Saturday, January 28, 2012

Playing with fire - again

Burning an old bird house
We partly heat our home with wood for reasons including having a fireplace, being given a large quantity of well seasoned firewood and taking down a tree down on our lot. Ours is an actual fireplace (not a wood stove), that is only a chimney modification away from an ancient fire pit – meaning that if we aren't careful our house fills with smoke, which I consider a negative point. On the plus side, having a fireplace means there is always kindling around making me ready for a vampire attack.

The sound and smell of wood fires are nostalgic for me. A whiff of wood smoke transports me back to the house I grew up in and the wood stove that heated it (funny, I don't immediately recall carrying all that wood into the house – yet I did lots of that too). We aren't alone with our fireplace as 20% of Canadians partly heat with wood.

In general, wood is a much better heating source than fossil fuels. For example, natural gas emits 15 times more carbon dioxide per kilogram than wood. Is a wood fire better for the environment than using electric heat (our other option)? The type of wood burned matters in two ways. First, the energy content of wood depends on the variety of tree it came from. Secondly, how dry the wood is. Moisture content determines how firewood burns and how much heat is released. Dry wood produces more heat than green wood of the same species.

Here is a good explanation of why wood might be okay (from here):

Only a relatively small percentage of electricity is from renewables like hydroelectric dams, and even then there are environmental problems due to flooding large areas. Wind turbines will never produce enough electricity to be used widely for home heating.

Firewood, on the other hand, can be produced with slight environmental impact because it needs little processing and most of it is used close to where the trees grew. Wood is the most economical and accessible of all renewable energy resources for many households and it has value beyond the displacement of fossil fuels and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It is practiced on a small scale and the householders that use it gain a better understanding of their impacts on the environment than users of other energy sources. Families who heat their homes with wood responsibly should be recognized for their contribution to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a sustainable energy future.

In a modern context, and knowing what we now know about the environmental impacts of all energy use, wood can be thought of as a ‘new’ energy resource, provided it comes from sustainable sources and is burned in advanced combustion appliances.

The article goes on to make it clear that wood heating isn't for everyone and how it's done is critically important.

An interesting side point – if a truck load of wood spills, it can just be picked up again the only cost is a bit of labour. If a truck load of oil spills it's a whole different problem. Plus, where I live wood can come from near by, while fossil fuels come from far away.


  1. Never knew I was environmentally friendly -- I just liked the sound/sight/warmth of a fire. So, how does a fireplace like yours compare with a woodstove in terms of efficiency and clean burning?

  2. Our fireplace is super inefficient - especially since we have to keep a window open to prevent the house from filling with smoke. In time I'd like to install a woodstove of some sort.