Wood Burning Stoves

This article relates to all aspects of owning and using wood burning stoves in the home in the UK.

Decline of fireplaces in the home in the 1960s and 1970s

Prior to the advent of central heating in the 1960s, the way most people heated their homes in the UK was via coal fires. This gave rise to problems of air quality in urban areas – the London smogs are a famous example. To combat this, the government had to legislate to restrict the practice of burning coal both by industry and by individual households 1). This legislation coinciding with the introduction of gas central heating in British homes, and as a consequence the boarding up of fireplaces became the norm. In the 1970s and 1980s people normally heated their homes via radiators driven from gas central heating, and in some cases installed gas fires to supplement this. This was thought of as “modern living” and noone wanted the effort and inconvenience of using solid fuel any more. The use of open fireplaces to burn either coal or wood became a rarity and log burners were virtually unheard of.

Restoration of Fireplaces

However, in the last decade or two, fireplaces have become fashionable again. The fireplace is the heart of the home, and the removal of so many fireplaces during the 1970s and 1980s removed the focal point of the room which sadly was all too often was replaced by a television set. But recently there has been a reaction against this and more and more have been trying to inject character back into their homes. One of the principal ways in which this is done is by restoring the fireplace.

In many cases people have turned to wood burning stoves rather than a return to burning coal in an open fireplace. There are several reasons for this.

  • Although not every region of the UK is covered by the Clean Air Act 2) in population centres where the act is in force it is not permissible to burn coal, although there are various (expensive) smokeless alternatives available 3). However, it is possible to burn wood so long as you have an approved stove 4)
  • Coal is dirty stuff which people don’t like to handle.
  • Suitable storage for coal is difficult to provide. Storage is also required for wood logs, of course, but logs are clean and can be easily stacked and stored in a small wooden shed. Coal really requires either a cellar, or a coal bunker into which the coal emptied from the sacks in which it is delivered through an opening in the top.
  • Safety. The burning material is fully enclosed by a wood burner so there is no danger of a house fire accidently being started when the fire is left unattended, and is in general less of a hazard for small children. It is, however, necessary to get the chimney swept at suitable intervals (at least once a year) to prevent the build up of soot which could, potentially, start a chimney fire.
  • Eco credentials. Although burning wood releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it is still regarded as “carbon neutral”. This is because the trees that are planted to provide the source of wood for burning will absorb the same quatity of CO2 from the air while they are growing as will be released when the wood is burnt. This is an important consideration for many people although not for me – see A Personal View of Climate Change

My experience of Log Burners

For the whole of my life, until recently, I have lived in houses heated by gas fired central heating, although my Grandparents always had a coal fire. My Grandfather, in fact, worked for the coal board as an account for many years, and when he retired in 1970, a free supply of coal (however much he could use) formed part of his pension. It is little wonder he continued to heat his house for the whole of his retirement by coal (even when this became physically difficult for him to manage). The exercise clearly did him no harm as he lived well into his 90s. Perhaps what my Grandfather should have done, in view of this free supply of coal, was to install a coal-fired Aga 5) . Then both cooking and heating could have been free.

Because of my familiarity with open fires in the home, from visiting my Grandparents, I have always liked the idea of having a fireplace in my own home. A few years ago I decided that the time had come to do so. As my daughter was just a toddler at the time, I decided that a log burner was appropriate for safety reasons.

Having owned one, I would certainly never wish to be without one again. On a cold winter’s night, there is nothing cosier than sitting by a real fire. You can turn the television off and maybe put on some music. The fire is an entertainment in its own right. Sometimes I try and read a book, but unless it is a particularly good story I usually find myself just watching the fire instead.

When we moved house recently, a log burner was high on the list of requirements (if we had not been able to find a house with a log burner, the suitability of the property for installing one would have been critical). As it turned out, the house we chose has not one, but two logs burners – one in the living room and one in the dining room.

