Things to consider when using a wood burner, stove or open fire
Do you own a wood burner or plan to install one? Here’s what you need to know to make better fuel and appliance choices for your wallet and your family’s health.
By Gemma Wilcock | Last updated Mar 23, 2023
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You’d be forgiven for thinking of warm, cosy winter nights when discussing wood burners. For many people, a wood burner or stove provides an alternative option for heating their home, which is especially useful with energy bills at a high and many people feeling the pinch right now. However, burning at home is a major contribution to air pollution, which means it’s important to be aware of how to burn fuel as safely, cleanly, and efficiently as possible.
There’s lots to be mindful of when burning solid fuels in your home. However, it is possible to make better choices that will reduce your appliance’s impact on air quality, your health and the environment. The good news is there are steps you can take to improve appliance and fuel efficiency, from ensuring regular appliance maintenance to storing and burning the right fuels correctly.
This also means you’ll also get the best from your appliance by using less fuel to produce more heat, making it better for the bank balance in the long-term, too.
This year, the Burn Better campaign is encouraging burner, stove and open fire owners to make small changes to how they burn solid fuel to help reduce air pollution and lessen the impact on people’s health. Here are the nine things you need to know to get the best out of your wood burner, with advice from Bruce Allen, CEO of the Heating Equipment Testing and Approvals Scheme (HETAS).
1. Check you live in a smoke control area
“Your friend could be living in a smoke control area so they'd need to burn smokeless fuel…” hiphopapotamuses
If you’re buying or currently own a wood burner, multi-fuel stove, you need to check whether you live in a smoke control area. Whether you do or not will affect how much smoke you can release, as well as the appliance and fuel you should be using.
What is a smoke control area?
A smoke control area is an area where there is a limit on how much smoke you can release from your chimney.
You can only burn the following solid fuels in a smoke control area:
- ‘Smokeless’ fuels: anthracite, semi-anthracite, gas and low volatile steam coal.
- Authorised solid fuels, which you can find on this website.
- Dry or ‘Ready to Burn’ wood if you are using an exempt appliance. You cannot burn wood in an open fireplace. You can check if your appliance is exempt here.
- You must only use the type of fuel that the manufacturer says can be used in the appliance.
How to find out if you live in a smoke control area
- Contact the environmental services at your local council or
- If you live in England, you can check on this map.
It’s best to do these checks before purchasing a wood burner as in England, you face a fine of up to £300 if your chimney releases too much smoke.
2. Look for an efficient appliance
If you are looking to install or replace a wood burner or stove, you’ll need to think about the space you want to heat as this will affect the size and heat output.
Since January 2022, only Ecodesign stoves have been sold on the UK market as they produce lower emissions and are more efficient than older stoves and open fires. These appliances have been designed to allow more air to the fire, so they produce less smoke and work more efficiently.
The main types of burners are:
- Radiant stoves - These transmit heat through the glass door and body of the burner, so are better for smaller spaces.
- Convection stoves - Better suited for larger rooms, these have been designed to suck cold air into the base of the stove. The air heats up as it rises within the stove and then flows into the room.
- Multi-fuel stoves - In these, you can choose to burn more solid-fuels than just wood, for example smokeless coal and anthracite.
3. Only buy ‘Ready to Burn’ fuel
Deciding which wood fuel to burn can be confusing at first. After all, it's not just a case of throwing anything in there. As Bruce Allen, CEO of HETAS, points out: “It’s worrying to see that some people are burning materials that are harmful to air quality and are unaware of the negative impact burning the wrong type of fuels can have on their health.”
Burning the wrong fuels, such as wet wood and traditional house coal releases harmful smoke into the air, which contributes to air pollution and can be damaging to you and your family’s health. Cleaner alternatives like dry wood, and smokeless fuels such as anthracite, produce less smoke and are cheaper and more efficient to burn.
When choosing fuel, make sure you select wood that has a moisture content of 20% or less. Using the correct wood, in place of wet wood fuel, can help to reduce the levels of emissions in the air we breathe. This is better for your appliance, your chimney and reduces maintenance and fuel costs. Allen continues, “I would urge everyone with an open fire or stove to be sure they understand the impact of burning poor quality fuels”.
“By choosing cleaner fuels and looking out for the ‘Ready to Burn’ logo, homeowners can make small changes that will have an impact on improving air quality, your family and neighbours’ health.”
