It's time we regained the freedom to burn

02:53, May 05 2014
Craig Henderson and Mark Parker
CLEARING THE AIR: The council’s woodburner policy is getting up many Nelson noses.

I've forgotten my keys and locked myself out of the house. It's 6.33pm on Thursday night, and it's getting dark and cold.

I'm sitting on the front steps tapping this into my phone. I've been staring into space for an hour, waiting for my rescuer, who isn't quite sympathetic enough nor quick enough home for my liking, frankly.

But it does give me some time to look around the neighbourhood. There are the weeds that need pulling. There's the wrapped-up Nelson Mail on the front lawn.

There's the new moon, low and red and slender, and there are the heavily puffing chimneys - which means my neighbours are burning wet wood again.

It's May now. That means it's well past time for me to start complaining about my pellet burner, which I had to install to replace a 1999 woodburner when I bought my house two years ago.

The previous owners rented the place out and didn't bother to take up the option to replace the woodburner with a modern one, leaving it sitting there, doomed, when we moved in.


After it was hauled out and dumped on the lawn, I sold it for $100 to someone from Tasman. Lucky bugger.

The city has seen a 22 per cent drop in woodburners since 2006, and a corresponding increase in people reliant on electricity to heat their homes.

More than 15,000 of us are now at the mercy of power companies when it comes to keeping warm over winter. That's probably fine for folks in modern homes with good insulation and a decent heating system. But plenty of people have been forced into relying on electricity to stay warm and healthy, and that doesn't seem right to me.

I sit here on the steps, watching the thick white smoke curling from the chimneys around me, and think wistfully about what a perfect little woodburner owner I'd be.

I'd get seasoned, bone-dry firewood with less than 20 per cent moisture a whole summer ahead, and stack it well to keep it dry. I'd clean my chimney regularly, and install extra insulation.

I'd enjoy the ritual of scrunching up the local rag and settling it alight, and I'd especially enjoy getting a book and not moving from in front of the fire all night.

I can't loll in front of my fiendishly noisy pellet burner, because the thing only blows out warm air, and it's cold and draughty under knee height.

I don't care about the convenience of its much-lauded push button. I want the low cost, low tech and, yes, even the low emissions of the real thing.

I also want the clean air we've enjoyed since the council phased out old-model woodburners, but I notice there haven't been too many bans on new road-building or high-pollution vehicles lately.

I really think it's quite simple. My pellet burner's emissions are about the same as those from a modern woodburner.

The pellet burner needs electricity to work and is a complicated, noisy and expensive piece of machinery requiring weekly vacuuming, maintenance, and potentially a serviceman to keep it in order.

The woodburner is a simple metal and glass box. I can get a trailerload of firewood for just about nothing at the right time of year, probably helping community groups in the process. A single 20-kilogram bag of pellets, which lasts us about four or five nights, costs $11.99 from Mitre 10.

If this doesn't make sense to you either, Nelsonian Melissa Short has started a petition at where you can register your thoughts - it's searchable under "Nelson woodburners", and is quite stirring stuff.

"Why should my children be cold again this winter?" asks Evan Davies, quite rightly.

Peter Johnson says: "Because I am a superannuitant and I can't afford to run my heat pump, I retire to bed early to keep warm." And because it's Nelson, a few people talk about the sacred flame.

I'm exasperated. There is too much red tape around woodburners, when surely a common-sense solution would allow homeowners to install the heating of their choice at any time, with emissions and ongoing costs as low as possible, as well as a violent blitzkrieg on burning wet wood.

On May 8, the city council's planning and regulatory committee is meeting to discuss it all. At the last election, some councillors campaigned on the woodburner issue, promising that if they were elected, they'd look into it. The time has now come - although we won't see change this year.

Winter is coming, and with it another few months of hardship for those people already struggling to pay their power bills.