Wood stoves can provide cozy warmth on cold winter days. However, carbon monoxide (CO), an odorless, colorless gas, is a dangerous byproduct of burning fuel that can be fatal if inhaled. Taking proper precautions and understanding how to operate your stove safely is crucial to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. This comprehensive guide will teach you how to prevent carbon monoxide from your wood stove.
What is Carbon Monoxide and Why is it Dangerous?
CO is dangerous because it bonds to the hemoglobin in red blood cells more easily than oxygen does. When CO saturates the blood, oxygen cannot bind properly, depriving the heart, brain, and other vital organs of oxygen.
Early symptoms of CO poisoning include:
As CO levels increase, symptoms worsen and can include vomiting, loss of consciousness, and death. Fetuses, infants, elderly people, and those with chronic heart disease, anemia, or respiratory problems are most vulnerable to CO’s effects.
How to Prevent CO Buildup from Your Wood Stove
Follow these tips to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from your wood-burning stove:
- Hire a professional to install your wood stove and chimney to ensure proper clearances to combustibles and adequate draft. Improper installation is a leading cause of CO poisoning.
- The chimney flue must vent outdoors, not into an attic or garage.
- Install CO alarms near each sleeping area and on every level of the home. Test them monthly and replace batteries twice yearly.
Use Only Dry, Seasoned Wood
- Burn only dry, seasoned hardwoods like oak, hickory, or maple. Softwoods and green or wet wood produce more creosote and CO.
- Wood should be split, stacked, and air-dried outdoors under cover for at least 6 months before burning.
- Store wood outdoors away from the house. Never bring unseasoned wood indoors.
Maintain Proper Air Flow
- Open the air inlet damper before lighting the fire and keep it fully open for 30 minutes after refueling.
- Burn fires hot twice daily for cleaner burns that produce less CO. Never smolder a fire overnight.
- Inspect the chimney connector pipe and chimney monthly for blockages, corrosion, or loose connections. Clean annually.
Ensure Proper Ventilation
- Open a window slightly on the windward side of the house when burning a stove to ensure adequate oxygen supply.
- Install fresh air intake vents if the home is airtight.
- Never block air vents.
Use Safe Burning Techniques
- Open the flue damper and allow the stove to preheat for 15-30 minutes before slowing closing the damper to the desired draft setting.
- Refuel in small amounts when embers are still glowing 30-45 minutes after the last load.
- Keep glass doors shut except when refueling.
- Don’t overstuff the firebox.
- Don’t slow-burn overnight. Let the fire go out and reopen the air inlet in the morning.
- If smoke spills into the room when opening the stove door, open windows and wait a few minutes before trying again.
Know the Symptoms
- Install CO detectors on every level. Check batteries every 6 months.
- Know the symptoms of CO poisoning and seek medical help if they appear.
- If the alarm sounds, evacuate and call 911. Do not re-enter until cleared by emergency personnel.
Have Your Chimney Inspected Annually
- Hire a CSIA-certified chimney sweep yearly to clean and inspect the system.
- Ask about chimney liner options to reduce CO production.
- Repair any cracks or damage immediately.
FAQs about Preventing Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
How often should I have my wood stove and chimney inspected?
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends having your chimney and wood stove professionally inspected at least once per year. Chimney sweeping and inspections ensure the system is structurally sound, confirms proper clearances, and cleans any creosote buildup that could ignite or cause poor draft that increases CO production.
What type of firewood is best?
Seasoned hardwoods like oak, maple and hickory burn cleaner and more efficiently, producing less CO. Softer woods like pine, spruce and birch produce 50% more creosote and burn faster, requiring more refueling which produces CO. Never burn painted or treated wood, garbage, driftwood or giftwrap.
How do I know if I’m getting CO poisoning?
Early symptoms of low-level CO poisoning resemble flu symptoms like headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, and confusion. As CO levels rise, symptoms worsen to vomiting, increased heart rate and breathing rate, impaired vision and coordination, and unconsciousness. If you suspect CO poisoning, evacuate the home and seek medical attention immediately.
Should I crack a window when my wood stove is burning?
Yes, having a nearby window open a crack improves air circulation and ensures enough oxygen enters the room for efficient combustion and ventilation. Never block or seal vents. Newer airtight homes should install fresh air intake vents to supply adequate oxygen when using a wood stove.
Can CO harm pets?
Yes, pets are just as vulnerable to CO poisoning. Pets often exhibit symptoms before humans, including lethargy, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. If pets appear ill when using a wood stove, suspect CO poisoning and evacuate the home while investigating further.
How long does CO stay in the bloodstream?
Once exposure stops, normal fresh air replaces the CO-saturated blood within hours or days, depending on the exposure level. However, CO can have lasting health effects. Severe CO poisoning causes death or permanent paralysis, seizures, coma, or neurological and psychiatric symptoms. Mild poisoning may trigger future headaches, dizziness, or breathlessness during physical activity.
Do CO alarms expire?
CO alarms generally last 5-7 years. Always check the expiration date and replace any detector older than 7 years. Battery-only models should have batteries replaced every 6 months. CO alarms do fail, so having several provides extra protection.
Wood stoves provide charming ambiance but require caution to avoid dangerous carbon monoxide exposure. By properly installing, maintaining, and operating your wood stove, stocking dry seasoned wood, ensuring adequate air flow, knowing CO poisoning symptoms, and employing CO detectors, you can safely enjoy cozy winter warmth. Being prepared helps guarantee many seasons of cozy fires ahead.