Alternative Fuels for Log Burners: From Biomass to Pellets
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Do you experience a pang of existential guilt whenever you light your log burner?
Perhaps your local council has introduced new restrictions regarding the fuels you can burn in your stove?
But can you really get that gorgeous crackle and pop of a real fire with alternative fuels?
Whether you're being forced into change or want to do the right thing for the environment, there are fuel alternatives that offer the same beautiful warming flame as burning wood.
And that's why you're reading this article, exploring the environmentally friendly alternative fuels you might consider for your beautiful log burner.
Ready? Let’s go!
What damage does wood-burning or coal-burning do to the environment?
Trees are essential to the planet’s well-being because they “inhale” carbon dioxide from the air, returning oxygen as they “exhale”, which is the direct opposite of the human respiratory system.
Over a tree’s lifetime, it draws in and stores that carbon, which helps it photosynthesise.
However, when we burn trees for heat and light, they release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere.
While they’re only returning the same amount of carbon they’ve taken in over their lifetime, it’s the sudden burst of CO2 released into the atmosphere that disturbs the delicate balance of carbon dioxide in the air.
In fact, wood combustion releases more CO2 than burning gas, coal, or oil for the same amount of power.
Wood-burning releases toxic particles and nitrogen oxides into the air, which we ultimately inhale, whether we’re indoors or outdoors.
That means we can only conclude wood burning is pretty bad for the planet’s health and our own.
Ready to Burn wood
Wood releases less harmful toxins into the atmosphere when it contains a moisture level lower than 20%, which is the benchmark for certified Ready to Burn fuels.
Most local authorities in the UK now insist on smokeless, Ready to Burn fuels for domestic homes.
Indeed, you should never burn wood that has been:
These will produce toxic fumes.
Is my log burner fuel efficient?
Older log burners are much less efficient than modern Ecodesign stoves — the standard to which all new log burners must adhere.
This new standard (2022) ensures maximum energy efficiency for a wide range of utilities around the home, including log burners.
So, if you have an older log burner, it's unlikely to meet Ecodesign standards. This doesn't mean you can't use it, but you should only use Ready to Burn fuels.
What are the eco-friendly alternatives to firewood?
While Ready to Burn fuel burnt in an Ecodesign-ready log burner is the current benchmark for wood burning, there are many alternatives that are better for the environment.
The eco-friendly alternatives include:
- Wood bricks (aka biomass bricks)
- Wood pellets
- Coffee logs
Let’s look at each of these.
The term “biomass” refers to a broad spectrum of fuels derived principally for a plant-based origin.
The broader biomass market includes sources such as landfill waste, animal manure, wood pellets, algae, vegetable oils, crops like sugar beet or corn, and even paper and household waste.
Biomass stoves for heating domestic homes tend to be more consistent, using pellets made from:
- Olive husks
- Coffee grinds
Pellets tend to burn very efficiently while releasing less smoke than firewood and producing plenty of heat.
How is biomass made?
What makes biomass so attractive to many consumers is that the pellets are made from the waste products of the timber industry — basically, using the remaining parts of the tree too small for useful timber.
When making the pellets, the manufacturer removes the bark and chips down the remaining timber, which is left to dry to less than 10 per cent moisture before compressing into pellets or bricks.
How to control biomass stoves
Pellet stoves are easier to control because most of them are automatic — you simply fill the hopper with pellets, and an internal thermostat drives the number of pellets the furnace needs to heat up to a specific temperature.
This makes biomass pellet heating efficient because you can control the temperature much more accurately than with a traditional log burner or open fire.
The difference between biomass bricks and pellets
Biomass bricks or briquettes are looser in density than pellets, but they burn equally well.
Pellets have much higher density because they’re formed under massive pressure from within the mould. They take up less space than briquettes and burn more easily because of their greater surface area.
Biomass bricks tend to offer a longer burning time than their equivalent weight in pellets.
Is biomass good for the environment?
This is tricky because the verdict is still largely out on this question.
