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December 21, 2009


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And in the meantime, all the warm air in your house is going straight up the chimney. If you can, try installing a fireplace insert. It burns 75% efficiently with far less particulate matter than an open fireplace, it seals tight against drafts, and it has a blower to get waaaaaay more heat into your living room.

Acai Berry

just be careful not to get a ticket for that... and don't burn your house down



I would like to know what is more environmentally friendly? Gas or wood burning fireplace? I actually prefer gas fireplaces as I struggle with burning trees and rather than consider the smell of a wood burning fireplace to be romantic, to me it's polluted air. Any thoughts Mr. Green?


I have an old franklin stove that works fine. On most days you can't tell whether or not there is a fire from the chimney. But the now wildly popular "outdoor wood furnaces" are a disgrace. They throw up plumes of smoke that are visible for miles, and there is no regulation of them. It is sickening.

Tadas N.

There are also those Eco Smart fireplaces that burn ethanol but they are so darn expensive. I've seen them at one of the Green Homes here in SF Bay Area and they look awesome. If I build a new home, I may go for that type of fireplace, very clean burn.

Tadas, Author of http://SanJoseGreenHome.com


To keep warmed room air in the room when there is no fire, close the damper on your fireplace chimney. You can check whether the damper is completely closed by putting a lit incense stick nearby. If you never use the fireplace, consider sealing air leaks around the damper.


Jim: there's nothing environmentally-unfriendly about burning wood, no matter what anyone here tells you (including this article). It's all about the carbon cycle: burning natural gas is bad because you're digging up a hydrocarbon from deep below the earth's surface that's been there for millions of years, and burning it, releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere, increasing the overall amount of carbon there. Whereas, with wood, you're taking wood, grown only within the last few decades, and burning it, releasing its carbon into the atmosphere.

With wood and other yard waste, plants capture carbon dioxide from the air and use it to build more plant matter, and then we burn these things and release the carbon. Overall, the net change of carbion dioxide in the atmosphere is basically zero, because it's all happening within a very short timescale (years to decades). With oil and natural gas however, instead of burning recently-captured carb on, we're burning carbon captured by plants millions of years ago when the atmosphere was very different from now, and overall increasing the amount of CO2.

Of course, too many people burning too much wood in a valley can cause "particulate" pollution and smoke, but that's not an environmental problem at all, only a health problem: it's bad for humans to breathe it (and perhaps any animals in the area, but this generally is a problem only in urban areas, not places where there's wildlife). Wildfires happen all the time in nature and cause tons of "particulate pollution", but even though these fires are completely natural in many cases (caused by lightning), they'll damage your health too. Same goes for volcanoes. Don't confuse "environmentally bad" with "dangerous to human health". Hemlock is a completely natural plant which is in no way environmentally harmful (after all, it grows naturally), but it most certainly is dangerous to human health if you drink its extract. Similarly, there's nothing wrong with smoke from fireplaces, or even outdoor wood furnaces. Sure, the smoke may be bad for humans' lung health in the immediate area, but it doesn't hurt the environment.

Mark Mulligan

We live in a 200 year old farm house that has a high efficiency Jotul wood stove insert in the Living Room fireplace with a 2-speed air blower. It's so safe we can leave the house or go to sleep with the fire blazing, and no worries. It heats the whole house.

We use a modern 2-zone high efficiency oil fired boiler as our main heating system, but the fireplace wood stove stays busy all winter, especially during the coldest months. We are belatedly sorry that we did not opt for a closed loop geothermal HVAC system instead of upgrading our old oil boiler when we renovated, and will probably do that next time. But we love the wood stove and I appreciate knowing that it's efficient and not too polluting.

Oliver Inslee

I have a good efficient wood stove and I burn wood cut right on my property. I don't think that there is a better way to heat your home in the winter. I use all local wood, so there is no transportation of the fuel I burn through our Pennsylvania winter. That has to matter if you are worried about your carbon foot print.


