Over the years, we’ve lived in a few off-grid houses in cold climates. And in these houses, we relied on wood energy to warm our house, cook our food AND heat our hot water – on many a cold and rainy day. Each time, our woodstove was at the core of our kitchen.
I loved its gentle radiant heat, like a slow happiness that got into everyone’s bones, even as we slept.
And I loved that, even if all else failed – say, a huge storm came along and the world outside became dark and lost – I could still cook my family and crew a big, hot, nourishing dinner. And pudding as well.
But that was then. These days we live just above a village in a valley, in southern lutruwita / Tasmania.
A place where the topography causes cool air to fall and pool, and smoke from the many wood-burning fireplaces (and from State Government-approved forestry burns too) settles in a hazy layer around the homes and families and children of the valley – folks who can’t help but breathe it all in.
Multiple studies are now pointing to a host of not-great health impacts from exposure to that smoke and associated pollution.
Some cities in the US and Canda have actually banned new wood-burning fireplaces because they contribute to air pollution – and some councils in Australia are considering the same. Just last year, Asthma Australia called for a national phase-out of wood heaters, citing their negative impact on human health.
So – woodstoves and fireplaces. Are they excellent? Are they terrible?
Well, the answer isn’t necessarily crystal cut. Fireplaces and woodstoves can have good elements and not-so-good.
It’s a tricky conundrum for those of us aiming to live a permaculture life.
On the one hand, ‘Fair Share’ and ‘People Care’ stand as two core ethics, so we must consider the impact of our actions and choices on other people.
On the other, we aim to ‘use and value renewable resources’. And some wood – especially things like stickwood, coppice, and well-managed woodlots – can easily fall into this category. There’s plenty of firewood that does not fit into the ‘renewable resource’ category however, depending on where/how you’re sourcing your firewood. We’ll leave that point with you.
Yes, it’s true that when/if the power goes out, being able to heat your water, cook food and stay warm is a Darn Good Idea. And a decent woodstove can do all those things beautifully.
But what about the rest of the time? Do we need to put our own household’s resilience before the ongoing health of our communities? Shouldn’t we instead be challenging and changing the larger energy systems we ALL rely on, to focus on community solar and mini-grids, so that everyone has access to renewable, stable and resilient power to cook and to stay warm?
Really, like so many elements of permaculture living, the decision on whether to burn wood to heat your home will come down to your personal (and community) context.
So – let’s take a look at the pros and cons of becoming a wood-burning household, as well as some good things to think about when deciding whether to warm your home with fire.
First up, the type of fireplace / woodstove you choose is important
Open fireplaces, the kind that were really common in houses a century ago, are best avoided altogether. They burn inefficiently and so give off the most pollution – both in your home, and into your ecosystem – and a lot of the heat is lost up your chimney anyway.
Then there’s combustion fireplaces, and wood-burning stoves. These tend to be more efficient than open fireplaces, as they operate in a closed-box environment. You can better control the amount of air going in, meaning you can manage the fire so it burns somewhat more efficiently.
Lots of different models exist – in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has an EPA Certified Wood Heater Database, where you can compare models according to their efficiency and emissions rates.
Wood pellet stoves are growing in popularity as a more environmentally friendly heating option. They’re fuelled by specially formulated tiny logs made from waste sawdust and other wood byproducts, which are designed to burn very efficiently – although you need to consider how those pellets are being made, and the embodied energy within. You’re also reliant apon a pellet supplier, and can’t easily make your own, without the right gear.
If you already have a wood heater installed, or are thinking about getting one, researching its burning efficiency and likely emissions is an essential first step.
The cons of an indoor fireplace – pollution, health impacts
OK, so I alluded to some of the health issues associated with smoke from indoor fireplaces before – let’s take a closer look at that.
According to New South Wales Health:
“Smoke from wood-burning heaters is a complex mixture of particles and gases and contributes significantly to air pollution. The main air pollutants in wood smoke are particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and a range of other organic compounds like formaldehyde, benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
“Smoke from wood-burning heaters can affect your health. Long-term exposure can cause heart and lung disease, while brief exposures can aggravate asthma or worsen pre-existing heart conditions.”
This especially impacts children, older folks and people with heart or lung conditions, such as angina, asthma or emphysema.
But, really, air pollution affects us all. It can even cause premature death. In cities like Launceston, in lutruwita Tasmania – which sits in a big valley – the collective smog from woodfires was causing so many community health problems that the council initiated a city-wide buyback scheme, to remove wood-burning stoves from homes, in an attempt to improve health outcomes. Canberra in the ACT has tried a similar thing.
It’s true that this technique is a bit clunky, because not all woodstoves emit the same amount of pollution… but it’s also true that our individual actions can have big effects on our community’s health – which is something we all need to consider.
And fireplaces don’t just affect the air outside. One study found that opening a wood burner door to refuel your fire releases harmful pollution particles inside your home, which can take an hour or two to dissipate.
