Wood as a Fuel Source

Dear Margaret,
When I did an Introduction to Permaculture recently, our tutor stated that wood was the best fuel. I have to disagree. Our neighbours have a wood fire, & the smoke from their chimney makes it impossible for us to open our windows on their side of the house. During this long wet winter it has been quite unbearable. How can Permaculture encourage this obvious pollution?

I think your tutor may have been speaking in broad general terms about the sustainability of various energy sources, rather than their application in any particular case. While it is true that when energy accounting is applied to the current known sources of energy, wood, properly managed performs extremely well, this does not mean that it is always the best choice.

Permaculture design requires that many factors be considered before a decision is made about any design element. When suggesting energy sources for a particular site, a designer must consider the location, the climate, the existing infrastructure, the potential to design for passive energy efficiency, the cost in energy as well as money of various fuel supplies, the availability & cost of efficient appliances which will operate with those energy sources, & the capacity of the residents to operate & maintain those systems.

Note that I refer to 'systems' - one of the basic principles of Permaculture is that 'Every important function [in a design] is supported by many elements.' It is essential to have more than one energy source & a choice of fuels, if a system is to operate sustainably in all conditions.

Where forests or woodlots are sustainably managed, close to the site where the energy is to be generated, & if efficient appliances are both available & properly used, wood is certainly one of the preferred options as a fuel source. But, to quote Bill Mollison: 'Permaculture is about protracted & thoughtful observation.........rather than protracted & thoughtless action'

Wood used for fuel should be dry, thoroughly seasoned, and free of paints, varnishes, or protective solutions. The fire should have sufficient oxygen to burn cleanly. Smouldering fires give off toxic vapours, which are harmful to health, and much more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. They also leave dangerously flammable deposits in the chimney.
In Australia, each State now has regulations governing the installation & operation of wood-burning appliances, which are designed to minimise pollution & nuisance. There are also Australian Standards which apply to the design & manufacture of such appliances, including those which are imported. Unfortunately the regulations are not retrospective, but they could probably be invoked if nuisance can be proved. Information is also available from your Department of Primary Industry or its equivalent, about selecting & conditioning wood for fuel. Leaflets may be obtained from your Local Authority, or Department of Environment, about smoke nuisance. A friendly approach to your neighbours over a cup of coffee, with one of these leaflets handy, might be a good place to start - especially if you can engineer it at a time when the smoke from their chimney is particularly obnoxious.


Firewood needs to be obtained from sustainable sources
As a general guide, use wood you have grown yourself - a well-managed woodlot takes up less room than you think - or prunings, trees lopped or felled in your own garden; or other gardens in your neighbourhood; wood fallen from street trees;wood collected from places where it does not provide habitat e.g. regularly mown parkland; and clean wood from rubbish tips, & building or demolition sites - ask permission first
Cut wood while still green, then stack and season. This may take 2 or 3 years, so think ahead.
If you buy wood, make sure it comes from a reputable dealer



An Australian invention which aids complete combustion, reduces particulate matter, and cleans your chimney

Note:In researching & answering questions about earthwise living, Margaret offers information, opinion, & personal experience, but no quick fixes! Readers should evaluate these offerings in the context of their own situations; they are suggestions, *not* recommendations. Any responsibility for their implementation rests *solely* with the reader.

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