Wood Heating Update

After a little grousing about wood stove regulations, our resident curmudgeon finds something to cheer about on the wood heating front.

146 wood stove - main diagram

Modern wood stoves combine an insulated firebox and engineered airflows to burn cleanly enough for EPA standards without using a catalytic combuster.


Content Tools

For some years now, this writer has made no secret of a personal distaste for the cozy relationship that exists among the lobbyist/lawyers for a few left-wing environmentalist groups, the fortune 500 makers of catalytic wood smoke combusters, and EPA and state bureaucrats who are ever eager to expand their turf by widening the impact of federal environmental legislation. In "friendly" lawsuits, this cabal exploited federal and state clean air laws into slapping fuel-efficiency and smoke-emissions limits on all new stoves sold in the U.S. — and did it so quickly that the fragmented wood-burning stove industry couldn't mount an organized resistance and the average wood-burning consumer never had a chance to comment.  

The few U.S. wood stove makers that survived the end of the 70s wood heating boom elected to "join 'em, not fight 'em." They retooled and — overnight it seemed — began producing stoves equipped with catalytic combusters and automated draft controls that made them boxy, wheezy, unresponsive, cold burning, and overpriced compared to the free-breathing predecessors. They did burn clean — but offered a significant benefit in only a handful of inversion-prone Rocky Mountain valleys like Vail, Colorado, and Missoula, Montana, or Pacific Coast smog basins burdened with such cities as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland. Though the offending smoke came from only a few yuppie ski resorts, upscale suburbs, and college towns where burning wood was more an exercise in political correctness than a heating necessity, the restrictions were applied wholesale and nationwide. The vast majority of American wood burners are country folks living in areas of normal airflow where smoke doesn't concentrate to noticeable — to say nothing of harmful — levels. They lack big-city incomes, burn wood to save money, and they suddenly had no choice in a new stove but a $1,500 catalytic.

There was, however, a quiet voice of reason somewhere in the regulation process. EPA restrictions were reserved only for the new "airtight" stoves — the ones that can be closed up and restrict airflow so that a fire smolders, producing the thick, acrid smoke that reputedly pitted paint on the ski condos in Vail and on professorial Volvos in Missoula. In the small print, the regulations exempted free-breathing (nonairtight) heating stoves, open-draft fireplaces, fireplace stoves, and cookstoves. Also, less restrictive emission standards were applied to noncatalytic airtight stoves — exemplified by the so-called high-techs that use an insulated firebox and sophisticated draft systems to burn cleanly without catalytic converters and robotic air controls.

Last year we reported on the popularity of older low-tech and no-tech stoves that escaped the government regulations, though they are still liable to restriction by local zoning boards, health commissions, and vigilante smog patrols. The old-timers can be bought and sold as used appliances, are reasonably priced, and lack the performance restrictions of the new models, so they retain their appeal for experienced country wood burners. Indeed, EPA or no, old-line U.S. and Canadian stove foundries never really stopped making traditional cooking ranges, 19th century-style log burners, and potbellies in several sizes. And after being quietly peddled while the application of the EPA regulations settled, the old designs (as well as copies from Taiwan) are once again appearing in hardware stores.

Last year (the 1993/1994 heating season) saw another joint exercise between government regulators and the new stove industry. In central New England, the newspapers began headlining a new "clean air program" being promoted by the government: inefficient and dirty-burning old wood stoves were worth a $200 trade-in toward a new EPA Phase-2 stove. A local reporter pinned down an extension service staffer as to where the idea and the rebate money originated. "Well, ah...from the stove shops?" was the sheepish reply. The government was "...umm, just encouraging retirement of old stoves. We all want cleaner air, you know." In other words, some enterprising stove peddlers managed to press enough flesh to convince the regulators to (what is the term ?)...shill for them. Or maybe it was the bureaucrats' idea. It doesn't much matter. Nothing illegal, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

At last report, they were trying to extend the "program" to other regions of the country. Lotsa luck. To be fair, in everything but cost, the newest Phase-2 catalytics are a great improvement over the earliest models. And $200 is a nice discount off a $750 to $1,500 stove — even though you can find pre-EPA "toilets" (the trade name for Taiwan-made copies of popular domestic designs) for about $200 in the un-EPA-restricted used appliance market. I don't know an owner of a really fine quality, brightly enameled, 70s Scandinavian-built Jotul or Morso, Irish-made Waterford, or Vermont Castings Defiant who would consider trading in their excellent old iron for a piddling $200. As the owner of a 20-year-old Jotul Combi put it: "Hell, I wouldn't swap this stove even for money for a shiny new government stove and a year's supply of firewood, split and stacked in the cellar."

Unexpected Backfire  

The EPA regulations have produced a backlash that confutes the very goals of clean air and efficient use of resources that the agency was commissioned to promote. Still yearning for the bright cheer and warmth of an open fire, much of the home buying/remodeling public has given up on stoves altogether and created a whole new demand for EPA-exempt open fireplaces and freestanding fireplace stoves. The manufacturers are quite logically responding to market forces and have come out with products that offer the open fire appeal that the EPA has regulated out of the catalytics. Actually, a fireplace produces more smoke and carbon dioxide and uses more wood than any stove, as they smoke unless tended carefully and extract little useful room heat from the fuel they use.

