Newsview: Sustainability in your home

Rose Martin tries to sift the wood from the trees when it comes to sustainability at domestic level.

There is a secret cash drain at the heart of the Irish household. Is it the immersion? The oil boiler? The blaze of juice-guzzling Christmas lights that have been on since

November? Maybe...

But in this instance we’re talking about the fire — the warming heart of the home, the glow we retire to in the long winter evenings, along with that other glowing item, the TV. It’s probably the one item in the house we wouldn’t be without and it’s costly to run in comparison to other fuels.

Yes, the OCD brigade may install wall-mounted, pixilated waves of glowing orange, but the real deal is what really matters to most of us. And we’ve all become conscious of how our open fires are less than economic, guzzling carbon-emitting coal while throwing most of the heat up the chimney.

The gorgeous, log-burning number doesn’t have the same punch, but we’ve all accepted that it makes more sense to use a stove than to have a heat-sucking hole in the middle of the room.

So, in view of the ban on of smokey fuels and on coal down the line, the Irish householder has been making the move to wood-burning stoves as an adjunct, but not a replacement for oil, gas, or electric heating. You can see it in the showrooms where sleek steel tubes have taken over fromcast-iron, coal-belching burners.

There was a sudden and mad infatuation with wood pellets there for a while (grants and all that), but that ardour cooled almost overnight when the supply dried up and the logistics of storing pelleted, damp-absorbing sawdust kicked in — that and having space for dry storage and hoppers took the shine off the bright, bio-mass future, pretty pronto.

This column has been going on about domestic level changes in how we consume energy for a while and the consensus that wood and biomass was a good thing was factored into commentary on heating and energy arrangements in the home.

And in that vein, what is going on with the cost of stove installation? In a two-storey house, it’s a day’s work along with piping and vermiculite —a bungalow should take less time and less materials —but average levels of €1,500 are being quoted for a ‘proper’ installation.

That is, a flue liner and packing around the liner with airtight connections to the stove and chimney pot, so that the stove lights and draws well, but doesn’t explode or kill the inhabitants with carbon monoxide poisoning.

So it goes some way to explain the cost of installation — especially when older houses, with older flues, can offer tricky fitting approaches, but, and there’s always a but, where there is demand, then it follows that there is an escalation of pricing. Recession lessons forgotten, thanks.

On top of this, there is no recognised certification system in this country — you can rely on the British, Hetas certification (as rare as hen’s teeth), but in terms of certification for dwellings under the new housecertification regulations, DEAP, there’s a yawning gap, which is why a lot of builders won’t touch a stove installation and why some new homes come without.

In this rather Wild West scenario, the choice of fitter is quite arbitrary and the better ones will offer a certificate of compliance, will charge Vat, and will be registered as a company.

There are others who will fit a stove directly to an existing fireplace and you’ll get away with €400 to €500 for fitting, but this is not recommended. There are no safety guarantees and if you’re lucky, the assemblage will work until the flue gunks up in a five year’s time — or less depending on the amount of wet, tarry coal and wood burned in the grate.

However, once installed and once you’ve got the hang of lighting a darned, wood-only stove, then the little box of heat is great to supplement a general heating system — there is no way that even good dry timber give an economic return on whole-house heating unless you have a Titanic-sized boiler or a personal forest. It will give a merry glow and some heat, but not the fiery return of the best Polish.

However, in the interests of climate change we’re prepared to accept these little diminutions, right? The drop in radiant heat is worth the planet, we conclude.

Well, it appears we’re wrong again. According to post on climate change website Carbon Brief, by a very eminent climate change scientist, we’ve been delusional and misguided in our wood-burning bias.

We do not absorb ‘carbon debt’ by growing trees to feed our fires, rather we put ourselves in hock, carbon-wise, for hundred of years, according to Prof John Beddington, the former UK chief scientific adviser and professor of natural resource management at Oxford.

“The lower burning temperature of wood and its greater carbon intensity means wood releases more carbon than fossil fuels per unit of energy generated (almost four times more than natural gas, and over 1.5x that of coal),” says Beddington.

“Strategies to increase that efficiency, such as the formulation of wood pellets or co-firing of wood with coal, inevitably have the result of increasing associated emissions.”

Among a list of points, Beddington suggests increased demand will not be satisfied locally in Europe or in the US and Canada, (countries that, while planting to offset carbon, will see the reverse when harvesting), and that it will, instead, endanger tropical forests which are superb carbon sinks.

“The result of promoting a system of biomass electricity from dedicated tree harvesting, as calculated by a large number of studies from different research groups and governmental organisations... will in all realistic scenarios, [result in] substantially more carbon in the air for decades, regardless of the type of forest used and no matter how sustainably they are managed.”

In summary, he gives the killer blow: “A reasonable estimate might be that every kilowatt hour of wood at least doubles the emissions over a period of 30 years than might otherwise occur, even if the alternative were fossil fuels.

“If forest harvests supply one third of the additional renewable energy, the implication might therefore mean 6% or even more carbon in the atmosphere over that period, compared to use of fossil fuels, rather than at least 6% less, that would come from using other renewables like solar or wind: a swing of 10% of Europe’s emissions.”

So, where do we go from here? It’s looking like passive homes and solar is the only way to go into the future, but where does that leave us now in our leaky homes, with our expensively-kitted and fitted fires to keep us warm? Depressing, isn’t it? Sorry.

For more, see www.carbonbrief.org 


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