For UK consumers anxious about how to keep their homes warm this winter a cosy fire might seem a handy way of dodging soaring energy bills.
But there is no escape: smokeless fuel prices have risen by more than 50 per cent this year, driven by increased costs of raw materials, shipping and processing.
Imported firewood has doubled in price since last winter, due to the Ukraine war’s impact on supplies and sharply rising international demand. The cost of UK-grown kiln dried logs, the mainstay of Britain’s wood burners, has risen a less alarming 10-15 per cent but increasing costs of drying, transportation and labour mean further price rises are inevitable.
However, since gas and electricity prices have doubled in the last year many householders are finding it worthwhile to turn to their hearths.
Who would have imagined that in 2022 chimney sweeps would be hugely in demand or that the smart wood burner in the corner might now be called on to keep an entire family warm?
“It’s being driven by the energy crisis, people are looking for alternatives,” says Nic Snell, managing director of Hereford-based Certainly Wood, the UK’s largest supplier of homegrown kiln dried logs. “We have a lot of people saying they aren’t going to put the heating on until they really have to. It’s going back to the old days, sat in one room rather than the whole house.”
Chimney sweeps talk on their online forums about the boom in business, as people get chimneys swept or open up inactive fireplace. “One Monday in September I came in to 27 voicemails and 38 email inquiries,” says north east England chimney sweep Ian Welford. His earliest available slot is now mid-January; regulars are already booking for winter 2023. “A lot of customers aren’t putting their central heating on because they’re terrified about how much it’s going to cost them.”
The Stove Industry Alliance (SIA), whose manufacturing members account for 75 per cent of UK stove sales, recently reported a 40 per cent increase in sales between April and June 2022, up from 25,000 to more than 35,000, compared with a year earlier.
So are wood burners and open fires really cheaper? To cut costs, consumers should buy fuel in bulk and buy early. An Ecodesign wood-burning stove, compliant with UK environmental rules, may cost £1,000-£1,500, plus installation. For safety, chimneys should be swept annually, costing £60 each upwards.
Snell says 3-4 metres cubed of kiln-dried logs for a wood-burning stove, enough for evenings and weekends between October and April, would currently cost £600-£650. If you keep the central heating off, this should save you money, although some rooms will remain cold. Alternatively, an SIA analysis indicates that a wood-burning stove, combined with limited central heating, can save £132 per year, a 6.8 per cent saving on heating based on this October’s price cap.
But there is another question: air quality.
Amid concern over global warming and rising emissions, are wood-burning stoves and open fires making matters worse? Much depends on whether consumers adhere to regulations, upgrade stoves and use the latest smokeless fuels.
“If people are burning the right fuels in the right appliance, emissions from these fuels are going to be very low compared to the alternatives,” says Julian Martin, sales director of CPL, the UK’s largest smokeless fuels supplier.
In recent years, the government has introduced measures to cut particulate emissions, including restricting sales of wet wood and coal in England. In UK smoke-controlled areas, covering most urban locations, only authorised fuels can be used. Some local authorities have banned wood burning on open fires with the threat of a £1,000 fine. Dry wood can be used in approved wood-burning stoves
The worry is that some might focus only on saving money, risking the environment and their own safety by burning damp wood, painted and treated timber and furniture and household rubbish. A return of family evenings around the fire might be welcome. But not pea souper fogs.