4. Think about wood storage
If you have access to your own wood supply, this can be a really affordable way to heat your home. However, it’s not just as simple as collecting wood and popping it into your burner or stove.
Avoid wet wood entirely
Burning wet wood is dangerous and bad for the environment. It produces more smoke and creates tar deposits, which can damage your appliance and chimney. This can end up costing you more in maintenance as well as an increased risk of chimney fires.
Avoid treated wood
Don’t be tempted to chop up and throw in old furniture too. Treated wood, such as painted, stained or chemically treated wood can release dangerous pollutants, which are bad for your health.
5. Dry your wood at home with the help of a moisture meter
It can be more affordable to buy bigger bags of seasoned wood, which has a higher moisture content, but this needs to be dried at home. Whether you use your own source of wood or buy it in bulk, you’ll need to consider where you will store it.
Wet wood needs to be stored in a dry area and left to air dry for at least two years before burning. It may be worthwhile getting a moisture meter to check it contains a moisture content of 20 per cent or less.
6. Follow best practices when using your burner
As with any appliance, it’s important that you read the manufacturer’s instructions first before attempting to light your burner or stove. If the manual is missing, you can check the manufacturer’s website for online instructions. You should also make sure that you always use the fuel recommended by the manufacturer.
Next, keep all combustibles - including logs - at a safe distance from a hot stove and hearth, and make sure you keep permanent air ventilation grills clear at all times. Do not ‘turn down the stove for the night’ - also known as slumber burning - unless your burner is specifically designed to operate this way. Doing this is both bad for emissions as well as soot and tar build up.
Never leave an open fire unattended without a spark guard, and always use a securely fitted fireguard if you have children or elderly in the household.
7. Get it cleaned and maintained regularly
If you want to keep using your wood burner for years to come, you’ll need to get it regularly serviced. Getting it cleaned once a year will ensure it performs better and uses less fuel to produce more heat.
Allen advises: “Maintenance of your appliance is extremely important too. Don’t skip your annual service and be sure to book your chimney sweep at least once per year. A well-maintained solid fuel appliance will burn more efficiently and safely, helping us all work towards a cleaner, safer environment.”
If possible, get a HETAS (Heating Equipment Testing and Approvals Scheme) approved service engineer to carry out maintenance.
What Mumsnet users say
“We have it serviced and swept and nothing has needed replacing other than the baffle when I broke it..” SnowdropsInSpring
8. Don’t forget your chimney
To ensure your wood burner continues to work efficiently and safely, get a professional to check it and clean it, being sure to get your chimney swept at least once a year. Soot and tar build up inside your chimney. Getting it cleaned regularly lowers the chances of a chimney fire as well reducing the emissions that you release into the air.
To find a registered chimney sweep, you can head to the HETAS, Sweep Safe, or the Federation of British Chimney Sweeps. Alternatively, your stove manufacturer may be able to recommend a professional.
9. The costs of running a wood burner or stove
A standard wood-burning stove, on average, can cost £950 according to Checkatrade. The price of your burner will vary depending on the type you choose and any extra features, such as a cook top or a back boiler.
What Mumsnet users say
“We have one and are having another installed. We already have the chimney and fire surround and hearth. It’s costing £2900 for work, installation, stove (Eco ready) and paperwork, CO alarm. For me it is about controlling what we spend on energy.” LuluBlakey1
According to Checkatrade, the average cost of installing a log burner is £2,000. However, it can cost more depending on the type of burner you go for, the type of chimney you have, and who you get to install it. You may also need to have a flue liner - a tube that is connected to your stove and carries the fumes up your chimney - installed, which can cost around up to £1,700 in some cases.
This will depend on what fuel you will use and how often you use it. It’s more cost effective to buy in bulk, but obviously it will cost less if you have access to your own wood (see tips above on the correct way to dry and store wood).
It’s good to factor in annual costs for keeping your wood burner or stove maintained - servicing can cost around £75, while having your chimney swept is between £50 and £80. Checkatrade advise keeping £100 a year aside for maintenance.
Burn Better is a cross-industry public awareness campaign supported by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It complements government legislation changes which took effect May 2021, phasing out the sale of traditional house coal and small volumes of wet wood (the two most polluting fuels). The campaign raises awareness about the impacts of burning solid fuels at home on personal health and the environment.