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The open fire is a tradition that adds warmth and atmosphere and, with a back boiler, can provide heat for the house, but is inefficient, releases CO2 and can contribute to respiratory illness. Photograph by Freepik

The big question: Should we keep the home fires burning?

Given the twin issues of respiratory health and climate change the much-loved tradition of lighting the fire in our houses has come under the spotlight. Bridget Ginnity asks if we should keep the home fires burning

IN these cold dark evenings, sitting around a fire brings a glow of comfort. There’s something almost hypnotic and primitive in looking at flames. A fire is also practical in these days of high electricity costs.

Over 60% of homes have domestic fires and it can be a cost effective way of heating the house, especially with a back boiler.

But is our grá for the home fire damaging the environment? It is estimated that about 1,400 people in Ireland die prematurely each year due to air pollution, mainly fine particulates, and blame for some of that pollution is placed on domestic fires.

In addition to pollutants, carbon dioxide is generated from home fires. Carbon dioxide causes global temperature increases and the climate disasters we see all around the world. But we have to heat our homes some way and does our little fire in the living room have an impact?

Open or closed

Most of us have been reared with open fires and love them. Many feel you don’t get the same heat and ambiance from a stove and the cost can be off-putting as well.

About 70% of the heat from an open fire goes up the chimney though – that is literally burning the money you’ve paid for fuel.

And when the fire is not lighting, the draught is the same as having a window open in the room all the time – not a great idea if you have radiators on.

By comparison, a modern stove sends much less heat up the chimney, typically 20%, and radiates it into the room instead. So you save money plus have the added safety advantage that fuel can’t fall out of the fireplace.

Not only is the heat loss reduced but the particulate emissions that cause pollution are dramatically less than those of an open fire – about 90% less.

And the big plus is that you reduce your carbon emissions to up to a quarter of those with an open fire. So if you can afford the initial cost of a stove, it’s hard to justify keeping the open fire.

What to burn

Forest fires, heatwaves, floods, blizzards – climate chaos rages around the world at a rate faster than most scientist predicted.

When we burn fuel in our homes, we fuel the climate chaos. Given that it will be a while before most of us no longer need fires for home heating, what is the best fuel to burn from a climate standpoint – coal, peat or wood?

Coal, whether smokeless or not, is a fossil fuel. That means that it has taken millions of years to form. When we throw a few lumps on the fire, the carbon built up over millions of years is released in about one hour.

Smokeless coal is put forward as a less polluting alternative, but the climate impact is exactly the same as smoky coal.

Peat is also a fossil fuel and actually releases more carbon than coal for the same heat output.

The new solid fuel regulation included a ban on turf and left many inflamed. Fond words were said about the smell of a turf fire and the tradition of footing turf.

There was a lot of hot air as well though as the regulations do in fact allow for small scale use, once it is not sold from shops or by public advertising. So you are still permitted to burn turf but if you have a choice, is it the best one?

The burning of fossil fuels for heat, energy and transport is the main cause of the climate crisis and the main solution is to stop burning it.

In Ireland, home heating accounts for about 12% of our national carbon emissions and about quarter of that is from solid fuel use.

If you can avoid burning coal, turf sods or peat briquettes, you avoid release of fossil carbon and take a small step towards a low carbon world.

Is wood good?

So is wood an environmentally friendly alternative? Wood is considered a renewable fuel. The carbon it releases when it is burned has only been built up over the time of the growth of the tree, a flash compared with coal and turf. But some wood is “greener” than others.

Burning wood from ancient trees and forests is not good for the environment, both because it has taken decades and possibly hundreds of years to form and the loss to the natural world is immense.

If you know the source of your wood is young, fallen or waste trees, you can be confident that the carbon footprint is low, almost zero.

The convenience of wood is improved now with a range of wood briquettes on the market. Prices of all fuels vary widely these days and wood may not be the cheapest option, but it is far and away less costly than coal or turf in terms of impact on our climate. It is time for us to place value on that.

But life is never simple, and there is another concern, the health impact.

The air we breathe

The Clare Champion has reported previously that air pollution levels in Ennis are among the highest in Ireland for similar size towns, comparing it with levels in Beijing.

Three pollutants are measured continuously at Waterpark House in Ennis. The one with the worst health effects is called fine particulate matter (PM 2.5).

