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A Healthier Hearth, A More Efficient Fireplace

Conventional fireplaces can be inefficient and pollute the air inside your home. Use our tips to warm winter’s chill with a green, efficient fireplace.

| January/February 2012

  • Bring the warmth of a well-tended fire into your home in a healthy, sustainable and efficient manner.

It’s a classic image: curling up by the warmth of a cozy fire with a good book and a mug of hot cider. But what you can’t see in this picture may be harming you and your family. Burning wood emits toxins such as dioxin, arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde, as well as microscopic particles (also called particulate matter) that can cause burning eyes, runny noses and illnesses such as bronchitis. Particulate matter can also trigger asthma attacks and has been linked to heart and lung disease. Moreover, open fireplaces and older wood stoves are inefficient and often lose more heat than they produce. Fortunately, there are ways to bring the warmth of a well-tended fire into your home in a healthier and more efficient manner.

A More Efficient Fireplace

The American Lung Association recommends choosing cleaner, less toxic sources of heat than burning wood when possible. Although efficient fireplaces and stoves that burn natural gas or propane eliminate exposure to some of the dangerous toxins wood burning generates, they rely on costly, unsustainable fossil fuels. Gas and propane fireplaces and inserts must be directly vented outside the home to prevent exposure to carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and other emissions.

Pellet stoves are an efficient, cleaner-burning alternative, often generating less than 3 grams of particulate matter per hour. They are similar to wood stoves, but instead of wood, they burn other renewable fuels such as sawdust, woodchips and biomass wastes compressed into pellets. A pellet stove usually costs from $3,500 to $4,000 including installation, and they are available as inserts or free-standing stoves. Most models use electricity to control the flow of pellets into the stove. Use premium-grade pellets to help reduce ash buildup.

But for many people, nothing can quite replace the ambiance of burning wood. If you love the warmth of a wood fire, a new wood-burning stove or fireplace insert certified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is your best bet. They require less wood to generate the same amount of heat and emit fewer harmful particles—2 to 7 grams per hour compared with 15 to 30 grams for models manufactured before 1992. A new wood-burning stove or insert typically costs $3,500 to $4,200 with installation.  

Creosote Buildup

If you can’t upgrade your existing fireplace or stove, you can still improve its performance and reduce health risks. Have it inspected annually by a certified professional (see Resources). As often as the inspector recommends, hire professional cleaners to keep your system running smoothly and address dangerous creosote buildup, which can accumulate quickly in older wood stoves and fireplaces. A professional will also check for trapped debris and wildlife, which can force toxic gases back into your home. A well-designed chimney cap can help keep out animals and rain, as well as prevent sparks from landing on the roof or nearby combustible materials.  

To help maintain proper airflow and prevent dust and soot buildup, shovel excess ash into a covered metal container and store it outside, away from your home. Once it has cooled for several days, ash can be disposed of with other household trash. You can also use it sparingly in compost piles and to “sweeten” soil if it has an acidic nature. Many plants such as lilacs respond well to the application of wood ash, but to avoid adding toxins to your garden, make sure to use ash only from untreated wood, not from trash or other materials. 

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