Choose Environmentally Friendly Firewood

Heating with Wood & the Environment: Part 2 – Choose Environmentally Friendly Firewood

FirewoodIn this article we continue in our series discussing how you can heat your home with wood in a more environmentally friendly way. In our last article, we described the environment impacts of burning wood. In this article, we discuss how selecting the right wood can reduce those environmental impacts. Basically, before you select the wood you’ll throw in your stove or fireplace, you want to consider two things – what you burn and where it comes from.

What Type of Firewood is Best for the Environment?

The best burn for the environment boils down to some very simple math: Best burn = Maximum heat per unit burned + minimum harmful emissions. Thus, you want firewood that burns efficiently, produces minimum smoke, and has no harmful substances. Fortunately, efficiency and smoke are related – generally, the more smoke, the less efficiently the fuel is being burned.

Seasoned Firewood

Improperly Stored Firewood

Firewood that is not stored properly may not adequately dry out.

First, you want “seasoned” (or “cured”) firewood – firewood that has been left to dry for some time. Burning unseasoned firewood is probably the most common mistake people make. Wet firewood burns very inefficiently and produces lots of smoke to pour out of your chimney. Ideally, properly seasoned firewood has less than 20% moisture content. It typically takes a good 6 months of being left to dry in a well circulated stack to for wood to become adequately seasoned. Also, hard woods like oak take longer to dry out than soft woods. Adequately seasoned firewood will weigh 50% to 75% less than fresh, “green” wood. Some other indications that the wood is properly seasoned include: grayed, discolored wood; bark that is falling off; cracks and splits; and being dry to the touch.

Species of Wood
The next thing to consider is the species of wood. Some species burn more than twice as efficiently as others. Some species naturally produce more smoke.  Finally, some species are easier to split and start a fire with. Sometimes, you can find wood that is efficient and easy to work worth; other times you may need to combine long-burning woods Hickory, Beech, and the plentiful White Oak are three excellent species of firewood you might find in the Washington DC region. For more details on firewood species, go to the State of Maryland’s page on Buying Firewood; they have excellent charts, and we highly recommend referencing this page before selecting your firewood.

Harmful Substances in Wood
Not all wood makes for safe firewood. If wood has not been stored in a properly ventilated stack, it could get moldy, and mold is typically something you want to avoid breathing in any form. Chemicals are an even more serious hazard. Do not burn painted or stained wood, plywood, particle board, or any wood product that has been treated with chemicals. Pallets, for example, are often treated with chemicals like flame retardants and pesticides that contain toxins such as arsenic and formaldehyde. Is this the kind of thing you’d want to breathe in? Neither do your neighbors.

Where you get your Firewood Matters

Now that we’ve covered what types of firewood are best for the environment, we’ll explain where to source environmentally friendly wood.

Deforested Wood


Help stop the spread of deforestation.

As we discussed in our last article, deforestation is a major environmental problem that affects us all. Deforestation is where large pieces of forests are cut down and the trees are never replaced. Forests are home to millions of species; additionally, reductions in the number of the Earth’s trees are contributing to the greenhouse effect. Thus, it helps us all out when you choose to consume responsibly harvested wood over deforested wood. Responsible sources of firewood include sustainable logging, sustainable plantations, agroforestry, and waste wood such as deadfall, debris, and recycled pellets.

The Proximity Issue
It is always better for the environment to burn firewood near its origin. The fewer miles the wood travels, the less gasoline used, and the better the carbon footprint. In addition, some trees may be diseased or infested with pests, and you could introduce these tree killers to new areas when you move wood a long distance. Because of this issue, there are frequently restrictions and “quarantines” on firewood movement in many states – you can look your state up here. In Virginia and Maryland, for example, there have been restrictions and recent quarantines because of Emerald Ash Borer infestations. This troublesome Asian beetle is thought to have been introduced to the country in 2002 and to the DC area in 2007, and has utterly decimated local populations of Ash trees.

Waste wood
Lying TimberThe best sources of firewood, ecologically speaking, is waste wood; the wood has already fallen or been felled – you will just happen to burn it instead of letting it decay. There are several ways to obtain waste wood.

First, if you have the capabilities to remove the wood yourself, you can ask around town to see if anyone has wood they need removed.  Your neighbors may have free wood in the form of stumps, fallen trees, limps, and branches just laying around on their property. You might be able to do them a favor, and get free eco-friendly firewood in the process.  Just be sure to ask them first – assuming wood is free for the taking could bring you some problems!

