Page last updated at 23:25 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 00:25 UK

Demand hotting up for wood stoves

By Catherine Wynne
Business reporter, BBC News, Essex

Nguyen Ti chopping wood
All of the wood Scarlett's sells is chopped by hand

The rhythmic sound of chopping wood mingles with the sound of birds in the trees.

And on a sunny day, it is easy to see why former paratrooper Nguyen Ti thinks it is a great place to work.

"It is good, I am on my own," he says, laughing as he swings his axe down.

"I see the sky, it keeps me fit, and when it rains it keeps me cool."

His workplace is the clearing of an ancient woodland behind a row of suburban houses on the outskirts of Southend-on-Sea.

Yen, as he likes to be known, works for Scarlett Fireplaces, Stoves and Chimneys, a small Essex firm which is selling a growing number of wood burning stoves.

It promotes the merits of wood as a cleaner, cheaper and more sustainable way of heating your home.

Cutting down trees

But not everyone is happy about it.

Manufacturers of wood burning stoves say they can barely keep up with demand.

The firm's owner Jason Scarlett says angry people have come into the shop and accused him of chopping down woodland.

"But we are not cutting down trees, the word is coppicing," Mr Scarlett says.

"And if we don't coppice it, it is bad for the woodland."

The traditional method of coppicing involves cutting down trees in a way that encourages regrowth.

And that is important to Mr Scarlett, an unlikely environmentalist who began his working life putting up scaffolding around oil rigs in Malaysia.

"Even though I learnt my trade working in the fossil fuel industry, I saw the decimation that was going on due to logging in Sarawak [in Malaysia]," he says.

Changing ways

The Solid Fuel Association estimates that sales of wood burning stoves have risen by 30% in the last 12 months alone.

Many have made the choice for environmental reasons.

Deborah Harbison
Our fuel bills were getting out of hand and they are only going to get worse
Deborah Harbison

Generating heat accounts for more than 40% of the UK's carbon emissions and the majority of that comes from heating our homes and water.

Wood is said to be a carbon neutral fuel as the amount of carbon dioxide created when it is burnt is equal to the amount taken up by the tree as it grows.

And that was an important consideration for Emma Pullen.

She has just had a wood burning stove fitted in her new home and is taking her first delivery of logs.

As Yen unloads the van, Mr Scarlett explains the different types of wood to Mrs Pullen.

There is ash, hornbeam, silver birch and a little bit of oak.

Some will naturally burn better than others, he says. While some have a higher moisture content so will need to be kept outside longer to dry out before they can be used.

It is a far cry from pushing a button to put the heating on.

"We had the option of putting in gas, which would have been easier," Mrs Pullen explains.

Emma Pullen takes delivery of her wood
Some types of wood burn better than others

"Flick a switch and it is alight. But we just love burning wood because it is ethically sound and aesthetically the stoves are beautiful."

"This is really all about getting away from the lazy, push-button society," Mr Scarlett adds.

But that means using wood is not for everyone.

It is time-consuming drying and stacking the wood correctly and it can take a bit of effort to get the stove burning properly.

And anyway, there would not be enough wood to go around, Mr Scarlett acknowledges.

Counting the cost

A short drive away in Leigh-on-Sea, Deborah Harbison says the gas bills for heating her home were "getting out of hand".

But her new stoves are having a positive effect on fuel costs.

"When we are using the stoves downstairs, we have found we don't need the gas central heating on elsewhere in the house," Mrs Harbison says.

Belfair's Wood, Southend
The widespread use of wood to replace gas has the potential to have a significantly detrimental effect on air quality in London
Report for London Councils

A lorry-load of ready-cut wood costs 190 and can last the whole year.

One of Mr Scarlett's more enterprising customers chops up the old wood pallets he collects from builders' merchants, reducing his running costs to zero.

Apart from the annual visit from the chimney sweep, that is.

The Solid Fuel Association says the surge in popularity of wood burning stoves is linked to the rising price of oil and gas over the last two years.

"Sales have gone astronomic," says the association's general manager Jim Lambeth.

"The appliance manufacturers tell us they can barely keep up with demand."

But the stoves themselves don't come cheap.

One fully-fitted mid-range stove costs about 2000, but add on a system to heat water to completely replace central heating, and the cost can be up to 10,000.

Air quality

There is one other, important consideration.

Not all of the stoves available meet Clean Air Act standards so that they can be used in places designated as smoke control areas.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggests that anyone wishing to use a wood-burning stove should check with their local authority that the appliance can be used in their area.

The levels of pollutants created by wood burners are far less than from appliances fuelled by coal, Defra says, but much more than those which use natural gas.

As a result, there are concerns about the possible impact on air quality of homeowners switching from gas to wood burning appliances.

A report commissioned by worried local authorities in London last year, found that the change had "a potential to have a significantly detrimental effect on air quality in London unless measures are taken to prevent this".

"We need to be sensible," Mr Scarlett said.

"If it is fitted properly, if the customer is taught how to burn wood and if it is a highly efficient appliance [that is passed by Defra], then a stove can be fitted in any area," he said.

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