These are heady days for the manufacturers and installers of wood-burning stoves, used primarily for residential heating.

The seeds were sown last year, when Y2K warnings started getting consumers interested in today’s modern, “clean-burning” wood stoves, said Jeff Barrows, marketing manager for HearthStone, a maker of soapstone wood and gas stoves in Morrisville, VT.

Last year was a record year for the company, he said. And this year is already 28% up over last year at this time, thanks to what Barrows called the “mini energy crisis.”

Many New England consumers, barraged with competing gas and oil utility ads pointing out each other’s rising costs, seem to be taking a serious look at wood-burning appliances. Heating contractors here should probably brush up on their knowledge of this product.

Woodstove Installation

According to Barrows, wood-burning stoves can be used as a sole residential heating source without a backup system. However, they are most commonly used as a secondary heat source.

The products are vented outdoors, but installers need to be aware of state environmental regulations; factors such as wind direction may need to be taken into account.

According to a paper published by James E. Johnson, extension forester, Virginia Tech, “It is critical that a wood-burning system be installed properly so that it is completely safe. If you are considering adding a wood heat system, you should check with your local fire department for information on installation and maintenance of your system.”

According to Johnson, the homeowner’s insurance company also should be notified. “Most insurance companies have strict requirements for keeping a woodstove a set distance from a combustible surface, having safe venting systems, and installing smoke detectors. Some companies will also require a site inspection by a fire department or company official.”

Features and Functions

Woodstoves work on the same basic principle of combustion as oil and gas furnaces and boilers. Wood-burning appliances also have catalytic and non-catalytic features for cleaner outdoor emissions. Some stoves also can be used for cooking as well as space heating.

HearthStone’s “Mansfield” woodstove circulates its primary air over a piece of large, reflective ceramic glass. A single air control regulates airflow and rate of burn, and non-catalytic technology uses secondary air tubes “for a cleaner burn without the maintenance of a catalytic combustor,” the company says.

This model’s maximum heat output is 80,000 Btuh; burn time is up to 10 hrs, but it can stay warm up to 14, the company says.

The “Defiant” wood-burning stove from Vermont Castings features a 3.2-cu-ft firebox and a maximum heat output of 55,000 Btuh (hardwood).

Standard features include a large, unobstructed viewing area; solid cast iron construction; firebrick-protected combustion chamber; an over-fire air-wash system for clean glass; automatic thermostat for steady heat; a swing-out ash pan and cover; “smokeless” top loading; and a polished cooking griddle.

Installed, the products can easily cost from $2,000 to $3,000. That’s not counting the cost of the wood, however; and it’s the cost of fuel in general that is increasing consumer interest in this type of heating system.

Still Need the Wood

According to Johnson’s paper, consumer interest in wood-burning appliances has had a tendency to fluctuate with rising and falling oil prices. This year’s predicted rising gas prices will probably give the market an added boost.

However, fuel costs and some of the inconveniences that go with wood fueling may make woodstoves a bit less attractive than they seem at first. One home and garden center in New Jersey reported that a cord of firewood costs $135 to $200. Most homeowners who use wood-burning stoves as their main heating source use about two cords each winter.

According to Johnson, a cord is “a stack of wood 4 ft high, 4 ft deep, and 8 ft long. This stack of wood contains 128 cu ft of solid space, which is usually 80 to 90 cu ft of solid wood (the remainder is mostly air space between the stacked pieces of wood).

Of course, more rugged homeowners have the option of gathering hardwood for themselves, which is much less expensive but more time consuming. “Individ-uals who each year gather their own firewood are often masters at ‘scrounging,’” writes Johnson. “There are many ways to locate sources of inexpensive firewood, and it often takes a considerable degree of ingenuity on the part of the looker.”

Then there’s the matter of cleaning the stove. According to Johnson, many owners of wood-burning stoves “have also learned the various reasons their parents and grandparents were more than happy to give up wood heat when oil and gas furnaces became available.

“The constant gathering, handling, and storing of large volumes of wood fuel; the dirt, dust, and bugs brought into the house with the wood; the weekly cleaning and disposal of ashes and the cleaning of flues and chimneys; and perhaps most important of all, the restriction of wintertime lifestyles so that someone is always close to home to keep the fires burning have all dampened the spirits of many enthusiastic wood burners.”

Publication date: 10/23/2000