Helping people burn better

Environment Canterbury air quality implementation officers Mark and Marie collectively have ten years’ experience helping Cantabrians get the most out of their fires. They love showing people how to build a roaring fire that’s smoke-free, so we can all breathe cleaner air.

During winter, Mark and Marie are busy working with people right across Canterbury, teaching them how to improve their home heating burning technique.

Their aim is to help the public reduce air pollution through education, teaching people that have previously had excessively smoky chimneys how to burn clean and hot.

Education before enforcement

“Our job is about education and information. We’re friendly and non-threatening, and we really enjoy meeting people in our communities and helping them be warm in their homes in winter, by burning in the cleanest way possible,” Marie said.

Mark agrees, “Any smoke coming out the chimney is unburnt wood and essentially money going up in smoke.”

“We get so much satisfaction from showing people how to get the best out of their wood and log burner. People often tell us they’ve never been able to get their fire so hot. It’s really gratifying for us to help people get it right, and the people we help are usually very grateful.”

Mark and Marie are both log burner users themselves, and they feel saddened when they hear stories of people that are too frightened to light their fires for fear of getting in trouble.

“Environment Canterbury is not trying to stop people from using their log burners – we want everyone to be warm in their homes during winter. What we’re concerned with is reducing the amount of unnecessary smoke emitted from log burners and reducing air pollution,” Mark said.

“We believe that through education, we can achieve a win-win scenario for everyone – those with log burners learn how to achieve a warmer, cheaper fire, and everyone in the community benefits from breathing cleaner air.”

Mark and Marie say that enforcement action is rarely necessary, as their education approach works so well.

“Enforcement action is a last resort for us – we can achieve so much more by working with someone to improve their burning technique. Issuing an abatement notice and a fine won’t actually improve air quality outcomes, so we really try to work with people first,” Marie said.

Responding to smoky chimney reports

smoky chimneyMany of the people Mark and Marie work with have come to their attention because community members have reported excessive smoke coming from their chimney on multiple occasions.

Marie said, “For some, this can be confronting and initially they may feel a bit defensive. However, we are very clear from the outset that our aim is to help them get the most out of their fire, and if they follow our advice then it will benefit them as well as their neighbours.”

“We have never failed to diagnose the reason(s) behind a smoky chimney – there’s always a cause, whether it be damp wood, overloading the burner, not enough oxygen, or poor loading technique. Combustion is a science, and we can always get to the bottom of it,” said Mark.

However, Mark and Marie want to make it clear that Environment Canterbury is not targeting fires that are starting up. There is a window of 15 minutes when the fire is getting going where the chimney may smoke – but any longer than 15 minutes, and there’s likely an issue with the technique or the wood being used.

How to report a smoky chimney

No matter where you are in Canterbury, a chimney that is smoking for more than 15 minutes can be reported to Environment Canterbury by contacting customer services or via the Snap Send Solve app.

Mark said, “We used to have better burning advisors (which were often referred to as ‘smoke spotters’). It’s been two years since we’ve had those advisors out in the community each night, and now we rely on the public’s reports of excessively smoky chimneys.”

“But just because we’re no longer out monitoring each night in winter, doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply. We all have a responsibility to reduce our environmental impact and burning smoke-free is part of that,” said Marie.

What happens once a report is made

For first time properties, a letter is sent with advice on how to burn cleaner. In most cases, this is sufficient and there won’t be any further reports for that property. Anyone can educate themselves on how to burn better by visiting our Warmer Cheaper website, which has information about good wood, step-by-step instructions on burning technique, video demonstrations and more.

For properties with multiple reports, Mark and Marie will do some investigative work into the kind of burner that’s registered at the property, followed by an offer for a home visit to provide an in-home better burning demonstration.

“Most people are very willing to work with us – we are nice people who want to help, and people get a sense of that when they meet us. We provide an excellent service that includes assessing how people store their wood, recommending what kind of wood to burn, checking their wood moisture, checking the size of their logs, showing them how to load the fire and more. We always leave them with a wee freebie too, such as a bag of kindling. We really try to make it worth their while,” Marie said.

Air quality rules

Environment Canterbury is responsible for managing and improving air quality in Canterbury – striving to meet the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality (NESAQ) and the Canterbury Air Regional Plan (CARP).

There are eight Clean Air Zones in Canterbury, where air quality needs the most improvement. For those living in Clean Air Zones, stricter rules apply including the type of log burner than can be used. A modern, more efficient burner such as an ultra-low emission burner (ULEB) is required in these Zones, or other, cleaner forms of home heating such as a heat pump.

However, if you have a non-compliant burner and meet certain criteria, you may be eligible for a temporary waiver so you can continue to use your current burner and keep warm in winter.

Mark said, “We absolutely don’t want people cold in their homes, afraid to light their fires. Please contact us to discuss your options if you have a non-compliant burner in a Clean Air Zone. We can also advise what options are available for financial assistance, if needed.”

Top tips for a warmer, cheaper fire

drawing of stacked wood

The ‘upside-down’ fire-building technique

  1. Use dry, well-seasoned wood
  2. Adopt good burning technique
  3. Use a modern, well-maintained burner

Marie said, “We urge log burner users to plan ahead – get your wood in the height of summer or spring when it’s cheaper and dry. We know winter comes around every year, so be prepared!”

“If you are concerned that the wood you have purchased is too wet, then get in touch and we can test it for you. If the moisture level is above 25%, we can help you work with your wood provider to have the wood replaced,” said Mark.

“At the end of the day, everyone has a right to clean air and good health. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”