Watching flames dance over logs or other dry wood is incredibly mesmerising and relaxing, especially if you know that it travelled just a few hundred yards from a well-managed forest (or a scrapheap). The Environment Centre stove is certainly one of its most popular features, even though it’s inadequate (more on that later). Yet, we would urge anyone wanting to follow our example to think again. Here are just a few reasons why:
Wood stoves are a growing source of harmful air pollution
Cars, deservedly, get a lot of the bad press on air pollution but combustion of any kind contributes to it. What is rarely discussed is what happens indoors where pollution may not get whipped away by the wind. Adding wood into a stove, or even worse open fire, releases harmful gases and particles into the room. A recent study showed wood burners triple the level of harmful particles inside homes when they are in use, and of course they also release those outdoors too. Just like with cars, this may not be a big issue if there were few about. According to the same Guardian article, around 175,000 stoves are sold in the UK every year.
The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change claims that “air pollution contributes to 40,000 premature deaths every year, and 20,000 hospital admissions” – hear more in their video below. Another scientific study shows that it also increases the risk of contracting Covid-19 and mortality rate.
Unless a wood burner is the only practical way to heat your home, the health risks alone, for both you and those around you, are a powerful argument for finding alternatives.
Biomass or wood-burning is often portrayed as carbon neutral because trees absorb carbon while they’re growing and act as a carbon sink in later life. However, even if we double the UK tree cover as proposed by Friends of the Earth – a campaign well worth supporting, it will normally take decades for the natural cycle to balance out emissions going into the atmosphere right now. On a purely practical level, there is simply not enough wood being generated in the UK to fuel many more stoves, especially with insatiable biomass plants such as Drax around, and it may be better used elsewhere. Not only is the UK one of the least forested countries in Europe, it’s also the second largest net importer of forest products after China.
True, there is quite a bit of scrap wood around from palettes or tree surgeons’ “waste”; just not enough for everyone with a stove. One also needs to be very careful that the wood hasn’t been chemically treated or too wet, or you’ll be breathing and releasing even more harmful pollution.
Reducing the need to heat your home is a much better investment
This article by Carbon Co-op goes into more detail on the potentially misleading issue of decarbonisation and why at household level it’s much more productive to focus on reducing energy demand. Good insulation may not have the aesthetic appeal of a glowing stove but its warming (cooling in the summer) qualities work consistently without necessitating continued input of fuel and labour. I would be lying if I said it was simple to achieve as each house is different and requires a tailored approach, including ventilation and moisture management measures. When done well though you will have a home with a comfortable baseline temperature which can be topped up in winter for example with a heat pump.
It could actually easily become too hot if you then used a stove as well. Phil Bixby’s eco-retrofitted Victorian house Local Passivhaus architect Phil Bixby, who’s featured in our York Open Eco Homes, tells me he’d had misgivings about installing a wood stove in his lovingly renovated and extended Victorian end terrace. Now it’s only used maybe twice per winter, which doesn’t make it the best investment.
Aiming for an all year round comfortable temperature while using as little energy as possible by following the ‘fabric first principle’ has a much better impact on comfort, energy bills and reduced carbon emissions. What is more, most stoves will require an external air vent to ensure good oxygen supply and efficient burning, and chimneys or flues can be a great source of heat loss too. This compromises the house fabric which needs to be as airtight as possible to keep your precious heat in so installing a stove in a well-insulated house can be somewhat counterproductive. Its size and other features should certainly be considered very carefully. If a house is actually draughty enough not to need a vent, then doing something about that has a bigger priority than simply chucking heat at it.
The amount of storage and labour required to keep a stove going is also worth considering. Chopping and lugging wood around may sound fine now but is much less appealing if your back is aching, or when your neighbours complain about a fire risk from your log or palette piles.
When the Environment Centre opened in 2000, gas connection was inappropriate for a building that aimed to be carbon neutral. Not being very close to the grid, it would also have cost a lot of money. Heat pumps were not proven in the UK then, so a well-insulated (not by today’s standards), passive solar design for the building and a wood burning stove were the chosen solutions. Over the years it’s become clear that the building is not performing as well as it was designed to and we know the building loses quite a lot of heat through air infiltration. The stove doesn’t tend to keep us warm enough because it’s often only on a few hours of the day, taking a while before it starts making a clear difference when it’s almost time to go home. It might have been a good idea for a pioneering eco building in 2000 but now it’s time for better (heating) solutions. We’re planning to upgrade the Centre when we can, which will most likely mean a goodbye to the stove. I’d recommend thinking twice before you bring one into your home, especially if you’re in an urban area – you can do better than us, both for yourself and the planet.
Post written by Sustainability Officer Ivana Jakubkova