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New rules on solid fuel in the United Kingdom

The joys of a solid fuel stove or an open fire is something that has warmed the cockles of many a heart for centuries. From the time when the first humans discovered fire, we have made use of it to keep warm, cook and later discovered many other uses for it.

Apart from heating and cooking, we have used fire to repel predators, be it large or small like the mosquitoe. We have used fire to boil water to make it safe to drink and even to fashion weapons for hunting and defence. There is no doubt, fire is our friend, but it can also be deadly and the fumes from some fires can be our worst enemy.

What is the problem with burning solid fuels?

The simple answer is, there is only a problem when the wrong solid fuel is burnt and the government has been forced to act because the air quality was being affected by certain solid fuels being burnt in the domestic setting.

New government restrictions on coal and wet wood as a solid fuel

Restrictions on the sale of coal, wet wood and manufactured solid fuels for burning in the home have come into force from 1 May 2021.

Burning at home, particularly with traditional house coal or wet wood, is a major source of the pollutant known as PM2.5. This pollutant gives off tiny particles which can enter the bloodstream and lodge in lungs and other organs. PM2.5 has been identified by the World Health Organisation as the most serious air pollutant for human health.

People with log burners such as solid fuel stoves and open fires can still use them, but will be required to buy cleaner alternative fuels, if they are not doing so already. These fuels would be dry wood and manufactured solid fuels which produce less smoke. Both of these cleaner options are just as easy to source and more efficient to burn, making them more cost effective. Burning dry wood also produces more heat and less soot than wet wood and can reduce emissions by up to fifty percent.

The restrictions that start from 1st May 2021 state that sales of bagged traditional house coal and wet wood in units under 2m3 are now unlawful. Wet wood in larger volumes must be sold with advice on how to dry it before burning. All manufactured solid fuels must now have a low sulphur content and only emit a small amount of smoke.

In addition, a new certification scheme will see products certified and labelled by suppliers to ensure that they can be easily identified, and retail outlets will only able to sell fuel that is accompanied by the correct label.

The main aim of this legislation is to clean up the air we all breath and also aims to educate people that burning cleaner fuels is a more efficient option for households, helping reduce our exposure to the harmful pollutants and benefitting the environment. Cleaner fuels are also better for consumers as they create less smoke and soot and more heat. Less soot means less cleaning of the chimney too, so this will also save the consumer money.

The legislation is the latest step in delivering a clean air strategy, making sure that we and future generations can breathe cleaner air, resulting in less respiratory ailments too.

Overall, air pollution in the United Kingdom has reduced significantly since 2010, with emissions of fine particulate matter down 11% and nitrogen oxide 32%, but there is still a good deal that can be done to address pollution from all sources, including transport, agriculture, industry and domestic heating.

Air pollution and health

Air pollution is clearly harmful to everyone but for the many people who suffer with a lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, often called COPD, it can put them at serious risk of suffering potentially life threatening asthma attacks.

When you put the issue of domestic burners using coal or wet wood alongside road traffic, it is clear that wet wood and coal burning is a major source of fine particulate matter pollution, and this is now recognised as the most worrying form of pollution to human health. It is absolutely vital that we all help to tackle the sources of air pollution and are aware of the dangers of air pollutants. By doing so, people can make the best choices for their own health as well as the health of others around them.

Air pollution from coal or wet wood is nothing new

There have been times in the past when the air quality became so bad that there was a marked rise in hospitalisations and even deaths. The most famous in the United Kingdom was in 1952 in London.

The great smog of London

The Great Smog of London happened in 1952. It was a particularly severe air pollution event that affected the capital just before Christmas that year. A period of un characteristically cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants, that were mostly from the use of coal to form a thick layer of smog over the city. It lasted from Friday 5th December to Tuesday 9th December. The thick choking layer of smog dispersed quickly when the weather eventually changed.

The smog caused major disruption by reducing visibility and even penetrated indoor areas, far more severely than previous smog events. These dense fogs were called smogs, which was a contraction of smoke and fog, or even pea soupers, because thay were as thick as pea soup. Government medical reports in the weeks following the event estimated that up to 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog and 100,000 more were made ill by the smogs effects on their respiratory system. More recent research suggests that the total number of fatalities may have been considerably greater, with estimates of between 10,000 and 12,000 deaths.

London has suffered since the 13th century from poor air quality and this worsened in the 1600s. The Great Smog is thought to be the worst air pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom, and the most significant for its effects on environmental research, government regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health. It led to several changes in practices and regulations, including the Clean Air Act 1956.

Inferior coal and wet wood and the weather were responsible

A period of unusually cold weather preceding and during the Great Smog led Londoners to burn much more coal than usual to keep themselves warm. Better quality hard coals such as anthracite, were exported to pay off World War II debts, post war domestic coal tended to be of a relatively low quality, sulphurous variety which increased the amount of sulphur dioxide in the smoke. There were also numerous coal fired power stations in the Greater London area, all of which added to the pollution.