Here is the stove in the Dining room.

diningstove.jpg

And here is the living room stove. You can see that it has obviously had a lot more use recently!

livingstove.jpg

It is the stove in the living room that gets by far the most use. It takes time to get the fire going well, and needs regular attention to put on new logs from time to time, and adjust the position of logs to help it burn better. So really it is only worth lighting the fire if you are intending to be in the same room for a few hours. Usually this is not the case with the dining room.

Practical considerations

Choosing your Stove

Wood Burning Stoves may be constructed out of either Cast Iron or Steel. When choosing between them take the following into consideration.

  • Price. Steel stoves are generally a cheaper option.
  • Heat. A Cast Iron Stove will take longer to heat up than a steel stove. Thus for immediate heat to warm up a room quickly, a steel stove is a better choice. Cast Iron stoves take longer to heat up, but correspondingly continue to radiate their heat for longer after the fire has died down.
  • Steel stoves can apparently sometimes warp, and are considered of poorer quality than cast-iron stoves.
  • Cast Iron stoves have the edge aesthetically.

Stoves may also be “Multi Fuel” or true log burners. A multi fuel stove allows you to burn other types of fuel (such as coal) in addition to logs. The base of the unit will have a grate and there will be an ash collection box beneath this. A true log burner on the other hand has a solid base on which the logs burn. There is no grate or ash collection system. When logs burn they produce very little ash and if you have a true log burner you will normally just light a new fire on top of the small amount of ash produced by the last fire. Only occasionally will you need to clear out the ash. I would choose a multi-fuel stove rather than a true log burner. They are just as good at burning logs, and give you the flexibility to burn other fuel should you ever decide to do so. It is also possible to purchase an arrangement in which a wood burning stove is used to heat a back boiler and hence replace gas boiler central heating. 6) This can be a sensible option where mains gas is not available, but in the main this one is for eco-warriors.

Starting the Fire

You need to get used to particular quirks of your particular fire to get the best out of it. However, I would make the following general suggestions.

  • Be generous with the amount of kindling you use. If you use too little the fire will appear to start well for the first 15 minutes, but may die down before the larger logs have had a chance to take.
  • Use a firelighter rather than relying on screwed up paper.
  • When the fire is first lit open both the primary vent (beneath the grate) and the secondary vent at the top of the stove. As the fire takes hold, gradually close the primary vent but leave the secondary vent open. When the fire is fully established use the secondary vent only to control the rate of burn.
  • If burning coal, on the other hand, the secondary vent can be closed and the primary vent left open. For a coal fire use the primary vent to control the rate of burn.
  • It may be tempting to open the stove door, and I do in fact do this from time to time. However, you will find the stove does not burn as well like this, and after a while you will need to shut the door again.
  • If the fire has not taken properly or is not burning as quickly as you would like (even with all the vents open) then adding some kindling on top of the larger logs is surprisingly effective.
  • In very cold weather, and particularly if you have not used the stove for a number of days, it is possible for a “plug” of cold air to develop in your flue. This can have the unfortunate effect of rejecting the smoke when the fire is first lit and pushing it back into your living room. This can be very unpleasant. If your installation is prone for this happening, a good tip is simply to light a single firelighter and place it in the stove on its own and allow it to burn. Very little smoke should be released into your room, and after 5 minutes or so the cold plug of air should have cleared allowing you to light the fire as normal.

Log Purchase and Storage

Your stove will perform best burning good quailty hardwood logs – particularly beech and ash logs. Above all you need to make sure the wood is well seasoned – which means it has been left for a season to dry and all the sap to escape. If you try to burn unseasoned wood the fire will not take very well, will keep going out, and you will also get a much quicker build up of soot in the flue.

If you have sufficient storage and are organized enough, it is cheaper to purchase unseasoned logs and keep them for a season before burning. The logs needs to be split to season effectively, but this is normally how they are sold. I would not consider buying unsplit logs in any case – the work required to split them is too great. There is a saying that “logs keep you warm twice”, referring to the effort need to cut and split the wood. However, for me the effort of stacking and carrying the wood from storage to the fire is quite enough to qualify for having kept me warm twice.

