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Burn Notice: Safe and Sustainable Fireplace Practices

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One of the charms of winter is enjoying the warmth and glow of indoor fireplaces and wood stoves. It also emphasizes the need for sustainable, safe and healthy practices—especially when it comes to maintaining air quality.

Try to buy wood from providers that use good forest management practices such as harvesting during sustainable months, reports WoodHeat.org. Environmentally sound woodlot operations include thinning out dying, less desirable and damaged trees, and including a blend of species.

“Have a high-efficiency, properly installed stove that meets local building codes that’s sized for the area to be heated,” says Brad Harr, senior environmental scientist and president of Summit Environmental Inc., in Boise, Idaho. “Use dry, 10 to 12 percent wood moisture. Water sucks up heat to get to combustion temperature. Run at high heat, generally over 1,000° F in the firebox, to effect complete combustion of the wood and gases.”

Denser woods such as ironwood, rock elm, hickory, oak and sugar maple burn longer and conserve resources. Use a higher British thermal unit (BTU) per cord of wood to maximize heat production. (World Forest Industries has tips per region.)

Harr adds, “Don’t starve the fire to extend burning time, as smoldering can cause incomplete combustion.” This leads to more carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) being released that can cause flu-like symptoms, and at high levels, unconsciousness and even death. To help maintain proper airflow and prevent soot buildup, shovel excess ash into a covered metal container, store it outside and dispose of it in a few days.

Smelling smoke can indicate the fireplace may be backdrafting and needs to be inspected. Harr also suggests checking periodically for potential cracks or rusting in the joints of a stovepipe. Make sure children and the elderly don’t accidentally touch the stove while in use and keep furniture a suitable distance away. Periodic inspections by a professional can address potentially dangerous creosote (tar deposit) accumulations, assure the catalytic converter is operating correctly and detect trapped debris in escape shafts that can force toxic gases back into the home and clog spark-arresting screens on tops of stovepipes or chimneys.

If buying a new unit, make sure it’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-certified, which  requires two-thirds less wood to generate heat and emits fewer harmful particles—two to seven grams per hour—compared with 15 to 30 grams for models manufactured before 1992, according to Mother Earth Living.
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