So – perhaps all this causes you to firmly scratch a fireplace off your home heating list? If so, consider how you will source alternative heating, and where that energy will come from.
Because as we all know, burning fossil fuels contributes hugely to climate-altering pollution and catastrophic climate change… which is already impacting the health of people and planet – starting with those who are the least privileged, and who have the least power to stop it. So finding a sustainable alternative to coal-fired electricity and gas – if this is where the energy will come from to heat your home – should be a priority for all of us who can afford to do so.
What better energy options are available in your area? Can you source greener power? Do you have the resources to install solar panels? Is there wind power or hydroelectricity in your area?
And if not, what models and strategies could you initiate or get involved with, to lobby your energy provider for greener power, OR how can you help organise to change the energy options where you live? Hepburn ZNet is one inspiring example of community-powered energy. And there’s plenty more.
The pros of a home fireplace – energy resilience, multiple functions + cosy times
Wood is a renewable resource, in that it grows back – unlike gas and coal-fired electricity, which many of us rely on for heating and cooking. Depending on where you live, wood can also be sustainably produced and sourced locally, unlike its fossil fuel alternatives.
So, a home woodstove or fire offers a level of energy independence and low-tech resilience that’s hard to go past, for some.
A wood burner can also serve more functions beyond heating. Your fire might also:
- Heat your shower and bathwater.
- Slow-cook your dinner and warm your porridge in the morning.
- Boil the kettle.
- Dry clothes on even the wettest of days.
- Help your sourdough rise.
- Help get seedlings going in mid-winter.
Here are a few other benefits of indoor fireplaces:
- Provides you with a ‘negative feedback loop’ if you’re burning inappropriately – perhaps you’re lighting your fire poorly or burning green wood, which gives off loads of smoke, and your neighbors complain. This can be a helpful immediate feedback loop, which encourages you to find a more efficient approach – as opposed to outsourcing your personal pollution to a distant coal-fired power station, that remains out of sight and mind – while slowly creating a climate catastrophe for all of us.
- Teaches us to value local forests – in this more localised energy system, you might develop a direct connection to the fuel source and become part of a management system that prioritises and improves woodlots and forests.
- Reconnects you with a traditional skill – the art of lighting and maintaining a good fire is a skill one must learn in order to avoid a smoking mess that makes things awful for everyone. We’re fans of the Upside-Down Fire Technique here at Milkwood, as it’s a cleaner burn with far less smoke and better combustion, gives off more heat, needs less tending and uses the embodied energy in wood more efficiently than the tent-esque fire method.
- Offers you a secondary yield of wood ash – this can be useful in the garden or compost as a source of calcium and potassium carbonate, but be careful not to use too much – it is highly alkaline.
- Provides heating when everything else fails – perhaps you acknowledge all the cons of a home fireplace but choose to have one anyway, along with a good, dry supply of wood, as a ‘just in case’ option for days when the power might go out, or a future when energy supply might be more disrupted by the climate crisis.
A note on good wood: If you decide a fire does have a place in your home system, this is a useful article to read on the importance of using properly cured wood (air dried for 12 to 24 months) and the best way to load up your wood burner before bed, without causing excessive smoke through the night.
Our current home solution – a combination of both
So, with all this in mind – what are we now doing here at our place in lutruwita Tasmania?
When we bought our house, it was heated by a single heat pump (reverse-cycle aircon) and an old slow combustion fireplace. We were keen to switch the old woodheater for an efficient woodstove, but as we learned more about the affects of woodsmoke on community health in valleys like ours… we had to sit down and have a good think.
Where did heating meet resilience meet best community outcomes, for us?
The first thing we did was install a Heat Transfer Kit – this is a great, cheap and low-energy way to efficiently move hot air from a warm room (or from the roof cavity, when the sun is shining) to other colder rooms, and cycle it around. With this system, we could rely on just one heat source to heat the whole house, with minimal energy used.
The Heat Pump in the main space is electric, and 90% of the electricity in lutruwita Tasmania comes from Hydropower – which is about as ‘green’ as electricity gets. So clearly the lowest-impact way to heat our place was going to be with this unromantic but efficient device.
But what about when the power goes out? As it does when the weather is wild down this way, and who knows what the future holds in that regard. Relying JUST on grid electricity didn’t seem smart, now that we were finally not renting, and could make our own call on this.
Rooftop solar and batteries is something we’d love to install when we can, but long story short our roof needs replacing first, which is super exxy, and we need to do that before putting solar panels on and getting batteries (also exxy). So that’s all on the ‘one day’ list, at the moment.
So in the meantime, we installed an efficient wood heater to use occasionally – in times of power-outage, and on winter Sundays, when we’re all home, all day. It’s a Australian-made Thermalux – a wood heater, which is also a stovetop, and an oven, and which has a water jacket that we added on, to heat our hot water when the stove is fired up.
This way, if the power is out, we can still heat our home, make soup for the whole street and bake bread as well – plus heat water for whoever needs a wash.
