A real fire has been a comfort to people in cold weather since fire was first discovered thousands of years ago. Electric fires and gas fires have become more acceptable in the last 100 years as they are less trouble, more efficient and ‘cleaner’. No form of heating that extracts energy from fossil fuels is environmentally sound, however, and the real fire deserves something of a reassessment.
The problem with a traditional open fire in a grate inside an open fireplace is efficiency; a lot of the heat goes up the chimney, cold air can come down the chimney, particularly when the fire is out, and the fire can be just as ecologically unsound as a gas or electric fire if the fuel being burned is coal. An open fire also needs to be tended – it can go out and then refuse to relight – and it needs to be cleaned out and the ash removed afterwards. Anyone who has lived with an open fire will also realise that although it’s a lovely and romantic way to heat a room, this doesn’t always make up for the extra dusting!
A Real Fire, but not an Open Fire
In order to maximise the efficiency of a real fire, it has to be taken out of the open fireplace and enclosed; having a fireplace converted to take a fuel burning stove reduces drafts and stops heat escaping up the chimney. The stove has to be fitted so that the fireplace is sealed, and the pipe taking combustion gases extends the whole length of the chimney and goes out at the top. There is less chance of draughts coming down the chimney, even when the fire is not in use.
The stove is also usually made of metal, which is a good radiator of heat, and this sits in front of the fireplace, so is more effective at sending heat into the room. The beauty of the open fire remains, because the flames are real, but the heat produced is greater because of the increased efficiency. Calculations have been done to compare multi-fuel stoves with open fires – the stoves have an efficiency of around 65%, whereas an open fire is only 30% efficient.
Having made a real fire more ecofriendly from an energy efficiency point of view, the next consideration is the type of fuel to burn. Coal, which is a fossil fuel, produces a lot of heat but is a non-renewable source of energy. Far better to burn wood, which is a renewable natural resource that can be replenished.
Having a wood burning stove can also be a very good way of disposing of waste wood – with some ingenuity and a bit of effort, it is possible to collect enough wood to keep a stove going for a whole winter by collecting fallen tree branches (make friends with a local tree surgeon), using waste wood from a lumber yard or DIY store, or using old packing pallets and furniture. Skips are a great source of old wood for burning, but make sure you ask the owner first. It is also a good idea to use only raw wood, or wood that is not too treated. Old drawers can be broken up easily, even if you choose not to use the painted or varnished fronts, but fence posts that have been heavily creosoted are probably best avoided.
It is also possible to buy ecofriendly recycled fuels such as blocks made of compressed waste paper. These can be burned easily on an open fire, but it is best to check with the manufacture of a stove to see if this fuel is suitable. Multi-stove fuels should be able to burn it without problems.