Chimneys in the 21st Century

Ask any child to draw a house and inevitably it will have 4 windows, a front door Chimneys in the 21st Century 3and a chimney – often with smoke rising from the pot!

An idealistic image perhaps, but one which epitomises a typical home to the majority of the population. For much of the 20th century, most homes relied on solid fuel as their main source of home heating – often from a simple open fire.  And of course, these homes relied on the chimney to safely remove the products of combustion. Since these earlier times the UK has undergone enormous changes to living standards and the way we heat our homes.

In 1947 when the coal industry was nationalised, the National Coal Board took over 958 working collieries which produced 200 million tons of coal a year.  By 1965 the number of pits had fallen to 483, yet still produced 187 million tons a year due to increases in output per man-shift.  Even the railways used 2.5 million tons of coal a year for their locomotives although this was far less than the 14.7 million tons burned in 1947.

Chimneys in the 21st Century 1As a consequence of ample supplies of cheap oil and natural gas from sources beyond our shores the demand for solid fuel fell consistently year on year until the fuel crisis of 2007.  Due to changes in world markets we witnessed unprecedented rises in fuel oil prices followed by increases in gas prices.  This development also highlighted risks to availability and security of supply from some of the world’s less stable economies.

At that time we witnessed the first changes in attitudes within the marketplace.  Customers had started to enquire of alternative choices in order to reduce heating bills whilst also seeking peace of mind.  The concept of locally supplied indigenous fuel such as coal or wood appealed to many, whilst the prospect of a blazing fire kindled primeval instincts.
Today, the market has moved on – good or bad.

As a direct consequence of Government pressures to address environmental concerns, coal fired power generation is being actively discouraged, despite the fact that until recently we relied upon coal to generate up to 45% of our electricity during the winter months.  Thankfully, we have not endured a severe winter yet and whether renewable can be relied upon to meet any shortfall is yet to be tested.  However, we now rely upon significant tonnages of imported coal and bio-fuels to keep the lights on, whilst economic pressures have forced the closure of our last remaining UK deep mines.

Government pressure to reduce our CO2 emissions has focussed customer’s attention on fuel choices and wood based fuels are now regarded as a ‘green option’.  The surge in demand for ‘wood-burners’ has escalated demand for logs and we now import large quantities of wood from countries such as Latvia to meet customer’s needs.

However, we now enter a new era of unintended consequences.  Having been hounded over fears associated with CO2 and climate change we now face pressures from Europe and beyond over air quality. The past few years has witnessed the publication of a number of reports from academic bodies alerting us to the consequences of a recorded deterioration in air quality, especially in urban areas.  Studies have concluded that much of the problem is as a result of the rise in popularity of diesel engine vehicles and Chimneys in the 21st Century 2wood burning appliances.

The diesel engine problem is directly attributable to government pressure to reduce CO2 emissions from road vehicles with little regard for other consequences. The government must face up to the oil industry and motor manufacturers. A major cause for concern however is the apparent increase in levels of PM2.5, which it is claimed are particularly injurious to health.  These ultra-fine particles are ingested into the lungs and can lead to long term problems. Of greatest significance is evidence to indicate that wood burning contributes about 90% of PM2.5 emissions for all solid fuels burned.  Unfortunately, there is currently little concrete evidence to identify the distribution of wood burning consumers and how this may impact on conurbations throughout the UK.  Further work need’s to be undertaken.

Lastly, as this edition supports National Chimney Fire Safety Week I would draw everyone’s attention to the importance of regular chimney sweeping.  Wood burning increases the frequency for sweeping due to the quantities of fly-ash etc that is carried into the flue system.  Sadly, it is too common for customers to report that their local sweep has condemned the installation due to the lack of sweeping access and the inability to remove the debris from above the closure plate.  Qualified installers should know better.
Jim Lambeth

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