Some argue that you're using waste products that would have gone into landfill, so you're using good quality wood- and plant waste that might otherwise have clogged up the soil.
Additionally, the abundance of plant life on our planet suggests that biomass is a renewable energy source; rather than fossil fuels, of which there's a finite resource.
There's an argument suggesting that the amount of CO2 produced through burning biomass is almost the same as the amount absorbed by plants for photosynthesis, making biomass carbon-neutral.
You’re still burning wood, which releases CO2, smoke, soot, and particulates into the air. Plus there is a school of thought that believes biomass still contributes significantly to greenhouse gases, which are exacerbating global warming.
Bioethanol is perhaps one of the cleanest-burning fuels for your log burner. But you’ll need a bioethanol fuel box burner to place inside your existing open fireplace. You can make your own bioethanol burner, but we recommend a purpose-built burner.
Bioethanol is a carbon-neutral fuel made by fermenting waste products from crops like sugarcane and sugar beet, as well as starchy crops such as corn, potatoes, or grains such as rye, barley, and wheat.
Is bioethanol carbon-neutral?
Bioethanol fuel burns cleanly without smoke, soot, or harmful particulates. And there's no sweeping up to do afterwards, either, because it leaves no mess.
In fact, you don’t even need a chimney for a bioethanol fire because burning the fuel produces:
- A little carbon dioxide (about the same as burning two candles in your living room)
- A trace amount of water vapour
Like all fires, bioethanol flames use oxygen from the air to combust, but the carbon dioxide released is so low that it will be re-absorbed by your house plants — giving them a good boost of photosynthesis to boot!
So, biofuels are considered a renewable, carbon-neutral fuel source because surrounding plant life absorbs the CO2 produced when burning.
These are new additions to the environmentally-conscious fuels available in the UK, made from used coffee grounds collected from the UK’s many coffee shops.
The used grounds are dried and then compacted into briquettes, which are easily stored and thrown onto the fire. These easily-lit logs burn up to 20% hotter than seasoned firewood because of the low moisture content, creating a bright, hot flame.
You might expect a strong coffee smell from a coffee log, but there's very little distinctive aroma. The logs smell similar to firewood when burned.
Are coffee logs a good alternative fuel for a log burner?
Turning coffee grounds into logs for burning helps reduce greenhouse emissions by 130% compared to coffee grounds that end up in landfill.
And while they produce a beautiful, hot flame, they can create a lot of smoke if left to smoulder rather than burn.
Having said that, if you’re looking to minimise the emissions kicked out by your log burner, coffee logs are a good environmentally friendly alternative fuel source.
You can take your log-burning fuel into your own hands with a paper briquette press, creating an ongoing supply of high-quality fuel made from old junk mail and newspapers.
Compressing the paper into bricks stops it from burning too quickly, providing hours of good burn time.
How to make paper bricks
Of course, you’ll need a paper briquette press — widely available online and at fireplace shops.
Follow these instructions for your homemade paper bricks:
- Shred the paper before soaking the strips in water until they become a mushy pulp. (This can take several days).
- Place the pulp into the brick maker, filling to the recommended level. Then, use the levers to tightly compress the pulp, which squeezes out the excess water.
- Remove the compressed pulp and dry it out completely. This can take several weeks.
Remember, it's essential to remain patient at the drying stage because low moisture is the key to a clean-burning, efficient fuel.
Consider bioethanol fireplaces as an alternative to log burners
Bioethanol fireplaces are as beautiful as any traditional log burner or modern fireplace, coming in a wide range of styles. The biggest advantages include the fact that they use biofuel - perhaps the most eco-friendly fuel out there, but also can be used in homes where there is chimney or flue.
You can be using a bioethanol fireplace within just minutes of receiving it. No need for expensive installations or maintenance.
If you have an existing open fire, you can also consider a bioethanol fireplace insert, offering a green, clean way to enjoy a real flame in your living room without the mess, smoke, or existential guilt of burning fossil fuels.
Thanks for reading.