Lighting up wood fires, stoves: not so green.

Burning wood in a cozy fireplace or wood stove: not so green, according to this NYT blog item. EPA reports there are 29 million wood-burning fireplaces in US households, most lose up to 90% of their heat up the chimney. And 75% of US wood-burning stoves pollute like crazy.


  1. Depending on where you live, burning a wood fire in a fireplace is more decorative than functional. I’ve known people, mostly in more rural areas, who actively use cast iron wood stoves for heat. I’m currently in the process of buying a place that actually has a wood fireplace, and the idea of using it as a heat source honestly never really occurred to me (mostly because it seems impractical and ineffective: everything in the neighborhood has a natural gas hookup, which is pretty cheap as heating costs go).

  2. We use 100% wood heat and its great. We cut down our own tree and split our own wood so we pay nothing more then the cost of running a chain saw and splitter. If it weren’t for wood we would not be able to afford our heating bills.

  3. Yeah, we just bought a house with a free standing fireplace, and it barely heats the room if the fire is mellow. Get it really roaring and you get a lot of heat from it, but most of it’s going up the chimney.

    Fortunately we have gas heat. But this article makes me want to put in an EPA certified stove.

  4. Well, DUH.

    Why do you think the Industrial Revolution ran on coal? Or why people in developing countries burn charcoal? Or why we’ve been burning petroleum for the last 100 years or so?

    1. Why do you think the Industrial Revolution ran on coal? Or why people in developing countries burn charcoal? Or why we’ve been burning petroleum for the last 100 years or so?

      All of those result in 90% of the heat going up the chimney as well when burned in a fireplace. The problem with wood fireplaces is more the “fireplace” part FIRST, the “wood” part second.

      Chimneys themselves are a pretty recent invention, historically speaking. Before that, you put a fire in the middle of your room, and you cut a hole in your ceiling and hoped the smoke went out. And you died early of smoke inhalation, but at least the heat from the fire mostly went into the room, instead of up and out.

      Chimneys were a huge step up in air quality inside the house, but a huge step backwards as far as efficiency.

  5. Unsurprising, but there are much better ways to use wood for heat.

    Pellet stoves are more efficient, though I daresay the process of making pellets from sawdust would be worth exploring to see its environmental effect. We have one that’s for our primary living/entry room; pollutant level seems to be pretty low, and the heat is relatively efficient.

    On the other hand, the combination wood/oil FURNACE that heats the main part oft he house runs at equivalent efficiency levels for both oil and wood. I highly recommend one of these — as a bonus, when the apocalypse comes, you can get the most out of nearby trees, old pallets, and that wooden chair no one likes.

  6. This makes no logical sense.. Yes, digging up coal and petroleum products creates pollution and puts off all kinds of carbon, but when you burn wood you’re only releasing the carbon from the tree, the exact same amount of carbon the tree removed from the atmosphere to grow.. It’s a closed cycle, burning wood can never and will never harm the environment. If we could get people to stop burning shit they dug out of the ground and burn wood instead, it’d solve all our pollution problems. Wood is completely carbon neutral.

  7. Burning wood is very dirty, usually very inefficient, and provides relatively little energy per bulk and weight. But it does have advantages: It’s readily available in undeveloped places all over the world with relatively little effort and stone age technology, and it’s renewable if managed responsibly. Even for places and people where other options are availabe, using wooded land as an essentially zero maintenance and zero cost “firewood crop” is tempting, as almost any other option is going to have bigger costs.

  8. But the humble wood-burner shouldn’t be written off just yet – Wood is a renewable resource, and comes from one of our favourite carbon-sinks – trees. Where wood pellets are produced from waste wood from timber production for the construction and paper industry (from sustainably planted forestry, of course), the fuel is more environmentally friendly than either natural gas, oil, or electricity generated from coal or other fossil fuels. Heat pumps powered from renewable electricity sources are still a far better option, however.

