Air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). DEFRA also says that many people don't know that emissions in our homes increase our personal exposure to pollution and contribute significantly to national emissions.
Wood-burning stoves are increasing in popularity – partly due to rising gas prices and partly to rising interest in cottage chic. But scientists are concerned about the impact on air pollution.
Read on to find out what scientists and industry bodies have to say, and how you can create a rustic aesthetic at home without necessarily buying a wood-burning stove.
January 2022 marked the end of a transitional period for regulatory change for solid fuel burning appliances – Ecodesign rules regarding wood-burning stoves emission levels and seasonal efficiency are now fully in effect.
Now, only stoves that meet the new requirements can be sold legally in the UK. However, appliances that conformed with the previous requirements and were placed on the market before 1 January 2022 can still be sold legally after the 1 January implementation date.
Ecodesign stoves must adhere to strict criteria around emissions and efficiency.
The emission limits relate to particulate matter (PM), organic gaseous compounds (OGC), carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).
Combustion (the process of burning fuel) can produce tiny PM.
Appliances that burn fuel, such as wood-burning stoves, gas cookers and gas boilers, also emit CO, CO2 and NOx.
Up until December 2021, solid fuel appliances made for sale in the UK were required to meet minimum gross efficiency limits of 65% for basic room heater stoves, when operated at the appliance's nominal heat output, as prescribed within the current UK Building Regulation requirements.
Ecodesign compliant stoves must have a minimum seasonal efficiency of 65%. This is a calculation which takes into account the energy requirements across the year, and the technologies which support and control the operation of the appliance, which can be varied to meet the demands as temperature changes.
Efficiency relates to the amount of energy used to generate heat. A higher efficiency rating means that a stove can produce more heat as a less efficient one by using the same amount of fuel.
The stove's efficiency also impacts the number of logs needed. To produce the same output, an Ecodesign stove will require significantly less fuel (or logs) than an open fire.
Wood-burning stoves also come with an Ecolabel, with a rating from A++ to G.
The new rules only cover solid fuel burning room heater appliances placed on the market from 1 January 2022.
If you have an older stove, you can continue to use it and the legislation does not impact on existing appliances already installed.
However, if it's more 10 years old, you should consider replacing it with a more efficient and cleaner burning one, assuming you still need one. More efficient models use less fuel for the same energy output, so produce fewer emissions and will cost you less when it comes to fuel. Or, if you're not reliant on burning wood and it's more of a lifestyle choice, you could consider switching to a different heating system.
If you live in a smoke-control area, you're only allowed to burn smokeless fuel – such as anthracite coal (a natural or manufactured coal which is considered more eco-friendly than house coal). If you want to burn wood, you'll have to buy a DEFRA-exempt stove.
Wood creates more smoke if it doesn't have a good enough supply of oxygen. DEFRA-exempt stoves make it harder for wood to smoulder and stop it from ever being completely starved of oxygen. So, as well as reducing emissions, it will minimise soot build-up in your chimney. This will keep your flue clearer for gases to escape.
Unlike the requirements for DEFRA Exemption, which only applies to smoke control areas, the Ecodesign regulations apply to the whole country.
Ecodesign legislation isn’t the same as DEFRA Exemption. Also, Ecodesign doesn’t replace the requirements of smoke control areas, so remember to check with your to find out if you’re in a smoke-control area.
Despite these new regulations, a number of scientists remain extremely concerned about the impact of PM on air quality.
DEFRA's Clean Air Strategy states that wood-burning stove emissions are now the biggest source of PM pollution in the UK, making up 38% of UK air pollution.
HETAS and the Stove Industry Alliance (SIA) claimed that this figure is an overestimate and that it includes other types of unregulated burning.
A recent report from DEFRA states that the use of wood as a fuel accounted for 70% of PM2.5 emissions from domestic combustion in 2020.
Between 2010 and 2020, emissions of PM2.5 from domestic wood burning increased significantly, such that they represented 17% of total PM2.5 emissions in 2020. It's not clear what proportion of that 17% came from wood-burning stoves, but it's mainly derived from wood-burning stoves and open fires.
A 2021 report from the European Environmental Bureau also states that even Ecodesign stoves produce a high level of fine PM pollution, which is dangerous for human health.
The government has said it has no current plans to completely ban wood-burning stoves.
Instead, the government has said it wants to educate people who buy and use stoves ensure cleaner fuels are burnt reduce the pollutants emitted by stoves.
Campaign group Mums for Lungs is calling on the government to take much stricter measures, including:
Since 1 May 2021, the following should not be sold in England, but can still be sold in the rest of the UK:
Instead, you should buy wood that has a certificate showing it contains less than 20% moisture. This will be labelled as Ready to Burn.
Ready to Burn wood should show the logo, the supplier's name and its certificate number to prove the supplier is compliant.
Most suppliers are banned from selling small quantities of wood with more than 20% moisture.
Some very small sellers have until May 2022 to stop selling small batches of wet wood.
Or, it's possible to dry your own. You can still buy larger batches of wood to season (leave to dry) at home. Sellers must give you advice with it on how to store and season the wood until it's ready to burn.
Bear in mind that seasoning could take two or more years, depending on how wet the wood is to begin with and the conditions you store it in. You can buy a moisture meter to check the levels.
