Vintage View: Will fireplaces be relegated to the history books?

Vintage View: Will fireplaces be relegated to the history books?

Will fireplaces and wood-burning stoves be relegated to the history books, asks Kya deLongchamps.

It would have seemed inconceivable a few years ago that the real flame fire closeted in a stove and smugly devouring logs might come to flout environmental standards in some of our cities and medium-sized towns.

In Ireland, we’re connected at such a primal level to the protection and warmth of the fire.

Early sod and stone cabins allowed peat and wood smoke to percolate through the roof covering, and the architecture of our principal downstairs-rooms remain fastened on the focal point of the hearth even with central heating on duty.

When the two-bar electric fire appeared in the 1950s, it was proudly inserted, free-standing, into blocked off fireplaces.

Whirling, pierced metal discs dancing on light bulbs summoned shifting flame effects behind fibreglass and glass coals.

In the late 17th century, every home in the British Isles with two hearths or stoves was taxed. This was imposed from 1663-1795.

A chimney was an easy feature to spot from the ground, and useful for polling the number of occupants.

Even in the 19th century, the number, size and draw of the fireplaces would have foretold the size, dryness and suitability of a potential home.

This year’s war on the fireplace ignited into plain sight in November and includes the publication of disturbing figures on air quality in Cork city.

No-burn nights for our towns and cities are now a real possibility.

A joint project involving Cork City Council and the Centre for Research into Atmospheric Chemistry (Crac) at UCC found an early December level of PM2.5 of particulate matter (2.5 microns of dust) equal to a Quality Index (AQI) of 156.

This is triple the PM2 5 particle readings for Rome on the same day, and on the Northside of the city the reading hit 330 PM2.5 in one district.

For a moment in time, areas of Cork had the poorest air quality recorded in Europe. Even allowing for the halting mitigation offered by meteorologists, this is unsettling for all of us.

Whatever happens in the upcoming public consultation process, change will inevitably extend beyond the hideous output of smoky fossil fuel.

The use of standard wood-burning stoves may (in some localities) become more tightly regulated, where cleaner forms of home heating energy are available to the building or in medium 10-15,000 head towns, where questionable air quality demands it.

With the onward march of the new A3 detailed home requiring little or no outside forces to heat it through 8 months of the year, domestic combustion, including the dancing flames of a log or biomass stoves, will remain this year’s hot environmental topic.

Quarters of the EPA have called for a countrywide ban on smoky coal — no exceptions, a vast step up from the network currently under protection as Low Smoke Zones (LSZs).

Coal importers have argued that peat and wet wood create similar levels of air pollution, delaying the implementation of the universal ban on smoky coal with the threat of legal action.

Whatever about the inevitable demise of peat, the trade in unseasoned wood will be almost impossible to regulate — and it’s this greener, sticky timber that’s causing at least a fraction of the urban black-carbon choke.

Vintage View: Will fireplaces be relegated to the history books?

Part L of the Building Regulations which came into effect in 2014 made the design inclusion of an open fire problematic for a completion certificate on a one-off build.

OnlineTradesmen CEO Ted Laverty recently described the open fire as simply a “large hole in the roof” and he’s not wrong (Newstalk interview).

Its role as passive stack ventilation is no longer proffered by green builders in cheery blogs on splitting logs, not tucked up with MVHR.

New amendments to the Building Regulations came into effect in November of last year touching on serious renovation and larger extensions to 25% of the building’s envelope.

These new rules will see anyone hoping to keep an open fire, struggle to make it to a B2 BER demanded of the whole house on completion. The fireplace is being designed out of new homes.

Open fires have been under attack for decades as it has long been proven that up to 80% of the heat they produce goes straight up the flue.

DEFRA in the UK is now asking consumers to consider giving up lengthy use of even wood stoves in an effort to cut smoke and carbon dioxide, especially where the stove is a secondary back up heating source.

Burning wood is often promoted as a carbon-neutral choice, however, wood-smoke has been found to be a serious contributor to PM2.5 levels pumped into the air in UK cities including London.

The stringent rules in Smoke Control Areas are often flouted with the use of older and even vintage stoves not on the Governments list of exempted appliances.

The potential dangers of breathing in particulate matter produced by burning wood at low temperatures indoors are drawing serious scrutiny amongst health professionals.

For more, look up Victoria White’s superb piece The Truth Hurts.

Vintage View: Will fireplaces be relegated to the history books?

The upcoming UK Environmental Bill will target the contribution of wood smoke and the use of older stoves to poor levels of air quality in urban areas.

By 2022 only Eco-Stoves (formerly Eco-Design models) with proven high burning temperatures, complete (dual) combustion and lower emissions will be sold in the UK and Europe and the use of other stoves in LSZ may become more tightly controlled.

A new National Clean Air Strategy is on the way this year in Ireland and might try to regulate the quality of wood for domestic stoves and gasification boilers.

The proud, self-sufficiency of collecting ‘found’ wood is probably safe, way down the country at least. The key is to be sensible, season it well, reducing the water content to 10-20%. No-one is coming for your beloved stove.

Stove-makers including Esse are strategising with new designs and re-engineering their popular stove models, emphasising just how good the new wood burners are — “a DEFRA-approved CE 2022 wood-burning stove emits 335g of particulates per MWh.”

For older stoves, esse.com suggests: “To minimise air pollution, ensure your stove is serviced every year and the flue swept annually as well.”

I don’t have an open fire or even a stove, my asthmas now precludes it. If Brussels finally puts our fires out, I won’t miss my throat closing, cheek burnishing place at the fireside.

I can just about forgo the primal pleasure of wood-smoke bound in the mist at nightfall.

Oddly, for me, it’s that forbidden, toxic acrid hint of coal — a ferrous, dark tang on the streets of Dublin in the 80s.

Tangled in the sourer breath of the open pub door — I expect for several centuries past, right or wrong, it was for many of us — the scent of home.

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