We live in a residential community where the houses are very close together. Our neighbor burns wood in the fireplace almost every night, not as a heat source, but just because they like a cozy fire. The smoke "downwashes" into our driveway, and comes into our home when we open the door to enter or leave our house. Sometimes we smell the smoke through our ventilation system. When our dog comes in from being outside for just a few minutes, he smells terribly of smoke. I fear for my family's health, and yet I get no help from EPA, the State Agency, or my local municipality. It seems that I must spend my own money to roll the dice and bring a nuisance action in order to get this health problem addressed. I can't afford to do that, and I can't afford to move.



Grishnakh, I've read the explanation that you give, which maintains that CO2 from wood fires is carbon neutral, many times. However, it doesn't quite make sense to me. We are extremely concerned about the total amount of CO2 that is in the atmosphere during the next few decades in particular. CO2 from wood burning acts exactly as CO2 from coal burning. Mental gymnastics doesn't change this fact. The longer that we can keep the carbon which is bound in wood out of the atmosphere, the better. This means no fires for the pleasure of seeing wood burn. In particular, don't cut healthy trees which may live on for decades or centuries, capturing more carbon every day, just to satisfy your desire to see flames. Efficient wood combustion for necessary heating is another thing entirely.

Harold Kornylak

Woody, that logic is only true if you are going to not heat your house at all instead of burning wood. If you use coal, either in the form of black lumps, or electricity made from those black lumps, I would prefer you leave them deep under the ground, burn some wood, and plant a few trees.

Alan Van Zuuk

Don't forget that fireplaces and leaky wood stoves can backdraft combustion gases including carbon monoxide into your house. Backdrafting is most common in homes with forced air heat; shutting the interior doors in the house starves the hall return for air, so it uses the fireplace chimney as a makeup air source and pulls combustion gases back into the house. This usually doesn't happen until the fire has died down to coals and the draft is failing anyway, late at night after everybody went to bed and shut their doors. So leave your interior doors open if you have forced air heat and use the fireplace. Oversized range hoods, attic fans, (any large exhaust fan), and high winds can also cause backdrafting. The infamous ubiquitous atmospheric draft gas water heater is also a notorious backdraft gas contributor, and no Sierra Club member should tolerate one anyway, since the efficiency is only about 60%. Go solar, or Daikin is now selling the Altherma, a split-ductless heat pump water heater/electric boiler that really works.

Also realize that UL-listed CO alarms may protect you from dying, but will not alarm early enough to protect you and the kids from permanent neurological damage. You have to buy Canadian Standards Agency (CSA)-listed CO alarms to find out about CO in your home before it damages your health. A CSA-listed CO detector is available at www.coexperts.com. It is worth the money to find out your house has a combustion appliance problem before you have a health problem.

A Performance Tested Comfort System-certified or Energy Star partner heating contractor or duct sealer or Building Performance Institute-certified consultant should have the training to diagnose and correct combustion appliance problems in a house.

Marsh Bates

I use my grandfather's big and very old pot-bellied wood burning stove in a one room cabin. It's probably around 50 years old, more or less. But who ever put the chimney pipes in did not do a very good job, and so I just cover them up (tiny gaps) with lots of tin foil. The heat is luscious on these cold winter nights, I never felt such a wondrous heat before. But is it safe? I don't spend a lot of time at the cabin, but have noticed respiratory problems lately (though I have allergies too)...


please go to burningissues.org. There is little that is "green' about wood burning. Particulates from wood smoke kill just about everything. There is a study about the demise of the fish population in the great lakes region that occurs because all of the camp fires kill the insects that fish feed on. I wish the Sierra Club would get better on this significant source of air pollution and stop making excuses for wood burners. Wood smoke is a huge health hazard. If you burn wood, try stepping outside your house and think about the harm you are causing to the people and other living creatures around you. Gas is cleaner, and conservation even more so.


Harold, you miss my point. Also, note the last line of my post.

