Editorial Feature

Are Wood Burner Stoves Environmentally Friendly?

Wood has been used as fuel for centuries. In recent years, wood-burning stoves are making a comeback in many countries that experience extreme winters. The number of wood-burning stove models and manufacturers only prove that these appliances are gaining in popularity. For example, in 2011 more than 180,000 homes in the UK had a stove installed.

A wood-burning stove is a simple heating appliance that can burn wood and wood-derived biomass fuel, such as wood pellets.

Features of Wood Burner Stoves

Basically, a high quality stove must have an excellent airtight box that will not allow any leaks. It must not only successfully eliminate the gases, but also retain the heat and prevent it from escaping via the chimney.

A basic model wood-burning stove comprises of a metal (cast iron or steel) closed fire chamber, a fire brick base and an adjustable air control. The stove has to be connected by ventilating stove pipes to a chimney or flue.

Benefits of Using Wood Burner Stoves

The sudden popularity of wood burner stoves is mainly because of the constant increase of global oil and gas rates, therefore wood has become the preferred choice as it is often readily available, cheaper and can be grown renewably. The price of wood has remained steady and hence can be depended upon. Recycled wood can also be used. Wood burner stoves are known to produce five times as much heat as a regular fireplace and heat a larger part of a house.

Another reason for the popularity of wood burner stoves is the rustic and romantic appeal it provides to any house, especially those located in snow-covered regions. Today, many tourist cottages and resorts opt for these stoves to attract guests and many celebrity homes have it installed as a fashion statement.

With advanced technology, some high-end stoves can even last a lifetime. Stove manufacturers justify the high cost of stove and installation as in the long run the appliance will aid in cutting energy costs.

Impact on Environment

Many environmental agencies have started monitoring wood burner stoves as more and more reports reveal that these stoves have the potential to harm both man and environment.

Reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency state that the use of wood for residential heating contributes up to 50% of the polynuclear organic air pollutants (a few are known to be carcinogenic). The quantity increases during the winter months in areas where wood is the chief heating fuel. Wood stoves are reported to produce nearly 80% of these pollutants.

A United Nations report revealed that wood burner stoves cause serious damage to the environment as they emit black carbon fumes similar to diesel fumes from cars. Likewise the smoke from these stoves is believed to have a more immediate threat to human health. Toxicology experts warn that breathing in these emissions is similar to breathing the fumes from a car exhaust. The tiny airborne particles in the fumes are called particulate matter (PM). These particles have high chemical contents and can easily enter the lungs, causing fatal heart disease, cancer, damage to DNA and activation of genes in dangerous ways.

The fumes also contain nitrogen dioxide that can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and even cause shortness of breath in people suffering with asthma. Studies show that exposure to low levels of NO2 might cause increased bronchial reactivity, and exposure to high levels of NO2 might cause chronic bronchitis. Carbon dioxide is also released, which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change.

Another hidden danger is accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is produced when fossil fuels are burnt without proper supply of air. It is a colorless, tasteless, and odorless gas that is difficult to detect. When a wood burner stove is poorly fitted, the result could be lethal as it would allow carbon monoxide to leak into living spaces.

Other medical reports link the disease known as otitis media (a painful middle ear infection) in babies and children under five to frequent exposure to wood burner stove fumes. The reports state that the substances in the smoke tend to suppress a child’s ability to ward off common upper-respiratory tract viruses and bacteria, which then find its way to the ear.

Summary

The debates between manufacturers of wood-burning stoves and environmentalists will continue in the coming years as the stove’s popularity does not seem to be reducing. Local governments will have to take steps to ensure a mandatory smoke emission limit. In the 1980s, the U.S. EPA set such as limit. For catalytic wood stoves it is 4.1 g/h of smoke and for non- catalytic stoves 7.5 g/h. Today, all wood stoves and fireplace inserts (even those used in factories) sold in the U.S. are required to adhere to these limits. Environment-conscious wood-burning stove manufacturers are beginning to sell stoves in the 1 to 4 g/h range.

Certain precautions can be taken to continue enjoying the wood-burning stoves such as proper maintenance of the wood stove, adequate ventilation, annual cleaning of the chimney to ensure that the fumes do not re-enter the house, and using only government-approved stoves.

Sources and Further Reading

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