This winter's rush on firewood is a misguided effort to deal with rising home heating costs and in many instances burning wood is one of the greatest sources of one of the worst types of air pollution.

Reports of households throughout the nation turning on the warm, romantic glow of the fireplace follow the U.S. Department of Energy's forecast for an average 31.7 percent increase in heating oil costs and 18.9 percent jump in natural gas costs this winter.

The increased costs have been rolled back from previous forecasts, but remain high due largely to supply constraints following a more devastating than usual hurricane season, the reduction in world oil reserves and increased world demand for energy, the DOE says.

Turning to open fires may be a good idea for roasting chestnuts, toasting marshmallows and spreading cheer, but burning wood isn't likely to save you money, when compared dollar-for-dollar and Btu-for-Btu (British Thermal Unit -- a measure of heat levels) with other heating fuels.

And the cheer could cause a few bah humbugs for the environmental costs.

You very well could perceive a savings if you turn back your thermostat or turn off your central heating system while running the wood burning appliance, but you probably can save the same amount without a wood burning-assist simply by turning down the thermostat or turning off the heat and dressing warmer at home, whenever possible.

Chances are, however, you'll likely pay the same or more likely much more for firewood heating than other home heating fuels, especially as firewood demand soars and the Scrooge gougers come out in force.

Use the Pellet Fuels Institute's fuel cost calculator to compare the cost of burning wood to gas and heating oil prices in your region. Unfortunately even the best comparison calculator is like comparing oranges to apples when firewood is in the mix.

A true cost comparison is tough for several reasons.

Your home heating system likely is a central heating system which heats the entire home. Chances are your open fireplace, fireplace insert or wood burning stove doesn't. The efficiency of wood burning appliances also vary widely.

What makes heating with wood most expensive is using an open fireplace. Most of the heat goes up the flue, along with the $150 to $300 or more you'll spend per cord (depending upon your region, availability and type of wood).

More efficient wood and pellet-burning stoves, inserts and other appliances may be better alternatives but, again, they typically aren't central heating sources so the price comparison gets tough.

Incomplete combustion

The other problem with burning wood is a potential health problem. The incomplete combustion of wood emits particulate air pollution which hangs in the air like a brown fog and over time repeated exposure can be deadly especially to people with asthma and other respiratory problems.

Weather conditions called atmospheric inversions can trap the dirty fog over basins, canyons, valleys and other landscapes where only a good stiff breeze will clear out the muck.

The problem has become so severe some jurisdictions have banned all but Environmental Protection Agency-certified clean-air wood burning appliances for newly built homes and retrofits. In those and other jurisdictions, "Spare the Air" days and nights ban all wood fires with the threat of fines.

The EPA says open fireplaces emit the most gunk, 28 pounds of fine particles per million Btu of heat output compared to 4.6 pounds for uncertified wood burning stoves, 1.4 pounds for EPA-certified wood burning stoves, 0.49 pounds for pellet stoves, 0.013 for oil furnaces and 0.0083 for gas furnaces.

Buying wood

If you insist on burning wood, be sure you get what you pay for.

Wood is sold by the cord, half cord, quarter cord, etc. A full cord is a tight stack of split wood 4 feet high, 4 feet deep and 8 feet wide. The bed of a large pickup truck can hold about half a cord.

When you purchase firewood, tell the supplier you know a cord's size and will want to purchase it stacked as a cord or delivered stacked as a cord. If the delivery person dumps firewood in a pile in your back yard you'll never know how much you actually purchased.

The wood should be stored stacked up and off the ground to avoid moisture and far enough away from your home or other wood framed structures to keep wood-eating insects from using it as a freeway to your home.

Buy only seasoned wood, wood that's been cut for six months or more and has visual signs of seasoning -- dull color, loose bark, cracks and splits in the end. Wood that isn't seasoned may be green, moist to the touch, feel heavier, be more aromatic and it will sizzle, pop and steam when burned.

Another factor that makes the price comparison difficult is the type of wood. Hard, denser woods burn hotter than softer airy woods which burn faster and give off more creosote, a sticky by product of combustion that can gum up your chimney and create a fire hazard.

Hard woods are usually from deciduous trees, including oak, hickory, hard maple, etc. Evergreens -- fir, cedar, spruce, etc. -- are softer woods and better used for kindling because they ignite more quickly.

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