The Affordability Challenge

One of the most common arguments in favour of wood heat is that it is affordable. Concerns are often raised that people simply can’t afford other sources of heat.

For people who get their own wood—people who have their own working truck, chainsaw and body—wood is likely the cheapest heat of all.

But if coal was cheap and readily available, would we allow people to use it for heat simply based on the fact it was affordable? If tipping fees were too high at a municipal dump for some low income people, would it be okay for people to burn the garbage in their yard or dump it in the woods, simply because they felt they couldn’t afford to do anything else?

The reason these things are not acceptable is because our society recognizes that individual behaviours sometimes need to be controlled for the benefit of others, even if there is a financial burden associated with the regulation. The balance of societal well-being and individual rights is recognized.

Costs to Non-wood burning neighbours

In terms of wood heat, it is well documented that exposure to wood smoke can have notable health consequences. This means that one individual’s heating choice can have negative impacts on their neighbours.

While one person might trying to save money by using wood heat, the person next door—someone who might have asthma, or a newborn, or a heart condition or other health issues—is being affected.

While one is possibly saving money on wood heat, their affected neighbour may be paying for extra medications, buying and running air purifiers or missing time from work due to increased respiratory infections.

For some, the impacts are serious enough that they may choose to move from the area, resulting in financial costs for the move and social costs due to the loss of their community. However, many who are affected are also low income people who simply can’t afford to live in newer neighbourhoods with fewer wood stoves (and nor should they have to).

Additionally, all taxpayers, no matter how close they may live to people who burn wood, are paying for the extra costs to the health care system caused by wood smoke pollution.

Solution is not to maintain status quo

The solution to the challenge of affordability is not to simply let people continue to use the most polluting source of heat available, filling our common air space with a disproportionate amount of fine particulate matter and other toxins.

The cost of buying and burning wood and using a heat pump have been shown to be similar. Plus you get the added bonus of having an air conditioner!

Shift people to cleaner heat
One solution is to help shift homes to clean, affordable source of heat.

The cost of buying and burning wood and using a heat pump have been shown to be similar. However, the upfront cost of installing a heat pump – the cleanest form of heating available—can be prohibitive for many.

Public policies and programs, therefore, need to be put in place to help people transition from wood heat to affordable and much cleaner energy. These programs can include more and better rebates, interest-free loans, and tax incentives.

In the case of rebates and incentives, taxpayers’ money should not be provided to people upgrading an old stove to another wood burning appliance as these clearly pollute more than any other available source of heat and significant reductions in pollution are not guaranteed. The new stoves will also require ongoing public funding for education on burning and enforcement for those who do not reduce their smoke output.

Rebates and other incentives should only be provided to those replacing a wood burning appliance with a cleaner, non-wood burning, source of heat.

Keep clean heat affordable
Public policy solutions should also be put into place to keep the cost of electricity, our cleanest source of heat, affordable. When Hydro rates in BC have increased, people have noted there has been an increase in the use of wood stoves, particularly in homes with electric baseboard heat.

It is critical, therefore, that electric rates be kept affordable or, at minimum, there be programs for low income people to subsidize their use of electric heat. People should not be penalized for using the cleanest source of heat.

However, one approach may be to introduce financial disincentives for using the dirtiest source of heat available.

Wood burning is known to produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide and black carbon; both of which are well-known contributors to climate change. While carbon taxes are an accepted approach for heating fuels like gas and oil, the burning of wood has been exempt from any tax or other forms of disincentives. This creates a false economy, where one polluting fuel is taxed and another is not.

While it may be difficult to tax people who get their own firewood, taxes could be imposed on sellers of wood. Alternatively, properties with wood heat could face a levy in recognition of the additional burden wood smoke pollution places on the public.

Invest in energy conservation programs
Finally, the most cost effective way to immediately reduce a home’s demand for heat is to invest in energy conservation measures such as additional insulation and weather stripping. All reductions can help reduce the energy footprint of a home.

Posted in Financial Cost, Solutions, Wood Stoves and tagged , , , , , , .


  1. While burning unseasoned firewood (greater than 20% internal moisture content) will create more emissions vs. a heat pump, burning seasoned firewood will result in little to no emissions. The key is to burn seasoned firewood in a modern wood burning appliance.

    • It is not true that “burning seasoned firewood will result in little to no emissions.” Even new stoves, if operated at factory level certification levels, put out more fine particulates than 3 10-year old semi trucks according to to a study in the UK. These stoves would never pass modern vehicle emission standards, yet we let them idle for hours on end right where people live.

      A government agency in the US shows that an EPA certified stove, operating at factory levels, will put out 97 lbs of fine particulate matter a year but a gas stove or fireplace will put out 1/6 lb. of fine particulates… that is over 582 times the amount of harmful fine particulates! See

      And all of this is assuming that people burn at factory level standards, which they never do, no matter how hard they might try. Other studies have shown real world use is 4-5 times more than what it is certified for. And there is no way to ensure that the operator of the stove is doing the best possible job and not burning wet wood or even garbage (many people i talk to tell stories of smelling garbage from neighbours’ chimneys).

    • Clint this is a myth–it is the equivalent of claiming that smoking cigarettes with a moisture content less than 20% with make the smoke safe.

    • While I understand your point of view Clint, I do have to point out one problem with your logic:

      ALL forms of combustion are bad, no matter how filtered or unfiltered they are. The “clean burning” myth, which is almost exactly the same as the now-debunked “clean diesel” myth, is simply not true and is merely an attempt by industry to convince you to keep burning wood for heating.

      When you live in an area where you are surrounded by other properties, and you choose to burn wood, you are making the decision to shroud those properties in wood smoke – something that the other property owners can’t easily do anything about.

      So no, the key is not “to burn seasoned firewood in a modern wood burning appliance.” The only way to burn wood without impacting others is to do it far away from other properties, and by “far away” we’re talking distances of 10, 20, 50 kilometres, depending on weather conditions and the size of the fire and so on.

      If you want to continue burning wood – which I don’t recommend – then you should move to a remote location far away from the nearest neighbour. Otherwise, you should cease burning wood and switch to a cleaner heat source, for your sake and that of your neighbours.

  2. Pingback: Wood not always the cheapest heat – Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley

  3. One of the dominant reasons why wood burning is still (alarmingly) popular is that its TRUE costs – healthcare, doctor visits, medications, reduced productivity, etc. – are not included in the price tags of fireplaces and wood bundles.

    If the real costs were to be borne by the burner – such as a levy on their tax bill – then it would help them realize that wood burning is actually not as cheap as it seems.

  4. Pingback: Annual health cost of wood heating in Comox Valley = $76 million – Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley

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