My point is that human burning of wood is not carbon neutral; it forces more carbon into the atmosphere than the natural carbon cycle would. It speeds up the process. I'll bet the few trees that you suggest planting won't ever catch up to balance all the carbon emitted from continuing decades of fires. Besides, the toss-off of "plant a few trees" is a rare occurrence in real life.

Again, the thing is to not burn ANYTHING unless you have to. If you have to burn, do it very efficiently.

Sherwood Johnson

Grishnahk - the idea that burning wood is utilizing a relatively short carbon cycle relative to drilling for gas only applies IF you harvest wood sustainably. In other words, you need to replant enough trees to replace the ones you use AND allow time for them to mature. If you don't, you are actually BREAKING the carbon cycle.
A better arguement against gas is how destructive it can be to drill for it - e.g. the frac method being used to mine the Marcellus Shale creates huge problems with water usage, polluted runoff, poisoning of streams with heavy metals, noise pollution, air pollution, and damage to forests to access drilling sites.
Also, as some pointed out, burning wood is never efficient unless the majority of the heat is going INTO your house rather than being sucked OUT of your house as with your father's fireplace. Get an efficient fireplace insert or stop using it all together.

Shirley Coffman

What about using the pre-packaged "logs". Recently I was at the lake house of my daughter and they used them. They offer very little heat but is a fire. Can't be good.

Jeff Grandinetti

The difference between natural gas and wood is that one of them 'can' be collected sustainably. People who think gas is a great alternative to wood are probably the same short-sighted, gullible folks buying electric cars. The thing is that the energy has to come from somewhere; it's a law of physics. When you look at the upstream pollution caused by the extraction and distribution of gas it's a lot like the damage caused by manufacturing new cars: the cost far outweighs the small gains made by reducing consumer emissions. You have to look at the whole picture folks! Don't believe me? Go visit some of the places where natural gas comes from and ask the locals how much they enjoyed having their water supply poisoned.

Bill Williams

Something seems illogical about this whole 'carbon footprint of my fireplace' thing. To use an analogy, ppl are micro managing and micro analyzing a grain of sand on the beach when the entire North American coast line is eroding away. The amount of carbon released from a fireplace is probably one billionth of the 'grain of sand'...It is not worth getting ulcers over or even going to extremes such as buying 'prepackaged 'environmentally friendly' logs'' sheeshe, follow the manufacturing chain..how are those logs made? trace back far enough and you will find electric motors powered by fossil fuel plants. I'll gladly cut down the dead tree in my yard and burn it in my 30 yo fireplace, on rainy or sunny days, tyvm. And the study that showed one campfire killed all the bugs so the fish starved? At face value, sounds like a very large exaggeration of observations/inferences, based on unscientific methods, for the purpose of exciting the unthinking ...for example, have all the other possible contributors been ruled out? Also, must have been pretty stupid bugs to go rushing into smoke from a campfire and die...then again, how do you know that the bugs might not have flown away from the smoke, died in flight, fell into the water and gave the fish a feast and they died from gluttony?
Very few ppl understand the interdependency in the carbon production-consumption chains of people/products/consumption. Fewer yet understand or are able to quantify the interdependence. Until a coherent picture is in place, worring about burning logs on only rainy days or only buying 'eco-friendly' logs (made by sweatshops in china that actually do more damage), is INMO, a waste of time and money and not attempting to understand the whole problem.

Scott Banbury

Hmm, I can either use natural gas that is piped halfway across the country, electricity that is generated from coal that comes from mountain top removal sites or burn wood that otherwise decays (releasing greenhouse gases) in a landfill at a cost to the taxpayer.

It sounds like burning wood is the better choice all around. Particularly in my case where it also consumes the wastes from my woodworking business. Yes, for efficiency, one should use an EPA certified stove or insert--we have a really pretty Vermont Castings Encore II that is the sole source of heat in our house (it's 15 degrees out right now). AND, I get the physical benefits of splitting wood and the social benefits of spending a lot of time with my family around the fire.


