Heating with wood this winter
I need to preface this article by assuring readers that, contrary to what many people are saying, New York state is not considering passing legislation that would prohibit burning wood or woody biomass products (pellets, scrap wood, sawmill and forest residues) at this time. There is a draft-plan, however, in which the state Climate Action Council’s advisory panel sets out scenarios for an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with overall wood use decreasing within that time frame.
There’s nothing I know of that compares to the radiant warmth of a wood fire. The cat on your lap or the dog at your feet and a good book, the morning paper, or your favorite magazine in hand; you can’t beat it. And, with the cost of home heating oil currently at more than $5 a gallon, which is down from a high of $6.08 in June (Source: NYSERDA New York Home Heating Oil Price Monitoring Program), several people that I’ve talked with recently are turning — and in some cases returning — to wood as a primary heating fuel. Others are installing wood stoves as a secondary heating system in living rooms, dens, and family rooms.
Maximizing the comfort, efficiency, and safety of your wood heating system
When you burn wood, the combustion process is rarely, if ever, complete. At temperatures below 250-degrees Fahrenheit, a tar-like substance, called creosote, condenses on the surfaces of stovepipes and chimney flues. When temperatures fall below 150-degrees Fahrenheit, the creosote deposit becomes thick and very sticky.
Creosote build-up on the interior surface of a chimney can result in the reduction of draft. And problems are most often due to a combination of low draft and cold chimney walls. Carbon from smoke becomes trapped by the creosote build-up. It dries and bakes inside pipes and flues forming a flaky, crusty substance that’s extremely flammable. It’s the formation of this combination of by-products that can fuel a chimney fire. This becomes even more dangerous if the chimney is in poor condition.
A properly operating, well-maintained chimney carries smoke, which contains all of the undesirable products of combustion, out of the home. It also supplies the draft necessary to feed air to the fire. By contrast, a defective chimney can cause fires or carbon monoxide poisoning. A neglected chimney may even collapse. Unfortunately, chimneys are all too often neglected by homeowners, even though the threat of chimney fires is real and clearly should not be ignored.
Most people think of a chimney fire as violent. They picture an explosion of flames coupled with dense smoke. Often, that’s not the case. It’s possible to have a chimney fire and not even know it. A slow-burning chimney fire can occur virtually undetected, even though it may cause extensive damage to the chimney and the adjoining structure.
A chimney fire produces temperatures of about 2,000-degrees Fahrenheit. The ignition temperature of new house framing is about 500-degrees Fahrenheit. And wood that’s been repeatedly heated over a period of years will ignite at even lower temperatures.
No wood burning system is 100% safe. Even with the safest installation and all the care in the world, a chimney fire can happen. Be prepared. Warning signs include sucking sounds, a loud roar (it can sound like there’s a train running through the house) and the shaking or rattling of stovepipes.
If a chimney fire occurs once, chances are it will occur again. So, if you’ve had a chimney fire, find the cause. Should another, similar fire occur, it could burn the house down. Keep in mind that even a perfectly sound chimney can conduct enough heat to ignite adjoining combustible materials.
When cleaning out your woodstove, wood furnace, or fireplace, be sure that the ashes are disposed of properly. Carry the ashes out of your home in a non-combustible container, such as a metal bucket (preferably one with a lid) and before you put the ash into the trash, be sure that there are no smoldering coals. Ash is a great insulator and can keep a coal hot enough to start a fire for hours, even days. To protect against falling embers, floor protection should extend at least 12 inches beyond the sides and rear of the stove, and at least 18 inches beyond the stove front.
Fire drills save lives. Practice fire drills and make sure that all family members know how and when to use a fire extinguisher. When faced with a fire, you should always call 911.
Ensuring that chimneys and flues are well maintained greatly reduces the risk of fire. If you didn’t have your chimney cleaned and inspected at the end of the last heating season, now would be a good time to have it done.
If you do the work yourself, all of the equipment that you’ll need can be purchased at home centers, hardware stores, or through woodstove and fireplace dealers. Use a sturdy ladder; one that’s appropriate for the job. And wear suitable clothing and skid-resistant footwear.
Better yet, call a certified professional. He or she will clean the chimney and inspect the entire fuel venting system for fire damage. And a certified professional may be able to offer solutions to masonry problems, as well. Some even do the repairs themselves. Others will provide referrals.
For more information about buying, storing, and heating with firewood, visit franklin.cce.cornell.edu/energy/heating-with-wood.