Story last updated at 10/21/2009 - 1:32 pm
As Jack Frost marches back into the lives of Southeast Alaskans, many of us yearn to bask in the warmth of our woodstoves, or by the glow of our fireplaces.
Cold snaps also mark a good time to clean fireplaces and to evaluate wood stoves for optimum performance.
A wood stove in good working order can help ensure heat from the stove will warm your room, not escape up the chimney. It can also help minimize air pollution that can cause serious health problems.
Wood stoves generate smoke that is a source of fine particulate pollution. These tiny particles are much smaller than a strand of human hair and can cause health problems when inhaled. They can impede lung function, aggravate bronchitis, trigger asthma, even lead to heart attacks. Children and the elderly are especially sensitive to these health risks. As children's respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air - and more air pollution - per pound of body weight than adults. Smoke inhalation poses a high risk to elderly adults because they are more susceptible to heart or lung diseases.
One way to limit fine particulate matter is to maintain your wood stove or fireplace and follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure efficient operation.
When it comes to a wood stove, make sure the gaskets on its door are air tight. Make certain that all seals connecting the stove to the flue, and within the flue, are as tight as possible. Keep the floor of your stove clean of debris and ash. And always use a stove certified by the Environmental Protection Agency. Certified stoves emit 50 to 60 percent less air pollution than other stoves.
You'll know if your stove is burning efficiently if you see very little visible smoke coming from your chimney, only heat waves.
To make sure of it, build small hot fires, instead of large smoldering ones. Only burn dry, seasoned wood and arrange your wood with gaps, so air can assist in combustion. Don't burn garbage. The toxins given off not only get stuck in your fireplace, they go into the air and possibly your lungs.
Creosote can also create a pollution hazard, but you can minimize its development by sweeping your chimney. As logs burn in a fireplace, the chimney sends out smoke and other substances created when wood burns. As these products travel through the chimney they leave a tar-like residue, creosote. Essentially unburned fuel, creosote stays in place and builds up until it catches fire or it is removed by a thorough sweep of the chimney.
Firewood is abundant in many parts of the state and woodstoves can be a cozy and independent way to stay warm. Unfortunately, woodstoves emit significantly more pollutants than oil fired furnaces - generally 30 to 250 times more particulates on a heat equivalent basis. Properly operating your woodstove or your fireplace will help the air quality for all. For more information on smart burning tips and techniques go to http://www.dec.state.ak.us/air/anpms/pm/wshome.htm.
And as fall days turn to winter, wood smoke in Juneau's Mendenhall Valley can accumulate when weather turns cold, clear and windless. You can assist in reducing air pollution by limiting burning under these conditions. Before you burn in the Valley, check to see if there is a burn ban in effect. The City's burn ban hotline is 586-5333.
Alice Edwards is acting director of the Division of Air Quality at the Department of Environmental Conservation.