Human dependence and fascination with burning wood can be traced all the way back to early humans but there is a real art to a good fire
Collecting logs for the fire is a key part of any camping holiday but for domestic wood stoves good quality firewood is essential.
What is the Best Fuel for Wood Burners?
Good quality firewood is the best fuel for use in wood burners to ensure both a warm home and protect the environment. Logs should be dry to the touch before you put them on the fire, preferably less than 20% moisture. Moisture meters provide accurate readings, but a cracked log is a visible sign that it has dried out.
Wet logs burn badly and are a terrible idea; they are harder to light and will blacken the glass on your stove, even if it is designed to stay clean. They also create deposits that can stick to the flue and increase the risk of fire. Burning dry woods is best for air quality as well.
1930’s Advice About Wood as a Biomass Fuel Source
The Firewood Poem
"Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut's only good they say,
If for logs 'tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold"
"Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E'en the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown."
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter's cold
But ash wet or ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by."
Lady Celia Congreve
Hard woods, such as ash, oak or beech, produce more energy per log than cheaper soft woods such as pine. People often want ash, but most hard woods burn well. This poem on firewood was first published in the Times, back in 1932, by Lady Celia Congreve and is remarkably accurate.
Storing Logs for Firewood
Whether you collect your own logs or have them delivered, it’s essential to store the logs well. Somewhere with good ventilation and covered from the rain will prevent the logs rotting or taking on more moisture.
Top Tips on How to Light a Fire?
Dry wood is essential of course (20% moisture) to successfully light a fire. At the start, use plenty of kindling and paper on the fire bed to start the fire before big logs are put on with sufficient air flow.
Check with your stove installer or manufacturer’s guidelines about fire starters and don’t use coal in a wood burning stove. Another top tip is to use pine cones. They make great fire starters and collecting them from the woods can also be great fun. And finally, long-handle safety matches are very useful to have.
How Much Does Firewood Cost?
The cost of fire wood will depend on whether you decide to buy from a supplier, or source your own.
If you source your own firewood from your garden or friends’ you need to chop logs up yourself, which can be hard work. You will also need to season the wood - which means allowing it to air dry for 12 to 18 months. This is fine if you have enough room, as you will save money by air-drying the logs yourself and storing them ready to use.
If you are buying logs, the cost will depend where you live. Buying from a local supplier is the most economical way to source your fuel. Wood is a high volume, low value product so there is currently no national distribution chain.
As a rough price guide, hard wood delivered to your house is about £95 for a typical 1m3 load. Two or three loads can last a family through the heating season, but this will depend on the size of your home, how mild the winter is and how often you light the stove.
Kiln-dried logs are more expensive to buy, but they are not necessary for most wood burning stoves.
The key is that is that the fuel is clean and dry. Ask neighbours or local hospitality businesses where they buy their fuel or use search engines or local advertising sources. Remember to check with the fire wood supplier the:
- Type of wood (hard, soft or mixed wood).
- Size of logs (split to fit your fire).
- Volume per load in m3.
- Price per load.
- Do they stack in your log store, or just deliver and leave outside your house?
Why Wood Fuel Is Good for the Planet
Wood fuel is good for the planet. Wood, is a sustainable, renewable resource and one of a variety of fuels referred to as biomass. As a renewable source it contributes to an eco-friendly lifestyle and help to tackle climate change. One of the great spin-offs is that by using wood fuel you contribute to the active management of local woodlands, which has a really positive impact on wildlife. The key benefit of this process is letting light in so a wide variety of animals and plants can thrive in the forest.
Using natural, renewable resources for fuel is particularly good if you live ‘off the gas grid’ in the countryside and can replace oil or other expensive heating fuels in your home. As always it makes most sense that your house is as snug as possible to save on gas and electricity bills and avoid heating the air outside. For more information see How Can I Make My House Warmer in Winter and Cooler in Summer.
The diagram from IEA Bioenergy illustrates why wood fuel is a low carbon fuel source and far better than burning fossil fuels. Trees absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide as they release at the end of their life. In the UK, like most parts of the world, deforestation is illegal therefore, when a tree is harvested three more trees are planted to replace it as part of standard sustainable forestry practice. In direct contrast fossil fuel combustion releases carbon dioxide continuously in a one direction flow into the atmosphere and is therefore extremely harmful and the biggest cause of global warming.
