The BURNING issue – don’t panic

Eric Partridge

Plans to phase out the sale of coal and green/wet wood for domestic burning and encourage the use of cleaner fuels in the home have been confirmed by the Government in a recent report issued by the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

To help improve the air we breathe and ensure householders choose cleaner fuels, sales of coal and green/wet wood – the two most polluting fuels – will be phased out between 2021 and 2023, giving the public and suppliers time to move to cleaner alternatives such as dry wood and manufactured solid fuels. These not only produce less smoke and pollutants but are also cheaper and more efficient to burn.

Contrary to some media headlines the DEFRA announcement does not in any way suggest or recommend that wood burning stoves and cosy open fires are being banned or ‘consigned to history’ as one national newspaper misreported.

The announcement in fact builds on measures in January’s Environment Bill which will make it easier for local authorities to tackle air pollution in their areas, as well as the government’s £3.5 billion plan to reduce harmful emissions from transport, and efforts to reduce emissions from industry.

According to The Solid Fuel Association the main changes to fuels which apply to England only are as follows:

If you have your house coal delivered by an Approved Coal Merchant (ACM), they will still be able to deliver it to you until February 2023 and nothing will change.

If you previously picked up pre-packed house coal from an Approved Merchant, after February 2021 they will only be able to deliver it to your home. Look out for the ACM logo.

After 21st February 2021 there will not be any pre-packed house coal for sale to pick up and take home yourself. This covers all pre-packed house coal in polybags sold through retailers (including merchants) supermarkets, DIY stores and garage forecourts.

From February 2021 certain manufactured fuels (known as briquettes or ovoids) will no longer be available and after that date only authorised manufactured smokeless fuels will be allowed for sale. There is a wide variety of manufactured smokeless fuels currently on the market.

From February 2021 wood logs sold in small quantities i.e. less than 2m³ will have to have a moisture content of less than 20%.

There is no change to the sale of anthracite as it is a naturally occurring smokeless fuel.

Environment Secretary George Eustice further explained the Government’s position.

“Cosy open fires and wood-burning stoves are at the heart of many homes up and down the country, but the use of certain fuels means that they are also the biggest source of the most harmful pollutant that is affecting people in the UK. By moving towards the use of cleaner fuels such as dry wood we can all play a part in improving the health of millions of people.

‘This is the latest step in delivering on the challenge we set ourselves in our world-leading Clean Air Strategy. We will continue to be ambitious and innovative in tackling air pollution from all sources as we work towards our goal to halve the harm to human health from air pollution by 2030.

‘Similarly, sales of green/wet wood in units of under 2m³ will be restricted for sale from February 2021, allowing for existing stocks to be used up. Green/wet wood sold in volumes greater than 2m³  will need to be sold with advice on how to dry it before burning from this date.

‘In line with feedback from the vast majority of respondents to the consultation, we will also be placing a limitation on the use of manufactured solid fuels for domestic combustion. Manufacturers of such fuels will need evidence that they have a very low sulphur content and only emit a small amount of smoke, with all manufactured solid fuels needing to be labelled as compliant.”

The Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on air quality Professor Stephen Holgate, emphasised the health issues created by air pollution.

“We know that air pollution causes significant health issues across the life course. It is key that the Government does everything it can to improve the air we all breathe. The Government’s announcement on domestic burning is a welcome step forward, and will in time, play a role in reducing the pollution associated with PM2.5.”

PM2.5 refers to atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, which is about 3% the diameter of a human hair.

Wood burning stoves and coal fires are the single largest source of the pollutant PM2.5, emitting twice the contribution of industrial combustion and three times the contribution of road transport.

This form of pollution consists of tiny particles which penetrate deeply into our body, including lungs and blood, and has been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the most serious air pollutant for human health.

Multiple studies by WHO have shown that long term exposure to PM2.5 can cause:

•    lung cancer
•    cardiovascular disease
•    strokes
•    asthma

These effects are amplified in vulnerable groups such as young children and the elderly.