Woody: Natural wildfires are a way of housekeeping forests...they make way for new growth. When people burn woods in fireplaces to heat their home, they are not burning green wood, which anyway doesn't burn well. So living trees are NOT cut down for firewood. Dead trees are. Dead trees that are blocking precious sunlight from saplings waiting for their chance on the forest floor. So, when I go into my woods and cut down dead trees, I am actually helping the general health of the forest. And I'm giving less money to the oil trade. And, in reality, I do plant trees and so should everyone, regardless of whether or not they burn wood or cut down dead trees.

Ben E.

I particularly like Scott's comment about the social benfits of a natural fire. The science comments are fascinating as well. I'm an architect in Brooklyn NY and often design renovations that make the old chimneys safe for wood burning and/or gas burning. I also design wood burning fire places in new townhouse construction in the city. It is important, I believe, even in the city to recognize how we can reconnect with the natural environment--and that includes us, and how we as humans live on the land (and in the city). If the simple act of enjoying a wood fire enhances our physical and mental well-being, those benefits will undoubtably radiate out into our daily lives affecting everyone we meet. That can only be good thing. We all know the open wood burning fireplace is not very energy efficient--even good old Count Rumford's design-- but there are these other aspects to the story. There is something deep in our DNA that benefits from all the sensory delights of a real wood fire, even the smoke smell and burning eyes. Well maybe not that last part for a lot of people but I'm a backwoods camper from childhood and like it.
I am sorry for the woman who suffers from her neighbor's wood smoke. I haven't relined the fireplace and chimney in my home yet, but my neighbor has and I enjoy smelling his fires on those high air pressure days when the smoke lingers and hovers around. If and when I have my own fires I hope it won't upset anyone.
ps I've also heated a Manhattan apt. with a Vermont Castings stove, even banked it overnight to have heat in the a.m. on the coldest nights. They are wonderful but the only thing missing in it's efficiency is the sound! (and a some of the sight).

Lee in Iowa

So are there any fireplace inserts that are a) not "butt-ugly" and b) not ruinously expensive?


Right on, Scott--you've got your ducks in a row. How do people like Psappha get through life thinking that living trees are not cut down for firewood because such wood doesn't burn well? As you know, seasoned (dried for a year or 2) hardwood from live trees is the highest quality wood fuel, surpassing deadwood, which also should be seasoned before burning. Psappha, how can a dead tree with no leaves or needles, soon to fall to the forest floor and provide soil building nutrients for the ecosystem, block a significant amount of sunlight? Large parts of your rational are profoundly flawed.

Yes Bill, wood fires at home are a small piece in the puzzle, but it's one over which individual people have complete control. Those who heat wisely with wood as Scott does can justifiably feel good about it while focusing on other aspects of the big climate change picture.

Ben, the feel-good aspects of open fires are undeniable, but with Earth in the balance, it would be better if we all find climate friendly ways to relax. Snuggle close to your significant other for real warmth and a true feeling of well-being!

Scott Banbury

Besides not using fossil fuels to heat, we also wear longjohns and sweaters all winter and if it is particularly cold, the whole family enjoys getting under a pile of down comforters.

I regularly see good fireplace inserts coming up on Craigslist as folks remodel but if you're really interested in heating with wood, I'd recommend a centrally located stove installation and relocating your furnaces air returns in the ceiling above it.

Wood heating isn't and can't be for everyone but it certainly should be recognized as an environmentally sound option for those that can.

Casey Jennings

Okay, something needs to be said here: wood burning can be the best thing for the environment if you have to burn something to heat (in the North, there's no escaping that need). Proper forest management to ensure the wood is harvested sustainably is a seperate issue from the burning of wood itself, though an important one. The Northeast is more forested now than 100 years ago, and our forests are overgrown, dense, etc., which is in some cases negatively impacting wildlife. Wood is a renewable energy source. It has been used for thousands of years. The forest fires in the Western U.S. every year from poor forest management cause more pollution than normal burning of wood causes, and, one Exxon Valdez spill does more damage to the environment than burning wood.