Are Wood Burning Stoves Bad for your Health?
So long as you burn good quality wood in a modern, approved stove fitted by an accredited installer then wood burning stoves are not bad for your health. However, air pollution is bad for our health.
Air pollution is predominantly caused by traffic; the exhaust fumes from cars, lorries, buses and other vehicles. Whilst most of this air pollution is caused by diesel engines it is essential to avoid adding any other particulates into the atmosphere.
You can check the air quality in your neighbourhood by entering your postcode into this BBC guide on air pollution.
Particulates, are tiny pieces of ‘dust’ produced from burning fuel which are light and therefore can float in the air. They are small enough to enter into our lungs and can exacerbate or cause respiratory health issues.
Log Burner Regulations
To improve air pollution, certain areas of the UK are designated smoke control areas. If you are considering a wood burning stove it’s essential to establish whether you live in a one of these areas (which includes most of London and other major cities).
In theory you can use a Defra (Department for The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) approved stove, which is an exempt appliance even in smoke-controlled areas. More information on Ecodesign ready stoves are available from the Stove Industry Alliance (SIA). However, if your town or city already has significant air quality problems, it is potentially best not to burn any solid fuel because tiny particulates can compound the problem. For example, the mayor of London is keen to ban them as part of a wider plan to improve air quality in the city.
If in doubt, the environment officer at your local council can tell you if you live in a smoke control area. It is in your best interest to buy the best stove you can and burn dry logs to reduce the number of small particles produced for you and your neighbours.
Environmentally-Friendly Wood Stoves
Look for the Ecodesign Ready label on stoves as these meet stringent emission limits and are verified and supported by Stove Industry Alliance (SIA) and HETAS. There are a number of manufacturers with appliances that meet new Ecodesign Ready specifications. These stoves produce 90% lower emissions than an open fire and will be compliant with the clean air act.
How to Find A Chimney Sweep?
It’s not just something out of Mary Poppins, every home with a wood stove must have the chimney swept to prevent soot or tar building up. To avoid the risk of fire, it’s worth having your chimney swept before you install your stove and flue. It is recommended to sweep your chimney twice a year; before the heating season starts (in September) and once after the peak heating season when the stove is no longer in use (April).
It is important for your own health as well as others not to burn waste, particularly any timber that has been treated with paint, varnish or other contaminants. This also applies to other waste such as wrapping paper or even non-timber products. Stoves are not designed for these fuel sources, so they could cause fire in the chimney and will contribute to air pollution.
Avoid Burning Wood in an Open Fireplace
If you decide the cost of a stove is a prohibitive, don’t be tempted to just burn ‘waste’ wood in an open fireplace. Even if the material you burn is untreated wood, this is not a good choice for the environment or your health.
In open fires, wood burns at lower temperatures than in a stove and this ‘impartial combustion’ means the timber does not burn properly. It’s an inefficient process which results in lots of ash and a lot of charred particles remain and smoke will float into the air of your living room. Without a proper flue, a lot of those particulates will stay in in a confined space and therefore, in the air that you breathe, whilst the remainder will rise up the chimney and contribute to local air pollution.
Therefore, always avoid burning wood in open fireplaces. There are plenty of beautiful stoves to choose from and it is also possible to pick up a bargain stove second hand.
Why Multi-Fuel Stoves Contribute to Climate Change?
If you are serious about climate action, then don’t invest in a multi-fuel stove that burns logs but also coal. Coal is a fossil fuel which produces considerably more carbon dioxide than oil or gas. Anthracite coal, which is sometimes marketed as ‘smokeless’ coal, has one of the highest levels of carbon content of any fuel in the world. In terms of global warming this is just about the worst fuel around. If you already own a multi-fuel stove the best option is to burn only logs and wood fuel whenever possible.
Ash may be king but most wood will burn well in a log burner. The key is to only put good quality, seasoned firewood in your stove that is dry to the touch. And whilst you snuggle down in front of the fire you can feel good that you are contributing to climate action and improving woodlands for the birds and bees.
What are your top tips for sourcing and storing firewood and of course lighting fires?
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