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Penny-pinchers everywhere are using fireplaces and woodstoves for more than just ambiance this year.

While fuel costs have fallen in recent weeks, historically high prices have led an increasing number of Americans to heat their homes with wood. You may want to consider doing so, too.

Switching to wood from oil, gas or electricity could slash heating costs by half. In many households, the idea of using a renewable fuel that's produced right in your own community or backyard is as appealing as the potential savings.

Here's a refresher on heating your home safely, and efficiently, with wood.

The fireplace

If you've got an old potbellied stove or masonry fireplace that's graced your home for decades, consider an upgrade. Stoves have become cleaner, safer and more efficient since the late 1980s and are now manufactured under Environmental Protection Agency requirements.

An EPA-certified stove will produce 60% to 80% less creosote, the tar-like goo that builds up in your chimney, and use up to a third less wood than an older model. Modern stoves also belch far less pollution than older stoves and won't smoke up your home.

If you have a fireplace, consider turning it into a source of heat. You can do so by installing a fireplace insert, a box that fits into the fireplace and functions like a stove.

If you get a new woodstove or fireplace insert, hire a


to install it properly and find out if there are any


where you live.

The wood

Even the best stove won't heat your home cleanly and efficiently if you burn wood that's wet, green or too large. It may take research to find a good wood supplier, but it's worth the effort.

The wood should be cut into clean, consistently sized pieces that fit into the stove. Make sure you're getting what you paid for. Wood is usually measured and sold by the cord, which costs from $150 to more than $300 depending on where you live, the type of wood and whether the wood is delivered and stacked.

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You may be able to buy wood seasoned, but otherwise you'll need to stack it and dry it for six months to a year. When you knock two pieces together and hear a hollow sound, the wood is ready to burn.

Start your fires with plain newsprint and kindling. Don't use glossy magazines, liquid fuel or any sort of fire starter. A stable and efficient fire will require at least three pieces of wood. For a smaller fire, use smaller pieces. You don't want your fire to smoulder. Instead, it should burn bright and hot.

The maintenance

If the glass doors on your stove are getting stained, it's probably due to poorly built or smouldering fires. If you smell smoke, there's probably something wrong with your stove. Check for one of the most common


or get it looked at by a professional.

It's important to keep your stove or fireplace clean. This involves removing ash frequently and occasionally checking your chimney and flue pipe for creosote buildup, and removing it if necessary. Once a year you should hire a certified

chimney sweep

to inspect and clean your chimney.

A clean, properly installed wood stove should be safe but make sure a smoke detector is installed nearby just in case. And always keep flammable items like curtains, furniture and newspapers a safe distance from your fire. You may want to invest in a carbon monoxide detector as well to ensure that your stove is not releasing unsafe levels of the chemical.

The decision

If you can't decide whether wood heat is right for your home, try out this


that determines how much it would cost to heat your home with wood compared to other fuels. And take a look at the Wood Heat Organization's Web site, which lists the


of heating with wood.

Zack Anchors is a freelance writer from Portland, Maine.