While looking at getaway houses in southern Pennsylvania, I was both charmed and chilled by the absence in some of oil-burning furnaces. Charmed, because home heating oil now costs 60 percent more than it did last year and for once I would be free from fossil fuels. Chilled, because what would I do for heat come January?
"Many people out here use wood stoves," said my real estate agent. "Wood is a better energy source than oil or gas."
The economy and the situation in the Middle East may make wood burning sound appealing. But there are environmental concerns to reckon with. By the 1980s, the country's 13 million woodstoves were asphyxiating many regions of the country. Those delightful billowing plumes of wood smoke curling out of chimneys were producing a heavy haze that jeopardized respiratory health and reduced visibility. According to a study published by Consumer Reports, wood produces more pollution per unit of heat than does oil or natural gas.
Among the chemicals wood burning expels is benzopyrene, a potent carcinogen in lab animals and a suspected cancer-causer in humans. If you have a fireplace in your city home, you may feel romantically rustic. But also know that high levels of benzopyrene in city air from fireplaces and old wood stoves have been correlated with increased rates of lung cancer.
Despite wood burning's back-to-nature connotation, the impact of wood stoves on outdoor air quality was choking rural Oregon, where more than half the households heat with wood. By 1983, Oregon became the first state to enact an emissions-control law for wood stoves.
After that, the federal government got into the act by setting strict guidelines that required manufacturers to produce new stoves that emit less pollution.
The hope is that as consumers replace their old wood stoves with cleaner, more efficient new stoves, air quality will improve, particularly in residential neighborhoods where wood stoves are popular. Phase I of the Environmental Protection Agency regulations became effective in January 1988. Tougher Phase II controls took effect in July 1990.
Studies coordinated by the Wood Heating Alliance, which is based in Washington, D.C., showed that the new stoves are surpassing the old in performance. What's considered an old stove now? Anything that is not at least 1988 EPA-certified.
*In a Crested Butte, Colo., study, new stoves tested were given thumbs up by the alliance, the EPA, and the local and state governments.
*A Klamath Falls, Ore., study indicated that old stoves were emitting particulate matter at a rate of 45 grams per hour. (Particulate matter includes any solid or liquid residue from wood burning -- most of this matter is small enough to reach the lungs when inhaled.) New 1990 stoves were 85 percent cleaner, with an emission rate of 6 grams per hour.
The EPA regulations are designed to save you additional fuel money in the long run, as well as to help the environment. Owners of old wood-burning stoves might take note.
For example, if you have a typical unregulated stove and use three cords of wood (at $100 a cord), and have three chimney cleanings (at $50 each) a season, you can save about $200 a season by using a newer EPA-certified stove. An EPA-certified stove costs more than a comparable unregulated stove. But this extra cost will be offset by savings from reduced firewood consumption (25 to 33 percent less) and less frequent chimney cleaning.
According to the Wood Heating Alliance, a $100 cord of wood provides 33 percent more heat energy than 100 gallons of oil at a price of $1 a gallon. Also consider this: We may not see home heating oil at a buck a bucket anytime soon -- it was $1.36 a gallon last week.
Suddenly an afternoon in the brisk autumn air splitting half a cord with your ax doesn't sound out of line anymore.