In recent weeks, much has been made about the health risks from wood burning stoves in people’s homes. Also, those denouncing wood burners point to the costs of heating a home with wood as more expensive. I have read these pieces in the press with some concern. I will issue a disclaimer here: I am a manufacturer of wood fuel briquettes which can be used in wood burning stoves; my company is dedicated to a green philosophy and believes in a respect for the environment, and the people who live in it. I have undertaken a great deal of research into wood burners and other domestic combustion so I can fully understand how my customers may use my product. If you think that might make me biased, I also have an honours degree in Physics with Forensic Science – including studies of chemistry, fires and explosives.
From discussions with potential customers about changing their fuel, I have found many people love the idea of a wood burner but don’t necessarily understand them. In fact, the people who tend to rave about them are people who have grown up with fires and have a great deal of experience with them. This leads to people being put off or using them incorrectly if they do not take advice and learn about fires and fuels.
This is a common problem that has very little to do with the wood burner and everything to do with the user. If you own a small copse or have a friend who can supply you with logs, you may think you have a free fuel supply; it is not as simple as that. Too much moisture in the wood you burn will inhibit heat output (the heat from the fire is used up drying the wood before heating your home) but still release carbon monoxide containing products – and usually a lot of smoke. Unseasoned ‘new’ wood (especially pine and similar softwoods) also tend to spit due to the resin in the wood. Some people think any organic matter can be burnt on a fire and use their wood burners more like incinerators (I know of someone who burnt the carcass of their Sunday roast chicken!). PLEASE don’t treat your wood burner like this, it stinks! Burning old pallets or broken up pieces of old furniture is fine, so long as you know there is no paint or treatments on the wood. A piece of old shed or decking that has had a preservative used on it may, among other things, give off arsenic vapour when burnt. Any paints will burn off the chemicals in them (you will see that when the flames change colour – different colours mean different compounds). MDF and plywood are also dangerous as they have a high glue content.
This is all bad for your health if you breathe it in, which is why the government has implemented Smoke Control Areas where air pollution is a concern. However, under proper operating conditions (correct usage with proper fuel) that should only happen if the wood burner is not working properly. Special care should be taken in regards to your chimney; burning unsuitable fuel can lead to a build-up of soot and other deposits which can restrict the flow of exhaust or potentially cause a risk of fire if the deposits become large enough to combust themselves. Any chemical compounds will be vented via the chimney, so any glue, paint etc. that is vaporised when it is heated rises through the chimney. As it rises it cools and may deposit on the chimney lining, a stray ember or burst of heat can ignite these deposits.
A wood burner used correctly will burn ‘clean’ fuel i.e. untreated, unprocessed wood with a low moisture and resin content and it will burn at a high temperature that combusts most of the waste emissions that will keep the chimney clean and deposit free – meaning the emissions into the atmosphere are cleaner.
As for the cost of using a wood burner, many people are guilty of comparing apples and oranges. Few houses use wood burners to replace a gas central heating system. If you are trying to heat a large area with a small stove, it will never be as efficient as radiators in every room. As an example, a friend of mine has a two storey detached house with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. He has no gas supply, only using a wood burner to heat his hot water and central heating. In a typical year, he will use 2-3 tonnes of briquettes which cost £500-750. I have a gas central heating system and cannot run my heating as liberally as he does for that money. Buying small packs of logs is far more expensive than bulk buying, so a small stove heating one room will not be as efficient or economical as using radiators where the heat and cost are spread.
Logs are becoming expensive, and they need to be properly seasoned to be worth the money. There are cheaper and better alternatives on the market. The briquettes my company produces are made from sawdust supplied by an FSC registered joinery, or fines from a forestry source that makes wood chip. Both of these raw material streams are waste to the companies that produce it and instead of paying to have it dumped at a landfill, we create a new product. Trees cut down for logs are only grown to be burnt with no other contribution. Briquettes further reduce the carbon footprint as the tree that produced the wood has still absorbed carbon from the atmosphere, then been used for a purpose, and then comes to us for another use.
Briquettes have other advantages such as being lower than 5% moisture content as we dry the raw material for processing. This means no wasted heat, or spitting from the fire and they can be used immediately after production as they don’t need to be seasoned. They have a high heat output with very little ash or flue gases and don’t require lots of kindling to light. They ignite quickly but can burn for hours.
We have plans to build new premises in St Leonards that will follow with our green policies by producing its own power from solar panels and supporting local suppliers to reduce our carbon footprint even further by reducing transport mileage.
If that doesn’t convince of the benefits of a wood burner and briquettes, think about coming home on a horrible wet day and lighting a fire that starts warming you up immediately with a comfort only real flames can provide.