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No Fuel Like and Old Fuel?

     by Stephen Morris

New Kids on the Block?

Life was so much simpler when we didn't have to think about things like what type of fuel to use to heat our homes. Remember the dream of "Total Electric Living" promised by Ronald Reagan as a spokesperson for General Electric? The idea of using electricity to heat homes now seems as outlandish as having a mini-nuclear reactor shapes like a woodstove in your living room. Now we have to think deep and hard before choosing a home heating fuel. Not only do we have to consider the impact on our pocketbooks, we have to full consider the impact on the planet, too. Thanks to www.hearth.com for providing much of this information. SM

Oil and gas can be thought of as "ancient sunlight." They are "old fuels," highly concentrated, powerful residues of photosynthesis that took place on the Earth's surface millions of years ago. When oil and gas are burned, carbon that has been buried within the earth for thousands of years is released in the form of carbon dioxide, a by-product of combustion. The result is an increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the cause of the greenhouse effect.

If your priority is to be kind to the planet, you might consider a biomass, the most common of which is wood. Although carbon makes up about half the weight of firewood and is released as carbon dioxide when the wood is burned, it is part of a natural cycle. A tree absorbs carbon dioxide from the air as it grows and uses this carbon to build its structure. When the tree falls and decays in the forest, or is processed into firewood and burned, the carbon is released again to the atmosphere. This cycle can be repeated forever without increasing atmospheric carbon. Heating with wood, therefore, does not contribute to the greenhouse effect. And there's more good news: when the use of wood for energy displaces the use of fossil fuels, the result is a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Wood is not an inherently dirty fuel that causes serious air pollution. While it is true that old technology like open fireplaces and simple heaters could not burn the wood completely, the new generation of woodburning appliances produce almost no visible smoke and deliver efficiencies in the range of 70 percent. Developed since 1980, improved technology has cut particulate emissions (smoke) by about 90 percent compared with conventional equipment. Wood may not be the best fuel choice in densely populated urban areas where automobile exhaust and other pollution already puts excessive strains on the air shed. But in suburban, small town, and rural areas, wood makes good sense.quiet zone

Wood contains only a negligable amount of sulphur, an element that leads to acid rain. In this age of environmental awareness, a big advantage of wood over the fossil fuels is that its main environmental impact occurs at the point of use and is visible for all to see. In contrast, the real environmental impacts of oil and gas are hidden from view because they occur during extraction, refining and transportation of the fuels to market.

The material below is courtesy of Craig Issod and appeared originally on Hearth.com
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If the destruction of tropical rain forests causes global warming, and if planting trees in your community is a good strategy control greenhouse gas concentrations, then how can using wood for home heating be justified? The answer lies in the natural cycle of growth, maturity, decay and re- growth of trees and forests. A healthy forest is not a museum, but a living community of plants and animals. When trees are used for energy, a part of the forests carbon "bank" is diverted from the natural decay and forest fire cycle into our homes to heat them.

The key to ecologically sound and sustainable wood energy use is to ensure that the forest remains healthy, maintains a stable level of variously aged trees and provides a good habitat for a diversity of other species, both plants and animals. You can do your part by insisting on firewood that is harvested using sustainable forestry practices. Ideally, buy your firewood from the person who owns the woodlot because owners are less likely to damage their forest. If that is not possible, question the seller about the origins of the wood.

When thousands of families turned to wood heating in the late 1970s and early 1980s to shelter them from high energy costs and the threat of shortages, there was a sudden increase in the number of house fires related to wood heating. Wood heating acquired a bad reputation, mostly because neither the users nor industry had reliable guidelines for installation safety. Since then, however, the wood energy industry and all levels of government have worked together to put in place the same type of safety systems as have been in place for other heating fuels for more than 30 years.

The product safety standards, installation codes and professional training for installers and inspectors have resulted in a greatly improved safety record for woodburning. Installed according to the codes and used according to the manufacturer's instructions, woodburning appliances are no more hazardous to use than any other form of home heating.


"The supply of firewood from privately managed wood lots to residential users of the fuel represents an important but neglected model of sustainable development. An increase in the use of wood as a fuel for residential heating can occur within the framework prescribed by current principles of environmental sustainability."

Dr. O.Q. Hendrickson, Forest Ecologist


"Forests are constantly thinning themselves, and there is much evidence that tells us that we could prudently be thinning our forests for millennia if we attended to its rhythms and patterns."

