Okay, to be fair my last couple of posts have been fun to research, testing to write and boring to read, however, they have served their purpose incredibly well. Not only am I now confident enough to preach all my new wisdom to my family and friends, work colleagues and distant acquaintances, but I am excited about the two things that had been causing me the most anxiety, plumbing and electricity for those who are dropping by for the first time. Further, I have finally discovered the pleasure in properly understanding how things work instead of skipping to the application, by which I mean not simply making decisions based on what others have done before. Whilst this method certainly has the advantage of being quicker, breaking something down vigorously and studying all of its parts is more efficient in the long run. I owe this new approach to my co-builder Chris. Initially I found it very amusing when Chris would click on every single highlighted word on a Wikipedia page, keen to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ for himself. I myself would skip over unknown words or details, hoping whatever I was reading would make sense all the same once I was finished reading. Not surprisingly this only worked for the short-term. Whilst I could grasp enough of an understanding,once I had moved onto a new topic my recall of the old would be terribly vague and I would end up revisiting bits and pieces.
Finally I realise the satisfaction of his approach, and the peace of mind it grants. You aren’t just reliant on your trust of others.
But as always, knowledge is a double-edged sword, because with knowledge comes responsibility. You are no longer protected by ignorance when you make a decision. This was highlighted as I took a closer look at wood stoves. I had always assumed a wood fire would be the cleanest and most sustainable choice for cooking and heating, however once you begin deconstructing the process it becomes clear that this is strongly debatable.
Below I have dissected wood burning and why it’s not so faultless (as I once imagined it to be).
What is combustion?
Combustion is a chemical reaction between oxygen and fuel. This reaction is usually paired with heat and light in the form of a flame. Combustion is used to generate electricity (burning oil, gas or coal) and to power our cars (petrol.) It is also how we heat our homes and cook our food. In a modern first world home, this is usually through the use of electricity or gas, but traditionally it is wood that has been used to warm out tootsies and bake our bread.
Wood is composed of Cellulose which is made up of thousands of Glucose units.
Glucose is a compound molecule made up of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen. If wood is heated high enough, these molecules begin to break apart releasing into the air as gases (combustion). These gases burn as they mingle with the oxygen molecules in the atmosphere, creating more heat, and then recombine, producing new molecules: carbon dioxide and water.
- Carbon Dioxide: [1 carbon atom and 2 oxygen atoms.] Carbon Dioxide is a greenhouse gas, in that it is one of the gases in the atmosphere that traps heat around Earth, keeping us from freezing. Plants take light energy from the sun (photosynthesis) and use it to ‘fix’ carbon to help the plant grow. Humans and animals eat the plants and in turn consume the carbon stored within. We breathe it back out as Carbon Dioxide. It is then removed from the atmosphere by the plants and this cycles over and over. Carbon is also absorbed by the ocean and the earth under our feet. The latter will, over millions of years, become fossil fuels.
- Water: Vapor.
Wood fires never receive enough oxygen to burn completely which means carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, particulates, black carbon and unburned fuel are too released into the air. This is known as Incomplete Combustion and is the cause of smoke.
- Carbon Monoxide: [1 oxygen atom.] Carbon Monoxide is a toxic, colourless, odorless, tasteless gas. It forms when there isn’t enough oxygen to create Carbon Dioxide. It is a by-product of incomplete combustion which can be caused by burning wood, gas, propane, oil or coal. It starves the body of oxygen and can kill animals and humans at very small concentration.
- Black Carbon: Tiny particles of soot. It is an air pollutant and causes respiratory problems. It is largely created by the burning of wood and biomass. It absorbs sunlight and converts it to heat. It is a major threat to snow-covered regions because as it settles on snowy mountains, it reduces the reflectivity of the snow (as we know, white deflects heat). The detrimental effect of this is that it quickens the melting of ice.
- Particulates: unburnt (left-over) carbon.
- Ash: non-burnable minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
So you can say that the above is not entirley great for the environment, but where does it sit in regards to other heating and cooking options like electricity and gas? That is the question that has been plaguing me but for now that is tomorrow’s problem.