Environmental Protection UK Guidance
Solid Fuel Heating
Solid fuel can be a cost effective way of heating your home and providing hot water, particularly in rural areas where mains gas is not available. In recent years interest has grown in biomass heating (wood burning) as an environmentally friendly way of heating homes.
Types of Solid Fuel
Solid fuels fall into two categories – minerals and biomass. Mineral fuels include bituminous coal, natural smokeless fuel (anthracite and dry steam coal), manufactured smokeless fuel and manufactured non-smokeless fuel. The most common biomass fuel used is wood. Wood is available in many forms including logs, manufactured logs (usually a mixture of wood and wax), chips and pellets.
Other mineral and biomass fuels exist, however you should not use these unless you have clear instructions that these can be used in your solid fuel appliance without creating excess pollution and, if you live in a smoke control area, that the fuel has been authorised for use in such areas. Mineral fuels in this category include petroleum coke, whilst biomass fuels are many and varied, for example agricultural and animal wastes.
Burning waste in a solid fuel appliance can produce very high emissions of pollutants, potentially affecting the health of your own household and that of your neighbours. This includes waste wood; wood is often treated and burning this can release highly toxic chemicals (including heavy metals) into the air.
Solid Fuel Appliances
The simplest type of solid fuel appliance is an open fire, however these are not very energy efficient. Closed appliances, such as room heaters and wood burning stoves, are much more efficient. Solid fuel can also be used in cookers, and in more complex systems such as gravity fed boilers that can provide heating and hot water for an entire house.
85% of UK households use natural gas for home heating, making it a useful benchmark for environmental impact. Using coal and other mineral solid fuels for home heating will usually result in higher emissions of both local air pollutants (such as particles and sulphur dioxide) and carbon dioxide (the greenhouse gas) than an equivalent natural gas fired system, and therefore coal fired heating will normally have a higher environmental impact than gas.
With wood fuel the picture is not so clear. Wood is often described as a ‘carbon neutral’ fuel, as the emissions of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere when the wood is burned are matched by the amount of carbon dioxide the wood absorbed when it was growing. There are, however, emissions of carbon dioxide associated with forestry practices, transport and the manufacture of wood fuels. On balance though wood fuels will generally have lower ‘lifecycle’ emissions of carbon dioxide than natural gas.
Emissions of local air pollution from a modern wood fuelled appliance are, however, usually higher than those of an equivalent gas fired appliance. The environmentally friendly choice therefore really depends upon where you live. If you live in a rural area where the air is relatively clean a wood fuelled system may be the best option, whilst if you live in an urban area with poor air quality a gas-fired system may be the best choice environmentally.
With any type of heating system you can minimise your environmental impact by ensuring your homes is as energy efficient as possible. The Energy Saving Trust can provide advice on how to do this, and on any grants that are available to help you.
Smoke Control Areas
Local authorities can declare the whole or part of their district to be a Smoke Control Zone under the Clean Air Act 1993. This means that you will be committing an offence unless the fuel you are using is an approved smokeless fuel, or your solid fuel appliance has been tested to ensure it can burn ordinary fuels without creating smoke, known as exempt appliances.
Wood and ordinary bituminous coal are not authorised fuels, and if you intend to burn these fuels you need to ensure that you are using an exempt appliance. Your installer can advise you which appliances are approved as exempt, you can also check against a list of approved appliances. Exempt appliances are normally only approved to burn certain types of fuel, and it is therefore important that you only burn the correct fuel for your appliance.
Information on the location of smoke control areas, approved fuels and a list of exempt appliances is available at https://smokecontrol.defra.gov.uk/. If you are in doubt as to whether your property is in a Smoke Controlled Area, contact the Environmental Health Department of your local authority.
How Can I Minimise Harmful Emissions When Burning Solid Fuel?
To reduce the amount of pollutants produced from burning solid fuel, make sure you maintain your appliance adequately and ensure fuel is clean and dry. Burning of wet fuel, such as unseasoned wood, will mean that the fuel will burn at a lower temperature and will result in higher levels of emissions, including dioxins, furans, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particles, and nitrogen oxides. Burning contaminated fuel, such as painted or preserved wood, will also lead to higher emissions.
Maintaining Solid Fuel Appliances
The maintenance of solid fuel appliances is very important to ensure safe and efficient operation. Your local fire service web site should contain useful information on minimising risk from chimneys and open fires.
Buying Solid Fuel
When buying coal look for the Approved Coal Merchants Scheme logo. When purchasing solid fuel, the Solid Fuel Association recommends that you always buy from a coal merchant who is a member of the Approved Coal Merchants Scheme. These merchants are fully trained in their trade and are committed to serving the customer. This means that they have agreed to operate and abide by the Coal Trade Code, and will be able to provide information and advice on the correct use of solid fuel.
For wood, the government supports the Woodsure Ready to burn scheme, with the Ready to Burn logo being a guarantee of good quality dry wood.
Tel: 01684 278170
Provides a directory of approved installers, retailers, fuel suppliers and chimney sweeps
The Energy Saving Trust
Tel: 0800 512012
A non-profit organisation that provides free impartial advice on home energy efficiency.