Learn to Burn

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Tompkins Weekly Sept.19, 20011
By Guillermo Metz
Last month, Tompkins Weekly ran an article about Warm-Up Tompkins. This is a program Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County is running to incentivize homeowners to have energy work done on their homes, and which provides a rebate for converting to heating with a pellet stove. The crux of the program is the energy-efficiency work. This alone will cut most homeowners’ energy use by 40 percent or more.

But the conversion to wood pellets will further save homeowners significant amounts of money. And pellets – and other forms of biomass – have many other benefits, too. Yet, even though we’ve been tapping biomass for heat and other uses for thousands of years, many people are wary of heating their homes with it.

For homeowners used to heating with propane, oil, or natural gas, heating with wood or wood pellets may take some getting used to. But for most, it’s worth it.

In addition to the cost savings, heating with wood has three major advantages over burning fossil fuels. Wood is a form of renewable energy. As long as it is grown and harvested appropriately, it is inexhaustible.

Heating with wood is also nearly zero net carbon: it does not release additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere beyond what currently exists in the atmospheric carbon cycle. There are almost always carbon inputs required to harvest and process the wood, but compared to those for processing and burning fossil fuels, these are minor. That’s because fossil fuels have to be extracted from the earth and, when burned, they release carbon that has been sequestered for many thousands or millions of years, adding to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Finally, harvesting, processing, transporting and storing wood does not pose the environmental risks that fossil fuels do. There has never been an Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon-scale catastrophe related to wood.

The major disadvantages? Unless you have a fancy auguring system on your pellet furnace, heating with wood or pellets requires more work on the part of the homeowner. And, especially for people with asthma and chemical sensitivities, burning wood, especially in a wood stove, may cause respiratory problems.

The days of wood stoves habitually spewing out thick plumes of smoke, however, are over – or can be if it is done correctly.

Which leads to another disadvantage of heating with wood, particularly cord wood: the efficiency of and emissions from wood stoves are very dependent on the user. Even the newest high-efficiency wood stove can become a dangerous smoky mess in the wrong hands.

But with the right fuel and the right equipment even a wood stove can become a clean-burning, highly efficient way to heat your home. Pellet stoves generally burn even cleaner and offer many conveniences over wood stoves. Then there are wood- and pellet-fired furnaces and boilers. These have come a long way in recent years and there are many that are cleaner burning than even the best pellet stove.

If you are interested in heating with wood or other forms of biomass, come to the next Learn to Burn workshop. Learn all about the various types of combustion equipment and how to make the most of your fuel, including how to buy and dry firewood, the best way to build a clean-burning fire in a wood stove, and important safety tips. Even if you’ve been heating with wood for decades, you’re almost sure to learn a thing or two about how to do it cleaner and more efficiently.

Guillermo Metz is the Green Building and Renewable Energy Program Coordinator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. To find out more about heating with wood attend one of their upcoming workshops or click here to learn more.

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