Friday, January 18, 2008

Burned by high oil prices, Mainers warm to wood

Wood stoves carry an air-pollution risk, but if properly operated they compare favorably to oil burners, experts say.

January 18, 2008

The warm glow of a wood fire has rarely felt so good.

With heating oil prices at near-record highs and fossil fuels
taking most of the blame for global warming, more Mainers are
breaking their addiction to oil heat and rediscovering the
warmth of wood.

Burning wood carries its own environmental risks, including
indoor and outdoor air pollution. But experts say it can be a
clean alternative, and a less expensive one, if people have the
right equipment and use it properly.

Christine Studdiford said she and her husband installed the
wood stove in their farmhouse in Pownal last spring after
watching "dollar signs go out the windows" whenever the oil
furnace went on.

"We have a big old drafty house and we couldn't afford to keep
turning the heat up," Studdiford said.

Now, the oil furnace rarely comes on and the wood stove keeps
the house warm all the time.

"It keeps it very cozy," she said. "It just feels good."

Dealers in southern Maine say the demand has been steady this
winter for wood stoves and fireplace inserts. It's the strongest
January for stove sales in several years, said Sebastian Milazzo,
sales associate at Finest Hearth and Home in Yarmouth.

The biggest reason for an apparent shift to wood is the cost of
oil. The average statewide cash price for heating oil in Maine is
$3.34 a gallon, over $1 more than a year ago.

Even Gov. John Baldacci, in his State of the State address last
week, embraced wood as a way to stop sending billions of
dollars out of the state to pay for oil.

"We must move forward aggressively to heat our homes with
resources we have or can make right here," he said.

Baldacci announced a wood-to-energy initiative that "will use
our forests and natural resources to relieve consumption of
nonrenewable oil."

About 80 percent of the state relies on oil heat, while wood
heats an estimated 10 percent of the state's homes, said John
Kerry, director of Maine's Office of Energy Independence and

That's only about half the percentage of homes that were heated
by wood 20 to 30 years ago, the last time high oil prices fueled
a shift to wood.

But, Kerry said, the number is clearly rising again. "People are
saying they're backing up their oil systems with wood stoves to
the degree they can."

Kerry said he expects that to continue, because of oil prices and
the new technologies � such as wood pellet-burning stoves �
that make wood heat more convenient and efficient.

And that's a good thing, he said. "I think it's a very positive thing
to have a diversity of sources of energy."

But wood has its downsides.

In November, the state began regulating outdoor wood boilers,
free-standing furnaces that have been blamed for smoking
neighbors right out of their homes under certain conditions. The
new rules set standards that are intended to prevent future
problems and encourage the development of cleaner, more
efficient outdoor boilers.

Wood smoke contains fine particulates � soot � as well as
smaller amounts of mercury, dioxin and other pollutants. The
particulates can pollute indoor air and contribute to localized
outdoor air pollution, when smoke is trapped in river valleys and
low-lying areas.

Wood burning was cited as a factor in an air pollution alert in
Maine last week, although the problem was caused primarily by
pollution drifting into the state from urban and industrial areas
to the south and west.

Despite the risks, environmental and public health advocates are
supportive of the shift.

One reason is that wood does not contribute to global warming
the way oil and coal do.

Burning wood does release carbon dioxide � a gas that traps
heat in the atmosphere. But the carbon in trees is part of the
natural cycle and is, in theory, taken up by new trees. Burning
fossil fuels, on the other hand, releases carbon that has been
buried deep in the earth.

The potential effect on indoor air quality is one reason wood
may not be for everybody.

"For some people that have lung disease, it is generally better
for them not to use wood heat," said Ed Miller, executive director
of the American Lung Association of Maine.

But the association is not anti-wood, especially given the
choices, Miller said.

"It's not good for your health to be cold, and it's not good for
your health to have to spend so much on fuel oil you can't afford
your medicine," he said.

How a stove is used has a big effect on how much it pollutes,
indoors or out.

As long as modern, efficient stoves are used correctly � with
seasoned, dry wood and small, hot fires � wood heat shouldn't
create problems for healthy people, Miller said.

"If you are going to burn wood, you need to educate yourself
and burn it responsibly," he said.

Jim Brooks, head of the air bureau of the Maine Department of
Environmental Protection, said Maine's air won't necessarily get
dirtier as more people turn to wood heat.

"The good news on the wood stove front is that they're much
cleaner, and as the older stoves get replaced, they're replaced
with very efficient wood heaters," Brooks said.

Maine's air meets federal standards for particle pollution, Brooks
said. "I don't predict any major changes in that."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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