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Wood burning stoves and solid fuel heating

Solid fuel heating in the form of coal, wood and other biomass warms huge numbers of UK homes. Try our money-saving tips for solid fuel customers.

Updated 29 May 2020  | 3 min read

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Coal boilers and wood burning stoves aren’t just the home-heating sources of a bygone era, they remain common throughout the UK. Modern biomass boilers (which burn logs, pellets or wood chips) can be one of the more forward-thinking heating solutions on offer.

Solid fuel heating is particularly important in rural areas where the mains gas supply isn't connected. In these areas, the widespread availability of wood and other biomass material can make solid fuels the most sustainable and cost-efficient way of heating a property and its hot water.

Key points

  • Solid fuel is typically more expensive and inefficient than mains gas, but worth considering if you’re off the gas network
  • Solid fuel customers can still shop around for the best price to cut energy bills
  • You can cut the cost of solid fuel heating by haggling, collective buying and sourcing your own fuel
  • If you use a biomass boiler you may be eligible to claim Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive  (RHI)  support
  • The government is phasing out the most polluting fuels 

Wood burning stoves

Wood burning stoves are usually used as room heaters to provide heat directly to the single room where the heater is installed. They typically have a glass-fronted door and burn logs. They may have a flue or a chimney which is taken through the property so it emits heat into other areas.

They can be used to heat radiators or hot water if they’re plumbed into your heating system.

Initial costs of fitting wood burning stoves vary depending on whether you’ve got an existing chimney, how it’s lined and whether you plan to heat just one room or use it to heat other things like water.

Advantages

  • Look good and create a great ambience
  • Can provide heating during power cuts
  • Low running costs if you have a free or cheap source of wood
  • Lower carbon emissions than oil and coal
  • Fuel is widely available, renewable and sustainable
  • Fuel prices are relatively stable

Disadvantages

  • Can be expensive to run, particularly if buying kiln dried logs
  • Constant use requires a constant supply of logs
  • Comparatively inconvenient next to gas or electric as you have to fetch fuel, light and clean the fire
  • Increased amount of dust in the house
  • High particle emissions
  • Waste ash must be disposed of properly and safely
  • Storage space is required for bulky fuel
  • Stoves that only burn wood don't tend to stay alight long - although this can be remedied by having the correct damper settings, allowing the stove to burn slowly all night. Multi-fuel stoves burning only solid fuel or a mixture of solid fuel and wood can solve this problem

Biomass boilers

Most biomass boilers either burn wood pellets or chips. In some boilers loading and lighting can be automated and heat can be automatically controlled. For heating your whole house, these are the easiest to use and most popular wood-fuelled boilers.

Biomass boilers are larger than gas combi boilers and you’ll have to make space to store the pellets. The upfront cost can also be high. But with a reduced fuel bill and government schemes such as the RHI available it can be a wise investment.

Money saving tips for wood burners and other solid fuel energy sources

Solid fuel customers need to ensure they keep their own fuel supply topped up so that they have a heating source. Also shopping around for the right price isn't as easy as it is for those relying on the gas network. However, there are still ways to save on energy bills.

  • Get to know your stove or boiler – for example, modern wood burning stoves allow you to limit the oxygen intake. This means wood will take longer to burn and you’ll waste less heat
  • Shop around for your fuel source – research available suppliers, and play them off against each other
  • Haggle with the supplier to get the best price – never assume the price is set
  • Get together with friends and family – making a bulk purchase together could help you save on delivery costs and secure a discount
  • Never miss an opportunity – you might be able to get wood or other biomass for free from your own land or other sources
  • Timing is crucial – buying fuel in summer will typically be cheaper than in midwinter
  • Don’t leave it too late – if solid fuel runs low and you need to organise an emergency delivery, you may need to pay an additional fee
  • Think about how you pay – pay for fuel in the way that works to your best advantage. If you're disciplined enough to pay if off each month, a cashback credit card  could be an option

Can solid fuel customers change their heating source?

If you’re connected to the main gas network then switching to a gas boiler and heating system should be a relatively straightforward - if initially expensive - exercise.

Mains gas should be cheaper than solid fuel. Although this isn’t necessarily the case with biomass. This depends on the efficiency of your system and access to wood and other biomass material.

Switching to gas can also make shopping around for energy more straightforward. It could even add value to your property.

If you’re looking for efficiency, switching to gas for whole house heating while keeping a wood-burning stove to heat smaller areas of your home might be the answer.

If you’re not connected to mains gas, there are other choices:

Electrical heating 

It’s not  necessarily a cheaper option, but it could be more convenient and easier to budget and shop around for. Electric may also be a better long-term option with the rise of time-of-use tariffs, the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) and smart meters .

The SEG encourages people to use renewable energy to power their homes. An SEG tariff provides eligible small-scale, low-carbon generators with money for the electricity they provide to the National Grid.

Initial set-up costs for such energy generation can be expensive. However, off-network households may gain the most from their own hydro, wind or solar power.

Heating oil and liquid petroleum gas (LPG)

LPG shares many of the downsides of solid fuel options and can be an expensive way to heat a home, but oil is certainly an option to consider.

Heating oil is used by 1.1 million UK households  and, although it isn't without its problems, it's considered one of the more affordable options for those not connected to the gas network.

Impact of solid fuel heating systems on the environment

The government’s flagship Clean Growth Strategy  aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the nation by building a lower-carbon future for the UK. With homes accounting for around 13% of the UK’s emissions, solid fuel heating systems are a clear focus.

Burning wood and coal in open fires and stoves makes up 38% of the UK’s primary emissions  of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). While harmful sulphur dioxide (SO2) is also emitted by coal burned in open fires.

The government wants to phase out  the installation of high carbon fossil fuel heating systems, such as oil and coal, in new and existing homes that are currently of the gas grid. Starting with new homes.

It also wants to improve standards on the 1.2 million new boilers installed every year in England and require installations of control devices to help people save energy.

It has also promised to:

  • Legislate to prohibit the sale of the most polluting fuels. Wet wood and house coal are being phased out from 2021 to 2023
  • Ensure that only the cleanest stoves are available for sale by 2022
  • Make changes to existing smoke control legislation to make it easier to enforce
  • Give new powers to local authorities to take action in areas of high pollution
  • Improve awareness among domestic users of the environmental and public health impacts of burning
  • Work with industry to identify an appropriate test standard for new solid fuels entering the market

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