Common green sense generally dictates selecting the natural and simple option over the artificial and processed. This thought brings me to the fireplace, more specifically, the fire log. There’s the characterless cylinder you can buy at the supermarket versus a beautiful, organic hunk of tree. I hate to be a wet blanket here, but alas—artificial logs beat the pulp out of real ones in terms of environmental advantages.
This comes as a bit of surprise, I admit. Driving to the store, buying the packaged, factory-produced, fake log made of god-knows-what, and plopping the anemic little tube in the fireplace—it just seems wrong. Most items manufactured for convenience tend to be relatively lacking in their wholesome attributes; but things are different with the fire log.
Where There’s Smoke
The problem with wood isn’t really the wood, but the smoke. Wood smoke has a wide range of ill-health effects. Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic matter burn. The biggest health threat from smoke comes from particulate matter. Particulate matter can cause burning eyes, runny nose and illnesses such as bronchitis. Particulate matter can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases—and are linked to premature deaths in people with these chronic conditions. When released outdoors, wood smoke becomes air pollution. In some parts of the United States during a typical wood-heating season, wood smoke can account for up to 80 percent of the air pollution in a residential area.
Real Versus Fake
In 2006, the United States Environmental Protection Agency published a study that compared emissions from real logs and five brand name artificial logs (Northland and Pine Mountain from Conros, Easy Time and Xtra-Time Firelog from Duraflame, and Java–Log from Robustion Technologies). The study shows that the carbon monoxide emission rate of artificial logs is around 75 percent less than real wood, and that the artificial logs create 80 percent less particulate matter than their cousins from the forest. Chemical emission were dramatically less as well. Artificial logs will also warm your home more efficiently: Their heat content is 12,620 to 15,190 BTUs per pound compared to oak, which is about 8,300 BTUs per pound.
Fake Logs go Green
So, I am still choking on my marshmallows here, but those are some pretty convincing numbers. Although there are other green logs on the market, the tides really turned when Duraflame, the largest manufacturer of fire logs, went green. Duraflame switched from using petroleum-based waxes as a binder, to vegetable paraffin. The vegetable paraffin is used to bind wood sawdust and recycled biomass (like nutshells and unprocessed fibers from food production) so that waste is being put to use rather than out to pasture. The resultant tube is a highly efficient burning log with a much cleaner burn. In terms of duration, a 6-pound Duraflame lasts 3 1/2 hours, which a company representative says is the equivalent of burning 30 pounds of firewood. Since so much less smoke is produced, artificial logs are being recommended over wood logs by many clean air agencies.
One of the hottest fake logs on the market is the Java Log—made from old coffee grounds. The manufacturer gets the old grounds from companies that make instant coffee, as well as from a few coffee houses, diverting 20 million pounds of coffee waste from landfills. Natural vegetable wax is used to hold the grounds together. Coffee has a higher heat density than wood, so these actually burn hotter than wood logs.
I have seen several contraptions designed to roll old newspapers into burnable logs. I like this, a lot. But I have concerns about what newspaper smoke might do to the air. There haven’t been any studies on this, however the EPA does recommend making burnable newspaper logs as a great way to recycle old papers.
You can make your own just by tightly rolling up the paper and securing it with wire, or you can buy a roller (for under $30), which makes a more compact and thus better-burning log. The EPA suggests soaking the newspaper in water either before rolling or during rolling to remove the clay content and improve burning. Stack the logs on end and let them dry for two weeks. When lighting the newspaper logs, use kindling just as you would for a regular fire—and never use fire starting liquid with paper logs.
Gas and Pellet Stoves
Although a fireplace fit for Citizen Kane often appears in my house fantasies, the EPA recommends gas or pellet stoves. (Do they make an 8-foot tall pellet stove?) Gas stoves are designed to burn either natural gas or propane. They emit very little pollution, require little maintenance and have much flexibility as to where in the home they can be installed. And today’s gas stoves have been improved aesthetically—they look much less like the toy fireplaces of years gone by. They can be vented through an existing chimney, or directly vented through the wall behind the stove.
Instead of logs, pellet stoves burn a renewable fuel made of ground, dried wood and other biomass wastes compressed into pellets. Like pet food for your heater. Pellet stoves are one of the cleanest-burning heating appliances available today and deliver high overall efficiency. Because they pollute so little, they do not even require EPA certification. The idea of a pellet stove being responsible for my home’s ambience leaves me slightly cold, but I’m finding the “cleanest-burning” part kind of sexy.
Best Tips for Burning Artificial Logs
- Do not use standard artificial logs (wax and biomass) in your wood stove or fireplace insert. They are made for open hearth fireplaces.
- If you want to use artificial logs in your wood stove or fireplace insert, choose ones made from 100 percent compressed sawdust (no wax).
- Be sure to read the instructions on the logs and follow them carefully.
- Use one log at a time and don’t add another log until the fire is completely out.
- Never add an artificial log to a natural wood fire that is already burning. It could cause a flare-up.
- If you do want to add an artificial log to a wood fire, wait for two hours.
- Do not poke artificial logs because the flaming wax could stick to the poker and drip on the floor.
- Poking a log could also cause a flare-up.
Best Tips for Burning Wood Logs
- For best health, burn only firewood that has been dried for at least six months after it has been split.
- Hardwoods provide more heat energy than softer woods because hardwoods are denser and burn more slowly and evenly: try oak, maple, poplar and birch.
- Build small, hot fires with the damper open to let in plenty of air.
- Watch the smoke. A fire that releases a lot of smoke is burning inefficiently and polluting your your home and the environment.
Basic Safety Tips
- You should never be able to smell smoke in your home; smoke is unhealthy to breathe. The odor of smoke in your home indicates that your wood stove or fireplace is not burning efficiently.
- Never burn household garbage or cardboard. Magazines, boxes, and wrappers with plastic or colored ink produce harmful chemicals when burned.
- Never burn coated, painted, or pressure-treated wood because it releases toxic chemicals when burned.
- Never burn ocean driftwood, plywood, particle board, or any wood with glue on or in it. They all release toxic chemicals when burned.
- Never burn wet, rotted, diseased, or moldy wood.
- Only bring into your home the amount of wood needed for a day to reduce the chance of allergy-causing mold spores circulating indoors.
- Install smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detectors.