Is it green to heat with wood?

For the last several years, since we bought and renovated our house, our main source of wintertime heat has been wood. We burn wood in an outdoor boiler (more on that another time); this powers our radiant heat system, in which hot water moves through tubing just under the floors.

The stash

We consider this a sustainable way to heat the house, though not everyone would agree. There are a lot of different considerations. For one thing, the fuel itself is local and renewable. We get our wood from a few sources, all of them free: Troll craiglist and freecycle, and you’ll often find people wanting to give away wood from trees that have come down on their property. We’ve also found that local tree services are always looking to get rid of wood; some will even bring their extras to your house, if they’re in the neighborhood. Finally, our own property has some downed wood that we’re gradually collecting.

So no trees are expressly cut down for the purpose of heating our house, which we feel good about. If everyone heated with wood, though, it would be a scarcer resource and we’d have a much harder time finding castoffs.

Transporting the wood is another consideration. We do make some trips in our truck to haul firewood, but if we heated with electricity or gas, we’d just be outsourcing that transport to an energy company. Then there’s the prep work: Were we totally rad, we would split all the wood by hand…and it would take all year. We use a gas-powered splitter.

A bigger issue, of course, is the burning of wood itself. Yes, it releases particulates; yes, a city full of wood-burning boilers would be an unpleasant place. We think it’s O.K. out here in the country, especially because our boiler is efficient and produces very little smoke. As for the carbon emissions, the theory goes like this: Trees decomposing would release that carbon anyway (though more slowly), so burning wood is technically carbon-neutral.

All in all, we feel that heating with wood keeps us in touch with our local environment in a way that fossil-fuel consumption wouldn’t. And we’re glad that other than a tiny amount of electricity that runs our pumps, we’re not dependent on a power company for heat. (Solar-powered pumps are in our future!). But I’m interested to hear what other folks think. Anyone have what they consider a completely sustainable method of heating their house?

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