Secondly, a Rumford fireplace is quite efficient and doesn't just send your heat up the chimney. Of course fireplaces give off radiant heat, they don't heat the air much.

Heidi Federspiel

I live in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. Our neighbors heat their home by burning wood. Even when there is a burn ban they burn, as they claim this is their only source of heat. We are assaulted by their wood smoke constantly. We cannot open our front door most days without the smoke coming into the house. At times it billows on our front porch and all around the front of our property.

I do not understand how we can allow ANY burning in densely populated areas knowing what we know about the health hazards involved.

Cheryl Fox

I'm still waiting for an answer on the benefits/costs, greenwise, of burning the logs that are made of wood products and sold in the supermarket. Mr Green?


All of the banter and arguing about carbon cycles is quite pointless. Actually, you're all missing the issue. Until the rampant human over population growth is checked AND significantly reduced, no amount of "green action" is going to stop what is coming to us in a big way.

H. White

I have been an athlete all my life, at one time I was a Nat'l record holder as part of a medley relay team. I played competitive tennis, backpacked and climbed high altitude mountains including Kilimanjaro. After living next door to a couple who burned in their fireplace all day when gone to work as well as all evening, my lungs wheeze constantly. I identify with Sara who has that smoke flow directly to her house.


one option to not sucking heat from your house is to open the ash door on the back of the fireplace and use OUTSIDE combustion air. A glass door front will also help, but you lose the charm of the fire...and really, all it is is charm. No one is seriously heating their house with a fireplace. The backdraft and particulate matter is the real problem. Have your flue cleaned at least once a year, more if you burn a lot of wood, and soft wood produces more flue buildup than hardwood. Be environmentally friendly in your everyday actions, and you will be better off in the long run.

Chris from WI

Fact: The furnace never comes on during my warm natural fireplace burning (10-20degrees outside)
Fact: I save money by burning in my fireplace
Fact: Trees (living when cut) I burn are naturally replaced in the woods where by firewood comes from
Fact: Natural gas is saved by my furnace not coming on during a fireplace fire
THEORY: The carbon coming out of my chimney causes global warming and is environmentally unfriendly

flue liners

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed. Really a nice post here!

Siobhan Kelly

I've found all of the comments quite enlightening. I've been burning wood in my fireplace as my sole source of heat at night (don't heat during the day) and have worried about the effect of the smoke on the environment. I burn from mid-December through February.
It was necessary for me to do some heavy pruning so that my organic vegetable garden would get sunlight. It will take too many years for the pruned wood to breakdown, plus there is no space to keep this wood, so my solution was to burn it. The alternative is propane gas which is trucked up from India, or electric heaters.
We have hydroelectricity where I live, Nepal, however, we have scheduled power cuts 4-5 hours at night-from 6pm (9 hours total daily power cuts). From the comments so far, it sounds like my nightly winter fireplace heating isn't worse than heating from gas cylinders, and probably has a lower footprint than using the gas.

Radiant Heat System

Mark Mulligan's comment about using a 2-speed air blower to blow out smoke created by an oil boiler heater system doesn't seem as safe. There are a few instances that can easily turn that into a raging inferno that would burn up half the house including the blower malfunctioning or the boiler would blow due to extreme pressure from the inside. Radiant heat is safer because there is less moving parts, exposed heating elements, or open flames.

Radiant Heat System

I'm surprised that the way the heating system was set up previously didn't cause a fire in the attic. It's good that your team was able to isolate the problem and make changes accordingly. I also like how you set up chicken wire underneath the floors where you lay tile. I suspect that when the radiant heaters are on during cold winters, they would aid in trapping any floor heat generated by these fantastic systems for comfortable living.


Many of our woodstoves have catalytic convertors which if used properly minimize emissions. Keeping our own land well wooded and use prunings and trimmings which would be cut no matter what to fuel our stoves, rather than cutting down whole trees, seems green to me. Deborah, Kansas

chimney liners

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed. Really a nice post here!

jef brown

Constructing a gas fire pit is a fun and ewarding project to undertake. Fire pits come in a variety of materials such as brick, metal and stone. Creating a fire pit for warmth or cooking adds value to property and provides another area for entertaining or relaxing.

