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Modern Wood Stoves

Whether you're looking for catalytic combustors, pellet fuel or an update to your old stove, MOTHER 's guide to the more efficient, environmentally conscious wood stoves can help you find the option that's best for you.

| December 1991/January 1992

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    The Whifield Advantage II-T freestanding stove, from Pyre Industries (Burlington, WA) emits just 1.3 g/hr at 80 percent efficiency.
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    Left: The Destiny pellet stove, from Horizon Research, Inc. Right: The catalytic Defiant Encore, from Vermont Castings (Randolph, VT).

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Note: Although wood stoves are still used today, many of the "modern" wood stoves talked about in this article are from 1991, when this article was originally published in MOTHER EARTH NEWS. 

In inventing the wood stove, Ben Franklin built a freestanding fireplace with an open front and cast iron sides. A revolutionary idea at the time, the Pennsylvania Fireplace, as it was called, soon made open fireplaces obsolete, at least in terms of heating efficiency. For about 200 years after that, wood stoves remained basically unchanged. Then along came the energy crisis of the 1970s. Motivated by the shortage and high prices of fossil fuels, Americans turned in droves to wood heat, but all of those puffing flues produced a lot more than energy independence. Scientists soon discovered that wood smoke contains a pharmacopoeia of noxious agents — including formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and polycyclic organic matter — and that wood stoves were spewing millions of tons of these pollutants into the air annually. Some of the compounds were carcinogenic; others caused respiratory problems. And all contributed to a sun-blocking, lung-irritating, spirit-depressing malaise known as winter haze.

Many communities — first in the western mountains but later all across the country — began choking on the seasonal wood smoke pall. Schools kept kids inside for recess, neighbors battled neighbors over smoky trespass, pollution readings became nightly fare on TV weather reports. In some places, regulations prohibited fires during the worst episodes, and a few defiant or careless homeowners got fined for burning wood. One community even put a red light on everyone's fireplace and a temperature sensor in the chimney to warn against and detect illegal wood burning.

By 1986 Oregon had prohibited the sale of the most polluting stoves, and other states began to follow suit. That same year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) joined the fray when New York State and the Natural Resources Defense Council threatened to sue the agency for failing to keep the country's air clean. For a time, it appeared that the entire wood stove industry and wood-heating way of life might be torn asunder in the battle for clean air.

But where chaos once threatened, order is now rapidly returning. In 1986, the EPA environmentalists, scientists, and state agencies sat down to establish standards for new stoves. They were even joined by the stove industry — in the form of its 800-member Wood Heating Alliance (WHA) trade organization. During several months of negotiations, the participants hammered out mutually acceptable rules. EPA regulations now prohibit the manufacture and sale of wood stoves that cannot pass a stringent emissions test. Open fireplaces, wood-fired boilers or furnaces, and wood cookstoves are exempt from the regulations, but fireplace inserts and “airtight” fireplaces with gasketed doors are included.

Homeowners with old stoves can rest easy, however. “The EPA has no intention of regulating the installation or use of wood stoves,” says the agency's Bob Lebens. (States, counties or municipalities may do so, however.) As of August 1991, 316 different stoves had passed muster with EPA's Phase I standard; of those, 134 already meet the agency's tough Phase II requirements.

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