Stoked on solutions part 4: Burning cleaner

This series examines Valemount’s air quality problem in detail, the impact on people’s health, the myths about how to solve the problem, and possible solutions, from easy to far-reaching.

by Andru McCracken


This is the fourth part of a five part series about Valemount’s air quality.

In Part 1, A Flammable Issue, we examined how a lack of affordable alternatives to wood heat has made the issue difficult to discuss.

In Part 2, we looked at the health effects of wood smoke in detail.

In Part 3, Shorter Lives, we looked at three reasons why the air quality is so bad here (Meteorology, Topology, Fuel availability).

In Part 4 we will look at the potential impact of responsible burning.

What we’ve learned so far:

  • Valemount has an air pollution problem that eclipses every other community in the province by a large margin.
  • The level of pollution is determined by a direct measure of the amount of particulate in the air that is under a certain size (2.5 microns).
  • The levels in Valemount far exceed provincial targets.
  • There are a number of direct health impacts on the whole population, with severe consequences for some people.
  • Meteorology (the weather, specifically low wind speeds at night in winter) and topology (the valley, mountains) trap pollution in the valley bottom.
  • A lack of natural gas in Valemount means that there is a lack of affordable alternatives.

Sarah Henderson of the BC Centre for Disease Control said that air pollution can put the whole population at risk, and is treated seriously by governments, but of all the sources of air pollution, smoke from wood appliances hasn’t improved much.

“When you think of other sources of pollution – motor vehicles and industry – we brought those under really tight control,” she said. “A car today emits 3% of what a car 20 years ago could emit.”

“What we haven’t done is controlled emissions from residential wood stoves.”

Henderson said the easiest thing to do is to improve wood burning practices.

“We need to build a culture of burning wood as responsibly as possible,” she said. “The fact that you choose to burn wood has health implications for your neighbours.”

There are other benefits to burning well, like reducing the amount of wood you use in a winter by up to 30%.

She said wood stoves with catalytic converters can improve emissions dramatically, but only if you follow good burning practices.

“If you are burning wet wood, the catalytic converter doesn’t work,” she said. “The most important thing is that if you are going to burn wood, burn dry wood and know how to create a low smoke, almost smokeless fire.”

According to epidemiologist Michael Brauer from the University of BC’s School of Population and Public Health at the Air Quality and Health Forum at the Community Hall on October 27, not all wood burning appliances are made equal.

An open fireplace is the worst performing with the most toxic smoke, conventional wood stoves are next in line in terms of performance followed by a modern wood stove.

But Henderson said any appliance, even modern ones, can produce smoke if the are burning unseasoned wood and not started properly.

Firewood should be dried and cured for a year, she said. “Build a woodshed if you don’t already have one.”

Henderson said the way to tell if you are burning cleanly is to go outside and look at your chimney.

If smoke is visible after the fire is going strong, there is a problem.

A great website with concise information on wood burning is warmercheaper.co.nz. It can be found by typing in the search terms: warmer cheaper.

The site shows how to make a great fire last through the night without producing smoke.

Henderson said a great option for people that can afford it is pellet stoves.

“Research shows that pellet stoves burn many times more cleanly,” she said.

“I‘m a huge huge fan of pellet stoves. Here you have a technology where the fuel is relatively inexpensive, burn is controlled and emissions are very low.”

A bag of pellets is 5 or 6 dollars.

If you really want to burn wood, but can’t take the time to burn cordwood well, think about replacing your wood stove with a pellet stove.

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1 Comment

  1. As the Danish Ecological Council has pointed out, a new certified wood stove used correctly with perfectly dried wood emits as much fine particle pollution as 25 10-year old diesel trucks. It’s a myth that wood can be burned “responsibly,” and it is irresponsible that people like Sarah Henderson, who should know better, continue to promote this nonsense.

    Extensive research has shown that the only thing that clears the air is for people to transition to cleaner sources of heating that don’t burn solid fuels. Pellet stoves are also many times more polluting than any heating method that does not rely on solid fuels.

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