Games we play


Parts of our personalities are so ingrained that we don’t even talk about them with our closest loved ones -- not because we’re hiding anything, but simply because they represent how we see the world and we don’t even think to mention them out loud.

I believe I have discovered one such trait, one that many of us share. I call it "What do you think about when you see a stranger’s house?"

This came up recently when we were paddling on Groton Pond. As we passed lake houses, lake cabins, lake McMansions, and lake bungalows, I could hear the wheels turning in my wife’s head. Having played this game before, I asked her which one she wanted to live in. No question, she said: the shingled cottage we had just passed which was tucked into the pine trees.

The reason this answer was on the top of her head, of course, is that every time she passes a stranger’s house, whether on a boat or on the road, she pictures herself living there. She figured that everyone plays this game.

What game do you play?

I have a little obsession with energy that I nurse along by observing what I can about the heating system in any home I pass -- what kind of fuel, what kind of heating appliance, how tight is the house, mental calculation of how much fuel is used annually ... it can go on.

Longtime readers of this column may remember that I have a certain neighbor who holds the unspoken trophy on our road for tidiest woodpile.

He also lives right by the Green River in a pretty dark hollow -- other than being sheltered from the wind it’s one of the coldest spots around. Since I drive by there most days I like to see how cold it is there and whether there’s a fire in the stove. I like to watch around this time of year because as an ongoing research project I am observing how many months out of the year he lights a fire in. Ten? Eleven? Twelve? Based on seeing wisp of smoke on a recent August morning, the answer stands at 10. But I’ll keep watching.

If you’re already firing up the wood stove, or thinking about it, please remember a few key things to keep you, the ecosystem, and your neighbors safe.

1) Keep it local. Invasive insects like the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorn beetle are threatening our forests here in Vermont, and they lurk in firewood. Our best defense against those insects right now is simply keeping them out of healthy forests, and while they don’t fly very far themselves, they can quickly hitch a ride into some fresh trees on your firewood. Source firewood locally -- within 10 miles if possible. Not sure where your firewood is from? Just ask, and let your supplier know your preferences.

No wood stove completely burns firewood, and smoke resulting from incompletely burned wood contains hazardous air pollutants or HAPs (which may cause cancer), fine particle pollution, and volatile organic compounds (VOC). Particle pollution in smoke can damage lung tissue and lead to serious respiratory problems when breathed in high concentrations. In low concentrations, particle pollution in wood smoke can harm the health of children, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory diseases.

This leads me to three more recommendations.

2) Burn seasoned wood. Just because it will burn doesn’t mean you should burn it. Plan ahead so that your firewood has been split and covered for over one year. This not only makes for a much cleaner burn, but it also saves you money. Every drop of water in your wood not only makes for a smokier, colder burn, but it also is a drop of water that the fire has to boil out of the wood, wasting energy.

3) Use a modern EPA-certified wood stove. Yes, if you’re burning wood chances are you’re already on the frugal side, but burning wood in a hand-me-down uninsulated box is not a "frugal" choice. EPA-certified wood stoves offer reduced pollution of at least 50 percent, and with minimum efficiency rates they also get you more heat out of your wood, helping pay for the investment.

4) Have a professional chimney sweep inspect your wood stove and chimney on an annual basis. I’m a convert on this step too: I’ve seen the lumps of creosote come out of my chimney if I forget about this chore for too long. If the chance of a chimney fire seems too distant to you, consider the simple fact that a clogged chimney will eventually stop drawing smoke. You could wake up one morning unable to get the chill out of the air because you can’t get a fire started.

Thanks as always for reading and keep your questions and comments coming to

Tristan Roberts is Editorial Director at BuildingGreen, Inc., in Brattleboro, Vermont, which publishes information on green building solutions. You can learn more at You can reach Tristan at


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