Guide to Wood and Coal Stoves

What you need to know about efficient wood stoves and government regulations for wood burning stoves and indoor air quality. Covers new-generation wood stoves, high-tech wood stoves, pellet burners, thermal-mass firestoves and coal stoves.

| December/January 1992

If you're like me, you've been heating and cooking with wood long enough that you don’t want another lecture about the cozy charm of a wood fire, the money you can save over electric heat, why to clean your flue or how to stack a cord of wood. What you may want to know, however, is why you cant get an efficient, new wood stove anymore without paying hundreds of dollars extra for a government-approved catalytic smoke combuster or “Hi-Tech” stove; how the wood smoke that we once considered benign can degrade our air quality, endangering health and property; and how the new government presence in home in home heating affects your use or sale of the "low-tech" INTREPID, KODIAK or ASHLEY airtight wood stove (or the faithful old coal-burner) that has warmed you for years.  

How We Got Here

In a sense, what went around is coming around again. Ben Franklin invented wood stoves to increase efficiency of fuel-gobbling, radiant-heating, colonial fireplaces when coastal U.S. forests were being cut out and fuel costs were rising in the first "energy crisis." The first Franklin Fireplace enclosed a smaller fire in an open iron box with a smaller draft outlet, both conserving fuel and creating convection currents that distributed more heat through the room. It was later fitted with doors to increase efficiency even more.

During the 19th Century, Franklin's idea was elaborated into wood- and coal-burning stoves in a thousand designs: potbellies, parlor heaters, columnar stoves, and cook ranges. They were made of cast iron, sheet metal, and channel-iron-framed soapstone—many adorned with nickel-plated foot rests, handles, and ornamentation. As fuel had to be hauled ever-greater distances at ever-greater cost, stoves were designed to be ever more efficient, employing multiple draft controls, serpentine smoke channels, and long runs of stove pipe to extract the last bit of heat from a chunk of fuel. And airtight stoves are nothing new: in some parlor-heaters from the late 1800s, doors and draft outlets were milled to fit as snugly as any on a modern gasketed stove.

With the introduction of kerosene (coal-oil) space heaters, then oil and gas central furnaces, and finally the all-electric home, dirty and labor-intensive solid fuels fell into disfavor. Wood and coal stoves were relegated to vacation camps and back-country homesteads ... till the OPEC-cartel-generated "oil crunch" of the '70s rekindled interest in domestic energy sources and cheaper fuel of any kind.

At the same time, a newfound environmental awareness emphasized renewable energy, wood became the politically correct fuel, and the stove-making industry rose from its 19th Century ashes. With heating oil prices climbing steadily, anything that would hold a wood fire was put into daily use by eager woodburning novices: rusting antiques hauled out from behind the barn, stoves cobbled up from boiler plate by backyard welders, tiny green-enameled cast iron box stoves from Scandinavia touted as "whole-house heaters," leaky log-burners and flimsy ornamental potbellies made by scrap-iron foundries in the Far East.

It wasn't long till the poorly welded steel plate, thin iron castings, and over-fired antiques warped or cracked, and those pretty, green box-heaters proved too small to heat a large, leaky American room, say nothing of a whole house.

1/14/2008 9:50:52 AM

Alisha Hillman R R # 2 Monkton Ontario Canada N0K1P0 we are a single parent family of five and i was wondering if someone would send us the self sufficient life and how to live it we are a poor family in canada and would be very grateful if someone would send us this book thanks Alisha

11/24/2007 1:01:21 AM

Shure as cool to read from someone with experiance. Today we pay 3.00 a gallon for fuel oil. Do the math on that. Happy Thanksgiving and Merry CHRISTmas.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!