Business is booming for UK chimney sweeps as more households open their homes and install wood-burning stoves to help tackle soaring energy bills.
As many as 300,000 households have installed wood-burning stoves in the past year alone, adding to the three million who already use them and open fires to heat their homes.
Households that for years have relied on central heating for warmth are preparing their chimneys, flues and hearths for a winter of wood fires.
Clean sweep: Toby Walne (front) gets to work with Richard Mardell, owner of Bishop’s Stortford Chimney Services in Hertfordshire
In the 19th century, chimney sweeps regularly recruited young children as assistants to do the dirty work of sweeping chimneys. Today, Richard Mardell, owner of Bishop’s Stortford Chimney Services in Hertfordshire, reluctantly accepted the services of an aging journalist too big to fit a chimney.
Our first job of the day is at a three-bedroom terraced house owned by retired bank manager Linda Hinton, 63, in the village of Bengeo, Hertfordshire.
Linda spent £1,300 installing a wood-burning stove last year, a more efficient alternative to the open fire she previously used.
“With the burner, I hardly need to turn on the central heating anymore,” she says. “It saves me around £500 a year.”
Richard and I cover the carpet with a thick cotton sheet so that not a speck of soot remains from the work. I am then shown how to push a six inch wide brush into the narrow conduit and then screw in meter rods to the end, one at a time, until the brush touches the top of the conduit at eight meters above us.
Many homeowners are tempted to save money and clean their chimneys themselves, but by helping Richard, I understand why a professional – and the right equipment – is needed. It’s delicate work, and can be messy if not done with care.
But Richard, a 30-year-old former firefighter, tells me there’s another reason why doing it yourself can be dangerous. “A professional will issue you a certificate attesting that the chimney has been properly cleaned,” he explains. “Most home insurers require you to see one before paying a claim.
“Domestic fires caused by a chimney are extremely rare. But if the worst happens, a certificate will help ensure that your home and its contents are fully covered by your insurer.
Richard says rising energy bills this year mean he’s never been busier.
“By Christmas, I will be working hard to clean up to a dozen chimneys a day,” he says. “But it’s rewarding work – bringing a nice fire home and making it safe.”
It’s a tough job being a sweep and it doesn’t take long before I need to sit down and have a cup of tea. But, Richard is as fit as a chip, hitting a gym most mornings at dawn before work.
YOU CAN SAVE UP TO A THIRD ON YOUR BILLS
Modern wood-burning stoves are much more efficient than an open fireplace – where half the heat can disappear up the chimney. They can also be cheaper than central heating if you spend most of your time in one room.
A wood-burning stove can reduce annual heating bills by 30%, according to stove manufacturer Charnwood. How much you save depends on how long your central heating has been running and how much fuel you burn.
If you still use central heating in the rest of your home – as well as for heating water – it may end up costing you more.
A new stove costs between £500 and £3,000 to buy and install by a Hetas (Healing Equipment Testing and Approval Scheme) qualified expert. The cost of installing a flue pipe is £350 to £1500 or more.
THE CHIMNEY MUST BE CLEANED ONCE A YEAR
The average cost of sweeping a chimney is £60. It should be done once a year to combat soot buildup and hazards such as bird nests. Conduit that hasn’t been used for years needs to be checked by a professional before it can be used safely. It can cost up to £200 and if any cracks are found you may need to reline the entire chimney.
WHAT ABOUT THE POLLUTION FACTOR?
Wood-burning stoves are one of the biggest sources of particulate air pollution in the UK, according to government data. This type of pollution can lead to health problems and has an impact on the environment. If you have one, there are ways to significantly reduce their negative impact.
Wood-burning stoves sold today must comply with strict emission rules, which were introduced earlier this year. As a result, they emit 90% less pollution than open fires. These stoves are upgradable and are unlikely to be banned in new regulations in the coming years.
Older burners and open fires are still legal for now, but in future you will only have to install new eco-designed stoves.
“Clean air zones” are also being introduced in many cities banning old wood-burning stoves and open fires. Check with the council for the rules where you live. If you are considering a wood stove to reduce your energy bills, there are many cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as installing insulation, controlling drafts and updating your boiler.
Cleaning: Toby and Richard’s first job of the day was at a three-bedroom terraced house owned by retired bank manager Linda Hinton
BE SURE TO BUDGE THE PRICE OF FUEL
The cost of logs is rising, thanks to increased demand. You can expect to pay around £100 to have a cubic meter of dry logs delivered to your home. That’s double the price of five years ago and 20% more than last year. One cubic meter should be enough to last at least a month.
If you enjoy a fire every night you could end up spending £20-30 burning logs every week – depending on how much fuel you use in the evening.
Buying in bulk is cheaper and you can save money by getting your logs from specialists rather than garages.
Freshly cut timber can cost around £60 for a cubic yard. This often needs to be left outside for at least a year to season so the sap can dry out.
Kiln-dried timber with a low moisture content can cost upwards of £150 per cubic metre.
For firewood to burn efficiently, it must have a low water content. It is now illegal to sell bags of wood with a moisture content greater than 20%. You can buy a moisture meter to check that your wood is dry enough for around £20.
Vincent Thurkettle, author of The Wood Fire Handbook, says you may be able to get your fuel for free. He says: “There is nothing better than enjoying the pleasure of a blazing fire – as we have done for thousands of years. Part of that fun can be looking for wood for free.
You must seek permission from a landowner before cutting down a fallen tree – or felling one – on private land. But although the wood is free, tools such as a £200 chainsaw and a £40 log splitting maul are essential.
It’s rewarding but tough work – and requires health and safety considerations, like learning to use a chainsaw and being equipped with protective pants, goggles and gloves. Once cut, you should store the wood in a woodpile or well-ventilated shed for at least a year before burning it.
Although charcoal is another option for open fires and “multi-fuel” wood-burning stoves, it has fallen out of favor in recent years because it pollutes more than wood. Smokeless charcoal is the only option allowed in most cities. But costing around £20 for a 25kg bag, it’s increasingly only as good as wood.
When using a stove, you should ideally only use wood or coal – not both – as wood stoves are best tuned for one or the other.
Beware of burning cash on electric “fires”
Hot stuff: An electric fire mimics the welcoming glow of the real thing
An electric fire mimics the welcoming glow of real fire – without having to clean the flue or empty a grate full of ashes once a week.
But the rising cost of electricity can make it an expensive option.
When the new price cap comes into effect next month, the cost to keep one on for an hour will be around 68p on average.
If you keep an electric fire burning for around five hours a day in winter, it can add £25 a week to energy bills – or £100 a month.
Using central heating can be cheaper.
You can use a streaming service on your TV to recreate the flickering flames effect.
Netflix offers a “fireplace for your home”, while Amazon Prime Video offers a “relaxing campfire on the beach” and YouTube shows a “real-time fireplace”.
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