The relatively large size of the water droplets in the London fog allowed for the production of sulphates without the acidity of the liquid rising high enough to stop the reaction, and for the resultant dilute acid to become concentrated when the fog was burned away by the sun.

On top of the coal burning issue, there was pollution and smoke from vehicle exhaust, particularly from steam trains and diesel fuelled buses which had replaced the recently abandoned electric tram system. Other industrial and commercial sources also contributed to the air pollution.

The anticyclone settled over a windless London, causing a temperature inversion with cold, stagnant air trapped under a layer resulted in the smog. This mixed with smoke from home and industrial chimneys, particulates such as those from motor vehicle exhausts, and other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, formed a persistent smog, which blanketed the capital the following day. The presence of particles of soot gave the smog its yellow black colour, hence the nickname pea souper. The absence of significant wind prevented its dispersal and allowed an unprecedented accumulation of pollutants.

The effect on the places we live

Although many residential areas has been accustomed to heavy fogs, the one in London in the fifties was denser and longer lasting than any previous fog. Visibility was reduced to a few metres, making driving difficult or impossible.

Public transport ceased, apart from the London Underground, and the ambulance service stopped, forcing people to transport themselves to the hospital. The smog was so dense that it even seeped indoors, resulting in cancellation or abandonment of concerts and film screenings as visibility decreased in large enclosed spaces, and stages and screens became harder to see from the seats. Outdoor sports events were also cancelled.

In the inner London suburbs and away from town centres, there was no disturbance by moving traffic to thin out the dense fog in the back streets. As a result, visibility could be down to a metre or so in the daytime. Walking out of doors became a matter of shuffling the feet to feel for any hazards such as kerbs. This was made even worse at night since each back street lamp at the time was fitted with an incandescent light bulb, which gave no penetrating light onto the pavement for pedestrians to see their feet or even a lamp post. Fog penetrating fluorescent lamps did not become widely available until later in the 1950s.

Smog masks were worn by those who were able to purchase them from chemists, but there effectiveness was limited as the filters would clog rapidly.

Health effects of burning inferior coal and wet wood

Today we are more aware of the dangers of burning the wrong kind of solid fuels, but in the past, this awareness was severely lacking.

Over years gone by, London had become infamous for its fog. In the weeks that followed the great smog of 52, statistics compiled by medical services found that most of the victims were very young or elderly, or had pre-existing respiratory problems. In February of the following year the House of Commons heard that the fog had caused 6,000 deaths and that 25,000 more people had claimed sickness benefits in London during that period.

Mortality remained elevated for months after the fog. A preliminary report, which was never finalised, blamed those deaths on an influenza epidemic. Emerging evidence revealed that only a fraction of the deaths could be from influenza. Most of the deaths were caused by respiratory tract infections, from hypoxia and as a result of mechanical obstruction of the air passages by pus arising from lung infections caused by the smog. The lung infections were mainly bronchopneumonia or acute purulent bronchitis superimposed upon chronic bronchitis.

Research published in 2004 suggests that the number of fatalities was considerably greater than contemporary estimates, at about 12,000.

The environmental impact of the smog

Environmental legislation since 1952, such as the City of London Act 1954 and the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1968, led to a reduction in air pollution. Financial incentives were offered to householders to replace open coal fires with alternatives, such as installing gas fires, or for those who preferred, to burn coke instead which produces minimal smoke. Central heating using gas, electricity, oil or permitted solid fuel was rare in most homes at that time, not finding favour until the late 1960s onwards. Despite improvements, insufficient progress had been made to prevent one further smog event approximately ten years later, in early December 1962.

Solid fuel stove owners do not despair

Many owners of solid fuel stoves have contacted us at Ansell Chimneys, understandably concerned over the new regulations. Many have become worried that they would have to give up their solid fuel stoves and return their properties to the more conventional central heating that is powered by gas or electric.

This is clearly a concern as the cost from the energy companies continues to rise, sometimes quite sharply. Not only that, but when one has invested in a solid fuel stove and possibly one that services all the radiators in the home, one will not want to pay to return to their previous heating system.

The message we send out is clear, do not worry! The government are not banning solid fuel stoves, they are simply addressing the issue of burning unsuitable fuels that will harm the environment and the people living within it. As long as you stick with approved solid fuels and steer clear of coal and wet wood, you will be fine. The trick is to allow your wood enough time to dry out sufficiently before burning, so collecting it long before you need it and storing it correctly is the best way to go.

So in short, burning good quality, approved fuels is still permitted and will continue to save our customers a great deal of money. So continue to use your solid fuel stove responsibly and you will be able to keep toasty warm and save money many years into the future.

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If you would like to know more or are interested in a quote we would be happy to help. Phone us on 01923 661 614, email us at or fill in our enquiry form and we will be in touch as soon as possible.