You can also buy loose house coal until February 2023. There is already a limit in smoke-control areas on burning fuel that contains more than 2% sulphur.
Similar legislation is being considered in Wales and Scotland. In Wales, the White Paper on a Clean Air (Wales) Bill underwent a consultation in 2021, which included a proposal to ban the sale of wet wood and traditional coal. The Scottish Government published the Cleaner Air for Scotland 2 (CAFS2) strategy, also in 2021, which lists the action to look into the potential prohibition of selling certain type of wet wood.
The government is working with industry, including HETAS, SIA and chimney sweep organisations, to tell stove owners about this when they buy fuel or have their chimney swept or maintained.
New rules for minimum efficiency and maximum emission levels for stoves have applied from January 2022. The Ecodesign Regulations mean that only stoves that meet the new limits will be legal to sell in the UK.
During the transition period, SIA worked with manufacturers to create stoves that meet the emissions part of the criteria.
The SIA says these Ecodesign Ready stoves emit fewer harmful particles than open fires and older stoves.
HETAS told us that the HETAS Cleaner Choice Approval Scheme is 'unique in that it doesn’t just trust the notion that self-certified products will be properly certified by their own manufacturers'. It said: 'Manufacturers listed on the HETAS Cleaner Choice Approval Scheme have their website and documentation reviewed and verified with Annex II of the regulations, and it is a requirement of listing to ensure all elements of Ecodesign, including product information requisites, are met.'
Another certification initiative is Clearskies. This is run in partnership with SIA. Stoves are independently assessed for emissions and energy performance. There are different levels, from 2 to 5. Stoves from Level 3 onwards are also DEFRA-exempt and Ecodesign Ready.
If you need to buy a new log burner or multi-fuel stove, look for the Eco Label and choose one that has an energy efficiency of 80% or higher.
Only burn wood with a moisture content of 20% or less: wet wood emits more PM when burnt then dry.
Burning dry wood is more efficient, as energy won’t be wasted having to burn off the water first, so the heat output will be higher.
This also minimises sooty deposits building up in your chimney, which can be a fire hazard.
Never burn treated wood, such as from an old piece of furniture, as it could let off toxic chemicals.
Burning smokeless coal is less damaging to the environment than burning house coal as it produces fewer emissions.
In October 2021, we surveyed 1,375 wood-burning stove owners who had bought a stove in the past 10 years about their experiences – 19% who answered our survey burn smokeless coal regularly, although 2% still use house coal.
Smokeless coal is an umbrella term for a few different types of coal that produce less smoke when they burn. It includes anthracite coal – this occurs naturally, but can also be manufactured.
Manmade smokeless coals can contain a combination of elements, including anthracite and other renewable materials, making many of them more eco-friendly than house coal.
Look for smokeless fuel with 2% or less sulphur, as high levels of sulphur can impact your health, and damage stoves and chimneys.
For smoke control areas, the Clean Air Act 1993 states that smokeless solid fuels mustn't contain more than 2% sulphur.
You should no longer be able to buy pre-packaged house coal in England. Manufacturers of solid fuel must put the Ready to Burn logo on packaging to show that it meets new standards for emissions and sulphur content.
Wood that doesn't have a good supply of air is likely to smoke more, therefore producing higher levels of potentially harmful emissions.
Whether you're burning wood or smokeless fuel, leave the door ajar and open air vents while you're getting the fire going. Once established, use the air vents to keep the fire burning.
Ensure the flue stays at the right temperature throughout use by making sure the fire is constant. Stacking fuel into a teepee shape at the beginning will help.
This will also prevent carbon monoxide – an odourless and potentially deadly gas – coming down the chimney.
It's worth buying a stove thermometer to monitor the temperature. Most stoves should stay between 200°C and 250°C. This can vary for each stove, so check with your manufacturer.
If you are considering a wood-burning stove, remember to have your needs assessed by an independent professional. There are several factors that affect the output you need, such as the size and layout of the room (you’ll need to measure the height, width and length), the size of the windows and whether you have double glazing, if the room has insulation or the age of the property.
Having your chimney swept regularly is vital for ensuring it doesn't get overloaded with sooty deposits. Any obstructions could become a fire hazard and will prevent smoke escaping from your home properly.
You should get it swept quarterly while it's in use if you burn wood or coal. If you burn smokeless coal, you should get it swept once a year.
You should also have your stove serviced annually to make sure it's working efficiently and safely.
Worryingly, 3% of people we surveyed never get their stove swept. However, a high proportion (62%) get it swept annually and 27% do so every few years.
Make sure you also examine your stove for any cracks, distortions or other problems and get them checked by a stove installer or chimney sweep. Any faults could mean harmful pollutants are making their way into your home.
If you're not connected to the gas grid, then you might be reliant on home fires for heating. However, if it's more of a lifestyle choice, there are other ways to incorporate that Instagrammable cottagecore aesthetic into your home decor.
Floral patterned wallpaper, cushions, vases and rugs also help create a natural, soft look that can have a calming effect.
To avoid spending too much, scour charity shops, and ask friends and relatives if they have any decorative plates, flower pots or soft furnishings they no longer want that you could make use of.
Reusing and recycling ornaments means they're authentically retro and is more eco friendly than buying new.