Check for yourself — it's hard to find a newspaper ad featuring wood stoves anymore. Ads are all for fireplaces, andirons, poker/shovel sets, and glass fire fronts. In my little Maine town, Edmund Perkins has just changed the sign in front of his shop from Ed's Wood Stoves to Ye Olde Fireplace Shoppe, as it was before the 1970 stove boom. He was once installing good heating Franklin fireplaces from the Portland Iron Foundry or big steel TimberLand stoves in vacation homes and TV room additions; he's now stocking up on steel firebox forms for conventional brick and concrete block fireplaces and those brightly painted, round fireplaces in "conversation pits" that send their smoke (and a lot of oil-heated room air) up a cone hanging from the ceiling. It is a shame and a step backward in energy conservation in my view.

Another environmentally negative development the EPA can take credit for is that natural gas — and bottled propane — burning stoves and gas logs have been rediscovered, and gas burners are being purchased by home owners who once would have elected to use a wood-burning stove.

In sum, the EPAs wood-emissions restrictions and wood stove regulations have increased the use of finite fossil fuel and discouraged use of self-renewing wood (as gas logs replace wood stoves). At the same time, they have decreased the heat efficiency of wood that is burned and increased smoke and carbon dioxide output (from the fuel-wasting, dirty-burning fireplaces that are being installed in place of stoves).

Who was it that said that government programs never do seem to accomplish what they set out to?

The News Isn't All Bad  

That's the bad news, but there is some good news on the wood heating front.

First, if your home is equipped with a built-in brick and mortar fireplace, you are pretty much stuck with it. But fireplaces don't have to be air polluting and wood wasteful. By careful fire tending, perhaps changing the shape of the firebox, or using cast-iron fire backs, home owners can make existing fireplaces into relatively efficient heaters. You will find details in "Fireplaces That Can Heat Your Home."

Also on the bright side, there have been steady improvements in noncatalytic, but still EPA-approved, stove designs — the high-techs that use an insulated firebox and engineered airflows to create a fire that is clean and fuel efficient but turns out the heat you expect from a stove that is fully "alive" and responsive. These stoves are smaller and more reasonably priced than the catalytics, as there is no converter, housing, or automated air control to restrict draft and make the stoves operate like robots.

Early high-tech designs were so tiny that they were barely able to heat a small room. But at least one manufacturer, Country Stoves, refused to follow the catalytic converter path and has worked to develop a line of more capable high-techs; their largest sports a firebox measuring more than three cubic feet. That's large enough to turn out the 70,000 BTUs per hour needed to heat a 3,500-square-foot home. By channeling exhaust through a superheated crucible of firebrick and ceramic fiber blanketing, then releasing fresh air into it through afterburners of stainless steel, holey tubing, the stoves burn smoke so thoroughly that their emissions are cleaner than those of many catalytics. Some models also have a built-in heat exchanger with a blower that will circulate heated air directly into living spaces; others feed into a central hot air heating system's plenum for distribution through conventional ducting.

These stoves are neither as simple nor as cheap as an old log burner — that's nothing but an iron box with a door at one end and a smoke hole at the other. But they are as understandable. They burn efficiently and cleanly because they burn hot. Their pyroclastic liner is based on the same insulating principle used for generations to maintain the high firebox temperatures needed to burn coal. The high-tech's sophisticated design isn't so much high technology as refined common sense (even if it was designed by computer); a portion of the stove's own draft is channeled through the firebed and another portion creates a kind of blowtorch to force in hot, high-velocity oxygen to burn smoke.

Wood-Burning Freedoms Preserved  

Stove retailers I know are convinced that the other stove makers will follow in improving and expanding their own high-tech lines, and we're on the way to getting our wood-burning freedom back, folks. And isn't a sense of freedom what wood heat is all about? Country living can't totally free us from modern technology, the constraints of an interdependent society, and technological economy. But a big woodpile in back provides a sense of self-sufficiency through a very real measure of independence from Exxon and fossil heating fuels. It also offers a degree of independence from the public utilities and an end to the worry that the electricity might go out in a winter storm, making the oil or gas furnace go dead. When government first invited itself into the stove business, much of the feeling of independence and freedom seemed to disappear from wood heat. Somehow, it wasn't worth the sweat to chop and haul wood to feed an overpriced, underperforming, overmechanized stove all festooned with shiny tin plates full of "bureaucratese" affirming state and federal approval. It's kind of like when Mom, Dad, City Hall, and the preacher all approved of the cutoff Levis, ponytails, and weird-painted VW vans we flaunted in our youth — it spoiled the fun.

Now the newest high-tech stoves burn as cleanly and as economically as any older "government stove" — but without restrictive technology. They sell at reasonable prices and offer the wood burner all the warmth and responsiveness of the good old predecessors. Their performance isn't forced or artificial. They burn smartly — and as naturally as the wood they use. You can even snake a cleaning brush all the way through them, from door to firebox to smoke boot and into the stovepipe — just like any old-time wood burner. That gets Big Brother out of the living room and puts the good feeling back into wood heat ...at least for me.