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New research shows wood burners are more expensive than gas boilers, despite 40% increase in sales

New research has revealed that household wood burners are a more expensive source of heating than gas boilers and air source heat pumps, despite perceptions that burning wood is a cheaper option for heating a home.

Economic modelling from Global Action Plan, supported by Impact on Urban Health, shows that in a typical urban household – and even excluding purchase and installation costs – the annual ownership cost of a wood burner is 15% higher than a gas boiler.

Thanks to increases in the cost of wood fuel, the only scenario in which burners are cheaper is when wood is sourced for free. However, scrap wood and wood that hasn’t been properly dried or seasoned is highly toxic and extremely harmful to the health of burners and their neighbours.

The data finds that when a household uses a newly installed, Defra-approved wood burner for 20% of its heat, its yearly cost is £2,204- £2,028, 24% more than a typical gas boiler. That cost rises to almost 50% (48%) more expensive where a household uses newly installed wood burners for 80% of its heat, costing between £2,433 – £2,614 per year.

As winter approaches, Global Action Plan, Impact on Urban Health and partner organisations including Mums for Lungs are calling for greater awareness of the economic, environmental and health costs of wood burning.

Wood burners pose a significant risk to public and environmental health

Beyond the high financial costs, wood burners are responsible for one-fifth (21%) of UK fine particulate (PM2.5) emissions in the UK, therefore contributing to a significant public health crisis, particularly for people in urban areas.

Air pollution is a cocktail of toxic chemicals in the air. Fine particulate matter – known as PM2.5 – is one of the most harmful pollutants because it is so small. When inhaled, it gets deep into the lungs, carrying toxic materials with it, and enters the bloodstream. It is thought to affect every organ in the body.

Government data shows that air pollution will be responsible for 2.4 million new cases of disease in England between 2019 and 2035, including 50,000 cases of coronary heart disease and 44,000 cases of lung cancer.[1] This is estimated to cost the NHS and social care system £1.6bn by 2025.[2]

People who burn wood are subjecting themselves – and their neighbourhoods – to high levels of PM2.5. Prolonged exposure causes a range of severe health issues, including increased risk of heart disease, strokes, asthma, and cancer.

Sales of wood burners are increasing

This comes at a time when wood burners are becoming increasingly popular, with a 40% increase in purchases between 2021-22. In October, the Stove Industry Alliance reported that sales are expected to rise even further in 2022-23.

There are perceptions amongst the public that wood burners offer a cheaper source of energy. However, UK wood fuel prices have increased 44% in the last five years, while some sources of wood fuel (such as small purchases, or purchases from garages) could cost almost four times as much as gas.

A big problem created by a small group of people

In 2018-19, only around 8% of UK households burned indoors, primarily using wood burners. Of those, only 8% burn wood out of necessity. That small minority of people who burn wood out of necessity are more likely to be from less affluent households and based in rural areas.

Most people who burn wood in urban areas do so for aesthetic and lifestyle reasons. Those who burn wood indoors are generally more affluent (around 50% are from the highest social grades) and are typically homeowners, affecting neighbours who do not burn wood and have no control over the air they breathe. [3] This is especially the case in densely populated urban areas.

Rachel Pidgeon, Portfolio Manager at Impact on Urban Health, said:

“Air pollution from wood burning has doubled over the past decade, with devastating consequences for people’s health. And it’s often those who do the least to contribute who are most affected by toxic air.

“This research dispels the myth that wood burning is a cheaper energy alternative, whilst shining a light on the toxic effect it has on the air we breathe. It’s vital that urban communities understand the connection between burning and the air pollution it creates. Domestic combustion, including wood burning, is the number one source of harmful fine particulate matter in the UK, so the potential to improve public health is massive if we increase awareness and change behaviour.”