    1. In regards to wood burning being safe, clean or even the unfounded myth unproven in science the claim of Carbon Neutral is nonsense. Harvard scientists prove the argument that wood burning is renewable points out that this is a fools defense. Given that the millions of cancerous toxins surrounding the 150000 mg of carbon emitted from one gram of wood actually reproduce exponentailly for over 130 years in the atmospher. renewable and carbon neutral surely seems stupid at best. What we need is responsible science based info and not the misguided EPA Certified stove industry pushing a toxic substance onto the lungs and blood cells of all who are made smokers as they sleep. Surely the pitiful science of a pot reducing calories is an argument we can judge as Fools Science, certified by the selfish money hungry political favored men who lie to us all. Smoke is a cancerous toxic substance! Given the science is based on non fact labs owned and operated by the manufacturer licensed as a tax free charity,,we have aproblem trusting what they say.
      This contamination of dioxin like the science usedn to certify is a matter for legal class action. Risks far outweigh the benefits!
      Right reasoning with intelligent integrity would change the air. Trust in what we say is all industry can prove! Trust the 3000 medical studies such as (Dr. lewtas, Stanford)that prove wood smoke causes cancer easier than cigarette smoking!

  9. We just moved into a home that has a wood stove. I had no idea how far the technology had come. It has a freakin’ catalytic converter to help the smoke burn more efficiently! Basically, you burn it with the flue open until the air temperature in the converter comes up to about 450, then you close the flue, which diverts smoke into the converter. As a result, much more of the heat is retained and much less smoke is put out the chimney.

    This tech is “green” in that we can burn wood from fallen trees on our property. “Burn local,” anyone? We don’t have natural gas service, so the main alternative would be electric… I like the fact that I know where my wood is coming from, how often it’s burning, and that everything possible is being done to ensure that it’s burned in as non-polluting a manner as possible. It’s possible that my electric utility is generating power in a more environmentally-conscious manner, but how would I know?

    I have no idea if the stove is EPA certified or not, though.

  10. We heat exclusively with a catalytic wood stove. With the catalytic converter, you can burn slowly while still maintaining a clean, smokeless chimney. We have a permit to gather fallen wood from the nearby national forest. Our winter heat bill amounts to the cost of gas for the chainsaw to cut and truck to transport the wood.

    The only real downside is that the catalytic converter must be replaced every 3 to 6 years. The cost is reasonable but what happens if the manufacturer gives up?

    1. I fully respect the Russian Stove for its efficiency and design but, that website? not so much respect.

      “The American wood stove, of whatever breed, is a terror. It requires more attention than a baby. It has to be fed every little while, it has to be watched all the time; and for all reward you are roasted half your time and frozen the other half… and when your wood bill comes in you think you have been supporting a volcano.”

      We fill our stove once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once before bed. It requires no attention beyond that and an occasional trip to the ash bucket. The heat is consistent throughout the day. The site says you can heat 1000 to 1200 sq. ft. with two cords/season. We heat 1600 sq. ft. for close to six months on a little over one cord.

  11. Wood is fantastic, it’s a renewable resource, it’s completely carbon neutral, for every tree that’s cut down, two more are planted, there’s more forests today than a hundred years ago, trees remove carbon from the atmosphere and produce oxygen which everyone seems to enjoy, they release exactly as much carbon when you burn them as they removed from the atmosphere when they grew.

    As for “inefficient”, sure, we can produce much more concentrated energy by destroying the earth, but as renewable resources go, wood is one of the best fuels available. How can you say it’s inefficient when it’s practically free energy? That’s like saying a river is horribly inefficient since it has the potential to be dammed and tapped for power..

  12. I’m from a mid-sized Canadian town where city council decided that people should be able to have campfires in their backyards. It is completely legal to light up a bonfire every evening, only metres away from your neighbour’s windows.
    The unthinking, un-green-ness of this idea is mind-boggling to me. Our house remains tightly closed up ninety per cent of the year to avoid the incoming smoke. On cool evenings, the fog of smoke is clearly visible. I would love to start the class-action law suit when everyone’s asthma kicks in.

  13. Total horseshit that burning wood isn’t “green”. My woodstove produces virtually zero smoke. It burns hot and clean. My chimney is an insulated stack that goes up through the middle of my house. Because the chimney is so warm, it gives off radiant heat throughout the house. Our woodstove is tiny but heats our entire home. I think a wood stove isn’t efficient if you have a huge house. But they are perfect for homes in the 1200-1800 square foot range.

