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“Dear Mr. Cool Ness,
I have a condo in the beautiful mountains of Colorado and have wondered what the impact of wood burning fireplaces has on the environment. Do you have a formula to help calculate the types of emissions from wood burning fireplaces? Also, if the wood-burning fireplace is replaced with a gas or electric insert how does one calculate the benefits! Thanks and great work on your site!

Dear Jane,

There are many carbon calculators available online but they don’t get this specific. To get exact figures, you would have to ask a local consultant who would have to consider all this: the type of fireplace you have now, the kind of wood that is burnt, the type of insert you might buy to replace it, the type of gas (natural or biogas) available in your area, where your electricity comes from, etc.

But our basic knowledge about fuels allow us to make a sound decision:

Gas is the best fossil fuel.
If you must rely on fossil fuels, gas is the best option:

1. To deliver the same amount of heat gas generates 40% less carbon dioxide than burning wood.
Fuel Emission Coefficients (Pounds CO2 per Million Btu):
Gas: 120
Wood: 195

Source: US Energy Information Administration

2. Gas causes less air pollution. Carbon dioxide is a major problem, but we should not forget the other pollutants. Burning solid fossil fuels (wood, coal, charcoal, etc) produce fine particles. Particulate air pollution causes health problems.

3. In some places there is the choice to use biogas from landfills or livestock farms instead of natural gas. Burning biogas that would otherwise be set free in the atmosphere actually helps reduce overall greenhouse gases and fight climate change.

Burning wood is not carbon neutral.
What people will tell you: “Trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. When they fall and decay in the forest, the carbon returns to the atmosphere. The carbon cycle can be repeated forever without increasing atmospheric carbon. Wood burning does not release any more carbon dioxide than its eventual biodegradation in the forest.”

Yes, but:
1. Trees can live for decades if not for centuries. Falling a tree today and burning its wood releases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that would otherwise be safely stored for a very long time. The less carbon dioxide we release, the better. The more trees standing, the better off we are.

2. The carbon cycle only works if enough trees are planted to absorb the carbon dioxide released by the fallen and burnt trees. This is not always the case.

3. Lag time: A tree needs many years to capture carbon dioxide. It takes only a few minutes to release it back to the atmosphere when we burn its wood.

Not burning existing trees is much better than planting new ones.
We should plant and save as many trees as we possibly can. But if we have to concentrate our limited resources – time, money, energy, etc – to achieve the greatest carbon emissions reductions, saving existing trees beats planting new trees hands down.

Take for example my country Brazil: The rain forest is being destroyed by the rate of five football fields every minute. Forest fire is Brazil’s main source of carbon dioxide emissions! The situation is similar in other developing countries. Paying people not to destroy forests requires less money than paying for reforestation.

Electricity is normally bad for heating.
Electricity is generated by different means: fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal), nuclear fuel, biomass, hydroelectric power, wind turbines, solar panels, etc. Using electricity generated by fossil fuels for heating is highly ineffective and causes a lot of carbon emissions. In the United States, on average 75% of the electricity comes from fossil fuels. But this varies from state to state. In Colorado its 95%!

Knowing all this, what to do?

1. Keeping your wood-burning fireplace
If you decide to keep it, you can make it more efficient so that you need to burn less wood. You can also check the provenience of the wood you are buying: does the seller replace the trees that are cut?

2. Installing a fireplace insert
Fireplace inserts increase heat output, reduce pollutant output, and increase heat efficiency. They fit into a pre-existing masonry fireplace. Installing them will reduce the wood consumption and save trees.

3. Burning pellets
Wood is used in many industries: construction, furniture, etc. The leftovers (bark, sawdust, wood chips, and wood scrap) can be recycled into pellets. You can choose a fireplace insert designed to burn pellets.

4. Burning gas
If you invest in a fireplace insert designed to burn gas you will reduce your carbon emissions and keep the air cleaner. If you can source biogas in your area, it’s even better.

5. Buying green energy
Fireplace inserts running only on electricity make environmentally sense only if you use green electricity. You can change your power supplier to a company offering electricity from renewable sources (hydroelectric, wind, solar, etc.) if available in your area.

6. Generating your own electricity
The federal government requires most states – Colorado is one of them – and the District of Columbia to purchase surplus power from consumers. It costs money to fit solar panels on your roof, but afterwards you have both hot water and electricity for free. It might be an alternative, but you have to do the math: costs of fitting solar panels versus savings in the heating and electricity bill.

I hope this helps!


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