As the state settles firmly into winter, the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection is reminding residents basic practices can reduce the impacts of burning wood on air quality, in both homes and neighborhoods. Fireplaces, wood stoves and outdoor wood boilers can help reduce energy costs, but they also emit small particles and other air pollutants. Common-sense steps, however, can significantly reduce these effects and also safeguard public health.
As Frank Steitz, director of the DEP’s Division of Air Quality, noted, “Following these guidelines will go a long way to addressing both health and safety at the same time.”
The DEP recommends following these guidelines when burning wood at home:
• Allow logs to season – which entails keeping them outdoors for at least six months – before burning them. Seasoning allows moisture to evaporate from the wood, making it burn more efficiently. Seasoned wood is darker, has cracks in the end grain and sounds hollow when smacked against another piece of wood.
• Stack logs neatly off the ground and cover them to offer protection from rain and snow. Store any wood that is to be used in the house a safe distance from fireplaces or stoves.
• Use a wood moisture meter to test the moisture content of wood, which burns most efficiently when its moisture content is below 20%.
• Start fires with newspaper, dry kindling or all-natural fire starters, or install a natural gas or propane log lighter in an open fireplace. Never start a fire with gasoline, kerosene or a charcoal starter.
• Build hot fires. A smoldering fire is neither safe nor efficient for most appliances.
• Remove ashes regularly to ensure proper airflow. Ashes should be placed into a covered metal container and stored outdoors on a nonflammable surface.
• Never use a stove or fireplace to burn garbage, cardboard, plastics, wrapping materials, painted materials or pressure-treated wood.
• Do not burn ocean driftwood; plywood; particle board; any wood with glue on or in it; or wood that is wet, rotted, diseased or moldy.
• Use locally cut firewood to decrease the risk of transporting invasive forest pests to a property. (For more information on this, visit dontmovefirewood.org.)
• If using manufactured logs, choose ones made from 100% compressed sawdust. Check the wood stove or fireplace insert operating instructions before using artificial logs, as many wax and sawdust logs are made for open hearth fireplaces only.
• Keep anything flammable – including draperies, furniture, newspapers and books – far away from any wood-burning appliance.
• Keep a recently inspected fire extinguisher nearby and accessible.
• Have chimneys cleaned annually by a certified chimney sweep. Nearly 7% of home fires are caused by the buildup of creosote in the chimney. These fires can spread extremely rapidly and are often signaled by flames leaping from the chimney or a low rumbling sound reminiscent of a freight train or airplane.
• Keep the doors of a wood-burning appliance closed unless loading or stoking the live fire to reduce the release of harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide into the home.
• Consider using an indoor air HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter in the same room as a stove or fireplace. These filters can reduce indoor particle pollution by as much as 60%.
• Check the local air quality forecast at airnow.gov before lighting a fire. If the air quality is unhealthy, consider other heating methods.
As the state points out, “Short-term exposure to wood smoke can aggravate lung or heart conditions for some people. Children, teenagers, older adults and people with lung diseases such as asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), or heart conditions, are most susceptible to the effects of wood smoke.”
The DEP also reminds residents state regulations and some municipal ordinances “prohibit the emission of visible smoke from outdoor wood boilers. Wood boilers heat a fluid that is circulated in homes and buildings for heating purposes. Under state regulations, these boilers may only emit visible smoke for three minutes every 30 minutes.”
For more information on safe wood burning visit nj.gov/dep/baqp/woodburning.html or epa.gov/burnwise. —J.K.-H.