Another way of obtaining waste wood is to ask a professional give you theirs. Landscapers and tree care professionals often have an overabundance of wood. If you pass one at work next to a pile of freshly felled limbs, you may be doing them a favor by seeing if they would like help taking some of it off their hands.  Occasionally, a friendly tree professional will even drop off the wood for you if you aren’t out of the way.

Also, keep your eyes peeled for waste wood when driving. Sometimes, firewood appears on the curb – keep your eyes peeled when you’re driving for piles of wood on the side of the road with a “free wood” sign – it happens!

A final way of obtaining free waste wood is by scanning internet classifieds. There is almost always free wood posted on DC’s Craigslist, for example.

Wood pellets and wood brick are also often made of waste wood that has been recycled into great burning wood. Just remember that pellets are for pellet stoves, not your average fireplace. Many wood bricks, on the other hand, work great in standard fireplaces. Many dealers provide pellets and bricks.

Just remember the following in regards to waste wood: always properly season firewood; make sure it is not ridden with mold, chemicals, or pests like termites or ash borers; and do not move the wood long distances. We also advise familiarizing yourself with local ordinances if you plan on heavily utilizing waste wood.

Buying Firewood
It’s often easier to buy your firewood. When doing so, you want to make sure you get good firewood sourced responsibly. Anybody can have leftover wood and claim to be a firewood dealer, and many don’t know or care what they sell or where it came from, so you should use a reputable dealer.

Most states have regulations on firewood sales, and many states, including Maryland, require firewood dealers to have a license. To find or verify authorized dealers in Maryland, go to

Anytime you burn fuel, there is an environmental impact. So remember – what you burn matters!

For more on Wood Heat and the Environment, read:
Part 3: Burning a More Responsible Fire
Part 4: Environmental Comparison of Wood Burning Stoves & Appliances
Part 5: 7 Ways to Reduce your Chimney & Fireplace Pollution

11 thoughts on "Choose Environmentally Friendly Firewood"

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Chad Murray says:

As a professional chimney sweep in Dallas Texas I cannot stress enough the truth about this post/ article. I would say 30% to 40% of our safety inspections on fireplaces and chimneys are due to the improper care of wood burned, unseasoned. Most of the wood in North Texas sold for firewood has been cut down earlier that year and not stored properly before sold as seasoned. Also not burning hard wood is a common result in smoking fireplaces.

Reid says:

Thanks Chad! True – that’s another great reason to use seasoned wood – keeping your chimney cleaner and safer!

Sree says:

For once I’ll bet Lee misses Indiana. It was in the 80 s all week last week and in the 60 s this week, but sunny.When I was gnwriog up, Dad would get loads of slab wood from the local sawmill and we’d cut that up with a chainsaw into lengths just right for the fireplace. I’d say a good half of our annual wood needs came from that source. We heated the entire house with that fireplace (with a heatilator and blowers), so we used a lot of wood.

[…] Any type of wood can be used for heating including trees that are storm damaged, diseased and unsuitable for other uses like furniture production. […]

Reid says:

I noticed you linked to us here, and I really appreciate it! However, I’d like to mention that you should really use some discretion when selecting firewood. For example, some tree diseases are completely benign, and are ok for firewood but some may be contagious and should be quarantined instead of moved for firewood. Also, some species of trees such as the softer woods and sappy woods can be used for firewood but are less desirable choices. Again, thanks for the link!

Reinhardt says:

Just a tip.Let the firewood dry for 1 year berfoe using it.Why?Because then it will be compleatly DRY and Give MORE heat.It will also burn more cleanly and easier to get the fire started.We usually cut down the trees just berfoe winter starts or during winter, the trees got less water in them during that time.Other then that, you got good videos. keep up the good job.Might come in handy some day.[]

Burning hardwood really is key. We burn a lot of Pacific Madrone and there is no comparison to say Pine. Not only does it burn much hotter and better but much less of a hazard.

Still burning wood is the most cost effective way to heat a home!

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Stephen says:

The is very informative article. I use firewood as my main source for heating and never knew some of the facts that were mentioned in the article also some of the tips provided in the comments are also of great help. Thanks for the article.

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