Mostly to save money, Matthew Walton switched a few years ago from heating his home with natural gas to wood, becoming a modern-day Paul Bunyan.
"The access to cheap wood made a difference," says Walton, a carpenter who lives on heavily forested land in Keene, N.H., where he chops his own fallen or dead trees.
"It saves us a bundle," he says, adding his wood stove can manage all winter with just two cords because he added insulation and good windows to his tidy, 1,300-square-foot home.
As energy prices rise, and winter approaches, more Americans are turning to wood to heat their homes, some hurrying to cash in on tax credits for efficient stoves that expire next month.
This upswing is prompting federal officials, concerned about the health and environmental impact of burning wood, to update 23-year-old certification criteria for stoves and set the first requirements for outdoor wood boilers, which heat water that's piped into homes.
"We are not in the business of telling people how to heat their homes," says Alison Davis of the Environmental Protection Agency, which plans to propose the new rules next year. But if they want to burn wood, Davis urges them to buy an EPA-certified stove and operate it properly so no smoke gets inside the house.
She says boilers are "significantly more polluting" than wood or pellet stoves because they have short stacks and use 10 times as much wood. Even so, she says those meeting the EPA's 2007 voluntary standards are 90% cleaner than older ones. "The technology has improved for wood stoves," Davis says, as has the research on the dangers of wood burning.
Wood heating's upswing
The number of U.S. households heating with wood rose 34% nationwide from 1.8 million in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2010 — faster than any other heating fuel, according to Census data.
"We're seeing a rise mainly in states with high oil and gas prices," most notably in Michigan and Connecticut, says John Ackerly of the Alliance for Green Heat, a nonprofit group that promotes wood stoves.
"It's a combination of rising energy prices and the economic downturn," he says, adding low- and middle-income households are much more likely than others to use wood for primary heating. In rural areas, he says many cut their own wood and in the suburbs, they get it free when trees fall.
He expects wood will become more popular this winter, citing the projected rise in household heating costs. Compared to last winter, heating will cost 3% more with natural gas and 8% more with oil this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Retailers are gearing up. U.S. shipments of pellet stoves, considered the most efficient way to burn wood, jumped 59% in the second quarter of this year, compared to the same time last year, and pellet fireplace inserts rose 72%, according to Leslie Wheeler of the the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, an industry group.
"We're expecting those numbers to continue to increase," Wheeler says, because of high fuel prices. She says the tax credits expiring this year — up to $300 for EPA-certified stoves — are not as generous as in 2009 and 2010 when they covered 30% of the cost, up to $1,500. She says many cost $3,000 to $4,000 with installation.
Wood's dirty downside
The problem is that most Americans burn wood in old, dirty devices. Traditional fireplaces are so inefficient they don't heat a room unless they've been retrofitted with a wood or pellet insert.
Of the 10 million wood stoves being used in the U.S., 70% to 80% are not EPA-certified and emit 70% more pollution than those that are, says Lisa Rector of the nonprofit NESCAUM (Northeast
States for Coordinated Air Use Management.) She says most of the 500,000 outdoor wood boilers don't meet EPA's voluntary standards.
Several Northeast and Western states have "burn bans" and other rules to limit wood burning, particularly when air quality is bad.
"People don't realize burning wood is a source of pollution, indoors and outdoors, especially when you're using an older stove," says Janice Nolan of the American Lung Association. She says it can emit tiny particulate matter — soot and ash — that gets lodged in the lungs and toxic substances such as benzene, carbon monoxide and methane.
Walton says he bought an EPA-certified stove that does not emit smoke inside his home. He sees a health benefit in chopping wood and an aesthetic one in burning it, adding: "The stove has a certain ambience."
[Via USA Today]