Fireplace myths busted

(Photo: Karl Weatherly / Getty Images)

Everybody loves a roaring fire in the winter -- the picture is immortalized on holiday cards, and the smell of wood smoke evokes the season for many people.

But can a wood-burning fireplace really heat the house? Will you save money by stoking the flames? What about that smoke filling the air? Get the facts before you pile on another log.

Fire is humankind's oldest form of heat, but that doesn't mean it's the most efficient or cleanest. According to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, about 27 million American homes feature conventional masonry fireplaces. But this study (PDF) found that these traditional fireplaces are the least effective means to heat a room.

A conventional open radiant fireplace has a thermal efficiency of a mere 7%. Most of the heat escapes straight up the chimney. Another estimate found that for every $100 you spend on firewood, you get only $10 to $20 worth of heat. The traditional fireplace only warms your heart, not the room.

In addition, burning wood creates air pollution, both inside the house and out. That woodsy smell is actually a health hazard, and even a slight leakage of smoke into the room is a sign that the fireplace isn't working properly.

A bigger problem is when many people burn wood in winter -- this creates winter smog conditions especially in valleys and urban areas. Cities and states across the U.S. are trying to limit wood burning and encourage less-polluting heating appliances.

For example, the San Francisco Bay Area, Vermont, and Alaska have programs to warn residents about wood-smoke pollution. This kind of particulate pollution is especially dangerous to the elderly, children, and people with asthma and other lung conditions.

It is possible to heat a home with wood fires, but not the old-fashioned way. Modern, EPA-certified woodstoves and pellet stoves can be very efficient and affordable heaters. Also, gas fireplace inserts burn cleaner than conventional fireplaces.

If you upgrade to a woodstove, make sure to follow the EPA's advice:

  • Burn only dry, well-seasoned wood.
  • Never burn household garbage or cardboard.
  • Keep the doors of the wood-burning appliance closed.
  • Install and maintain a smoke alarm.
  • Install and maintain a carbon monoxide detector.

And get more burning tips before you try to heat with wood.

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