Will Anderson: The Green House

Coal-effect fire? No thanks. I'd rather burn real wood, the original carbon-neutral fuel
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The Independent Online

Throughout the entire history of mankind, bar the last couple of centuries, the principal fuel used for heating our humble homes has been wood. This does no harm to the biosphere because wood is a "carbon neutral" fuel: the carbon released when wood is burnt was itself extracted from the air by the growing tree, so there is no net change in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.

If you live near a ready supply of wood, timber remains a great eco-fuel. An efficient wood-burner with a back-boiler should keep your carbon emissions from heating respectably low. You can even buy "automated wood-pellet boilers" that chug away in the background like an ordinary boiler, fired by pellets made from wood waste. Just make sure there's a reliable local supply of the pellets before you shell out. Grants are available for various wood burners and boilers from the Low Carbon Buildings Programme (see www.lowcarbonbuildings.co.uk).

As most of us do not live in rural idylls with wood piles in the back garden, alternatives have to be found. These days the usual alternative, for townies at least, is timber that has been through a highly specialised thermal maturation process that usually takes several millions of years to complete. We fire our boilers with natural gas.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel so burning it increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yet it is much the cleanest fossil fuel you can burn, producing significantly less carbon than oil, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), coal and electricity. So, in an urban environment, you will be hard pressed to find a source of space heating with lower environmental impacts. Electricity, by contrast, is by far the worst fuel to use for space and water heating, even if you are on a green tariff.

Yet burning gas is still madness: pumped from beneath the oceans, transported through transcontinental pipelines and ending up as yet more greenhouse gas for our overloaded skies. So it's important to do everything you can to minimise your gas consumption. The following tips are equally applicable to oil and LPG central heating:

* Reduce your demand. Insulation and draught-proofing are always the first domestic eco-priorities. Lag your hot water tank and pipes as well as your loft.

* Use the sun. A solar thermal panel can't supply your space heating but it will provide you with gallons of free hot water.

* Install a condensing boiler. With heat exchangers that capture the energy released when the steam from the exhaust gases condenses, they can achieve over 90 per cent efficiency.

* Get a programmable digital controller linked to both a room thermostat (for central heating) and cylinder thermostat (for hot water). Then learn to use and optimise it: experiment until you have worked out the minimum time the gas needs to burn to keep you in comfort.

* Don't keep your whole house toasty when you spend most of your time in the living room. Use thermostatic radiator valves to set different temperatures for different rooms.

* Turn your thermostat down three degrees and spend your savings on a beautiful Fair Isle jumper. And a cardy. And a fleece. Just kidding!

* Whatever you do, don't install an open "flame effect" fire in an existing grate. These gas burners are so inefficient that they are not even regarded as heating appliances - their function is assumed to be purely decorative - and so have no minimum efficiency requirement (expect 20 per cent). If you really want to gaze into the flickering light of a fire, you'll have to sell up, move out and buy an axe.


Get a woolly jumper for your baby: hand-knitted organic Shetland woollen jumpers start at £32 from Cambridge Baby ( www.cambridgebaby.co.uk).


Make the most of the "gas" in your tank too with this car-sharing scheme: www.liftshare.org.