Islamabad - Whoever uses our briquettes once, he or she becomes our permanent customer, said Anwer Aziz Khan, founder of a briquette manufacturing company.

While sitting in his cosy office, Khan, a mechanical engineer by qualification, passionately talked as to how he started the company in 2015 after retiring from Pakistan Council of Renewable Energy Technologies (PCRET).

With the highest coal reserves, Pakistan being known as Saudi Arabia of coal, we must utilise this precious commodity for the progress of the country. In the meantime, we have to save our precious trees also from burning in stoves, he said enthusiastically.

New in Pakistan, briquettes have successfully been used around the world as they burn hotter and cleaner; are cheaper and convenient to store and handle. Being made from waste wood or coal waste through an industrial process, briquettes have strong environmental credentials.

They deliver around much more heat as compare to coal or wood.

Although briquettes could be made from waste wood, coal waste and some other materials as well, but in Pakistan, the abundance of coal make it a natural choice. Hence, briquettes are nothing but transformed shape of local coal.

Spacious fireplaces in old houses remind us that burning coal at home was once a common practice, of course, but the chimney corners were replaced with heaters after the odourless, smokeless and cheap natural gas was supplied to the households.

With scarcity of natural gas and its alternative LPG, and increasingly prone to spikes, aptly, perhaps, for an era of hard times, traditional fuels are making a comeback as a home heating fuel.

Problematic in some ways and difficult to handle, coal is nonetheless a cheaper, plentiful and locally-produced source of heat since centuries. But due to increasing cost of coal and logs, many find briquettes more attractive.

Our target market was initially northern areas where seasons are harsh and longer and where there is no option of natural gas and people depend on wood to heat their spaces and cook food. But due to high calorific value and economy, briquettes are now equally becoming popular in cities, Khan said.

The ex-factory price of one kilogram of briquettes is Rs17.50, whereas it produces almost same energy as one kilogram of coal or logs, he said while lighting a briquette in his especially-designed simple but smart stove. The price of one kilogram of coal has plunged to Rs70. The stove comes with a long exhaust pipe which can be extended as per demand.

The price of the stove is Rs1500 and it comes with a five feet exhaust pipe. More pipes can also be added as per requirement; each additional pipe costing Rs100, he explained.

Lighting a briquette is somewhat technical but once lit, it gives a constant heat up to two hours, with very less emissions, Khan demonstrated. The demonstration suggested that it required lighting up through few charcoals or other source, making it somewhat bothering, but due to cheap cost, and its ability to produce steady heat for comparatively long time, briquettes look to be worth the trouble.

For those who cannot tolerate charcoal or wood smoke and find lightning briquettes annoying but have more disposable income and appreciation for antique Victorian designs, there are some more options.

There is a range of imported cast iron burners available, mostly through social media. These classical stoves promise radiating warmth slowly into the room for comfortable and even temperature. With the alluring aesthetics of burning fire in the room - far greater efficiency and almost zero smoke and odour - there is a wide range of wood and charcoal burner stoves. With glass front - these stoves are completely closed - meaning no ash fuss and no smell of soot.

Coming in different styles and sizes, these multi-function and multi-fuel (wood and coal fed) stoves cost above Rs100,000. The niche buyers of these excessively-costly imported stoves are mostly those who appreciate romance of burning wood inside the house but without any smoke or odour.

The shift from natural gas to coal is not abrupt. With the rapidly-depleting gas reservoirs, and increasing durations of low gas pressure, Japanese gas blower heaters made their way in homes, for their ability to perform at very low gas pressure.

Impressive in built, these soundless and odourless used Japanese gas heaters with blower fans with modern features like auto start, stop and temperature control options, became instantly popular.

The shops in College Road, Rawalpindi and Blue Area, Islamabad are stocked with the used imported Japanese gas blower heaters, where one could get an old small piece, for as low as Rs3,500. Some shops sell new ones also but they are very costly as compare to used ones.

But these machines lose their charm soon as the natural gas supply gradually shuts off completely.

The sellers insist that the sales went down as the winters were becoming less harsh and shorter every passing year.

Sales have been down as compared to previous years mainly due to the fact that the winters are not that cold, said Adnan Rafique, a vendor at IJP Road. He said that in high load shedding areas, people use LPG, but those who experimented to run the gas blower heaters on LPG found it very costly.

On natural gas, the heaters work fine at very low pressure even, but the LPG is very expensive; one 11.8 kilograms cylinder burns in less than 12 days in an average use of five hours per day, said Kazim Hussain, a user.

In winters, the cost of domestic 11.8 kilograms cylinder surges up to Rs1500 which is sold for Rs1100 in summers. During harsh season, the price may escalate further.

Over the years, many explored other options also. Different types of electric heaters were in demand in used electronics shops of Sunday Bazaar, for a short span of time but eventually they also fizzled out due to increasing cost of electricity and their inefficiency to fight extreme weather of Islamabad.

With the gas supply becoming rare, the industry experts believe more and more houses will shift to burning coal and wood in coming days. But the environmental hazards due to biomass and mineral fuel could be devastating, even if coal and woods are burnt in proper stoves with gas exhausts.

Many believe that if home owners could bear the hassle of lighting a briquette, in specific smokeless stoves with exhaust pipes, they would not only get comparatively clean fuel with minimal health hazards but the shift would also result in lowering the skyrocketing prices of LPG. In the meantime, many point out that despite all fancy, briquettes still had environmental hazards which should be measured at state level.