These are invisible particles, both solid and liquid, that can get deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream and cause cardiovascular and respiratory health effects.

The term PM2.5 refers to Particular Matter that is about 2.5 micrometers in size. Other pollutants measured are inhalable particles (PM10) and sulphur dioxide. The main source of particulates in Clare are solid fuel burning and traffic.

Monitoring data Ennis is available online. Calculating the annual averages for 2022, PM10 and PM2.5 were 50% and 80% of the limit values respectively.

For PM10, there is also a daily average limit that can be exceeded no more than 35 days per year. In 2022, the daily average was exceeded on about 24 occasions, which is within the limit.

These exceedances were mainly in January and December when we had cold, calm, dry weather. Sulphur dioxide levels were well below the limit values.

Air pollution is not an issue in rural parts of the county, where there is lower housing and traffic density.

Is Ennis as bad as Beijing? Pollution in Beijing has improved significantly over the last decade and the PM2.5 annual average measured at the US embassy for 2022 was two and a half times greater than Ennis.

Comparison between single measurement locations is limited though and other data shows that air quality in Beijing is a lot worse than Ennis, which is hardly surprising.

What’s the source?

The concentration of PM2.5 is highest during the winter months and in the evenings. This indicates that it may be related to household heating rather than traffic emissions, although other weather related phenomena could also explain that pattern.

The amount of particles emitted varies quite a bit with the solid fuel type. Peat sod emits more than six times the amount of particles as dry wood, which emits the least.

Coal emits about 2.5 times more than wood. You would expect smokeless coal to emit less than smoky coal but laboratory measurements show they are exactly the same.

This is also found with PM2.5 measurement results in Ennis. The four-year average before the smoky coal ban in 2013 was actually slightly lower than the level in 2022 – 13μg/m3 compared with 16μg/m3.

Wet wood gives rise to similar levels as coal and that is why the moisture content is specified in the new solid fuel regulations.

PM2.5 is a crude measurement, it is simply the weight of the particles. It gives no information on the chemicals that the particles are composed of which in turn depends on the source.

A recent review by the World Bank concluded that the health risk is not the same for all particles. The particles that are most toxic are from fossil fuel combustion, particularly coal and traffic emissions, especially diesel.

They conclude that it is better to focus reduction efforts on fossil fuels because it benefits both the air quality and the climate impact. Dry wood is the best choice of solid fuel to burn from both a health and climate perspective.

Bringing it home

There are also concerns raised about the pollution inside the home from fires. These health problems are mainly found in countries where fires are used for cooking, and it’s a long time since that was common in Clare.

If indoor air quality is a concern in your household, stoves generate less particulate pollution indoors than fires.

A very real concern with all fires is the silent killer, carbon monoxide. Airtight houses, poorly burning fires and leaky ducting can all contribute to dangerous levels.

The solution is simple and cheap – a carbon monoxide alarm. The market leader, EI Electronics, is on our doorstep in Shannon, so you can even buy local.

Is it worth doing anything?

Most of us don’t have the time to delve into the climate arguments for and against domestic fires and other issues like electric cars and renewable power.

When we hear contradictory opinions, as we often do, it’s tempting to ignore the problem and continue doing what we have always done. Yet what we have always done is leading to climate collapse which in turn will lead to societal collapse. So the stakes are high and we need to change.

The core advice on domestic fires is crystal clear. We need to stop burning fossil fuels as much as we can and as soon as we can.

Until we all have perfectly insulated homes and renewable electric heating, getting rid of the domestic fire is not an option for many.

Wood is a much better alternative than the fossil fuels of coal and peat. Trees from ancient woodland are best left alone and not chopped down to burn.

Regardless of the source of the fuel, we can reduce fuel use by using modern stoves instead of open fires and by insulating our homes as well as we can.

It doesn’t have to be a complete retrofit, even heavy curtains and blocking draughts can help. Grants are available for large and small jobs and information can be found from SEAI.

We can enjoy a cosier home with lower fuel bills, lower polluting emissions and lower carbon emissions.

The wider question is whether something as trivial as the fuel we throw on our fire will make a difference to the climate problem, when the global problem is so enormous. Maybe or maybe not, we can’t be sure.

But we can be sure that doing nothing will achieve nothing. And can we expect politicians to act if we resist change? More importantly, can we face the next generation and tell them that we didn’t even try?

About Bridget Ginnity

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