Wood burners are a more expensive way to heat homes than gas boilers or heat pumps, research shows.
A study found that as well as causing significant health and environmental dangers for the home’s occupants and their neighbours, it is up to 15% more costly to heat a home using a wood burner rather than a gas boiler.
Rachel Pidgeon, of the charity Impact on Urban Health, which focuses on health inequalities in cities and which funded the study, said air pollution from wood burning in the UK had doubled over the past decade, with serious consequences for people’s health.
“This research dispels the myth that wood burning is a cheaper energy alternative whilst shining a light on the toxic effect it has on the air we breathe,” she said. “It’s vital that urban communities understand the connection between burning and the air pollution it creates.”
There was a 40% increase in sales of wood burners between 2021 and 2022. Research shows that more affluent people, attracted by the aesthetic appeal of a fire, are driving that increase.
However, a growing body of evidence highlights the environmental and health damage caused, with scientists saying that people who burn wood are subjecting themselves – and their neighbourhoods – to high levels of the most dangerous small particulate pollution, PM2.5, which can work its way deep into the body, causing a range of severe health issues including heart disease, strokes, asthma and cancer.
Last year, a study from Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, found that even “eco design” wood burning stoves produced 450 times more toxic air pollution than gas central heating, while older stoves, now banned from sale, produced 3,700 times more.
Another study found that wood burning in homes produced more small particle pollution than all road traffic in the UK.
The latest research, carried by Global Action Plan for Impact on Urban Health, found that the perception among the public was often that wood burners at least offered a cheaper source of energy.
However, that was only true when wood was sourced for free, the study found. Experts say scrap wood and wood that has not been properly dried or seasoned is even more toxic and extremely harmful to the health of those who are burning it, as well as to their neighbours.
Lucy Anderson, the head of research at Global Action Plan, said: “Pressures on household finances may be tempting more people towards burning wood because they believe it’s cheaper. But our new research demonstrates that wood burning is almost always more expensive than other forms of heating in the UK.”
The study found that when a household used a newly installed, Defra-approved wood burner for 20% of its heat, the yearly cost, including installation, was £2,028-£2,204 – 24% more than running a typical gas boiler. The cost increased to almost 50% more expensive where a household used newly installed wood burners for 80% of its heat.
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Even where the wood burner was already installed and 80% of the heat was provided by a gas boiler, the annual costs were still 15% higher than gas. In all scenarios, wood burners were more expensive than air source heat pumps.
With winter approaching, a range of organisations including Global Action Plan, Impact on Urban Health and Mums for Lungs are calling for greater awareness of the economic, environmental and health costs of wood burning.
Jemima Hartshorn, the founder and director of Mums for Lungs, said: “Every autumn and winter, people in towns and cities are exposed to extreme levels of toxic fumes from wood burning.” She said children were often the worst hit. “It’s vital people are aware of the strong connection between burning wood and the air pollution it causes, which has lasting, damaging effects on people’s lives.”
Andy Hill, the chair of the Stove Industry Alliance, said: “Keeping warm is fundamental to human health and wellbeing. When bought in bulk, choosing wood fuel means that consumers have a fixed fuel cost for the duration of the heating season. A modern stove, as well as being highly efficient and low-emission, offers a reliable and completely grid-independent way of heating our homes, something an air source heat pump and many gas boilers simply cannot do. At a time when energy security has never been more important, the peace of mind this gives is invaluable.”