COLUMNS: Better burning for the air aware

There is nothing quite like the comfort and warmth of a wood fire.

There is nothing quite like the comfort and warmth of a wood fire. Heating homes since the beginning of time, wood is a locally abundant, renewable source of energy.

Utilized by a large number of households in the area, wood heat allows for a degree of self sufficiency by reducing dependency on purchased energy and providing an alternative heating source, when and where other power is not available.

Unfortunately, burning wood is not all good. Those who experienced last summer’s forest fires know, smoke from wood fires can have major impacts on our wellness.

From headaches, sore eyes and deep coughs to chest pain, difficulty breathing and overall malaise, the negative health effects of smoke are definitely not a joke.

The release of air pollutants from wood burning can have serious health and environmental impacts. Exposure to wood smoke can exasperate chronic health issues like bronchitis and asthma while increasing susceptibility to respiratory infections such as cold and flu.

“Wood Smoke – Good for the Soul, not for the Heart,” is the message of recent research linking particulate matter pollution in wood smoke to significantly increased risk of heart attack and premature death.

While difficult to separate from other air pollutants, there is a growing mountain of evidence suggesting excess wood smoke can be as bad for your health as cigarettes.

Energy in wood is released through the process of combustion. While this is not necessarily problematic, when combustion is incomplete, air pollutants are emitted large quantities.

Thick white or grey smoke from a chimney indicates incomplete burning, which equals energy inefficiency and wood waste.

Yet, changing the way we burn can significantly reduce the smoke our fires produce. The following are simple steps we can all take to help protect the air we all share:

Season all firewood. Split, stack, cover and store your wood for at least 6 months before burning. Seasoned wood burns hotter, cuts fuel consumption, reduces the amount of smoke produced and decreases creosote buildup.

Dry wood will feel lighter and make a hollow cracking sound when two pieces are banged together. Choose the right wood. Hardwoods burn hotter and longer then soft. Never burn trash, painted or treated wood which can emit toxic air pollutants.

Start it and stack it right. Use only clean newspaper and/or dry kindling to start a fire. Never use, gasoline, kerosene or a propane torch. Stack wood in your appliance so sufficient air can move around it, allowing for complete combustion.

Don’t burn cold wet wood. Throwing cold, snow covered wood in your appliance requires energy be used to heat the wood and evaporate the moisture. Cooling the system greatly decreases efficiency.

Make sure where there is smoke there is fire. Many people think they should let a fire smoulder overnight. But reducing the air supply does little for heating and greatly increases air pollutants, like carbon monoxide.

Remove ashes and keep your chimney clean. Excess ash can clog the air intake vents reducing efficiency. A clean chimney provides good draft for your wood-burning appliance, helping it to burn better.

Upgrade to greener, cleaner equipment. EPA certified stoves and fireplace inserts burn cleaner and more efficient. Using up to 1/3 less wood, they help save you time and money while keeping your local air cleaner and healthier.

Check the “venting report” before burning large, outdoor slash piles and woody yard debris. Actually, first check if you can compost or utilize it for energy production. If not, then check the weather. Is there wind? Is there a temperature inversion? Under poor conditions, dense heavy smoke can sit in an area for long periods of time.

To check the venting index, which measures “the atmosphere’s ability to disperse airborne pollutants,” go to: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/epd/epdpa/venting/venting.html.

If you have to burn, it’s best done when the venting index is considered “good,” meaning the weather will allow the smoke to disperse. They say “the solution to pollution is dilution.” I think it’s composting, but that’s a topic for another day.

That’s it for now.

Be well. Be Air Aware.

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