What's cozier than a fire? Whether you're having one for warmth or to set a mood, building one with indoor air quality in mind is critical. Smoke is made up of fine particles that, when released, can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause irritations like burning eyes and a runny nose. Fire can also exacerbate illnesses such as bronchitis and asthma, especially in kids' small lungs.
Here's how to build a safer, healthier fire:
1. Buy a wood stove made after 1992.
Wood stoves made after 1992 meet tight U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions standards, so you can even buy a used wood stove from after then. The EPA recommends using a certified professional installer. A properly installed certified wood stove or fireplace insert always has a vent to the exterior and releases far less smoke through the chimney, overall emitting 60 to 80% less pollution into the environment.
2. Think about installing a catalyst.
Many stoves are now fitted with catalysts — similar to catalytic converters on automobiles — that burn up smoke to reduce emissions to an absolute minimum. Older stoves can also be retrofitted with catalysts.
3. Sweep chimneys.
Creosote, a black, tar-like or flaky deposit, builds up on the chimney lining, blocking the proper exhaust of smoke and raising the risk of a chimney fire. Chimney sweeps certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America and the National Chimney Sweep Guild recommend a yearly chimney cleaning.
4. Burn dry wood.
Wood that's been "seasoned" (dried for at least six months outside) burns hotter and cleaner than "green" wood. To season wood adequately, shield it from the elements with a cover on top but keep it well ventilated on the sides to allow airflow between the logs. "Green" wood (which has a thin, green layer under the bark) appears yellowish and crackles from evaporating moisture when burned. Dry wood appears grayish and cracked at the ends, and weighs less than "wet" wood, as the heavy moisture has already evaporated.
5. Burn many logs at once.
Once a fire is well stoked, fill the stove with largish, long-burning loads to reduce the number of times you need to open the stove door for reloading, the primary means of introducing smoky pollutants into the indoor air.
6. Burn hardwoods.
Wood from deciduous trees, the kind that shed leaves in the fall, is harder than wood from coniferous trees, or evergreens, whose wood tends to be soft and sappy. Hardwoods — namely oak, maple, hickory, apple, and ash — burn hotter, longer, and cleaner. Hardwoods are not only environmentally safer, but also economically smarter: You can burn through a cord of softwood twice as quickly as a cord of hardwood.
7. Make hot fires.
Even without a catalyst, wood fires burn best hot, because they eat up all the carbon monoxide and other pollutants.
8. Burn only solid wood.
Pressure-treated wood, particleboard, and plywood contain toxic substances like formaldehyde and arsenic in their preservatives and adhesives, so never burn them. Also avoid burning plastics, newsprint and magazines in your stove or fireplace. Start the fire with newspaper, but get rid of your piles of old papers by recycling.