And on some winter Sundays, we fire it up – to heat the house, provide endless cups of tea, dry all the socks, and cook lunch and also amazing pizzas, all at once. We make the most of that energy, if we’re choosing to use it, and stack as many functions on top that we can. The hot water system gets a massive boost also, and cosy fireside times are had by one and all.
As mentioned above, this occasional use only works well if we’re using dry, well-cured and sustainably sourced wood. We’re lucky to have a local sawmill that sells packs of seasoned off-cuts from their milling process, and that’s the best source we’ve come up with so far.
So – minimal impact of community – tick. Also resilience – tick. Plus happy humans.
And that’s what we’ve settled on at the moment – given our situation, available funds, and our need to be warm.
This might not be the right answer for you – everyone’s context is different – but it’s what is currently working for us.
Emerging alternatives for healthier fires – the Rocket Stove
Rocket Stoves are hyper energy efficient, can be built by almost anyone out of ‘rubbish’ (an old tin can, basically) and result in more usable heat than any other wood-burning system we’ve come across. Some are for cooking, some for heating. All rely on maximum effect for minimum input.
The big difference, compared to fireplaces, is that rocket stoves (and other technologies like them) allow close to complete combustion.
So, rather than emitting smoke, soot or creosote out a chimney, all those compounds are instead sucked into the stove’s insulated burn tunnel and combusted – releasing even more heat. You can actually hear the air roaring through the system, supercharging the fire as it goes.
You don’t need much wood to run a well-made rocket stove – and it will give off very little smoke. Which is also a sign of energy efficiency, and a reduction in pollution.
If you’re interested in exploring this idea, here are the basic steps to make your own pocket rocket stove, perfect for cooking dinner. Perhaps one day the Rocket Stove will be available in home fireplace form?
Whichever heating method you use – choose a jumper first!
If you do go the fireplace route, one thing is clear – burning wood sparingly is always a good choice.
Wherever you can, choose other options first – put on a jumper, grab a blanket, open up the blinds on equator-facing windows (north in the Southern Hemisphere, south in the Northern Hemisphere) during the day, do some star jumps even!
And, if you can and are able, improve the passive heating capabilities of your house – you might add a heat-catching glasshouse on the equator side of the house, improve your insulation to prevent heat escaping, or get thick and cosy curtains and blinds for your windows. Follow the ‘passive house, active human’ ethos, if you can.
Really, all of these simple actions are beneficial, regardless of the type of heating system you choose.
Because, whether you’re burning wood or flicking a switch, it all relies on precious resources. The more we wind back our consumption and lower our impact, the better for our planet, our household, and our community.
So – which way would you go, and what works best in your own home and context? Any thoughts on all this? We’d love to hear your perspective in the comments below.
- Call to phase out wood heaters due to health, environmental concerns – an ABC Australia article.
- Wood burners triple harmful indoor air pollution, study finds – a Guardian article.
- A useful ABC Australia article on ways to manage your home fireplace so it produces less pollution.
- DIY Rocket Stove Technology: A Round-Up of Low-Energy Cooking Options – our Milkwood article introducing you to the magic of Rocket Stoves – and you can also learn how to make your own one here – or, Rocket-Powered Shower, anyone?
- Natural Building: Passive House, Active People – our Milkwood article on ways to heat and cool your home with less energy inputs.
- Urban Firewood Forager’s Guide – a handy how-to from Pip Magazine about free ways to source decent wood in the city.
- Thermal + Haybox cooking: new ways to use an old technique – our Milkwood article on how to cook without the need for continuous heat, from a fireplace or stove or whatever.
- Creating an Inside-Outside Woodbox for a Tiny House – a nifty little device we came up with years ago, so we could add firewood via a purpose-built external door, then open it from the inside, next to the woodstove.
Useful community contributions (from you folks):
- “have a look at ULEBs (ultra- low emission burners) on the Environment Canterbury web site). The new wood burners are more efficient and produce about one-twentieth as much smoke when compared to smoke measured from wood heaters in Australian homes. Another important benefit is the NZ heaters produce less methane (a strong greenhouse gas) than our Australian heaters.” – John Todd
- “Check out Pyro Fires (NZ made)” – via Instagram – These look amazing, to be honest – a riff on rocket stove re-burn ideas… they’re also available in Australia via this mob (and others?)
- “When sourcing a wood heater in Australia I used : https://www.homeheat.com.au/wood-heaters/certified-wood-heaters/ as a reference which I thought might be better than a US Environment Protection Agency link, although I note it doesn’t list Thermalux which may only be because it hasn’t been updated for a while.” Barbara
- “Ecological forestry is not just a less bad energy option. Managing forest for balanced production of fuel, timber and other ecological services is one of the very best outcomes we can support with our time or money.” – David Holmgren
We acknowledge that permaculture owes the roots of its theory and practice to traditional and Indigenous knowledges, from all over the world. We all stand on the shoulders of many ancestors – as we learn, and re-learn, these skills and concepts. We pay our deepest respects and give our heartfelt thanks to these knowledge-keepers, both past and present.