Ventless Gas Fireplace

Just dropping in to say thank you towards the OP for the excellent post!

My girlfriend and I loved chilling by the gas fireplace in our first home. There's absolutely nothing like being able to begin a fire instantly to warm up a chilly room. It was excellent to not need to worry about chopping wood as well, I hate that. My wife already hates cleaning up after us during the winter with all of the snow and mud, so the truth that we did not have to go out to bring much more wood in was great. Plus I mean let's face it, wood burning fireplaces are a pain to clean. They're fairly hazardous too, particularly with popping wood and flying embers. It's a shame that we moved to Florida and do not need a fireplace now!

Gas Fireplace Rocks

I just had to stop for a moment and say thank you for the information!

My wife and I used to love hanging out in front of our gas fireplace in our old house. I gotta say, there's nothing better than coming home from a long, cold day to a nice warm fire. It was great to not need to be concerned about chopping wood too, I hate that. We also never had to venture out into the snow to bring much more in. Wood fireplaces are also a PITA to clean with all of the ashes and smoke. They're also more harmful if any stray embers pop out onto the carpet! It's a shame that we moved to Florida and don't need a fireplace now!

Outdoor Fireplace Designs

Very interesting, thanks for sharing!

Due to everyone's busy schedules, our loved ones doesn't get the chance to go out of town really frequently, so many times we wind up staying in and enjoying the backyard, particularly with the new fireplace we just added to the deck. We spend almost all of our totally free time outside when we can! There's nothing like spending a night with friends and family chatting around the fireplace! My husband and I love relaxing by the fire for a quiet night all to ourselves! We use the fireplace every chance we get, even on warm nights it's still wonderful to have a crackling fire going. Camping out on the deck by the fire has turn out to be a favorite for the children, and us too since there's no travel time and no packing! Our children love it, and we adore it much more because they can just go back inside to their video games if they get tired of camping!

Cast Iron Outdoor Fireplace

What an excellent post!

Our family and buddies spend a lot of time in our spacious backyard all year round, so we ended up looking into various fireplace options that we could use outdoors about the deck. We adore the outdoors so thats where you can generally find us hanging out. There's nothing more fun than spending an evening close to the fireplace with good food and great friends! My husband and I adore relaxing by the fire for a quiet night all to ourselves! We use the fireplace each and every chance we get, even on warm nights it's still fantastic to have a crackling fire going. We even taking loved ones "camping" trips out to the deck and sleep by the fire! The children love it, and I think secretly my husband loves it even more, especially because he doesn't have to listen to us grumbling all weekend when we begin missing civilization!

Coleman Outdoor Fireplace

What an excellent post!

Due to everyone's busy schedules, our family doesn't get the opportunity to go out of town very often, so many times we wind up staying in and enjoying the backyard, particularly with the new fireplace we just added towards the deck. We adore the outdoors so thats exactly where you are able to usually discover us hanging out. Our friends and loved ones adore sitting and talking by the fireplace! My husband and I love relaxing through the fire for a quiet night all to ourselves! We believed we would only end up using the fireplace on cool nights, but even when it is warm, there is just something mezmerizing and comforting about a crackling fire. Sometimes we all end up camping out on the deck around the fireplace, kind of an impromptu family camping trip, with all the comforts of home! Our children adore the fireplace, and I really think our loved ones "camping" trips out to the deck exactly where we camp out by the fire have brought us all closer together.

Not A Sheep


gas fires

It's quite frightening that standard open fronted gas fires are only about 20% efficent. Which in this day and age is a scandal.

High effiency gas fires are moving closer and closer to being 100% efficient. Although using gas is not exactly carbon neutral by any means. But it's got to be a smart move to make them more and more efficent than letting the heat as well as the CO2 go right up the chimney!

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