  14. “Wood is completely carbon neutral.”

    In that case so is oil. It just depends on your time scale.

    1. Touche, though, returning the earth to the carbon levels that killed the dinosaurs isn’t generally viewed as a good thing, whereas returning the carbon levels to what they were 50 years ago has popular support.

  15. “Wood is completely carbon neutral.”
    – “In that case so is oil. It just depends on your time scale.”

    If your scale is ‘several millions of years’, you are right. But since humanity (homo sapiens) is roughly 200.000 years old and human induced climate change 200 years… your remark is just pointless.

    About stoves and open fire :

    Of course open fires are juste decorative, and totally ineffective. It’s like burning a bucket of fuel in your chimney.

    Old stoves are usually quite ineffective too… but so are old fuel/gaz burners.

    Modern stoves now… that’s another thing. With my 11kw pellets ‘hydro’-stove and some help from solar panels, I’m going to heat my whole 200m² house in Belgium (climate like Germany).

    We’re talking 94% efficiency, here.

  16. I agree, fireplaces are horribly inefficient and both they and older woodstoves have high emissions. Newer woodstoves, however, fall within the 25% mentioned by the article. The whole topic, though, is not so cut and dried.

    In addition to efficiency, the higher the mass, the better. This is why the Russian Fireplace works so well. The problem is that such installations cost tens of thousands of dollars, which most folks don’t have. They are also difficult to retrofit into a home. Generally, soapstone stoves have the next highest mass, followed by cast iron, then sheet steel stoves. Cost goes the same way: sheet steel are cheapest and soapstone most costly.

    There are also other variables, such as burning hot enough (mentioned in the article) Do you have enough mass around the woodstove to absorb heat, then release it back into the room to reduce wood burned?

    The article also doesn’t mention the ‘hidden’ environmental cost: how much pollution is created by the exploitation of whatever alternative fuel is available to you? Pellets are a by-product of another industry, but also have to be packaged (plastic bags) and shipped (transportation fuel), for example.

    We have an EPA-certified soapstone stove, with a concrete slab floor plus an additional 17.3+ cu ft of cement mass added around the stove. We ‘harvested’ 4 face cords of wood (mostly medium-hard) via forest maintenance on our own acreage, and purchased another 2 face cords of hardwood a 20-minute drive away, which we hauled home using fuel-efficient vehicles. That wood was also forest maintenance wood from a sugarbush.

    While we may not represent the norm, there are plenty of folks like us.

  17. What people seem to be missing is that the carbon from coal/oil/gas is carbon that has been naturally sequestered for millions of years and is now artificially being released into the atmosphere. The carbon released from wood is carbon that was in the atmosphere relatively recently. If the tree were to fall down and rot, the carbon would be released through that process.

  18. “Of course open fires are juste decorative, and totally ineffective. It’s like burning a bucket of fuel in your chimney.”
    Not so. My mother still has an open fireplace in the family home. While she isn’t able to drag coal in and out of the house, whenever she does use it, the heat it gives is incredible. People forget that the hearth is the device that heats your house. It’s basically a heat capacitor. The bricks of the hearth absorb the heat of the fire (much of which is lost, yes), but after it heats up, the home is warm from its core, and of course you have plenty of hot water in your boiler.

  19. “Wood is completely carbon neutral.”

    “In that case so is oil. It just depends on your time scale.”

    Both of the above statements are incorrect on their own, if wood or fossil fuel is burnt at a greater rate than the carbon dioxide can be photosynthesised by plantlife, than neither are carbon neutral.

    To make fossil fuels carbon neutral, you have to take an equivalent amount of carbon out of the system, can you guarantee a tree planted now will stay unburnt for a tens of millions of years?

    Plant a tree for every one you burn and that’s probably close enough, but wood *grown for the purpose of burning* avoids having to make any promises about not burning anything later.

    The problem with carbon offset wood, is the inevitable burning, either because someone else doesn’t know or care, or by accident. Apparently there are these things called forest fires.

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