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Sparing the Air by Burning Clean


Sparing the Air by Burning Clean

Ronn Christy 

Spare the Air that is the message being driven home by the Bay Area air quality management district.  It seems to pop up everywhere during the winter months. On the radio I hear daily alerts on days that are deemed too dirty to burn. I get email alerts letting me know that the next day’s air quality will be too bad to burn wood. I see commercials on TV letting me know how bad burning wood is. It seems to be one of our areas biggest concerns. Air quality and how wood burning contributes to seems to be so simple but it is not. The vast majority of what you read, hear, and see during the winter spare the air months really is one sided and lumps all wood burning unfortunately into one smoking, stinky, dirty mess that encompasses everyone within the media’s reach. 

First of all and most importantly NOT EVERYONE is within the Spare the Air boundary lines.  There is a large portion of Sonoma County that is west and north of the dividing line between the BAAQMD and the Northern Sonoma Air Pollution control district. Almost the entire river area is NOT in the area covered in the Spare the Air days. North of basically Arata lane in Windsor is NOT covered as well. You can go directly to the Northern Sonoma County air pollution control district site or call 707-433-5911 directly and find out exactly based on your address. The folks at the NSCAPCD office are much easier to talk to, and seem to have information that you need, just my thoughts there. The media and certainly internet makes the Spare the Air area seem much larger than it actually is concerning where we actually live. Just because it’s in the paper where you get it, on the radio where you live or work, or on your email doesn’t mean you need to pay attention even though the BAAQMD would love it if you did.

Alright the point of this article was to let people know that contrary to what is being put out there concerning wood burning that all fires are not the same, all wood burning fireplaces, stoves, and inserts are not the same. There are major differences between someone burning a EPA certified wood burning Country Insert, an old Franklin wood stove, open fireplace, or me burning a stack of old Michelins in my back yard. The air quality outside honestly has very little to do with it at all. EPA Certified is the catch phrase for sure, but what does it mean? If you listen to the way it is described you would think that being EPA certified is on the cutting edge, space aged, and brand new technology. Well if you consider 1988 brand new or anything designed back then space ageds then I guess it meets the criteria and the Rocky just beat Drago to end the cold war. In 1988 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decided to regulate the emissions that wood burning devices put out in an effort to clean up the air by making wood stove manufactures create more efficient wood units. That put a lot of people, business, and manufactures out of business back then but it begin the process of cleaning up the air. What the EPA did was develop an number, an exact measurement of particulate (smoke particles) measured in grams per hour that could exhaust from a wood burning appliance to be deemed clean burning or EPA certified, there is that phrase again. The measurement that was developed was and is still, 7.5 grams per hour of particulate matter for non catalytic units and 4.1 grams for catalytic units. To put that in some sort of perspective your basic old masonry brick and mortar fireplace puts our anywhere from 75 to 150 grams per hour minimum. Obviously burning one of those open brick fireplace is much different and has a much larger negative impact on the air quality than that EPA certified Vermont Castings Encore. 

How an EPA certified appliance actually burns the wood is what makes it so much cleaner.  An EPA certified wood unit completely combusts the wood that is inside of the firebox. That means more of the wood burns and less goes up the flue to the outside. Clean burning units for starters are sealed air tight fireboxes that only allow a small amount of air enter the firebox through two small intakes: primary and secondary. The primary air is just air feeding the fire and allowing it to burn. The key is that secondary air. EPA certified devices will use that secondary air to get that fire burning as cleanly as possible.  When you have your fire burning nice and hot and are ready to cut your wood usage down and increase your heat you engage that secondary air. All EPA stoves do that differently, some with a damper, others with simple air controls, but they all do it. This is where you are different than old pre 1988 units, or open fireplaces. When you close off the primary air and engage that secondary air the smoke mixes with air that has been super heated by the fire causing the smoke to actually re-ignite and burn before going up the chimney to the outside.  That process of re burning the smoke before it leaves is what is lost on the BAAQMD. That re burn of the smoke makes that EPA unit 50 times cleaner burning at a MINIMUM than anything else out there. Catalytic stoves that are certified work basically the same way except they divert the smoke into a chamber where it is re burned by a catalytic element and sent up the chimney.  Either way the amount of smoke and particulate is amazingly low. A certified appliance is a pretty special thing it will replace what you have, burn at least 50 times cleaner, use half the wood to create twice the heat, and allow you to watch an incredible fire. We are talking about units that are 90% cleaner burning than older ones, 90% is a huge amount. Something that is tested and certified by the Environmental Protection Agency that is that much cleaner cannot be bad and certainly cannot be classified as the same as my pile of tires, that campfire on the Russian river, or any one of the hundreds of old Fisher wood stoves in Sonoma County. EPA has the word PROTECTION in their name, how can that be bad. 

We live in an area where wood burning is still common. We remove and replace wood stoves each and every day.  Each time that we do we are actually sparing the Air.  We are cutting hundreds of grams of smoke out of the air every single hour that they are in operation in every single house that we go to.  Hundreds of grams per hour multiplied by however long people burn multiplied again by however many we do and you get a pretty long equation and an even bigger answer. That answer is a direct reduction in smoke and an increase in air quality. That is real math that is hard to argue. If the Spare the Air campaign and the BAAQMD continues to offer information that all wood burning is bad wherever you live then they will continue to scare people in to doing nothing and nothing will change. It’s pretty silly to think that when the alert comes that everyone immediately halts their wood burning. If we allowed people to burn that Clean burning certified unit during those times the air quality would be much better on those days. I have always heard that the Hearth is the heart of any home. If it is the heart then sometimes you have to take care of your heart if you want to do something and feel better. Think of that EPA certified Morso wood stove as that little baby aspirin that the Mayo clinic suggests you to take every day to help your heart.