To reduce the damaging effect of domestic burning, the Government will also launch a ‘Burn Better. Breathe Better’ campaign to highlight the negative effects burning solid fuels has on health and the small changes that householders can make.

From an industry viewpoint the Stove Industry Alliance (SIA) has welcomed DEFRA’s announcement. “The SIA emphasises that modern EcoDesign compliant wood burning stoves burning the correct fuel continue to be a very sound environmental heating solution. Eco Design ready stoves produce 90% less emissions than an open fire and are a very low carbon method of heating using a totally renewable and sustainable fuel.

The SIA recommends more accurate reporting on this point as the industry employs over 25,000 people and their future and livelihoods are being put risk by the suggestion that wood stoves are being banned.

Mel Stride, MP for Central Devon whose constituents would be affected more than most by any sanction on wood burning stoves was keen to allay any misconceptions that some inaccurate reports had fuelled.

“The announcement isn’t a ban on wood burning stoves and coal fires, which many rural properties rely on for heating. The move is about the fact that some of the fuels currently used for them are leading to some of the finest, and therefore most harmful, pollutants being released, which are small enough to enter our lungs and bloodstream. By switching to cleaner fuels, we can reduce this environmental hazard while ensuring people can continue to enjoy their wood burning stoves and coal fires.”

Andrew Baker, Managing Director of Rangemoors outlined his company’s approach to the issue. “Many of us, particularly those living in rural areas of the county, rely on our fires and stoves to bring warmth and atmosphere to our homes on cold winter days. But if we want to help protect the environment we have to take responsibility for the fuels we burn and how we burn it.

‘Without doubt, using a wood-burning stove compared to an open fire makes a huge difference. The majority of modern wood-burners incorporate efficient, clean-burn technology which, if used with properly seasoned logs, reduces particulate pollution significantly – up to 80% for example, compared to a stove manufactured 10 years ago. Furthermore, the stove industry has developed ‘EcoDesign Ready’ specifications for wood burning stoves ahead of planned legislation due for implementation in 2022.

‘One of the key issues however, which is essential to consider if you want your wood burning stove to operate at its best and improve on emissions, is the quality of the fuel you burn. Wood should be either fully seasoned or kiln-dried. Experts suggest buying your seasoned logs from a trusted supplier or season them yourself by storing your wood in a dry place for twelve to eighteen months. Well-seasoned logs will have wide cracks in them and if you knock a couple together they’ll make a nice hollow sound.

‘It is recommended that you never burn green or wet wood (defined as wood with a moisture content greater than 20%) as even with the most advanced stove technology, this inevitably results in increased pollution and a stove that is just not efficient. This may sound obvious – but you shouldn’t burn scrap wood from building sites either. Painted or treated wood gives off toxic fumes as well as contributing to particulate pollution. Added to this, just like burning green wood, it can cause tar and deposits which build up in your chimney and can lead to chimney fires releasing noxious chemicals into the atmosphere. In particular, old tanalised wood contains arsenic and should never be used as fuel.”

Elaine Ewer, proprietor of Elaine’s Stoves in Okehampton is equally keen to ensure owners of wood-burning stoves that their appliances are not being banned.

“While the government appears to be unhappy about wood burning – probably due to the fact that they don’t collect any duty or levies on the sale of those fuels – it’s coal which is being removed from the market next year, which is a good step as this is a ‘dirty’ fuel and really should not be used in enclosed appliances such as stoves.

‘Burning a good quality smokeless fuel (a manufactured alternative using by-products from oil refineries and anthracite) is acceptable, but unseasoned (green) or wet wood is something that should never reach the marketplace and should never be burnt on any fire. The sale of this type of product is mainly from garage forecourts or small shops, where there is no proper storage and sales aren’t properly policed.”

What is not affected is the sale and burning of dry seasoned wood while burning kiln-dried wood is even better. It is widely known that a moisture content of 20% or less is perfectly acceptable.  Remember it is the wet and or unseasoned wood that is causing the uproar, the wetter the wood you burn, the more water you are actually putting on your fire making it far less efficient as the SIA infographics illustrates.

