed (chimney height, distance from neighbors) so check with your fire marshal. Wood burning stoves are allowed in all district towns and are in use in many homes. Read the information below to burn more efficiently with less pollutants.

The Wood Burning Handbook, developed by the California EPA Air Resources Board, presents information on more efficient heating from alternate sources. It provides information on wood burning that will help to make your fire burn hotter, which will result in using less resources and will put less pollutants into the indoor and outdoor environment. The handbook raises an important question: how much of the heat you are generating is escaping into the outdoor environment? It suggests that most fireplaces are not good heaters because it robs your house of heat as it draws air from the room and sends it up the chimney. According to the booklet, if your house has little insulation and many air leaks, you are sending a lot of your heat outdoors.

Your house does need to breathe so some exchange of indoor and outdoor air is necessary. However, if you lack insulation, have air leaks around windows, doors, pipes, electrical outlets or any other opening into the house or leave a damper in a fireplace open when not in use, you could be losing lots of heat.   Suggestions from the handbook to help keep your heat in include: install ceiling insulation, as well as wall and floor insulation; caulk around windows, doors, pipes, electrical outlets and other openings; weather-strip all door and window openings; use insulated curtains; and close off unused rooms (if you do not use central heating.) The EPA’s Energy Star website provides information on home sealing.

The most efficient wood stoves are those that have been certified by the EPA. These stoves heat better with less wood because they burn more of the combustible gases that would otherwise become smoke in fireplaces and old stoves. They provide more heat for the house and pollute less. Other options for heating alternatives include electric or gas fireplaces, pellet stoves or a certified wood burning fireplace insert. There may also be federal tax credit available for increasing your insulation or purchasing a wood or pellet stove. (See EPA’s Energy Star web site for information.)     

More efficient equipment will definitely yield more heat, pollute less and save money. In addition to better equipment, other actions will also help increase heat output that is cleaner. For example, be sure the wood you burn is “seasoned” as this will burn more efficiently. Learn about the proper way to season and store wood from the pamphlet, Wet Wood is a Waste, which describes four easy steps to dry firewood. The Wood Burning Handbook warns that if you are purchasing wood advertised as “seasoned”, be sure that is what you are getting. The wood should have dark colored cracked ends, with crack radiating from the center like bicycle spokes; wood that is light in weight, which means there is little moisture left (hardwood logs will be heavier than softwoods); a sound that sounds more like a crack than a thud; and easily peeled or broken bark with no green under it. Seasoned hardwoods are the best choice for cleaner burning and greater heat production, although  they take longer to ignite.

Safety and proper installation are important. Be sure you check with the ordinances in your town to ensure that your smoke stack is safe and the proper height. This can prevent fires as well as complaints from your neighbors. Your burning device needs inspection and upkeep, just like your furnace or your car. Follow all fire safety rules. You should also install a carbon monoxide detector in your home. If wood is not burned completely, it can release carbon monoxide in its smoke.

District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) who do not have internet access  can call Quinnipiack Valley Health District, 203 248-4528 for copies of the referenced materials.