A forest, a stack of logs, a pile of wood pellets

People have burned wood in their homes for thousands of years to stay warm and cook food. Even though a fireplace is rarely a necessity today, many homeowners love the sights, smells, and sounds of a crackling fire and want to enjoy one in their home.

But there’s also a downside to burning wood in terms of decreased air quality. Wood smoke disperses fine particles that can cause burning eyes and a runny nose. With too much exposure, smoke can trigger bronchitis and lead to asthma attacks, strokes, heart attacks, and other health concerns.

That’s why the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) embarked on an extensive campaign to change the standards for wood stoves manufactured and installed in the U.S. Starting in 1988, the EPA began a four-phase program which culminated in 2020. Now, EPA-certified stoves must meet a 2.0-2.5 gram per hour emissions output, depending on how the test is conducted.

Meeting the new standards has been problematic for the industry, especially for smaller companies that lack resources to engineer new solutions. Many initial attempts failed, prompting extensive consumer backlash and resulting in numerous companies folding.

Eventually, manufacturers’ experiments paid off, and the remaining companies are increasingly hitting the latest, strictest pollutions standards.

Lovers of wood-burning appliances should know:

1. Older, already-installed stoves are exempt from new EPA standards.

It’s important to note that the EPA’s regulations only apply to new equipment. Therefore, if you already have a wood-burning stove or fireplace, you are not required to update it.

2. You may want to upgrade an existing appliance anyway.

Despite a bumpy road, manufacturers eventually made substantial improvements in recirculation systems, baffles, combustion chamber shapes, and insulating materials, resulting in significantly superior wood-burning appliances.

Whether you prefer a new freestanding wood stove or a fireplace insert, you’ll use less wood and experience a cleaner burn if you upgrade your equipment. Today’s models are also safer since creosote buildup is greatly reduced.

3. Pellet stoves are another option.

Pellet stoves rely on processed sawdust and other organic material that has been compressed into small “pellets” and sold in large bags. The pellets resemble food often given to rabbits and guinea pigs.

Pellet stoves burn cleaner than wood stoves and are not subject to EPA efficiency standards. They debuted during the 1970s energy crisis and remain a green heating alternative.

Also, an installed pellet system may cost less than a conventional wood-burning stove. Many models can be direct-vented, eliminating the need for an expensive chimney or flue.

4. New wood-burning installations may be eligible for a substantial tax credit.

In addition, at the end of 2020, Congress passed a bill supporting renewable energy and efficiency, including new tax credits for “qualified biomass fuel property expenditures.”

Qualifying installations include EPA-certified wood stoves with a thermal efficiency rating of at least 75%. The tax credit depends on when the installation is completed—not the date you purchased the equipment:

  • 25% for systems placed in service between 01/01/2021 through 12/31/2022
  • 22% for systems placed in service between 01/01/2023 through 12/31/2023

5. States and municipalities may have laws too.

If you already own or are considering installing a wood-burning fireplace or stove, be sure to check your local laws too. Depending on where you live, you may be subject to restrictions on burning wood indoors or outside.

For example, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment posts wood-burning advisories on its site. The state also regulates the purchase of wood-burning appliances and restricts their use on high pollution days.

Some states also offer rebates and tax incentives to purchase and install wood and pellet stoves and boilers.

For additional EPA guidance on burning wood in your home, check out the agency’s Burn Wise program.