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SOLVED: What's a DEFRA-Approved Woodburning Stove?

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

I was asked to write an article for the Stove World UK website about DEFRA-approved woodburning stoves.

In essence, this article just needs to explain what a DEFRA-approved woodburning stove is, why some woodburning stoves are approved and others are not, and most importantly, why you should care if you are contemplating purchasing one.

The Short Answer

The answers to all of these questions are not that complicated. In short, there are two reasons for buying a DEFRA-approved woodburning stove: one is because your house is in a place where you're not allowed to have a woodburning stove unless it's DEFRA-approved. So that's pretty straightforward and frankly you don't need to know any more than that. The other reason is because you think you (or the environment) might benefit from the features you'll find on a DEFRA-approved stove. And obviously you need to know a little bit more about them before you decide if a DEFRA-approved stove is right for you.

Good sense and practical experience will tell you that the best place to start is by searching Google for information, but just for a giggle I thought I'd start with the DEFRA website. Or Defra, as they call it. Going off on a tangent if I may, at what point does an acronym become a word that is grammatically permissible to write in title case? The British Broadcasting Corporation isn't "Bbc" and the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation isn't "Hsbc". Maybe it only becomes a word when you can speak it out loud because it's got a pronounceable sequence of vowels and consonants? But, to coin a phrase, I digress.

Exploring the Defra Home page

In case you don't know, Defra (or DEFRA) stands for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

Defra doesn't actually have its own website. There's one big gov.uk website for all government departments, each with its own sort-of Home page and a bazillion other pages. The Defra home page (www.gov.uk/defra) contains 135 links, so there's a lot to take in. It's broken up into several sections. At the top there's a block of links to mostly unconnected subjects, which are presumably the things that the Defra webmaster thinks are the most likely reason for you be visiting, including "Pet travel: entering/returning to the UK", "Get your dog microchipped" and "Rural grants and payments". Nothing about woodburning stoves but it's early days yet.

There's a section of press releases and news stories; then "latest" news. So far as I know, there haven't been any recent developments in woodburning stove regulation, so I feel it's safe to skim over this. There's a "What we do" section with a link to "Environmental quality". This seems like a good bet. The reason Defra takes an interest in woodburning stoves is because they burn fuel. Burning fuel, no matter how you do it, has an impact on the environment to some degree. So I'll come back to that. Next there are social media links. They could be good for a laugh. So I'll come back to those, too.

Next, there's a Policies section. I'm not seeking to change the regulation of woodburning stoves, so I probably don't need that. Then there's a Documents section split into four subsections (if you love documents, you're gonna love subsections). One of these is presumably going to contain documents about stoves, so I'll come back to that one, too.

The next part of the Home page contains brief profiles of Ministers and management with links to pages containing more details about them; no use to me. Then a Contact section. Maybe I can email them and they'll tell me where to find more information? Hmm. That will probably be a last resort. It says "We aim to reply to emails or letters within fifteen working days". It's Wednesday March 30th today. So if I email them now it could theoretically take until Tuesday April 19th. There's a list of links to "Corporate information" and links to "Jobs and contracts" information. That doesn't sound useful. There's a Freedom of Information section. So far as I know, woodburning stove regulations are not shrouded in secrecy, so nothing there for me. And finally there's a "list" of "High profile groups within Defra". There's one group on the list of "groups", so it's a bit of a misnomer - perhaps they're hoping some of their other groups will one day become high-profile enough to warrant inclusion.

So I have discovered three possible avenues of further research. The Environment Quality page, the Social Media section (will it take 15 working days to get a tweet from Defra? It would be interesting to find out) and the Documents section.

Environmental Quality

I click on Environmental Quality and I'm taken to a list of 40 links to documents, all published in the last month-and-a-bit. And at the bottom it tells me it's the first of 12 pages. The links have titles like "Exning Estate Company: application made to abstract water" and "SR2015 No 2: storage and handling of crude oil". The word stove does not appear and based on what I've seen, I'm not inclined to proceed to page two. However, there's a search box. That's bound to yield the information I need. Right?

I type in "woodburning stoves". Zero results. But "wood burning stoves" gives me two results. One of them is "High pollution episode warning: First 'summer-smog' of 2011" - doesn't sound pertinent. But the other is "Defra guidance on Local Authority Pollution Control (LAPC) regime". For a moment I thought that sounded promising. But I should have known better.

From what I can tell, this is very definitely not a document telling me which woodburning stoves are approved by Defra for use in a smokeless zone and which are not. In fact, it appears to be advice for local authorities on how to make sure factories are compliant with air pollution restrictions. The word "stove" does not appear, but the word "wood" appears a few times. The search results page clearly says "2 documents containing wood burning stoves" but my guess is that "wood" was enough to make the list. In other words, the search results page is lying to me.

Defra Documents

The documents section is broken up into Our announcements, Our consultations, Our publications and Our statistics. I don't think I want statistics but I'm not sure what section I do want. A quick look at Consultations reveals it to be what it sounds like - reports on completed public consultations and ways to contribute to ongoing public consultations. In other words, no use to me. The Announcements section has links to 1,365 announcements but, like the Environmental Quality section, it also has a search box. This time I get 55 results when I search "wood burning stoves" but I'm probably in the wrong place - these are all press releases and speech transcripts and not a single one has the word "stove" in the title. Next I try Our publications. The search brings up 28 results. Again, not a single one has the word "stove" in the title. I'm clearly not going to find anything that is specifically about stoves.

Social Media or "How do I microchip my tortoise?"

Okay, I am not expecting much, but having failed to find anything on Defra's website, let's try Twitter. Here's my tweet to them at 5.30pm on March 30th 2016. Let's see if I get a response:

@DefraGovUK I understand there are certain wood burning stoves that are Defra approved. Is there a page on your website that explains this?

And it turns out they have a separate Twitter account for Air Quality, so I thought I'd try that, too:

@DefraUKAir I understand there are certain wood burning stoves that are Defra approved. Is there a page on your website that explains this?

In the meantime, there's the Defra Youtube channel. Perhaps here's a video that tells you all about woodburning stove compliance. Yeah, right. There are dozens of videos on their channel dating back eight years, but nothing that mentions stoves. If you want to watch a video about Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser talking about neonicotinoids then you are in luck. But woodburning stove regulations? Nothing.

Having a look at Defra's Facebook page there's not much evidence of interaction between Defra and the general public. There are of course the typical random and badly-written questions and rants from visitors to the page such as "How do I microchip my tortoise?" and the Reviews page shows that Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells is alive and well. Defra's Linkedin page is much the same - it's clear that I'm not going to find any information about stoves. The research will have to continue tomorrow., In the meantime I'll await a response from one of Defra's Twitter accounts. You never know...

Update: March 31st 

Predictably, there has been no response from Defra directly, but the Great British public has come to my aid in the form of Alistair Dorman-Smith, a Geordie exile and fellow web developer in Oxfordshire, who rapidly responded "you probably want the defra smoke controls website" and sent me a link to this page on the gov.uk website.

In fact it's not on the Defra website. The breadcrumb trail for the page links to Home, Housing and local services, Safety and the environment in your community, so it's no wonder I didn't find it.

The page is called "Smoke control areas: the rules" and it contains a link to a Defra page that lists all of the  appliances that you can use for burning wood even in a smokeless zone.

So, no thanks to the Defra website but courtesy of a website designer in Oxfordshire, I'm really getting somewhere. But does the site actually tell us anything other than which woodburning stoves are Defra-approved? Like, for example, why Defra-approved stoves are Defra-approved and the rest are not? Further reading is required...