Friendly fire

Which stoves and fireplaces are greenest?

Jim Ogle, of Fireplace Distributors of Nevada, holds a package of pellets, condensed biomass that fuels the energy efficient pellet stove.

Jim Ogle, of Fireplace Distributors of Nevada, holds a package of pellets, condensed biomass that fuels the energy efficient pellet stove.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

There’s something so quaintly Currier & Ives about smoke curling from a chimney on a cold winter’s day. But wood smoke is air pollution, a mixture of gases and fine particles containing carbon monoxide, nitrogen, volatile organic compounds and dioxin. Indoors or outdoors, it can cause a host of health problems, from burning eyes to bronchitis and respiratory problems. It’s especially harmful, even in low doses, to children, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions. The American Lung Association gave Washoe County a “C” grade for particle pollution in its 2007 “State of the Air Report.”

But it’s cold out there. So what are the environmentally friendly alternatives?

Fireplaces and wood burning stoves are equivalent to a hole in your house—you lose most of their heat through the chimney. Inefficient and polluting, the traditional wood burning stove is now a relic. Washoe County requires that new wood stoves must be of the “EPA-Approved, Phase II” variety. Older, uncertified stoves release 40-60 grams of smoke per hour, while EPA-certified ones produce 2-5 grams of smoke per hour. They also retain about 80 percent of their heat, compared to 15 percent with older models. Even with a certified stove, you must live on at least one acre of land to own one, or else insert a low-emission device on it.

“In terms of impact on the environment, gas is the cleanest burning fuel that’s available,” says Jim Ogle, general manager of Fireplace Distributors of Nevada. “Particulates don’t even register with gas.” Gas is, of course, a nonrenewable fuel, but gas stoves release nearly zero emissions and are 15-80 percent efficient for heating. They also look much like traditional wood burning stoves, flame and all.

An environmental favorite is the pellet stove. It burns really hot, is super efficient (retains 78-85 percent of its heat) and pollutes so little it doesn’t require EPA certification. It burns renewable biomass in a pellet form, which looks a lot like rabbit feed. The pellets can be made from things such as lumber mill shavings, corn, walnut shells and wheat. “Pellets are probably the most ‘green product’ we’re into now,” says Ogle.

There are downsides to the pellet stove, however. While easy to use, pellet stoves are high maintenance. They need to be cleaned often, and repairing one may be complicated, as its system is made up of high-tech electronics. Most pellet stoves need electricity to operate, so if there’s a power failure, don’t count on the stove for your heat source. They can also be pricey. Pellet stove owners usually buy their pellets by the ton, which costs around $285. Ogle says most Renoites go through two tons of pellets each winter.

Masonry heaters are also highly efficient (90 percent) and low polluting. They look like a big fireplace with a masonry mass (brick, stone, etc.) around it. A small fire heats the thermal mass and retains the heat for nearly 24 hours. Most of these are site-built and cost several thousands of dollars.

To buy any kind of hot burning, heat efficient, environmentally friendly stove or fireplace, expect to pay at $2,000 or more.

You don’t have to dismantle your entire fireplace to have a more eco-friendly stove. Pellet or gas inserts can be placed inside your existing fireplace, creating a hotter, more efficient stove while retaining its old-fashioned look.