There's nothing like a woodburner

01:58, Jul 10 2012

I'm writing this column sitting in front of my "legal" woodburner. The fire is glowing behind the wide glass door and my legs are bathed in the delicious warmth that only a real fire can deliver.

Thank goodness we squeaked in before the cut-off date for Airshed B. It was a close-run thing: the paperwork from the installation of our existing woodburner was nowhere to be found in council records and we had to prove exactly when Mr Muddle of P and M Fires installed our dear little blue enamelled Waterford stove through photographs and permits for the renovations we were doing at the time.

I was sorry to lose its retro elegance, but the new woodburner is easier to operate and more efficient at pushing out the heat.

It's been a chilly winter so far and we've made use of all our heating sources, sometimes all at the same time: kitchen woodburner, gas in the living room, a heat pump in the hallway and oil column or electric heaters in bedrooms.

A couple of years ago we installed under-floor insulation and replaced the old bats in the roof space. Renovations in the past 20 years have gibbed almost all rooms and reasonably heavy curtains cover the windows of our most used spaces. So we're pretty well organised. There's definitely a price to pay for keeping warm during winter in a 1911 villa, but it could be worse.

Not so for some Nelsonians. The council's policies around enclosed solid fuel burners have led to some unfortunate decisions. Some of these decisions have been, at the least, inconsiderate of those on lower incomes and some reflect now-outdated research. I believe that the council needs to rethink what it's doing and allow woodburners that meet an agreed and updated standard to be installed in any home in Nelson.


Many Nelsonians have been frustrated by the requirement to replace efficiently functioning woodburners just because of when they were installed. It's an expensive and seemingly wasteful process. Many have replaced their woodburners with heat pumps. A gas fitter I talked to recently told me that many clients he'd dealt with said how much they disliked their heat pump.

It blew a gale of air at them, it wasn't hot enough, their power bill increased more than they had expected and, to top it off, their heat pump was much less attractive then a live fire. If perception is reality, heat pumps are beginning to get an image problem. And once your woodburner is gone, you can't go back. It's not possible under present council rules to replace an unsatisfactory heat pump, or pellet fire, for that matter, with a compliant woodburner.

But I believe the main issue is cost. Wood is the cheapest fuel per kilowatt of heat according to Consumer's heating options report, April 4, available free online.

Many Nelsonians can't afford an increase in their electricity or gas bill, and wood is often available cheaply through people's own efforts or from kind friends or relations. And it remains the most economical, even when purchased from a wood merchant. Some woodburners double as water heaters and basic cooking appliances, increasing savings and efficiency further. I can't see electricity prices going down, with the Government selling 49 per cent of state owned assets to private investors who will want to see a result for their money. It's quite cruel to put people, especially those on a fixed income, in a situation where their only heating source is one whose cost is, to quote Consumer, "inexorably rising".

But, you might object, what about pollution levels and the effect on people? Shouldn't we get rid of woodburners for the sake of people's respiratory health? Christchurch's situation is informative.

Frigid citizens in earthquake-damaged homes have forced Environment Canterbury to think harder about heating sources, and ECan has agreed to allow testing of new wood burning technology for installation in Christchurch homes if emissions standards are met. In the meantime, residents can continue using non-compliant woodburners. A test has yet to be developed but at least ECan is moving in the right direction to help the shivering people of Christchurch.

Canterbury scientists and medical experts continue to debate the degree to which smoke from woodburners contributes to respiratory health problems. One idea being discussed is that analysts have confused the health effects of cold temperatures and those of particulate levels and, as a result, drawn wrong conclusions about the effects of particulates on health.

Some believe now that cold temperatures are the major cause of respiratory problems and that particulates from wood smoke, while predictably higher in percentage during cold periods, are not the major cause of problems. If this is true, then data around temperature levels, particulate levels and health problems needs to be analysed more carefully. There is also a big difference between the effects of wood smoke and smoke generated by diesel or coal, but issues with diesel and coal should not condemn wood as a good heat source.

Current thinking seems to be moving towards acceptance of wood as an efficient, cheap and health-positive source of fuel.

Let's not forget that wood is also sustainable, and its production on a larger scale could create industry and employment. The council should rethink its policies around woodburners in the light of new technologies and research, concentrating its resources on regulating wood suppliers and educating wood users to get the most out of wood. And, as a by-product, happy ratepayers would be no bad thing either.