Burning firewood is something of an art as well as a science, but it will go better for anyone who has a good understanding of how it works. There are several principles that if followed will help you have the fire you want in your woodstove.
The most critical principle is that wood needs to be somewhat dried out in order to burn well. The best way for wood to be in good shape for burning is for it to season first. This means that fresh cut wood is piled in such a way that air can circulate around the sticks. Then it is allowed to sit and dry out for at least six months. A year to a year and a half is even better. If your wood is not burning well, especially if it is hissing and steam is coming from the cut side, chances are it was not allowed to season properly.
During the time that the wood is seasoning, it should be covered when it rains. Another way to protect it from the weather is to keep it in an open woodshed. The ends of the logs need to be exposed to the air so the moisture can escape. The goal is to have wood dried out until it is no more than 20 percent moisture. Fresh wood can have as much as 70 or more percent moisture! Another reason not to burn wet wood is that it forms more creosote in your chimney. Creosote is the most frequent cause of chimney fires.
Your fire also needs air to burn properly. People are sometimes tempted to close the draft so that the wood smolders for a long time. You should always burn a new load of wood with the damper open for the first 20 minutes or until the log is completely engulfed in flames. Part of the efficiency of wood heat is in burning the gases as well as the wood. Starting the fire with a lot of oxygen in this way will help you burn those gases and keep them from escaping out the chimney or forming solids on the inside of the chimney.
Another possibility is that you have an old stove that needs to be replaced or maybe it is simply to big for your home. If you find that you need to buy a new stove or fireplace insert, look for one that is EPA certified for low emissions and high efficiency. Also get one with the right amount of BTUs for the size of home you have. You do not want to have one that is too big, because you will either be uncomfortably hot or have your draft turned down too low for safety.
Maybe your wood is not burning properly because you need to clean the ashes out of the stove. Ashes clog up the air flow so your stove does not get the oxygen it needs for the wood to burn. Keep the ashes cleaned out.
Hopefully something here will help you figure out what you need to do to burn your wood with the most efficiency and the least emissions.
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