Woodburning Stove—Is It for You?
“WE’LL sit by the fire on nasty, chilly evenings, with a tea kettle simmering on the top, or a pot of soup or chili and it will be wonderful!”
Romantic notions such as this, along with the all-too-familiar price hikes of fuel oil, have sent many homeowners to take a closer look at woodburning stoves as an alternative means for heating their homes. Industrial estimates show that 5,000,000 American homes, or about 7 percent, are already outfitted with some type of wood stove or furnace, and the number is increasing by about one and a half million each year. In Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, woodburning stoves are popular as ever, and even in England, reports show, wood stoves “have sold their way into more than 100,000 British homes in the last few years.”
New Generation of Stoves
Unlike earlier models, modern stoves are airtight and burn wood slowly, requiring fewer refills. Clever designs help to prevent much of the heat from going up the chimney; so they are about 50- to 60-percent efficient. This compares favorably with the 60- to 75-percent efficiency of gas or oil burners. Such a stove, however, is not cheap and installation can also be costly.
The availability and the price of wood are also important factors in figuring the economic advantage of wood stoves. As a comparison, a cord of wood, which is a tightly stacked pile four feet by four feet by eight feet, or 128 cubic feet (3.6 m3), has about the same heating value as 200 gallons (757 L) of home heating oil. In some rural areas and small towns, wood is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. In New England, for example, up to 50 percent of the homes rely, in whole or in part, on wood as fuel. In large cities, however, wood prices and problems with availability and storage can make wood stoves impractical. In addition, there are usually stringent fire laws and safety codes that must be observed.
Dangers and Hazards
No official information is yet available on the relative safety of woodburning stoves and oil, gas or electric heating units. But, according to an insurance trade association report, improper use and maintenance of wood stoves accounted for 15 percent of accidental home fires in New Hampshire and ranked third as the cause of home fires in Oregon. Burns and deaths related to wood stoves also have increased sharply in recent years.
As more and more people turn to wood stoves, air pollution becomes an increasingly serious problem. In some villages in Vermont, it is reported that “you can barely see for all the smoke.” In Portland, Oregon, a test reveals that 36 percent of all inhalable particulate matter in the air is from wood smoke, which is similar in chemical composition to cigarette smoke—a health hazard. Many states already have laws restricting the use of woodburning stoves, and the Clean Air Act in England prohibits the burning of wood in London and other cities.
So, the next time you feel warmed up to wood, whether by the lure of the romantic fireside or because of your oil bill, take careful stock of the pros and cons and see if a woodburning stove is really for you.