Paul Hawkin, Author, The Ecology of Commerce


Many of the objections to the burning of cordwood (safety, mess, smoke) are addressed by stoves that burn various type of biomass pellets. Pellet-burning appliances are simpler to operate and more convenient than other wood-burning appliances. In fact, they are almost as easy to use as gas, oil, or electric heaters. These stoves and inserts burn wood pellets--compressed wood which resembles rabbit food. Some stoves can even burn feed corn or pellets made from compressed grasses.

Typical pellet-burning appliances rely on sophisticated computers and circuit boards to determine how much fuel should be burned. Most models have at least two burn settings and some use thermostats to control the fire. They also use a forced-air system to distribute heat. Pellet-burning appliances are highly efficient and pollute very little. Depending on the model, they may furnish between 10,000 and 60,000 Btu per hour.

Because these appliances burn wood so efficiently, they do not typically need a standard chimney. Rather, they exhaust fumes through a small hole in the wall to the outdoors. This pipe is called Pellet Vent or Class L chimney, and consists of a stainless steel interior and an aluminum or galvanized exterior. Pellet stoves and inserts can also be vented up through existing masonry and prefab (class A) chimneys, but the chimney typically must be relined with a smaller size of stainless steel single wall pipe.

Pellet-burning appliances need to be refueled less frequently than most other wood-burning appliances. Refueling varies from once a day to twice a week, depending on the model and your heating needs. To refuel, you simply pour the pellets into a hopper, which holds between 35 and 130 pounds of pellets. A corkscrew-shaped device called an auger then transfer pellets to the fire chamber.

There are two types of auger feed systems, bottom-fed and top-fed loading systems. Some models are capable of burning corn in addition to pellets. Others can use lower grades of pellets, a good feature for the future when pellets may be made of materials other than premium sawdust. Unlike other wood-burning appliances, pellet stoves and inserts rely on mechanical air-supply systems (usually a forced-draft or induced-draft system) to vent air from the home. the forced-draft system uses a fan to force air up the vent into the combustion chamber. The induced-draft system, sometimes called the negative pressure system, uses a fan to draw air from the combustion area through the exhaust system.

Burning wood with a pellet stove or insert is usually convenient, neat and safe. These devices usually dont require refueling more than once a day and the fuel is compressed and bagged for clean and easy storage and handling. Pellet stoves produce virtually no smoke, and produce less odor than other wood-burning appliances. Moreover, the exteriors of these appliances are not used for radiating heat and stay relatively cool, preventing you from burning yourself if you accidentally touch the stove.

Pellet-burning appliances, however, have disadvantages. Before purchasing a pellet-burning appliance, make sure that reliable suppliers of the fuel are in your area. To find a pellet fuel distributor in your area, ask a local wood stove dealer or check for a listing in your local telephone directory under Fuel or Pellet Fuel.

Pellet-burning appliances also use several internal fans, which require about 100 KWH of electricity each month. The need for electricity will add to your total energy bill and will also prevent you from using your stove or insert if the power goes out (unless your appliance has a battery pack). Moreover, there are restrictions on where you can place a pellet-burning appliance to allow proper combustion and air exchange. For example, you may not install a pellet stove in a new manufactured (mobile) home according to regulations of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Pellet stoves have many moving parts and therefore require regular service and cleaning in order to function properly. Be sure to check on the warranty and the cost for yearly servicing. Ask your dealer if there are any major wear parts" which might need regular replacement.

If you are comparing the price of a pellet stove or insert with a gas or wood burning appliance , you should compare the total installed cost of both systems. If the pellet-burning appliance doesnt need a chimney, the cost of the entire system may be less than that of another stove. Average consumption will run from 1-2 tons for occasional use to 6+ tons for a heavy full-time user.

Still on the horizon, but becoming more common is biodiesel, a fuel that can be created from any number of biomass sources, most notably spent cooking oil. Although most biodiesel is used to fuel vehicles, it can easily be used as a substitute for home heating oil.

The headlines in late summer/early fall inevitably involve wild fires burning out of control throughout the West and Southwest. Peering into our energy futures perhaps we will see a type when the energy-laden brush and chapparal are harvested and pelletized or converted to biodiesel before going up in smoke.

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