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We are having to rethink our wood-burning stove

Game Changers: Wood-burning stoves can be a source of indoor and outdoor air pollution

Our house breathes. In, out, in, out. Its lungs are a mechanical box in the attic sucking in cold air from outside and releasing warm air from inside. When we retrofitted the 100-year-old semi 15 years ago, the heat recovery system was one of the expenses that felt painful. There goes money spent on something no one would see. Ceiling vents ducted heat from the hot areas like the kitchen and bathrooms to the heat exchange machine. The clever house lungs use this warm air to cool the air coming in from outside. In out, in out. But it was money well spent. Our house is comfortably warm but never muggy and airless. When we go away, we return to just a ghost of a smell of orange from the floor oil we used to bring our salvaged oak dance hall floorboards back to their glory days.

A good retrofit should also improve the quality of the air in our homes, reducing or eliminating indoor pollution

Retrofitted houses are healthier houses. We are rightly focusing on the carbon benefits of insulating existing homes. But a good retrofit should also improve the quality of the air in our homes, reducing or eliminating indoor pollution and all the life-limiting conditions that can exacerbate. Air pollution is, for the most part, invisible. When we change the filters we can see the grey gritty reality of it. Our house lungs, unlike our own lungs, can be regularly serviced and cleaned.

We are having to rethink what we saw as our greenest heating source back in the retrofit pioneer days. The wood-burning stove remains unlit for the most part. Victorian Christmas card scenes of open fires with apple-cheeked people have knitted fire into our idea of hearth and home. But wood-burning stoves can be a source of air pollution, both indoors and out. And our older one probably needs an upgrade. We fire it up occasionally but only with bone-dry wood. The sizzle of a damp log is the sound of particulate matter, tiny shreds of soot that add to the pollution burden in the air.

New European Ecodesign regulations apply to all new stoves, so don’t buy an uncertified model. These new stoves have lower emissions and get the most out of their fuel. But the cleanest stove will be an electric one, when renewable energy powers our homes. And they have come a long way since the 1980s when orange plastic flames flickered in the metallic wind of a blow heater. The fanciest ones now come with log boxes beneath them where you can stow show logs, perfect bone-dry pieces of wood that lend their smell and look to a stove that won’t impede anyone else’s ability to breathe deep clean lungfuls of shared city air.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests