Wood fires in the suburbs: affordability, a retro trip, or reconnecting with nature?

It is winter here in Australia, and at our place we have started lighting fires to keep warm.

I live in inner-city Sydney, in a reasonably densely populated but still decidedly suburban part of the city with small land parcels, and archetypal Australian varieties of Victorian and Edwardian terraces. Homes in our neighbourhood were built a century ago or more, with double-brick cavity walls, front verandahs and high ceilings.

Sydney is in a warm temperate climatic zone 34 degrees south of the equator. Hot and humid in summer, mild in winter with crisp mornings but pleasantly warm afternoons, most Sydneysiders spend more time and money on ways to cool than to heat their houses. Most inner-city homes were built with only one or two open fireplaces to keep warm. Central heating has never felt warranted in a city that is “cold” only for a few weeks a year. Open fireplaces have been mostly idle since the 1970s, with the advent of cheap gas, electric bar and column heaters (and with grimy memories of coal-fired smog). No longer a viable means to stay warm in winter, Sydney’s century-old open fireplaces and chimneys have instead become ornate “original features” that add to the heritage character (and price) of inner-city terraces.

In search of warmth

My own family has been arguing around possible ways to stay warm without consuming large amounts of electricity, and getting stung by increasing electricity prices. (The relevant state regulatory authority recently announced that electricity prices would rise by an average of 18 percent based on a mix of infrastructure investment costs and the introduction of a nationwide carbon pollution tax.) This was, for our family, a classic sustainability dilemma: with two toddler-aged children suffering this winter’s round of colds and flus, the house really does need to be a bit warmer on the coldest days. But for sustainability and financial reasons we don’t want to turn on our portable, and inefficient, electric column heaters. Installing reverse-cycle air-conditioning is an expensive initial outlay (as is installing solar energy panels), and in any case we’ve spent successive summers resisting air-conditioning on principle – so why give in to needing the very same technology to heat us in winter?

It was then that I remembered that our fireplaces were in full working order when we bought our house three years ago. These homes were originally built with capacity for lighting fires, and we have inherited this vernacular infrastructure. Why not use it?

I convinced the family that we should try lighting fires.

The return of the open fire

Since we started lighting the occasional fire, I have noticed other signals that the inner-city open fireplace is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.

I took my kids to the local hardware store a fortnight ago. I knew I’d be able to buy open-fire fuel there. Sure enough, they did: there were bags of quasi-coal briquettes produced specifically for open fireplaces, as well as cheap bushwood, and a range of new “eco-log” products made of recycled materials. In fact, there were lots of options. Great piles of fire fuel. Palette after palette of it, surrounded by gaggles of inner-city types reading labels, hauling 20 kg bags of briquettes and boxes of eco-logs onto their trolleys. Waiting in the checkout aisles people spoke of better and worse fuels, the merits of eco-logs versus bushwood, and how to stretch out an open fire and minimise costs. And they also talked about abandoning increasingly unaffordable electric and gas heating.

I’m not sure whether this is a mere retro trip in honour of the romantic log fire, a means of middle-class resistance to state-imposed electricity price hikes, or a genuinely cost-effective alternative for households who are trying to stay warm on limited budgets.

Carbon, connections, contradictions

In the meantime, this prosaic example has made me rethink conversations had recently within AUSCCER. They include:

  • The ambiguities of calculating carbon emissions. Would lighting the occasional open-fire of this sort increase the carbon emissions required to heat our family, compared with electric or gas heaters? In the UK and North America, bloggers have debated this in relation to wood-fired home heaters, and there is far from consensus on the metrics. New recycled eco-log products do seem to significantly reduce emissions, according to research from the Canadian EPA, but the type of wood product burned can mean resulting carbon emissions vary by up to 75 percent. Exactly how this stacks up against electricity used to heat homes is moot, especially if we factor in local power generation systems (coal-fired power plants, by and large, here in Australia) and the temporal dimension. Here in Sydney, we are talking about much more highly variable, and more intermittent, heating practices than in colder climates. This rules out economies of scale and efficiencies gained by thermostat-controlled central heating. At the very least, future research could better model highly variable wood products, frequency of burning practices and carbon emission impacts of alternative energy sources used to heat homes in specific geographical contexts.
  • Dilemmas of decision-making in everyday life: my colleagues Christine Eriksen and Nick Gill have examined the complexities of landowners’ practices in relation to fire risk and preparedness on the rural-urban fringe. They argue that landowners bring “agency to bushfire preparedness in the relationships between everyday procedures, dilemmas, and tradeoffs”. There is a parallel, it seems, with decisions about lighting fires in suburban homes in the city: families operate around daily procedures (and occasionally change them), confront dilemmas, and make tradeoffs – not all of which are ideal.
  • Where are the consequences of our resource consumption patterns felt? Is it better that the pollution impacts of staying warm be felt locally rather than some place else? On the other hand, no-one wants to return to Dickensian scenes of urban smoke haze and coal-grime covered streets. What quantity of localised smoke is tolerable, and is it worse than shifting the pollution impacts onto distant others? The burden of transforming resource and energy use is unevenly carried.
  • The link between health and environment: research by Fay Johnston and David Bowman from UTAS has drawn links between wood fire smoke and increased death rates, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory diseases. Their research was on an entirely different scale (landscape fires and widespread forest burning), but nevertheless there are open debates about health impacts of home fires too.
  • Ought the risk of such problems be measured against other kinds of complexities and materialities? Buying fuel, hauling it home and lighting an open fire makes immediate the materiality of the carbon being burned – as opposed to the distant, disembodied coal-fired power station enrolled when households habitually switch on (or simply leave on all winter) their electric heater. Every time I light a fire, I make an immediate assessment of the material being burned and whether it is worth it. We have open-fire movie nights, eat dinner in front of the fire, move our laptops into this one warm room and work their instead of at cold office desks. Sociality is a clear benefit. We appreciate the fire, its heat, its smell. Perhaps we humans are hard-wired to gather round fires: the hearth as a source of human communality. More prosaically, in our home we are, I would suggest, a touch more conscious of the financial and environmental sacrifices involved. We feel lucky to be toasty warm when the fire is burning, and are reminded of those without such means.
  • Human-nonhuman relations: might the wood fire renaissance be better framed in terms of debates about urban natures and the entangling of non-human others – such as fire – in suburban lounge-rooms? Are urban house fire tragedies more likely? My kids are certainly learning to appreciate the power and danger of fire.
  • Systems of provision: is government likely to have predicted this kind of switch? In some ways switching to wood takes households “off the grid”, but it connects households to other kinds of “grids”. What are the wider economic, infrastructural and resource use implications if everyone switched to this form of heating? How might shifting patterns of demand alter prices for fuel, availability of resources, or exacerbate downstream environmental impacts in unintended ways? Some eco-logs appear to be made from forest industry by-products here in Australia; others from recycled sawdust from Indonesia. Which are more likely to be linked to dubious forestry practices? Other eco-log products are made from coffee-grounds. Does that mean we need to factor in the chain of impacts related to coffee production as well?

Household decisions about resource use are evidently both economic and emotional, social and instinctive. Our choices are not simply determined by rationalist considerations of pros and cons, as if the total balance sheet of environmental and economic considerations were easily knowable and calculable in the midst of everyday decisions. I doubt any of the folk buying eco-logs at my local hardware store had done online research on comparative carbon footprints, but I bet they were acutely conscious of recent hikes in energy prices. The connected household makes ethical decisions within the tangible and knowable parameters of social life, entwined in wider networks and assemblages.

Like so many other everyday consumption choices, something as simple as lighting a fire seems on second thought irrevocably complex. Perhaps our open fire will be little more than a treasured luxury every now and then. Meanwhile across Sydney households are voting with their (cold) feet and revisiting wood fires, whether it’s ideal or not.

Household Sustainability: Challenges and Dilemmas in Everyday Life, is a new book co-written by Chris Gibson, with Carol Farbotko, Lesley Head, Nick Gill and Gordon Waitt, due for release by Edward Elgar in 2013. Chris Gibson can be followed on twitter: @profcgibson