The Burning Issue

I turned the heating down by one degree this week, apparently that saves 10% of your heating bill or at least that used to be the case. With oil now at 155.35p per litre (Boiler Juice), up from 68.66p the day Russian tanks rolled into the Ukraine, my one degree just isn’t enough. But I am not alone, with 1.5m households in the UK, one third of Powys households relying on oil, with no price cap, we need to think differently about heating our homes and the cost of that.

Fortunately, we have a large log burner at home which heats the water for our central heating and for bathing the kids, as well as drying our clothes. But is log burning the panacea to the current energy crisis? The main disadvantage is the concern about particle emissions from burning damp wood, but the main advantage is cost and the avoidance of burning fossil fuels.

Over the last five years we have seen a period of geopolitical changes from EU membership, political leadership, Covid, war in Ukraine and the energy crisis; these are indeed challenging and uncertain times. Notwithstanding further escalation in the war, the biggest challenge our children face is the climate crisis and each and everyone of us need to work to reduce our carbon footprint every day.

Log burners have long been a feature of rural life, we know that the wood needs to be dry. They have become a lifestyle choice in recent years, particularly in urban areas, leading to Simon Birkett of Clean Air London suggesting: “It’s a public health catastrophe. Woodburning stoves need to be banned urgently. The first step should be to stop the sale or installation of them.” “Wood burner pollution is worse than traffic” was a headline in The Times Feb 17. Some firewood sold just isn’t dry enough, causing a build-up of particles in the home and the atmosphere.

The governments Clean Air Strategy has introduced two initiatives designed to reduce the amount of pollution from domestic log burners. The first is to improve the quality of the burn through the introduction of new Eco Spec stoves which must be installed by a HETAS engineer. This came in this year, ensuring higher efficiency and emissions control and applies to all new stove purchases. The other an accreditation scheme (administered by WoodSure) for the supply of ‘ready to burn’ firewood, that is 20% moisture or less. Quantities over 2 cubic metres (two pick up loads or three ‘dumpy’ bags) will need to come with written instruction on how to get down to this level. The purpose of this initiative is to ensure that we only burn dry firewood, enforced through audits of product, procedure, and provenance.

These two initiatives are designed to reduce pollution in the form of PM2.5s from burning firewood at home. No, I didn’t either, so I looked it up on GOV.UK, these are ‘particle matter that is not a gas, so small that they can enter the blood stream and be transported around the body, lodging in the heart, brain and other organs, resulting in serious impact on health, especially in vulnerable groups such as the young, elderly and those with respiratory problems.’ Roughly speaking open fires give off three times more PM2.5s than burning firewood in a sealed metal box, as well as letting most of the valuable heat up the chimney! Perhaps its time to consider fitting a log burner if you are using an open fire, you’ll be warmer and use less fuel; financial assistance may be available for this.

So, if you are serious about heating your home with firewood and have log burner, you’ll need a good supplier, good luck with that! I struggled for years trying to find a supplier who could tell me what the moisture content was, where it came from, what size the logs were, how much I would get, when they would come, accept a bank payment, get a receipt, and do that consistently, year after year. In the end I bought waste and windfall trees from farming neighbours when it was available and stored it in a purpose built shed, secure in the knowledge that it was there and getting drier each month.

We are fortunate to be surrounded by trees in the Tanat Valley, unfortunately storms and disease take some of them and if we leave them to rot where they fell, they will give off as much carbon dioxide as when we burn them. Let’s gather up this precious resource, dry appropriately and burn it rather than oil in your home, whilst continuing to replant for the future.

The best logs are local and free, but if you have to, buy them in the spring, stack them with enough space for a mouse to wriggle through, so that the air flows through it. Think of it as a good wine maturing, or a solid investment, saving you money while you sleep. Generally, you should be able to buy part seasoned firewood in the spring from a local supplier at 10% off the ready to burn price. Remember that part seasoned is not ‘green’ or ‘fresh,’ it should be no more than 25% moisture if you are going to burn it from September. Do the maths, I make that a 20% return on your investment. Your local firewood supplier should also be able to supply you with a log store made from locally milled timber. You then have a fighting chance to stay warm this winter, even if you are only heating one room in your house, like we used to.

 

These are desperate times for many, burning firewood is no panacea, but could be part of the solution, along with more insulation and a move to greener energy, which includes locally sourced firewood, burnt at the right moisture levels in the right stove. You also have the added advantage of being able to boil a kettle when the lights go out.

 

Daniel Patrick

Tyn-y-Waen

March 13 2022