Safe, Efficient Wood Burning
Heating with wood makes sense economically for many households in New Hampshire, the nation's second most heavily-forested state (after Maine). A wood-stove equipped household paying $300 a cord for dry hardwood and burning it in a modern, energy-efficient stove can get more than twice the equivalent heating value of fuel oil at $5.00 per gallon.
But there's a major tradeoff involved when you rely on a woodstove for all or some of your home's winter heat: the woodstove requires much more work and attention than an automatic central heating system does.
To protect you, your family, your neighbors, and your property as you enjoy the warmth of New Hampshire's renewable energy source, follow these important wood-heating rules:
- Burn only wood that has been cut, split and seasoned for at least six months. It takes about a year for freshly cut-and-split firewood to drop from 80 percent (or higher) moisture content to 20 percent. Green (wet) wood may cause a buildup of potentially dangerous creosote (the hard substance that collects on flues and inside chimneys when combustible gases don't burn in the firebox and condense).
- Don't use artificial logs in your wood stove. Use artificial logs only in fireplaces and always according to the manufacturer's specifications.
- Kindle fires only with paper and dry wood kindling. Never try to get a woodstove fire going or speed it up with an accelerant such as charcoal starter, gasoline, kerosene, or a propane torch.
- Don't burn household wastes such as plastics, diapers, magazines, packaging materials, coated or laminated papers, or painted or treated wood. These products produce and release toxic fumes, and may produce hazardous ashes.
- Stack firewood at least 25 feet from the house and on pallets to assure proper air flow and to reduce the risk of insect infestation. Never treat firewood with pesticides, and never burn pressure-treated or painted wood, as the burning chemicals can release toxic fumes into your living space or the atmosphere.
- Always adhere to the manufacturer's installation and maintenance instructions and recommendations for. flue size, clearances and connections.
- Make sure your woodstove and stovepipe have adequate clearances from combustible surface and materials. Combustible materials may include but are not limited to furniture, curtains, clothing, magazine racks, the building walls, and even the woodbox. Unless the manufacturer specifies otherwise, all heating surfaces of a woodstove should be at least 36 inches from any combustible material.
- Consider having your wood stove installed by a certified installer. When installing a wood stove yourself, check with an expert to ensure proper installation. Some communities may require a permit and/or an inspection. Even if they don't require it, many local fire departments or town building inspectors will inspect stove installations for safety.
- Have your chimney and wood stove(s) cleaned and checked every year. Replace worn gaskets during the warmer months. This will improve the efficiency of your woodstove as well as its safety. Also, check the stove, stovepipe, and chimney flue regularly during the heating season. Consult an expert if you have any uncertainty about how to conduct these checks.
- Make sure stovepipe connections are tight and held together with at least three sheet metal screws each. Keep stovepipes short and straight. The pipe should enter the chimney higher than the stove's smoke outlet.
- Never drape wet clothing over a woodstove to dry.
- Store firewood indoors at least three feet from the stove. Never try to dry wet wood by stacking it close to, on top of, or resting against a working woodstove.
- Provide a non-combustible physical barrier (fence) so children can't reach the stove.
- When cleaning ashes out of the woodstove, place the ashes in a covered metal container and set it outside on a dirt or concrete surface at least 36" from any combustibles. Don't store ashes in a cardboard box. Never set a bucket of ashes on a porch or deck. Even "cold" ashes can harbor live coals days or weeks after they've been removed from the stove.
- Keep at least one fire extinguisher (with 1A:10B:C rating) within easy reach of each wood heating appliance. Make sure you and all family members know how to use them.
- Install smoke detectors on each level of the home and in every bedroom. Fire safety experts currently recommend a combination of both ionization detectors and hard-wired photoelectric smoke detectors. The hard-wired photodetction devices should be interconnected, so that when one device detects smoke, they all sound. Wireless units that "talk" to each other via radio waves can minimize the wiring cost. Test detectors once a month. Remember to change the batteries on battery-powered individual smoke detectors once a year, ideally just before the start of the winter heating season.
Understand how to protect your family from carbon monoxide (CO2) poisoning. Although experts recommend installing a carbon monoxide detector in your home, tests on the devices currently available have shown uneven reliability. Develop a family fire escape plan and practice it at least twice a year. Check out the comprehensive information from the National Fire Prevention Association on escape planning.
- Important note: Notify your home insurance agent before you install a new wood stove or other wood heating appliance. Carriers have different underwriting standards regarding installation and inspection of wood stoves.
Health effects of woodsmoke
Although many people enjoy the smell of wood smoke on the winter air, smoke isn't good for us. Some people are more susceptible to both long- and short-term health-damaging effects of wood smoke.
Inform yourself about the health effects of wood smoke, learn who's most susceptible and how to recognize the symptoms of wood-smoke irritation. Remember, following the instructions for safe installation and operation of your woodburning system will minimize any negative health effects on you and your family.
Woodstoves and Air Pollution This N.H. Air Resources fact sheet provides good basic information on the negative health effects of wood smoke and how to minimize them.
Wood heat accessories
Besides smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detector, and fire extinguishers, you'll need a few woodburning accessories and may want others. Woodstove dealers and many catalogs carry a wide range of accessories for wood-heated households, which include:
- A poker and/or "rake" for moving pieces of wood, coals, and ashes around inside the firebox.
- For many woodstove models, an ash shovel for removing ashes from the stove.
- A covered metal container for storing the ashes.
- A stack thermometer, which attaches magnetically to your stovepipe and helps you regulate the stove dampers for an ideal burn rate.
- Heavy cowhide gloves that allow you to handle and position a burning log (Caution: When removing the glove(s), make sure they don't harbor a live spark.)
- A stove-top "steamer," to help humidify the dry winter air inside a wood-heated home.
- One or more wooden or metal clothes-drying racks. Clothes will dry rapidly on racks set up near your woodstove. The moisture coming off the clothes helps humidify the air. Make sure to set the racks at least three feet from the radiant surface of a stove.
- Some woodstoves are designed, or can be retrofitted, to heat household hot water. In most instances, you'll need to hire a licensed plumber knowledgeable about wood heating to advise you and connect the water heating appliance.
- A wood carrier for bringing a load of wood from outdoors to your indoor storage area. Possibilities include 4-wheeled wheebarrows with pneumatic tires, carriers mounted on toboggan-like devices for winter hauling, up-right dolly-like carriers with pneumatic tires.
For more information
Frequently asked questions Answers from the Canadian nonprofit Woodheat.org
Wood-Burning Efficiency and Safety Tips on installing and maintaining a wood stove.
Wood is good, if you burn the right wood the right way from GREENWorks, a publication of NH Department of Environmental Services
Best Burn Practices Practical tips on building a fire and safe burn practices.
Information about smoke alarms (Consumer Products Safety Commission)
Health Effects of Wood Smoke Wood smoke may smell good, but it's not good for your health. Some people are more susceptible than others to the health effects of wood smoke. Here's information you need.
Protecting yourself & your family from carbon monoxide poisoning Carbon monoxide is odorless, invisible, and deadly. This fact sheet offers important safety information for your household; not limited to advice about woodburning. See especially the section toward the end of the page, titled, A Few Words About CO Detectors.
New Hampshire Association of Chimney Professionals Good information about chimney safety; list of members statewide and by region.
Family Escape Planning A comprehensive guide to all aspects of planning (and practicing) a family fire escape plan.
Sleepover Checklist for Parents Fire safety checklist for child sleepovers and slumber parties away from home.
Reviewed by J. William Degnan, N.H. State Fire Marshal, who also contributed