10 June 2022

Where there's smoke, there's ire: wood heaters in the firing line as temps drop and pollution rises

| Lottie Twyford
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In the ACT, woodfire heater smoke is the largest source of winter air pollution. Photo: Ergyn Meshekran.

Low-income Canberrans may soon be able to replace their woodfire heaters for free, following a motion brought forward by ACT Greens Member for Brindabella Johnathan Davis.

Concerns over the health, environmental and climate impacts of wood heaters are nothing new, particularly for Mr Davis’ constituents in the Tuggeranong Valley.

A recent report showed woodfire heater smoke is the largest source of winter air pollution in Canberra.

Currently, around 14 per cent of people in the ACT use a woodfire heater as their main source of heating.

Analysis of air quality shows the impacts of smoke are worse down south because the shape of the valley and temperature inversions hold pollutants closer to the ground.

In 2020, there were 37 days in Tuggeranong when pollution levels were above acceptable levels; of those, 13 can be attributed to woodfire heater emissions, Mr Davis told the ACT Legislative Assembly.

“People are noticing. I have been contacted by many constituents who are worried for their own health, the health of their families and the health of their community,” he said.

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While the ACT Government already has a Wood Heater Replacement Program which offers rebates up to $1250 for the removal and disposal of wood-burning heaters, or replacement with an efficient electric system, Mr Davis argued this wasn’t well used.

“It is not fit-for-purpose,” he said.

“Not only has money rolled over each year in each budget in each year since 2016, showing it is not well utilised, but anecdotal evidence would also suggest most who take advantage of the scheme are getting the rebate after they had already made the transition and had the upfront funds to do so.”

He said the trial must first be targeted at low-income households to address the latter.

Johnathan Davis

ACT Greens MLA Johnathan Davis raised the issue of wood heaters on behalf of his constituents in the Tuggeranong Valley. Photo: Region Media.

He called on the ACT Government to establish a trial which would completely remove all upfront costs associated with the transition from wood heaters to electric heaters.

This would include the removal of the wood heater, purchase and installation of a new reverse cycle unit and the repairs of any property damage associated with the transition.

“I’ve heard from households who want to transition from wood heaters to electric heaters. Unfortunately, current programs provide little incentive to make the switch,” Mr Davis said.

“With rebates requiring households to have the funds upfront, it is difficult for low-income households to see value in the program.

“I know there are some in the community who will continue to advocate for a ban on wood heaters; however, I believe in a ‘more carrot, less stick’ approach. I’m confident that a trial like the one I’ve proposed strikes the right balance.”

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Mr Davis’s motion also called on the government to continue to raise awareness of the programs and remove as many of the “hoops to jump through” as possible in the application stage.

The ACT Government’s Bushfire Smoke and Air Quality Strategy 2021-2025, published in November 2021, highlighted the importance of people using their wood heaters correctly.

Installing wood heaters in some new development areas is also prohibited in the ACT.

Mr Davis’ motion passed the ACT Legislative Assembly with tripartisan support.

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Let’s be clear, burning wood isn’t safe no matter the wood just like standing next to a smoker which is why smoking is banned in most places. I’m breathing in smoke all year around believe it or not in which I can’t keep out of my own home coming from a Woodfire Heater.

I’ve contacted my local council who referred me to the EPA who are just as useless as the council. It seems to be not their problem but it will be I assure you

Firefighters are compensated for breathing in smoke when when putting out fires getting sick very sick , the only difference is I don’t put out fire but breathe the same smoke. My lungs state that I have smoked all my life but haven’t smoked a single cigarette in my life.

No compensation claim will pay for your health and quality of life.

Clearly, there are few people in Canberra who have heard of masonry heaters, least of all Green politicians who should have the wit to research the possibilities.. Those who have, and are using these clean and efficient wood burners, are enjoying all the benefits of a glowing fire and a warm home without the smoke hazards associated with the messy steel boxes to which Australians have wedded themselves.
Masonry heaters burn hot and fast, turning smoke, soot, creosote and gases; all pollution and waste, into low emissions heat. Then, instead of ejecting the heat straight out of the flue, they pass it through channels within the masonry mass, where it is absorbed. When the fire dies out after a few hours, the heat radiates gently out for up to 24 hours. One fire a day. No mess. Minimal emissions. No soot. No smoke. No blocked flues. Put one of these in every house in Tuggeranong and the morning smog would be a thing of the past, along with rising gas and electricity bills. Light it in the evening, enjoy a blazing fire, then come to breakfast in a warm home without a whisper of pollution escaping your home all night.
500 year old technology solving the problems of today.

Even the new wood heaters still emit toxins. Heat pumps don’t.

Capital Retro12:43 pm 15 Jun 22

But in these extra cold post global warming times wood fires still work while electricity powered heat pumps won’t work when the temperature drops below 6 celcius. When you are cold no one cares about toxins and saving the planet.

Stop burning stuff. Great idea this trial. The few burners ruin it for the rest.
“Every single disease that is non-communicable is impacted by air pollution.
It is not only involved in worsening diseases but in causing them, and new diseases that would not otherwise occur are happening because of air pollution.” – Sir Stephen Holgate, National Clean Air Conference Nov. 20/21
Think about this carefully.

Capital Retro12:58 pm 15 Jun 22

Jet aircraft and cruise ships burn fossil fuels, Clive.

Are you happy to ban them?

Why should people like me who can’t travel by aircraft of ship be “left in the cold” because you want my wood heater banned while your mate Sir Stephen Holgate jets around the world lecturing us about what we should do?

Capital Retro,
I don’t know, could be something to do with the fact that wood fires cause significant localised air pollution in cities causing numerous health problems, whereas jet aircraft and cruise ships don’t.

Chewy, are wood fires a recent invention? I was led to believe bushfires were a natural part of the management of our forests. They produce the same types of greenhouse gases as what nature does already. That isn’t the case for aircraft and cruise ships.

There you go, CR, with your usual exaggerated BS and inability to provide factual information to support your non-case.
The article states “currently, around 14 per cent of people in the ACT use a woodfire heater as their main source of heating”, i.e. around 65,000 Canberrans – which, if we use the standard nuclear family, would equate to just over 16,000 households.
A 2017 study found that at any given time there are an average of 9,728 planes in the air at any given time around the world – I expect that figure is the same or lower these days due to reduced travel because of COVID. Let’s add cruise ships – apparently there’s just over 300 operating at any one time … let’s be generous and say all up 10,500 air and sea vessels.
Now if all those planes were flying, and cruise ships sailing, in an area the size of Canberra, then I expect there would be a push to ban them – but the world is just a tad bigger than Canberra!

Capital Retro1:59 pm 15 Jun 22

Fair comment chewy but aren’t we fighting climate globally?

We are closing down our coal industry not because people living near the coal fired power stations are complaining about pollution but because we are going to save the planet by eliminating the global 0.05% emissions they make.

Meanwhile the rest of the world is building about 300 new coal burning power stations a year.

Capital Retro2:27 pm 15 Jun 22

Sorry to answer that question directed to you chewy, but Sam is correct however the warmists now claim those “unprecedented” bushfires were caused by climate change.

A big bushfire year or a large volcano eruption will produce more more emissions that man could make in a thousand years.

Capital Retro3:15 pm 15 Jun 22

What is the BS and lack of factual info you are referring to, JustRaving?

Seriously, CR. More BS statements that you cannot support with facts?

“A big bushfire year or a large volcano eruption will produce more more emissions that man could make in a thousand years.”

– Emissions from volcanoes since 1750 are thought to be at least 100 times smaller than those from fossil fuel burning. -> https://www.carbonbrief.org/what-do-volcanic-eruptions-mean-for-the-climate/

– A 2020 article from (then) Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources states that the 2019-20 bushfires will have negligible impact on Australia’s progress towards its 2020 or 2030 target, and further states that Australia’s eucalypt forests re-absorb carbon to balance the carbon emitted during the fires. -> https://www.industry.gov.au/data-and-publications/estimating-greenhouse-gas-emissions-from-bushfires-in-australias-temperate-forests-focus-on-2019-20

You call the people providing these factual reports “warmists”. I’d happily read any credible scientific evidence you can produce to support your denialist stance.

Sam Oak,
Can’t remember us lighting bushfires daily in winter in the middle of the city, so I don’t know how they’re relevant?

The discussion isn’t around climate change or greenhouse gases, it’s about air pollution.

So whilst bushfires do affect air quality, they are sporadic and occur almost exclusively in Summer where winds and air mixing rates are much higher.

Capital Retro,
I see you too have decided to throw Climate Change in to the mix in a discussion around local air quality.

You do realise they aren’t the same right?

Although you do make a good point about how polluting Coal Fired power plants are. The people who live in those areas rightly should care about the impacts of those plants on their health.

And we aren’t closing down our coal industry, those plants simply aren’t economical anymore so they are being phased out as cheaper renewables come on line.

It’s the reason why we aren’t building any new coal plants, I thought you of all people wouldn’t want to pay more for your electricity bill.

Chewy, how did the Ngunnawal people survive Canberra winters before European settlement? One has to think they lighted a wood fire or two? We’re they worried about air quality, pollution and global warming too?

Are you really that stupid as to compare pre-white settlement and now, Sam Oak?

While it’s hard to know, the Ngunnawal population prior to white settlement is estimated to be around 4,000 and their country extended from (modern day) Goulburn to Young to Cootamundra to Tumut to Canberra.

So while they may have “lighted” (sic) a wood fire or two (two thousand even?), the area over which they moved suggests they had little impact on global warming!

Sam Oak, compares small nomadic tribes from thousands of years ago to modern, technologically advanced city of 450 000+ people.

I don’t know Sam, perhaps you can work out why those two things might be different. It sounds really difficult to work out.

The Ngunnawal people even managed to survive without landlords too. Must have been a utopia.

