Wood Heating Update

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Modern wood stoves combine an insulated firebox and engineered airflows to burn cleanly enough for EPA standards without using a catalytic combuster.
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Uncomplicated fireboxes like this one once performed double duty as wood heating appliances and cookstoves.

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.

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