Elaine continues: “Wood burning stoves are effectively just a metal box with doors on, it is important to remember that you have finite control of the burn rate. If you close the stove down you will make lots of smoke, which is where the pollution and particulate problems come from.

‘The stove industry in the UK and Europe has now taken the step to increase the clean burning of stoves by introducing the EcoDesign 2022 standard. From this date all stoves sold will have to pass a particulate testing and emissions test. To dispel the myth, this will not apply to stoves already-installed.

‘However, anyone with an older, less-efficient stove (these are usually the two door models that have been installed for several years – even 25 years old in some cases) should perhaps consider changing to a better, more-efficient stove when the new legislation is introduced.”

Not everyone is happy about the new legislation though. CoalImP, the association of UK Coal importers and producers take a different stance to that contained in the DEFRA report and say the Government’s plan to ban the sale of house coal is disproportionate.

Nigel Yaxley, Managing Director of CoalImP says. “Households that rely on domestic coal could see at least a 30 per cent increase in their annual fuel bill if they have to switch to manufactured smokeless fuels.

‘Given large numbers of these households are already below the poverty line, a ban on the sale of domestic coal could see thousands pushed into a position of fuel poverty. The elderly would be amongst the hardest hit by a ban, as 37 per cent of the customers served by coal merchants are aged 65 and over, more than double the figure for the UK population as a whole.

‘If, as CoalImP believes is more likely, some households switch to burning wet wood, pollution will increase dramatically.” Mr Yaxley added.

“Evidence shows that all forms of wood emit more pollution than coal per unit of heat when burnt on an open fire. Even kiln dried wood, falsely described by Government as cleaner, is 25% more polluting in terms of PM2.5 particles.

‘Although Government plans to ban sales of bagged wet wood, it will still be readily available in rural areas where coal is mainly burnt.
The house coal ban is clearly disproportionate because a recent report published by DEFRA confirms that wood is the main problem – causing around 40% of national PM2.5 emissions compared to coal at less than 2%.”

CPL Industries, the UK’s leading manufacturer and distributor of smokeless fuels and dried wood, welcomes the Government’s announcement to ban the sale of coal, wet wood and high sulphur fuels and fully supports Government initiatives to improve air quality.

Tim Minett CEO of CPL industries said, “The UK is one of the most significant solid-fuel home burning nations in Europe and this is a logical step in the fight against air pollution. There is no need for people to stop burning solid fuels, it is about burning the right ones to tackle air pollution.

‘Consumers can easily switch to cleaner smokeless fuels which are 30% more efficient than coal. DEFRA research has shown that these fuels burn longer and have a higher heat output, so they are more cost effective than coal or wet wood.

‘By switching to kiln dried wood or smokeless fuels consumers can reduce particulate emissions by 80%.  This provides a real alternative so people can continue to enjoy an open fire or wood burning stove. Consumers do not have to wait for the ban to kick-in. Smokeless fuels and ready to burn dried wood products are available from retailers and merchants nationwide.”

The final word goes to Simon Chew, Managing Director of Dean Forge in Exeter who says that creating an efficient fire can be quite simple providing a few basic rules are followed.

  1. Do not overload the stove with logs or use
    green or wet wood which can generate
    excessive smoke.
  2. Start by fully opening the primary and air
    wash controls on the stove.
  3. Build the fire slowly.
  4. Start with dry kindling and add dry logs as
    the fire catches.
  5. Leave the primary air control open until the
    fire is established.
  6. Close the primary air control and use the air
    wash to regulate the fire.

The Moorlander wishes to thank the following for their assistance in the production of this article:

Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)  
Erica Malkin, Secretary General – Stove Industry Alliance;
The Solid Fuel Association –;
Tim Minett, CEO – CPL industries –
Nigel Yaxley, Managing Director – CoalImP
Andrew Baker, Managing Director – Rangemoors;
Elaine Ewer, Elaines Stoves and Flues – Okehampton;
Simon Chew, Managing Director – Deane Forge, Exeter
Rt. Hon Mel Stride MP Central Devon.

Image credits: Infographics – Stove Industry Alliance
CPL Industries

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