Households are warming up again with wood-burning stoves

For UK consumers concerned about keeping their homes warm this winter, a cozy fire may seem like a practical way to avoid soaring energy bills.

But there is no escape: prices for smokeless fuels have risen more than 50% this year, due to rising raw material, transportation and processing costs.

The price of imported firewood has doubled since last winter, due to the impact of the war in Ukraine on supply and the strong increase in international demand. The cost of UK-grown kiln-dried logs, the mainstay of British woodburners, has risen by 10-15%, but rising drying, transport and labor costs mean that further price increases are inevitable.

However, as gas and electricity prices have doubled over the past year, many households are finding it worth turning to their fireplaces.

Who would have imagined that in 2022 chimney sweeps would be in high demand or that the smart wood stove in the corner could now be called upon to heat a whole family?

“It’s because of the energy crisis that people are looking for alternatives,” says Nic Snell, managing director of Hereford-based Certainly Wood, the UK’s largest supplier of kiln-dried logs. “We have a lot of people saying they won’t turn on the heat until they really have to. It goes back to the old days, sitting in a room rather than the whole house.

Chimney sweeps talk on their online forums about the business boom as people get their chimneys swept or open an inactive chimney. “On a Monday in September, I received 27 voicemails and 38 email enquiries,” says Ian Welford, a chimney sweep in the North East of England. Its first available slot is now mid-January; regulars are already booking for winter 2023. “A lot of customers don’t turn on their central heating because they’re terrified of how much it’s going to cost them.”

The Stove Industry Alliance (SIA), whose manufacturer members account for 75% of UK stove sales, recently reported a 40% increase in sales between April and June 2022, from 25,000 to over 35,000, compared to a year earlier.

So, are wood-burning stoves and open fires really cheaper? To reduce costs, consumers should buy fuel in bulk and buy early. An Ecodesign wood burning stove, which complies with UK environmental rules, can cost between £1,000 and £1,500, plus installation. For safety reasons, the chimneys must be swept every year, costing £60 each upwards.

Snell says 3-4 cubic meters of kiln-dried logs for a wood-burning stove, enough for evenings and weekends between October and April, would currently cost £600-650. If you keep the central heating off, it should save you money, although some rooms will remain cold. Alternatively, an SIA analysis indicates that a wood-burning stove, combined with limited central heating, can save £132 a year, or a saving of 6.8% on heating based on the October price cap.

But there is another issue: air quality.

Amid concerns about global warming and rising emissions, are wood-burning stoves and open fires making matters worse? Much of this depends on consumers following regulations, upgrading stoves and using the latest smokeless fuels.

“If people are burning the right fuels in the right appliance, the emissions from those fuels will be very low compared to alternatives,” says Julian Martin, sales manager for CPL, the UK’s largest supplier of smokeless fuels.

In recent years, the government has introduced measures to reduce particulate emissions, including limiting sales of wet wood and coal in England. In UK smoke zones, covering most urban areas, only permitted fuels may be used. Some local authorities have banned the burning of wood on open fires with the threat of a £1,000 fine. Seasoned wood can be used in listed wood stoves

The concern is that some might just focus on saving money, risking the environment and their own safety by burning wet wood, painted and treated wood, furniture and household waste. A return to family evenings around the fire could be welcome. But not pea soup mists.

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