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Ban open fires in cities

Air pollution in cities like London needs to be improved. There has been hype in the Media about DEFRA or the Mayor of London banning wood burning stoves, but that's not what either have been saying at all. 'Banning Stoves' just makes a slightly sexier, more memorable headline. Unfortunately its a bit of a distraction from actually tackling the issue.


There are various causes of particulate emissions from burning wood and coal in Smoke Control Areas and they are mainly due to:

Particulates from stoves have been overestimated

The information used to estimate how much stoves contribute to particulate emissions was based on a survey of 1000 stove users back in 2017. This has now been repeated, but with 10,000 stove users. The results of this more recent testing seem to suggest that the older figure was overestimated by more than double. Older testing equipment also has a hard time identifying the particulates that come from wood as opposed to other sources. Newer equipment is far more accurate. None of this says that there isn't a challenge to deal with - there is. It just suggests that the contribution of stoves is lower than previously thought and it highlights that more testing work needs to be done to get an accurate handle on the figures.

Our simple Suggestions

We have some very simple suggestions for improving air quality in smoke control areas. New Ecodesign Ready stoves burn very cleanly indeed and form part of the solution but the lion's share is of course down to existing open fires and older stoves and these need to be dealt with to have any significant effect on air quality. Our suggestions go further than we think DEFRA are planning to. We have already responded to DEFRA's air quality consultation encouraging them to go further, we have communicated with them directly and via various technical boards which we are members of. Our suggestions are:

Below I go into a bit more detail on some of the reasons behind our suggestions.

Ban open fires in smoke control areas

Open fires are not much of an upgrade to burning stuff in a pile outside. The fuel doesn't get very hot like it can in a stove and so quite a lot of it doesn't burn properly. That means that you get much more smoke, or particulate emissions. Its currently legal to burn smokeless fuel on an open fire in a Smoke Control Area, but illegal to burn wood. An open fire is literally open to the chimney. That means that loads of air is sucked up the chimney every second - I mean over 25lts/second. So that's 25lts of heated air disappearing up the chimney every second and being replaced by cold air from outside. Whilst you might feel warm sat in-front of the open fire it could actually be cooling your home not heating it. Typically an open fire will run at -20% to +20% efficiency. The upshot is that not only will an open fire make a lot of smoke but it is not going to warm you up much (if at all) so you will burn it for longer making the problem worse.

Ban bonfires and use of fire pits in smoke control areas

This one is pretty obvious really. Both are very poor ways to burn fuel, and municipal dumps exist to get rid of garden waste, etc.

Ban older existing stoves in smoke control areas: upgrade or remove

Most stoves in Smoke Control Areas will tend to be older, less efficient models. A minimum benchmark standard should be set for these (in much the same way as older vehicles are banned from low emission zones in London). They should be upgraded or removed if they do not meet the benchmark. An optional scrappage incentive could be a 5% VAT rate for the newer cleaner replacement.

Gain control by making sweeping and registration to a central database compulsory

Although burning wood on an open fire in a Smoke Control Area is not allowed there is no effective control so it still goes on. Chimney Sweeping should be mandatory in Smoke Control Areas and if it were then this is a great opportunity in many ways. The sweep should then register each stove or open fire that is being used and swept in each property, what is being burnt, the general state of the chimney. This then provides a key opportunity to allow for regulation. Its also much safer to make sure that chimneys in built up areas are regularly swept and maintained. A chimney fire in a terraced house can have far bigger consequences than in a detached rural home.

Insurance companies should then be liaised with and asked to pass on that the house is not insured for chimney fire if there is no up to date register of sweeping - which would certainly provide motivation to the homeowner. This is also overall a very low cost solution to controlling the situation. Apart from a minor change in legislation all that is then really required is a centralised database for registration.

Provide training for stove owners.

When the sweeps visit they can then provide some training to the household, especially if there are signs that the stove is being used badly. They could also potentially leave leaflets and information books with the household.

Mandate the use of certified fuels only in smoke control areas

Burning wet fuel is not only inefficient; it also creates a lot of smoke and particulate emissions even if you burn it on a super duper modern stove. There is an existing standard for firewood overseen by WoodSure. You should only be allowed to buy certified dry firewood in a Smoke Control Area.