There are plenty of places that will sell you a log store that is partially open to the elements 7) . I would not recommend these as there is the obvious likelihood of your fuel getting wet. You want to keep the logs as dry as possible.

I have bought a cheap wooden shed which is designed as a cycle store. It is about 6 foot wide by 3 feet deep and about 4 feet high, with big doors that open fully out at the front 8) . I can store enough wood for my needs for the whole winter in this.

Costs

Stove Purchase and Installation

The cost of stoves varies from a few hundred pounds to several thousand depending largely on the size of the stove. But be aware that installation of the stove is likely to cost a significant amount. This will depend on what is required for your particular building. When I had a stove installed in Henley, the fireplace had to be opened up (meaning the knocking out and removal of several sacks of bricks was needed). The flue was inserted into the existing chimney. The total cost was nearly £3000, of which only £1000 was the cost of the stove inself.

Wood

In article Heat your House For Free the author talks about using a log burning stove and finding a supply of wood at no (financial) cost at all. The author seeks out neighbours, friends and nearby businesses with wood they wish to dispose of. He then has to collect, split and store the wood for use in the log burning stove.

I am sure the author is successful in doing this in the part of America in which he lives. Unfortunately, the situation is not the same here in the U.K. In Britain, wood is a valuable commodity. Tree surgeons and landscape gardeners will not give away any wood generated from cutting down trees – they will be selling it. You will also be extremely lucky to find a friend or neighbour with a supply of unwanted wood. The fact is that log burners are extremely popular in the UK as much for their aesthetic qualities as their practical value in heating the home (although this popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon), and as a consequence the wood is expensive.

In the 4 years I have owned a wood burning stove, I have seen the price of pre-seasoned and split logs increase by about 50%. It is in fact quite difficult to compare the cost of the logs from different suppliers as there are different ways in which the quantity of logs is measured. Measurement may be

  • By weight (ton or tonne)
  • By volume (cubic metres). Some suppliers provide the logs ready stacked – if so the volume for a comparable quantity of unstacked logs will be much higher
  • By “load”. This usually is a measure of the size of the pick-up truck or lorry used for delivery and so is different for every supplier. However, what I can say from having followed the prices offered by different suppliers is that they have all increased recently.

There is a device you can buy 9) which allegedly allows you to create logs for your stove out of your junk mail and old bits of cardboard. I am somewhat sceptical about this, but as the device is cheap I have bought one and intend to make myself at least a few of these “logs” during the summer to find out how good or bad they are.

Will it save you money?

In my experience, a log burning stove is cost neutral. The installation cost (as mentioned above) is high, but you will have correspondingly increased the value and saleability of your home. True, you cannot realize this benefit until such time as you move house. But it is worth mentioning that when I sold my home in Henley, one of the things my purchaser was very interested was the log burner. I cannot say for sure that I got a higher price for my property than I would have done without the wood burner, but I can say for sure that it assisted with making the sale.

The wood is increasingly expensive these days, but you do have the benefit that you are only heating 1 room. I find that my combined gas and wood bill is comparable to my gas bill previously (allowing for the significant increases in gas prices that there have been over the last few years).

Conclusions

In my view the ideal scenario is a log burner that complements, rather than replaces, a gas central heating system. With both together you have the best of both worlds. Your gas central heating provides instant warmth to every room in the house without any need for carrying fuel. Your log burner can be used to provide cosiness and heat to a single room (eg the living room) when you do not require to heat the rest of the house.

Ultimately, for me at least, the wood burner is there for aesthetic rather than practical considerations. I have no doubt that I would continue to use the wood burner even if the running costs were significantly higher than using the gas central heating.


Home | Lifestyle


QR Code
QR Code wood_burning_stoves (generated for current page)