Using an open fire to heat a room has several disadvantages. But, if you have ever sat by one, you know that despite being dirty, ridiculously inefficient, potentially dangerous and quite a lot of work, there’s nothing quite like them. A pity, that.

How we heat our homes has become an increasingly important issue over the past few years as energy costs continue to rise, despite more options being available than a decade ago. Probably the most attractive but at the same time the least efficient way to heat a room (except perhaps for burning the furniture in the middle of the floor), open fires have been with us since our primitive beginnings. Coal and wood are most commonly used as fuel, with peat coming a distant third.

Coal

Coal is a non-renewable resource; it has to be mined, processed and delivered to your door. Since the closure of most of the mines in the UK, coal is now imported from as far away as Colombia, Indonesia, China, Vietnam and South Africa. Additionally, burning coal releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and other toxins – and while it’s true that the CO2 released is merely what was stored while it originally grew as a tree, that was so long ago it might as well be brand new in terms of it’s affect on global warming today. Coal ash is toxic and should not be put on your garden.

Wood

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There's nothing like sitting around an open fire...

Wood is (generally) a renewable resource when used as fuel in the UK although in many instances around the world – cutting down rain forests, for example – it is not. If you can’t grow the wood yourself, it too has to be cut down and brought to your door, but if you are lucky enough to have some spare land available, try planting some willow. Use 50cm lengths, buried 25cms into the ground. If planted the right way up, they will grow – fast! Willow can be harvested by coppicing – cutting off growth at a certain height from which the plant then re-grows. Larger pieces are air-dried in a woodpile for two years, and make good firewood: smaller branches are useful in other ways, such as weaving, garden poles, outdoor furniture and the like.

Using wood for fuel in this way is carbon-neutral, releasing the same CO2 that was stored in the wood as it grew: provided more wood is grown to offset that burnt, the whole process cancels itself out. Wood ash is an important source of lye to those who are interested in soap-making, and can be put on gardens where it adds potassium and raises pH levels. Burning dry wood fast and hot creates relatively little pollution, whereas burning it slowly or when damp creates more.

Cutting wood is not usually a carbon neutral job. Unless you want to expend an enormous amount of your own energy yourself wielding an axe and/or wood saw a chainsaw is the only way to go.

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A tractor-load of cut peat

Peat

Peat is the bed of an ancient bog. Because it takes thousands of years to form it is a non-sustainable resource, and its large-scale removal from peat wetlands is destroying an irreplaceable ecological habitat for many specialist species.

Peat is cut using a peat iron, and left to dry before being used for fuel, in which context it is often called turf. Peat briquettes (made from shredded and compressed turf) are widely used as a smokeless fuel, being cheaper than smokeless coal. It burns cooler and more slowly than either wood or coal.

Open fires – advantages:

  • Open fires look great and are wonderful things to sit around on a winter’s evening.
  • Some fireplaces have a ‘back burner’ allowing you to channel heat to water pipes.
  • If a fire is built up (‘banked’) properly, it keeps warm overnight so you only need to add more fuel the next morning to get it going again – however, banked fires burn slowly and create more pollution as they burn.
  • Older inglenook-style fireplaces are large enough to be used for cooking, heating kettles of water, and even baking bread.
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Fireplaces can be used for cooking, too

Open fires – disadvantages:

  • An open fire can send a hot spark out of the fireplace and onto the carpet, so a fire guard is essential if you’re going to be out of the room for longer than a few seconds.
  • An open fire does not burn efficiently, and so releases an aerosol of pollutant gases and particulates into the atmosphere. Some of this forms soot, clogging the flue (chimney) with soot: this has to be cleaned out at least once a year.
  • Airborne micro-particles also pollute the air in the room: the fireplace invariably becomes a dirty area, the smell clings to fabrics, and asthma sufferers may find their symptoms worse after spending time near an open fire.
  • Starting an open fire is fiddly and it takes time to build it up, so it can be a while before the room feels any warmer. Commercial firelighters make the job easier, but they are toxic and petroleum-based.
  • Fresh fuel has to be brought in by hand every day or so, and the ash removed.
  • An open fire pulls in a phenomenal amount of oxygen, and up to 90% of the total heat they produce is sucked up the chimney with the rising waste gases. This draws cold air in from outside the house, which means that only the area immediately around the fire feels warmer while the rest of the house actually gets colder.
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