The goal of this periodic blog (EgyDev) is to promote information exchange on access to quality energy services in developing countries including renewable, modern, biomass and household energy.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Basics of Wood Burning Stoves: A Case for Standards or Rating Systems?

Many people interested in better stoves know something about fire, smoke, health and new ideas.  However, to explain these on a more fundamental level that is understood by all can be difficult.  Therefore to explain the relationship between health and smoke, I turn to the late comedian Steve Allen who said that “Asthma doesn't seem to bother me any more unless I'm around cigars or dogs. The thing that would bother me most would be a dog smoking a cigar.”  For those who are promoting stoves innovations, I quote Mark Twain who says “The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” 

More seriously, I recently came across this nice brochure on space heating stoves that has been published by the California Environmental Protection Agency.  I was struck by this brochure because in a very simple way it publicizes the issue of smoke and health, the need for standards,  the basic principles of combustion and even the alternatives to wood stoves including gas and electricity.    These are many of the same issues that the clean cooking community today is attempting to communicate to the general public.  This brochure highlights the fact that improved heating stoves in the United States and other developed countries are now very efficient and burn very cleanly compared to past stoves.  But this was not always the case. 

Painting of Old Heating Stove in School
On a personal note, I can remember old coal stoves used to heat "temporary" small classrooms built to accommodate a sudden rise in student populations.  These "potbelly" coal heating stoves were similar to the wood burning stove in the picture.  At the time in western Pennsylvania coal was king and this was at the very end of the time period when people would heat with traditional coal stoves.  Was it smoky? Yes. Was it energy efficient? No. Did it give good even heat?  No.  Wast it durable? Yes. Was it safe? Yes. Was it cheap?  Yes.  Now of course schools are heated with modern systems. 

Even now there are legacy fireplaces and wood stoves that burn warmed air in the house which in turn draws in cold air from the outside.  Thus, the old traditional space heating stoves in developed countries are somewhat analogous to open cooking fires in developing countries.  The rather important exceptions are that the cooking fires and traditional cookstoves in developing countries typically are built of local materials by those who use them and they also do not have chimneys.