How Wood Stoves Work

Dangers of Using Wood Stoves

The dangers of wood stoves come in two main categories: smoke and fire.

If you have a certified wood stove that was installed by a professional, the smell of smoke is a sign that something is amiss. Smoke in the house can lead to respiratory problems for the occupants. It can also be a sign of graver danger. A certified wood stove should never smell like smoke [source: EPA].


A stovepipe or chimney that doesn't draw properly creates a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning -- and you can't smell a carbon monoxide leak. If you don't have a smoke detector or a carbon monoxide detector in your home, you should install both, pronto. Your local fire department can show you how.

Chimney fires tend to happen when creosote -- a toxic, inflammable residue -- builds up in the chimney. This is more of a danger with old stoves and chimneys than with new. New stoves are required to have low particle emissions; these limits greatly reduce creosote buildup. But you should still perform yearly maintenance and cleaning. You can find a certified chimney sweep through the Chimney Safety Institute of America [sources: ATDSR, EPA].

Floor and wall fires should be preventable as long as you adhere to clearance requirements and install floor pads and heat shields as needed. But you can reduce your fire risk even more by doing the following:

  • Never burn logs made of compressed sawdust and wax, which are designed for open fireplaces.
  • Never burn painted or chemically treated wood, which will release toxins.
  • Never use kerosene, lighter fluid or other fire-starting chemicals.
  • Never let a fire smolder (if you need less heat, build a smaller fire, not a slower-burning one).
  • Burn only seasoned wood (ideally, wood that has dried outdoors for at least six months; it should sound hollow when you knock it against another piece of wood, and the wood grain should have separated a bit at the ends).
  • Regularly clean out ash and place it in a noncombustible receptacle outside your house.
  • Keep combustible household materials (rugs, curtains, towels, paper, etc.) outside the stove's clearance area.

[source: EPA]

Don't let these considerations deter you from installing a wood stove. Installed professionally and used properly, a wood stove can be a fantastic, economical, eco-conscious and energy-efficient addition to your home. Just take the necessary precautions, and you can enjoy one of the oldest -- and most beautiful -- forms of heat.

To learn more, visit the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "Creosote." 2002. (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • Chimney Sweep Online. "Sweep's Library: Whuff's the Deal?" (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • Chimney Sweep Online. "Woodstove Overfiring." 2009. (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "Cleaner Burning Wood Stoves and Fireplaces: Where You Live." October 7, 2008. (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "Fuel Comparison: Relative Emissions of Fine Particles." October 7, 2008. (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "Health Effects of Wood Smoke." October 7, 2008. (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "Healthier Home, Cleaner Environment." October 7, 2008. (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "More Efficient, Cleaner Burning Fireplaces." October 7, 2008. (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "Wood Burning Efficiency and Safety." October 7, 2008. (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • Hearth. "Installing a Woodstove: The Basics." 2007. (Accessed 2/25/09)
  • Mother Earth News. "Wood Stove Safety." January/February 1980. (Accessed 2/26/09)
  • The Wood Heat Organization. "All About Wood Stoves." (Accessed 2/25/09)
  • The Wood Heat Organization. "Safe Clearances for Wood Stoves." (Accessed 2/25/09)