Are wood burning stoves bad for air quality?

For a long time now the word burning stove industry has made the claim that burning wood is one of the most environmentally friendly ways to heat our homes. We don't think that has changed. Recently however, wood burning has come in for some criticism in terms of the impact it is believed to have on the air quality in our cities. However, when it comes to the modern stove we don't think that this is deserved either – but then you would expect us to say that. So let us explain...

Apart from renewable energy, such as solar and wind for example, the production of all energy has some environmental impacts. Burning wood also has an environmental impact, but in fact, responsible wood heating (and there's a lot people doing it) doesn't actually deserve the bad press. Like the bad dog owner who gets the rest of the good guys a bad name, it's those people who burn household rubbish or wet or unseasoned wood in a stove or open fire who have the biggest impact (apart from diesel cars) on our local air quality. It has been estimated by the Government that nearly 60% of all wood which is burnt is burned in highly inefficient open fires.* In addition research by Woodfuel Wales** found that almost half of the logs sold in convenience shops and garage forecourts is unfit to burn as these logs are too wet (up to 45% moisture) and will never fully combust, either in a stove or on an open fire. The fact is that you cannot 'burn' wet wood without creating an inordinate amount of damaging smoke.

We all have a social responsibility to correctly operate our stoves to limit the amount of visible smoke that they produce which in turn will minimise emissions and consequently the potential impact they have on our air quality. It's all about the smoke – but with a little care it's actually very easy for a stove owner to do something about smoke. In our Stove Yard showrooms in Cheshire and County down we can have six or seven display stoves operating at any one time during the winter months and we take great pride in asking some of our customers to see if they can spot any smoke coming from any of our chimney terminals. The good news is that this hasn't happened yet. So what's our trick?

For a start, as you'd expect, our modern display stoves are both clean burning and highly efficient, but most importantly we operate them according to the manufacturer's instructions. We only ever burn hardwood logs that are fully seasoned, with less than 20% moisture content as most manufacturers stipulate, and we hardly ever 'slumber' burn as this will always produce unnecessary particulate-laden smoke from the partly combusted wood.

Incidentally, it's almost impossible to cause nuisance smoke in a Defra Approved stove, providing you're burning seasoned wood and the stove is being fuelled and operated correctly. In addition, the new generation of Ecodesign stoves which are arriving almost daily, and which need to comply with much tougher emission limits than even the Defra requirement, are an even better choice regarding looking after air quality. Ecodesign stoves are proven to produce 90% fewer emissions compared to a conventional open fire and 80 to 84% compared to an old stove.***

To do your bit for air quality, if you can you should choose a Defra Approved or Ecodesign Ready stove, whether or not you live in a Smoke Control Area, and don't ever slumber burn or use unseasoned wood in it. In addition, never burn household rubbish or manufactured woods as this is just as bad for air quality as burning wet wood. Remember, if we all burned renewable wood with consideration then wood will most definitely secure its place in the renewable energy post-fossil fuel world and will continue to provide us with all the cheap bulk heat that we need in our cold Northern European climate. Realistically, for all their amazing benefits, that is something that wind or solar power will probably always struggle to match.

*Department of Energy & Climate & energy Domestic Wood Usage Survey, 1995.
**Woodfuel Wales secret shopper survey of 50 different wood fuel outlets, 2015.
***Stove Industry Alliance, independent tests by Kiwa 2016.