Stoves & Woodburning: What I Learnt In Sweden

Swedes love burning wood – lots of it. They’ve used it to heat their homes for generations.

And yet they’re seen as one of the most environmentally-conscious nations on the planet.

It is, after all, the home country of prominent climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg.

A contradiction, surely?

It’s with this thought in mind that I landed at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport at the start of a four day visit to the training centre for the Sveriges Skorstensfejaremästares Riksförbund (SSR) – the Swedish Master Chimney Sweeps Association.

I was part of a large contingent of UK sweeps who were keen to expand their knowledge and share best practice with our Scandinavian counterparts.

Woodburning stoves in the UK have not had a great press in the past few years. There have been concerns around air pollution (measured in PM2.5) and this undoubtedly has put some people off getting a stove.

Yet paradoxically, on a global scale Sweden, and its neighbour Finland, are among the lowest for mean population exposure to PM2.5 emissions at 6.1 and 5.9 micrograms per cubic metre respectively. The UK lags behind at 10.4mg.

So how can a country with MORE woodburning have fewer emissions?

What I discovered was pretty eye-opening…

Customer/Social Mindset

First, it’s important to understand that the Swedish mindset and mentality towards solid fuel use is quite different to the UK.

As people who have used stoves for a lot longer period of time, they are well-versed in what to burn, how to burn and how to maintain their solid fuel installations.

Sourcing and storing wood is a big part of the culture. There are no regulations or restrictions on the sale of wood. They know that wet wood doesn’t burn, so they either source wet wood and season it, or buy it ready-seasoned

They do however have regulatory frameworks around the installation of solid fuel appliances, as well as sweeping, servicing and maintenance. Apparently, it’s rare for people to ignore these ‘rules’. Whereas in the UK, we love rules but seem to love ignoring them even more, the Swedes are sticklers for them.

The Role of the Chimney Sweep

In Sweden, sweeps go through pretty intensive training and the whole system is overseen by the government. Districts are allocated to Master Sweeps who will employ people to service that area.

They will do around 10-15 sweeps per day and generally they will sweep the flue by getting onto the roof and sweeping downwards.

Most people get their chimneys swept at least once a year and every three or six years, depending on the installation, sweeps will undertake a mandatory inspection of the installation. Any faults will be reported to the owner who must act upon them.

Homes for sale with a solid fuel installation will also generally be inspected and sometimes house sales will not be able to be completed until any significant issues from the sweep are addressed.

Sometimes, notification of faulty installations will, depending on the area, be sent to the local fire chief.

Solid Fuel Installations

This for me was the biggest eye-opener. Apparently, in Sweden a woodburner, solid fuel installation etc cannot be ‘signed off’ or used until it has been inspected by a chimney sweep.

If the sweep says it is not fit for purpose it cannot be signed off or used until it is put right.

I can hear the gasps from UK chimney sweeps right now…

Because here, chimney sweeps (unless they fit an appliance themselves) play no role whatsoever in the ‘sign off’ process. Generally, an installer will fit and ‘sign off’ their own work without any third party inspection.

Any faulty installations will generally only be picked up further down the line, if at all, depending if the homeowner ever gets the chimney swept.

Installation Regulations

There are some ways of installing stoves in Sweden which would never ever be allowed in the UK.

One interesting difference is that in Sweden the ‘distance to combustible materials’ isn’t measured in millimetres, it’s more measured in temperature.

They also base these temperatures on the heat due to continued use over a period of time, whereas in the UK we generally go off the temperature an installation could get to if there was a chimney fire. So basically we go off worst case scenario.

The reason the Swedes don’t follow us on this is because, going back to the mindset argument, they are better at getting their stoves swept and inspected, so the chances of chimney fires are greatly reduced.

They also allow things like two appliances exhausting into one chimney – a complete no-no in the UK. However, if they can prove that it would work (and they have a lot of interesting kit measuring pascal readings to do this) then it would be signed off.

So To Recap…

The Swedish system seemingly has many plus-points over the UK system

⁃ Training is mandatory for sweeps and areas are regulated

⁃ Fireplaces have a two-step ‘sign off’ process rather than one-step (or in some cases none)

⁃ Fuel quality and stove operation knowledge is generally of a higher standard

⁃ Lower environment impacts due to the above

⁃ Regulations are based on normal case scenarios rather than worst case

The Flipside

Despite the above, not everything is great in Sweden. One of the big talking points among UK sweeps is the need for better regulation of sweeping. Many want the government to step in.

The Swedes have this but every sweep I spoke to lamented the fact that all this means is they have to work harder for less money. Generally, the cost of a sweep in Sweden is around £30-£40. In the UK, you’d largely expect to pay double that in some areas.

Every Swedish sweep I spoke to said that, if they could, they would raise prices. They were quite envious of our ability to set our own rates.

Swedish sweeps also have a big issue with cancer due to the fact that they sweep top-down (from the roof). This is because the natural draw of the chimney blows soot into their face.

They are currently learning how to sweep like us in the UK but they believe that, because they are squeezed on price, the time it takes to sweep bottom-upwards would mean it would take longer and therefore they wouldn’t be able to earn as much in a day.

They believe that in this respect, UK sweeps have better working practices.

So, What Could We Learn From Sweden?

My trip to Sweden was a massive eye-opener. For me it confirmed the need to continue educating customers on fuel choice and burning practices to help lower environmental impact.

I think the Swedish way of sourcing wood proves that we don’t need to treat people like children and do things like ban the sale of wet wood. That to me has always seemed impractical in any case and I do hope the government doesn’t go down that line here.

I do think though that the two-step process of having a sweep signing off new solid fuel installations has considerable merit. It would help root out poor installations before people start using them, meaning increased confidence and safety for customers.

The good installers – of whom there are many – would have nothing to fear from this and it would hopefully either raise standards among the poorer ones.

I’d like the various Competent Persons’ Schemes who govern solid fuel installations in the UK to look at bringing this in voluntarily. It wouldn’t need legislation to do this and could be seen as a great selling point for the public. It’ll be interesting to see if they do.

And finally I think the mandatory, periodical inspections are vital – particularly if a property is being sold. I’ve written in the past about this scandal and it’s high time action was taken.

For my own part, I feel visiting fellow sweeps both here and abroad is important for me in ensuring I can continue giving my customers the best service possible.

I’ve learned many new things and made some great new friends by doing this.

Thank you to everyone who made this trip possible, particularly Mark, Zak and the team at RPS and to our fabulous hosts in Sweden.

Until next time… Tack Så Mycket!

Mr Soot Chimney Sweep is a HETAS Approved Sweep, and member of the Guild of Master Chimney Sweeps, offering a professional and friendly chimney sweep and stove service. Book Mr Soot online or call 0800 0541154.

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