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No smoke without fire: are wood burning stoves environmentally friendly?

PUBLISHED: 08:30 14 April 2017

Wood burning stoves have been the subject of much debate, find out more at the Highgate Society's Eco Homes event

Wood burning stoves have been the subject of much debate, find out more at the Highgate Society's Eco Homes event

trevarthan

Debate around wood burning stoves is a hot topic. Supporters praise their carbon neutrality, whilst health-conscious activists blame them for rising smog. So who’s right? find out at The Highgate Society’s latest ‘eco homes’ event.

Environmental experts are warning that wood burning stoves could actually be damaging to the environmentEnvironmental experts are warning that wood burning stoves could actually be damaging to the environment

Wood burning stoves are the alternative to burning fossil fuels like to oil and gas, and an environmentally-friendly way to heat your home. They are the city edition of that fashionable rural statement, the Aga, and a way to embellish your living room with that country-chic feel.

Or are they perhaps the cause of worrying soot emissions that threaten to flood our city with smog and cause damaging cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses?

The Highgate Society will run its third and final event on April 19 to try to answer these burning questions, as well as discussing solar electricity and heat pumps.

Wood burning stoves are clearly popular in the capital, with a 2015 government survey showing that 7.5 per cent of UK households use wood fuel for some of their heating. The Daily Mail reported that 175,000 British homeowners bought a wood burning stove in 2016.

Camden is a so-called smoke control area, which means that chimneys are prohibited from emitting smoke unless burning an authorised fuel or exempt appliance. Users must only burn that which is on the government-backed list of authorised ‘smokeless’ fuels such as anthracite and low volatile steam coal. Although wood is technically unauthorised, it can be burned in exempt appliances including some stoves, cookers and boilers. Rule breakers face fines of up to £1000.

Despite recent events, the country is still party to the wider restrictions of the EU’s 2009 Renewable Energy Directive, which stipulated 15 per cent of final energy consumption in the UK should be accounted for by renewable energy by 2020. The target for the EU as a whole is 20 per cent.

So what are the arguments?

For

Since trees gather carbon which is released back into the environment upon burning, the process is carbon neutral. Trees might otherwise be left to rot, releasing the CO2 anyway, and sourcing wood locally eradicates the need to transport other fossil fuels such as oil and gas. With time, stoves are becoming more efficient, and those with a back boiler could also provide heat to boil water for cooking and radiators around the home.

Against

On the flip side, wood burners are the largest emitter of PM2.5, tiny soot particles which can penetrate the lungs causing respiratory illness. Manufacturers are legally required to ensure correct ventilation and prohibit the release of carbon monoxide, but open fires are a greater cause for concern. The least efficient means by which to burn, open fires are commonplace in many period Camden properties, with a large proportion of installations being inefficient at over 15 years old.

How to guide

For those who make the choice to burn wood, Cara Jenkinson who is chairing the event titled ‘Renewables and Wood Burning’, says it’s all about choices. “The negative impacts of wood-burning can be reduced hugely by choosing the right types of wood and then knowing how to adjust the stove to run cleanly,” she says. Wood should have a moisture content of less than 20% to avoid wasting heat boiling the water, will give twice the heat output of freshly felled timber and will reduce tar build-ups in the chimney flue. Wood must be seasoned for two years to keep the wood dry and aerated.

Cara Jenkinson believes that by improving the energy efficiency of your home overall through better insulation, the health and environmentally detrimental impacts of burning wood can be negated. “A really key issue,” says Jenkinson, “is that the impacts of any kind of heating (and your bills) will be reduced if your home is well insulated and if you choose the most efficient type of heating device, whether it’s a wood burner, gas boiler, or whatever. And then use it right!”

‘Renewables and wood burning’, part of the Creating an Energy Chic Home series, will take place on 19 April at 8pm. The Highgate Society, 10a South Grove, N6 6BS.

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