Low-Maintenance Appliances: Wood Stoves and Fireplaces

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Heating with wood is high maintenance no matter how you split it. Wood stoves themselves are premium examples of low-maintenance technology, since if made properly they should last nearly forever without repair work. But of course handling the wood and the ashes is very high maintenance, not to mention regular cleaning of the flue and chimney. If you have your own wood or can get some free for the cutting and you consider the work enjoyable exercise, then wood heat pays enough to justify itself, despite high maintenance. Otherwise, it can be justified only as a backup heating system during winter power failures. In this case, you would be foolish to buy a stove that depends on electric fans to circulate the heat unless the stove will also function without fans.

The wood stove business has slumped sharply with the fall of oil prices—at least, that is the reason given. I fail to see the connection since only 12 percent of American homes are heated with oil (compared to 11 percent for wood) anyway. Gas prices certainly haven’t slumped, and electric rates continue to climb. I think rather that the wood stove business has declined because the faddists who run after every trend dropped out of the wood heating mania as soon as they realized the amount of work involved. This is unfortunate, perhaps, because most of the “bad” stoves have been purged from the market and the ones remaining are mostly “good” ones with much improved efficiencies.

I put quotes around “bad” and “good” when talking about wood stoves because there is much hype and hoke connected with marketing them. I still don’t think the general wood-burning public, or prospective wood-burning customer especially, understands the proper connection between efficiency and airtight stoves. Nothing would burn in an airtight stove. People have problems with “airtight” stoves because they won’t open them up enough so the wood can burn hot and clean. So we invent the catalytic burner that burns smoke, more or less, and so increases the efficiency of the stove (at considerable increase in cost and regular re placement of the catalytic burner). This is better than polluting the air with unburned combustion gases, but it is not the best solution. In fact, some stove manufacturers are redesigning their stoves with more sophisticated internal heat exchangers (somewhat along the same lines as the new heat exchangers in oil and gas furnaces) and can get just as much efficiency and lack of pollutants as the catalytic burners. In fact, most of the first nine stoves to pass the stringent tests of the Oregon Department of Environ mental Quality did not have catalytic burners. Lopi Energy Systems ( 10850 117th Place NE, Kirkland, WA 98033) is an example.

I almost hate to mention wood stoves by brand and do so only as information to start you on your own market research, not as an endorsement. The Woodheat/Woodstove Directory (Street Enterprises, Box 255, Menomonee Falls, WI 53051) is a good source of further brand-name information. There are too many variables in the art and science of burning wood correctly, and the brand name is the least significant of all.

The Oregon Certification test has about as much real significance as government gas mileage tests, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is lumbering toward some kind of standard testing in an effort to cut down on air pollution. Air pollution from wood stoves is a problem only in some relatively small areas, but as usual we are all going to be made to suffer impractical regulations. Operator skill makes a stove burn cleanly, not EPA regulations. And strangely enough, with operator skill, an inexpensive “leaky” stove will burn cleaner than a more expensive “good” one, simply because it is not “airtight.” (And those powders you can buy to sprinkle on your fire to clean out the creosote in your flue won’t help much if you’re not using your stove properly. Interestingly, such cleaners come with instructions on how to burn a more efficient, cleaner fire in your stove or fireplace. Following those directions will be much more effective than using any commercial creosote cleaner.)

I know a couple who heat primarily with an ancient box stove they paid $35 for. It is so far from airtight that you could stick a knife blade through the cracks between various seam lines. It has air vent controls below the door and a damper up in the flue in the old-fashioned way so that you can control draft very accurately, but you can’t shut it down so that the flue only smolders. The firebox is very small (the experts now say that this is a requirement to get very hot, clean-burning fires). Also, the chunks of wood these people fuel with are very small—no more than 3 inches thick and about 8 inches long, which is also a way to get a good hot fire, so long as there is plenty of air getting to it. They rarely put more than two or three pieces of wood in the stove at once (admittedly high maintenance) extracting from it a nice hot fire. I will bet that they get more heat per pound of wood than the best Oregon-certified, catalytic equipped dual heat-exchanging Fisher Tech IV on the market.

Be that as it may, modem wood stoves are so attractive they will fit any decor. Tile stoves, now becoming popular, hold and radiate heat well, are not burning hot to the touch, and are easy to clean off. Whether they are worth the extra cost over steel or cast-iron stoves is mostly a matter of taste, although steel and cast iron do need more surface polishing and cleaning than tile or soapstone. Ashpans make taking out ashes a little easier (not much). A wood bin beside the stove confines dirt and bark on the wood to a single place, but you still have to sweep up around the stove quite often. One of those hand-held little vacuum cleaners powered with rechargeable batteries is very handy for this purpose. We keep ours by the wood box.

The good news in catalytic burners is that the new ones are guaranteed for five years, rather than needing replacement every other year as was generally the case with the first ones that came on the market a few years ago. Don’t expect miracles from them (even with catalytic burners, you should not let your stove smolder with a cold, smoky fire), but they will cut down considerably on creosote buildup in a poorly operated stove. Supposedly a catalytic burner will enable your stove to use wood more efficiently so that you will ultimately burn less wood—some say a third less wood—for the same amount of heat generated, but as I say, that depends on who is operating the stove.

Fireplace inserts today are really stoves made to fit into fireplace openings. Such inserts will make simple fireplaces more efficient, but no matter what the dealer tells you, they will not deliver heat out into the house the way a freestanding cast-iron stove of similar size will. The Mark IV Fisher (Cesco Industries, Inc., P Box 7817, Roanoke, VA 24019) has an efficiency rating of 79 percent, excellent for an insert and very good for a stove. But a stove entombed in a fireplace still loses radiant heat that, in my opinion, it never makes up in the convective heat it is designed to produce.

The ultimate in wood-burning low maintenance is the huge masonry fireplace, used for centuries in many parts of Europe and referred to sometimes as a Russian fireplace. It is in essence a very large fireplace, which is an integral part of the house. Its mass makes it a good heat storage sink. In the large fire chamber, a very hot (and traditionally large) fire is burned, heating the whole masonry storage sink as the hot smoke finds its way through a labyrinth to the chimney. The warmed masonry then slowly and steadily heats the house until another big intense firing is necessary. Little or no creosote forms with the hot fire, nor is a large amount of wood used because the fire burns perhaps only 2 hours for every 10 or so hours of heating it supplies via the warmed masonry. Thus the fireplace becomes in reality a central heating furnace. The drawback is the cost of construction and the lack of know-how in this country to build them. (Alex Wade, in his book A Design and Construction Handbook for Energy-Saving Houses describes Russian fireplaces much better than I do here; he also provides sources for more information about them.)

If you are interested in an open fireplace with much more efficiency than a normal fireplace, there is an American version of the masonry fireplace on the market called the Tess 148 (Thermal Energy Storage Systems, Inc., P.O. Box M, Mine Road, Kenvil, NJ 07847). As with all open fireplaces, there is no appreciable buildup of creosote, and in addition, its Rumsford design and heat storage capability mean you get a lot more heat; your fireplace becomes something more than just an expensive luxury.

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