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The New Smells of Winter

30 October 2010


low tech writer

I’ve been scratching my head trying to figure out what exactly it is I smell, on my weekly evening bike commute. At least once a week I ride to an evening meeting on two wheels: I choose the bike over the car even when it’s cold, dark, and rainy because I love riding through the chill. One longstanding blessing of winter riding has been the smell of wood fires. Not any more. I’ve written eulogies to natural wood fires, now increasingly frowned upon. I live in an area with lots of auto and industrial smog, a not coincidentally high rate of breathing problems, and therefore a high sensitivity to politically-correct burn behavior. I understand the need to put less smoke and stuff in the air, but I just can’t be happy about the “green” solutions (gas barbecues, gas heaters), when they require the burning of petrochemicals to address an air quality problem caused primarily by the burning of petrochemicals.

Today, as I pedal around my town, I smell the wet rotting leaves (that’s one of the good smells), yummy dinners of different ethnicities, and now, with increasing regularity, I smell burning wax. It took me a few nights out before I realized what it was. I mean I knew I was smelling burning wax, but I couldn’t figure out why I smelled it so powerfully on the street, and over and over. Then I got it. DuraFlame. I’m smelling fake fireplace logs made from sawdust and wax.

And it really breaks my heart. I know these fake logs are supposed to be better than wood for burning. I know the numbers. 70% less stuff coming out your chimney. They are supposedly made only with natural waxes (at least today they are). But the only reason the burning of natural logs is bad is because of all the other crap that we load the atmosphere with on this overcrowded planet. I mean, really: does it have to be the wood fires that go? It’s perfectly alright to keep my hummer, but I can’t have a wood fire?

When you go looking into this strange fake-log market, you learn that there is an old-school version of the fake fireplace log. Pres-to-Logs were made from sawdust leftover from lumber production (so no waste, and no trees cut for the product) pressed into shape under high pressure, with no wax or other binders. Pres-to-Logs have been around for 75 years and are made by a company that makes pellets for wood burning stoves. Why aren’t we burning those in Los Altos? I know: because they don’t light themselves. Too inconvenient. I can hear the pitch now: “We’re going to give Americans a fire they can light with one match and no fuss! All we have to do is make a product that is basically a massive sawdust candle.” I can smell the lesser of two evils and DuraFlames are not it.

Even if Pres-to-logs are way better than DuraFlame, and they certainly are (I’ll be looking for a local distributor for the next logless fire), they do not come close to the look and sounds of a natural wood fire.

I know that fake logs are better by the numbers, but the whole thing stinks. I mean that in every sense: it just seems wrong … and these things are making my neighborhood smell like a fire at a candle factory. In my economy, if something stinks, it’s probably rotten.

Duraflame has no power here
Duraflame has no power here!