HI Clive, Couldn’t agree with you more. Firefighters are compensated for breathing in smoke when when putting out fires getting sick very sick , the only difference is I don’t put out fire but breathe the same smoke. My lungs state that I have smoked all my life but haven’t smoked a single cigarette in my life.

No compensation claim will pay for your health and quality of life.

cleanaircanberra10:16 pm 12 Jun 22

The science speaks for itself. The federal environment department reports the burning of wood for domestic heating is responsible for almost 70 percent of Canberra’s air pollution each year while cars generate less than 10 percent. The ACT government says air pollution increases threefold in Tuggeranong every winter. This is a health issue for us all ! Nothing else needs to be said but more needs to be done.

When walking thru Bunnings today I saw a large range of impressive looking wood-fired heaters.
Our winter heating costs could be heavily subsidised by the “free” branches dropped into our yard, by the neighbour’s gum trees and those dropped onto the nature strip by our Government street trees. (I’m assuming the Government would be ok with me burning their branches, because they never collect them?).
Must admit I’m tempted.

Sorry but if you even look at a tree wrong here in Canberra you will be fined a significant amount of money. The leaves and branches they drop must be left to create a natural habitat for native termites and other insects.

Mr Davis, now on a salary that puts him the top 5%, wants to lecture us

You really need to seek help for that green-eyed monster you always carry around, Futureproof

Those reverse cycle air conditioning and heating systems are terrible for the Canberra climate -I’ve suffered with one for years -the main problem is in the early morning when everything is frosted over -the damn thing has to stop about every half hour to defrost and one freezes while one waits and then you get a refreshing blast of cold air as the “thing” starts up again.Mine has now stopped altogether and needs to be replaced -I would love a gas system but these will probably be banned eventually and the price of gas is going up and up.

In 2022 14% of Canberrans use wood as a primary heating source? Hmmm.

From the same party that supports everyone having 2g of heroin in their back pocket – it’ll be cheaper to shoot up than it is to warm up soon enough.

The Greens and their blinkered supporters once again show their ignorance of the real world and how out of touch they are with the real battlers of Canberra. Gas prices are rising. Electricity prices are rising. For low income people their only option to stay warm as temperatures plummet in an icy winter is by burning wood. But this becomes an opportunity for their rich and privileged neighbours to complain. The smell! Oh, the smoke! Those dreadful people don’t care. Lets complain to the Greens. The party now representing the rich, the privileged, the organic latte drinking bored middle class matrons in their comfortably warm mansions, unaffected by the rising energy prices caused by their feel good pressure to shut down cheaper coal.

Coal plants becoming unreliable, supply chain issues and a delay in more large scale renewable power generation coming coming on line are some of the main reasons why power prices are rising.

Coal is more expensive than renewable power and has been for many years now.

So If you actually wanted cheaper, more reliable power as you claim, you’d be promoting more and quicker investment in renewables.

Chewy, if renewables were in actual fact cheaper then the free market would have invested in it years ago. Fact is it needs to be propped up by subsidies. I have solar on my roof (surprise, surprise but only to increase the value of my property) and it does bugger all to offset electricity usage and my family is below average in terms of our usage. Must be saying something when just about every house on the street has solar panels and it still needs electricity from the grid to power the neighbourhood. What about all the farmland those solar and wind farms are taking up. Flat fertile land that could be used for agriculture or housing?

Dear All,

I would encourage Canberrans to read my Facebook comments (including detailed research) to the Chief Minister & Mr Davis MLA regarding wood heaters. Everything is not as it appears.

Government policy should be evidenced based, not drawn from mythology.




The Government wants people to stop using natural gas and wood and move to “carbon-neutral” electricity. We have a 30-year-old ducted reverse cycle air-conditioning system and I’m sure there are many people like us with old inefficient systems who would also like access to FREE upgrades like Mr Davis is hoping to offer to selected people with wood-fired heaters.

Capital Retro5:07 pm 11 Jun 22

Sounds a lot like a Rudd 2.0 Pink Bats scheme.

I’d like to know what Master Davis’s definition of a “low income family” is in Canberra. I may qualify myself.

Definition of low income is only two Teslas in the garage

Everyone has a right to keep warm in winter; but not at the cost of my lungs. We have a few people with wood heaters and they are disgusting.
They are foul smelling and whatever they burn smells toxic and both my nostrils and lungs burn from this.
Pure black smoke bellows out of both of these homes.
We can’t hang our washing out, I can’t go outside because of my asthma.
We have complained as two of the houses are commission houses and asked if there could be an alternative they could offer them…but nothing can be done.
So each Autumn/Winter the same thing happens and each year we complain and nothing.
So all our clothes are put in the dryer or hung inside. Along with me having to stay inside.
So hopefully there maybe something in the future.
We had a wood fire for many years and we never had the sort of smoke that these make.
We changed to clean energy, alternative heating and fully insulated our house (walls, roof and underfloor over 10 years ago and we hardly need our heater on and in summer only require ceiling fans.
But something really needs to be done, sooner rather than later.

Using properly cured wood (I wait 3 years minimum) reduces smoke haze.

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