Burning wood for heat in a rain forest is hard, there's no getting around that.
Add a record wet summer, and it becomes even more difficult, with many stacks of cordwood around town remaining too wet to burn cleanly, including my own. Finally, add to the record wet weather a more vigilant Environmental Protection Agency and looming burn bans (during the coldest weather, of course), and you have the makings of a supremely frustrating winter for wood stove users.
There are ways to make the winter air a little cleaner this year, however, without giving up on the wood stoves completely.
First, and most important, burn only your driest wood. Wood stoves don't burn efficiently with wet wood. Think about how well your car runs with water in the gas. You end up with more particulate in the air (bad to breathe) and more creosote in your chimney (which can cause chimney fires). You may have talked to someone who advised you to throw a wet log on the fire to keep it going all night, but that wet log will smolder all night and smoke out your neighbors.
Second, and related, keep your fires on the hot side. After your fire is going strong, you may need to turn the stove down a little to keep it from getting too hot, but only a little. By burning hot, your wood stove will work at its highest efficiency. Be sure to read your manual and check online for information about your particular stove, since all models work a little differently. More of the fine particulate that can cause health problems is burned at higher temperatures instead of being released into the air. Owners of modern, more efficient stoves should not see smoke coming out of the chimney at any time other than when starting the fire.
Don't expect your wood stove to burn all night, unless you want to sleep on the couch and set your alarm every hour. Alder, spruce and hemlock are all low-energy wood, and properly dried they only burn for a little over an hour. Let the fire burn out at night and use your other heat sources.
Burning small also helps. Avoid huge chunks of wood, even if they are dry, since they also burn less efficiently. If your fire burns out with large, charred wood pieces remaining in the stove, that means you sent visible smoke up the chimney for a couple hours or more. Keep your pieces to about three inches in thickness and less. Your wood stack will dry faster this way and your fires will burn well. And don't stuff your wood stove full, either. Follow the manual and keep each burn load medium to small.
What about this winter, after such a wet summer? Take a close look at your wood supply to determine if any of it is dry enough to burn. You can sort the driest from the wettest often just by feel. The wet pieces are heavy, and if you split them you can see and feel the moisture. Save your wet pieces in a new pile for next winter.
As painful as it sounds, many of us are going to have to use more oil and electricity this winter instead of wood. Some of us may not be able to burn at all later in the year unless we buy that dry, plastic-wrapped wood from local stores.
Meanwhile, it's clear the city needs a serious energy plan involving both home efficiency and affordable electricity. Wood burning is not a viable alternative for most people in Juneau, but more people will turn to it as energy prices rise, and air quality will just get worse.
John Krumm is a Mendenhall Valley resident and wood stove user.