Green, Clean Heating

Green, Clean Heating

With projections for an exceptionally cold December and January, everyone is preparing for an expensive heating season. While encouraging energy efficiency and conservation, EPA New England administrator Robert W. Varney reminds us that there are environmental and health concerns associated with some heating sources. Here are some clean-heating tips.



All combustion sources, like your furnace, fireplace or wood stove, produce carbon monoxide. This gas is odorless and tasteless so our senses don't detect it even at lethal levels. Early signs of overexposure are easily missed because these same symptoms - dizziness, headaches, fatigue and nausea - mimic those of the flu. Generally, carbon monoxide is vented outside the home through a chimney or exhaust vent and is not a problem. However, if exhaust systems are not properly designed or well maintained, this poisonous gas can remain within the living space.

Some heating sources create a risk for carbon-monoxide poisoning when improperly used. Some improper uses include opening gas-oven doors for spot heating, using propane space heaters in areas that are not well ventilated, and venting gas-fired dryers into living spaces. While no one wants to heat the outside, it is essential that combustion sources requiring ventilation are not used in confined spaces.

Due to high fuel prices, heating with wood is being promoted as a cost-saving, renewable source of energy. However, heating with wood may emit more pollutants into the air than the heat sources it replaces (e.g., oil or natural gas). Burning wood produces smoke, which contains particle pollution and other contaminants. Particle pollution is especially a concern because it can cause serious health effects, especially in children and older people. Exposure to particles can aggravate lung disease, causing asthma attacks and acute bronchitis, and may also increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.

Use of EPA-certified wood or pellet stoves that are properly installed produce less particle pollution than older stoves and can be a good supplement to an oil or gas furnace. All wood stoves manufactured since 1988 must be EPA certified, which means they use 1/3 less wood than older stoves to produce the same heat. And EPA-certified wood stoves emit 50% to 60% less air pollution. EPA-certified stoves are easy to identify because they carry a special label and hang tag.

Some wood-burning devices, however, such as outdoor wood-fired boilers can produce large quantities of air pollutants. These boilers, which are becoming more popular in some areas, typically consist of a firebox that heats water in a steel sleeve around their outer walls. The water is then piped into a nearby building to provide heat, hot water or both. Although the concept may be appealing, these boilers commonly produce excessive amounts of smoke and can negatively impact nearby residences.

It is also important to properly weatherize your home. Insufficient insulation and gaps around doors and windows can make a home even colder in the winter. Sealing gaps and holes can cut down on heating needs from wood stoves.

Here are just a few tips to follow for a healthy heating season:
  • Consider pollution emission levels and potential health effects as well as cost when selecting a heating source

  • Upgrade to an EPA-certified woodstove or other clean-burning technology

  • If heating with wood, burn only dry, well-seasoned wood

  • Always provide adequate ventilation and exhaust for a combustion source

  • Have your heating system inspected with particular attention to the vents and chimneys - don't just relay on a carbon-monoxide alarm

  • Reduce your overall heating needs and heating bills by improving the insulation in your home; caulking around windows, doors, and pipes to seal air gaps; and adding weather-stripping to doors and windows
More information is available on the EPA Web site.

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Robert W. Varney is regional administrator of EPA's New England Office in Boston, Mass.