While regular cleanings and maintenance are an important part of fireplace upkeep, many homeowners fail to realize that the firewood they use can also impact the performance of their wood burning appliances. Although the type of firewood you use is ultimately a personal preference, there are many different factors to keep in mind before making a large firewood purchase for the season.

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Hard woods versus soft woods

All firewood can either be categorized as a hard wood or a soft wood.

Hard woods: Hardwoods are heavy, dense woods from trees whose leaves change color in the fall. Because of this, hardwoods are known for creating more heat, having longer lasting fires, and creating more coal beds. The most popular hardwoods are often varieties of elm, birch, maple, and oak.

Soft woods: Softwoods are most commonly identified by their needle leaves, and includes species such as firs, spruces, pines, and evergreens. Softwoods are quick to ignite and produce more smoke than most hardwoods. Because they burn at a lower temperature, softwoods are often popular choices for fires during the milder temperatures of fall and spring.

Most homeowners favor hardwoods for the bulk of their fires, but many keep a small amount of softwood around to be used as kindling when starting a fire. Likewise, softwoods are extremely popular with those who use their wood burning appliances for smoking meats due to their strong flavors.

Buying local

Another factor to consider when shopping for firewood is where it was grown and harvested. Because tree killing insects and bacteria can still reside on firewood, transporting wood long distances can expose local trees to dangerous infestations. As a general rule, homeowners should try to buy firewood that was grown less than 50 miles from their home, while many experts agree that less than 10 miles is ideal.

Packaged, heat treated firewood is generally considered safe to move, and is ideal if you’re looking to purchase wood before an out-of-state camping trip. This wood is usually labeled with the USDA APHIS treatment seal.

Importance of proper seasoning

Equally important to the type of firewood you buy is how long it has been seasoned for. Seasoning is the process during which freshly chopped firewood is allowed to dry when exposed to sun and wind. This practice removes the majority of the water from the wood, reducing the moisture content from as high as 50% to as little as 15%.

Seasoned firewood ignites faster, burns hotter, and creates less smoke than freshly cut firewood. Most firewood should be seasoned a minimum of 6 months, while many experts agree that when done properly the seasoning process can take up to a year. Even wood that has been cut from dead or fallen trees still needs to be seasoned.

What to avoid

Although it may seem like an excellent way to recycle, old wood from decking, fencing, or playground equipment should not be used as firewood. Unlike regular firewood, these woods are typically treated with stains, paints, or other chemicals to make them more resistant to the elements. Because of this, burning pretreated wood can release a cocktail of poisonous substances into the air.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends “never burn coated, painted, or pressure-treated wood because it releases toxic chemicals when burned.”