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Open fire heating – the pros and cons

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

wood fire, image

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.

peat, image

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.
fireplace, image

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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10 Responses to “Open fire heating – the pros and cons”

  1. Compostwoman says:

    Which is why we use a woodburner…..

    powered by our own wood, of course!

  2. Hi this is a great article.

    You are right that open fires really don,t make any rational sense. They are not really sustainable, dirty, messy, a lot of work and generally not warm enough to heat a house. Yet I still get asked to install them all the time and I’ve lost count of the blocked up chimneys I’ve been asked to unblock and get working again. I think you got it right: the phsycological comfort of being able to stare in to a roaring blaze and warm your hands outweighs all of the disadvantages – especially in these economically depressing times! Thanks.

  3. dai from sengenydd says:

    Might be a silly question but can you use a.xoal fire as.a.wood burner I have recently just purxhaced a house which still has a xoal fire intall all the effort of lighting etc inst a.prob my line on work is a supervisor of a.carpentry team so have offcuts coming out of my ears lol

    • Mark Gatter says:

      Hi – I’m going to assume you mean ‘coal fire’, but you don’t say if it’s an open fireplace or a stove. If it’s a stove, a ‘multi burner’ will be able to deal with wood perfectly well, and usually if it’s able to deal with coal it can deal with wood too. If in doubt, check with your local stove shop and they should be able to identify the model. Open fires just burn whatever falls into them, so again no problem. If you generate wood ash, you can use it on the garden – but don’t use coal ash as it will poison the earth!

  4. Roy Hepper says:

    I grew up as a kid with an open fireplace and can still remember the cold nights sitting round a roaring fire with Mum when Dad was on nights …… nothing can compare to the feeling of contentment open fires give but as you so rightly say they are dirty and impractical and I love them. Great article though. Thanks.

  5. Kelvin Cooling says:

    As a Gas engineer for over 30 years and advocating modern boilers with efficiency of 93% plus, I am embarrassed to admit I long for the times I remember spending time down auntie loo’s lumps of coal the size of a football and me with a hammer smashing seven shades out of it! You can imagine the end results!
    Gas lights still operable and me 55 years ago Building open fires in the living room fire place , great toast!

  6. Tim Beals says:

    Can’t beat an open fire , the whole family fight for prime position
    And better still it costs nothing I have an endless supply of builders supplying old wood from jobs which in turn would of gone to landfill so environmentally effiecent , as long as you don’t burn treated wood , old wood is well seasoned and burns great , it’s free it’s comforting and I can clean out the fire in minutes all this rubbish of messy and dust and cleaning out total nonsense , takes 2 mins to clean unless your one of those dis functional idiots

  7. Peter Pickford says:

    Just had the coal effect gas fire removed and installed a grate.
    Bought all the accessories and had the first open fire last weekend. I accept all the downsides but sitting there with the family toasting crumpets. Heaven!

  8. Great web site you’ve got here.. It’s difficult to find quality writing like yours nowadays.
    I seriously appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!

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