We have been splitting logs lately, the timber has been lying in the yard for a couple of years and now we want to get it converted into logs to finish seasoning indoors so we have been busy with the firewood processor. Looking at the pile of logs and thinking about selling it all next winter has led me to consider the best way to market and sell our produce. Since Trading Standards and the Weights and Measures Act 1985 have little to say regarding firewood we are a bit in the dark when it comes to quantities, packaging and pricing. With most goods the law is quite clear and very strict with serious penalties for suppliers who sell goods in quantities or measures outside those prescribed in the Act. Firewood however is a bit of a mystery, I suspect that it falls under the category of solid fuel, but its hard to confirm if thats the case. However it is viewed officially it would appear that the market is wholly unregulated.
Logs are sold in a variety of ways, here are a few of the most common:
By weight; usually by the “ton” however this is almost never confirmed by any kind of weigh bridge ticket something which is likely to be illegal as far as the weights and measures act goes as one thing they are strict on is selling by weight. There is however a fundamental problem for the consumer with buying timber by the ton, this is simply that the wetter the wood the more it weighs. So there is an obvious incentive for the supplier to sell unseasoned wet wood as this will significantly ‘up’ his margin, if he bothers to weigh it at all that is! Supermarkets have been dicing with the same issue for years when it comes to meat, hanging the meat performs the same function as seasoning logs, it dries out a little and whilst the flavour may improve, and possibly the price per kilo, the lost moisture is lost profit since they bought the meat by weight in the first place. They have got around this problem by injecting the meat with “stuff” to bulk up its weight, and apparently this is ok with trading standards! This has gone on for years of course, in times gone by bakers used to be infamous for adulterating their flour with fillers such as bone meal, chalk, sawdust and even gypsum! Thankfully at the end of the 19th century laws were brought in to standardise what could be called flour, maybe its time they took a look at bacon! (all that white stuff that comes out as it fries is the supermarkets added filler).
So back to logs, selling by weight simply encourages the supplier to sell wet wood, and wet wood is not good for burning, not only does it produce little heat but because it burns at a lower temperature the combustion is incomplete, so gaseous tar and soot condense in your flue potentially leading to chimney fires. It would perhaps be ok to buy logs by weight at a known moisture content as happens in the wood chip for biomass industry, but that rarely happens.
By far the best way to buy firewood is by volume, this way you get what you pay for, they may still be wet, but 100 logs are still 100 logs wet or dry, so now the incentive is with the supplier to sell a quality product, assuming he wants to keep your business that is. So the next problem to arise is quantifying that volume, a cubic meter is a relatively common unit and should be the ideal but thats not always the case, which leads us to what is perhaps the most common way of selling logs…..
The load. So what is a load of logs? Well, anything you want it to be really, and this is where the industry really needs some guidance from the government. The load could be a bulk bag, but these vary in size from 2 cubic meters down to less than 0.5, or it could be a vehicle of some sort, trailer, pickup, 4×4 or even a car boot. From the consumers perspective how are they to compare one ‘load’ with another, does the back of one suppliers transit van compare favourably with another’s trailer? Who knows? The upshot is the poor consumer is left in the dark. With weights and measures regulations so strict on other industries, including coal and smokeless fuel, why is it that logs are still in the dark ages when it comes to consumer protection?
The answer may lie in the fact that during the industrial revolution we abandoned wood as a fuel, only to re-discover it in the last 10 years or so, and when the laws on weights and measures were made firewood just wasn’t on the radar. But these days it is most definitely back as a serious contender in the fuel market, sales of wood burning stoves have soared thanks to the carbon neutral credentials of burning wood over fossil fuels. (don’t get me started on the carbon credentials of imported eastern european logs though!)
Its time for HM Government to wake up to the burgeoning market in firewood and apply a little common sense to the way in which our logs are sold. We could do with a standardised moisture content for firewood, so that customers can expect to be able to get a certain calorific value from their wood, at least if its advertised as ‘ready to burn’ anyway. Then theres the weight / volume issue, logs really should be sold by volume, and all prices should be advertised by the cubic meter, irrespective of the size of vessel used to deliver them. This way the consumer can confidently compare prices from one supplier to the next. We have found that selling by the cubic meter we loose out to other suppliers selling by the bulk bag, our £60 per m3 has less appeal than a £50 bulk bag even though that bag may only contain 0.6 cube, making it considerably dearer, what do we do, sell unseasoned wood in order to cut our prices further, or try and skimp on the amount we sell?. Sadly the lack of regulation is currently driving quality down as firewood producers engage in a race to the bottom to stay in the game.
So if you agree with the views expressed above please share this article on Facebook with your local trading standards office, yes they all appear to have FB accounts! You could also share it with your MP. You never know we may end up with a fairer firewood market in the not to distant future.
For some further reading here’s a helpful PDF from the Forestry Commission.