A Burning Question: Wood Pollution

BY ON February 1, 2012

Wood stove with burning fire inside

This is written by Appalachian Mountain Club scientist and mom, Georgia Murray and MCAF’s Yvonne Nanasi:

I grew up in a New Hampshire home with a wood furnace and fireplace. Some of my fondest memories are of gathering in the front room by the open fire, a place to get warm, toast marshmallows, and be a family. Burning wood to stay warm and provide hot water, is still a big way of life in New Hampshire and other Northern states. Wood is a plentiful and renewable resource that can be a safe and efficient fuel when burned properly. But burning wood also emits tiny particles of soot and ash, now known to harm our lungs, especially of those of our children. In fact, particle pollution is linked with increased cardiovascular problems, irritate lungs and eyes, trigger headaches and allergic reactions, and worsen respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis.

In winter-time, this type of air pollution can be significant when wood burning is combined with a cold winter night inversion in valley communities, like Keene, NH, resulting in pollution accumulating to levels that are unhealthy by EPA standards. The NH DES recommends that if you live in a valley area, you should watch weather conditions and pay attention to Air Quality Action Day notifications.

Outdated outdoor wood boilers (OWB) have been identified as a significant source of particle pollution. Older OWB can emit more than 70 grams of particle pollution per hour. That’s nearly 10 times the EPA standard for wood stoves and 100 times what the most efficient wood stoves emit. The problem with OWB is not about the wood, it’s about the stove design. In an effort to tackle this source, New Hampshire and other New England states have embraced standards for OWB design and installation–so newly bought boilers will be cleaner.

Unfortunately, the same problems with older OWB can be true for indoor furnaces; inefficiency and improper maintenance can yield more air pollution. Yet, replacing an older furnace with a high efficiency unit can be a significant financial burden. Whatever steps a homeowner decides they can take should start with understanding some basic facts. Identifying and correcting any inefficient heating systems will help in cost and reduce pollution.

Here are some key efficiency tips:

  • Weatherization of your home is a great place to improve heating efficiency; drafts can waste 5-30% of your home heating energy, learn more about sealing/insulating and other improvement ideas
  • If using wood
    • Use well seasoned dry wood with 20% moisture burns most efficiently and results in less creosote
    • Hardwood burns the best; never burn treated wood
    • Use sustainably harvested wood to reduce your carbon footprint
    • Learn more about safe and efficient wood burning here.
  • For gas and oil furnaces following the recommended maintenance schedules will ensure proper operation, while other improvements could improve efficiency

For those who can consider changing their current home heating system here are some facts:

  • Newer EPA certified wood burning stoves – are 50% more efficient, use 1/3 less wood for the same heat, and reduce particulate pollution by up to 70%.
  • EPA ENERGY STAR qualified oil and gas furnaces are up to 15% more efficient than standard models and have highly efficient blower motors.

Eliminating home inefficient heating sources that cost you extra money and cause unwanted air pollution is one important step to assuring that New Hampshire’s children and adults breathe healthy air.

Georgia Murray is a scientist mom working to connect people and science through Mountain Watch, a citizen-science program that focuses on outdoor activities related to air quality and climate. She oversees the air and water quality science and policy work for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), a non-profit organization that’s mission is to promote the protection, enjoyment, and understanding of the mountains, forests, waters, and trails of the Appalachian region. She has a Masters in Earth Science from UNH and lives with her family in Conway, NH.

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Photo: Creative Commons

TOPICS: Asthma, New Hampshire, Pollution, Science