What to look for when buying a wood-burning stove

October 20, 1990|By Ron Gasbarro

As the old saw goes, wood warms you five times: When you cut it, when you split it, when you stack it, when you haul it and when you burn it. But burning it produces more than warmth. It produces polluting smoke.

Wood smoke is unburned fuel, says Deborah A. Janes of the federal Environmental Protection Agency's research and development staff in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The key to reducing air pollution from wood stoves is to burn the fuel more completely. The new stoves, by law, do just that.

"Cleaner burning wood stoves that employ the latest technology result in less smoke up the chimney because the stove burns much of the smoke as well," says Geoff Wurzel, director of communications at the Wood Heating Alliance in Washington D.C.

In order to recapture the heat energy stored in smoke, some newer stoves use a catalytic converter. This honeycombed device is designed to lower the kindling temperature of smoky gases. These smoky gases contain as much as 50 percent of the available heat in the wood. In other stoves, the heat from these gases is wasted. But the catalytic converter allows the gases to reignite, releasing more heat energy.

Wood stoves today have efficiency ratings set by the EPA that buyers should consider. Old stoves have ratings of 40 to 50 percent. Today's stoves boast efficiencies of 70 to 80 percent.

"This translates directly into more heat per load of wood, saving you money if you buy your firewood or time if you cut your own," says Jack Hughes, president and CEO of Vermont Castings Inc., a Randolph, Vt., producer of wood stoves.

According to Mr. Hughes, a stove with an efficiency rating of 75 percent could give you as much heat from two cords of wood as one with a rating of 50 percent could give you from three cords.

Besides jotting down the efficiency rating as you browse, also look at the material from which the stove is made. This will either be steel or cast iron.

Steel appliances are made by welding together individual sections of plate or rolled steel. The use of this fabricating technique makes the steel stove both easy and economical to manufacture. Steel stoves also tend to look more contemporary, important if you are more fashion-oriented than fuel-oriented.

Cast iron is the more traditional material for stoves. Because of its durability, aesthetic possibilities and heat-retaining capabilities, iron has been used to make stoves for over 100 years.

"Cast iron readily absorbs heat from burning fuel and distributes it evenly throughout the firebox thereby avoiding the hot spots that can lead to premature plate deterioration and burnout in steel appliances," says Mr. Hughes of Vermont Castings.

In addition, a cast-iron wood stove will continue to radiate heat long after the fire has died down to coals, an important feature if you are away from home most of the day and do not want to return to an icy house.

From a designer aspect, the only difference between a woo stove and a piece of fine furniture is that you can warm your hands on the former.

"Square, black and ugly -- that's what people think wood stoves looklike," says Mr. Hughes. Today's wood stoves are anything but ugly, although they may be black.

At Watson's Fireplace & Patio in Lutherville, there are two lines of wood stoves. The Consolidated Dutchwest has a stockier, classic look. The maker's Federal Convection Heater is patterned after the stately architectural stylings of the 1800s: clean lines, graceful arches and double doors so you can watch the fire. Other features include optional coal burning, cooktop and brass trim.

The other line is Vermont Castings, more contemporary with its softly rounded edges. This series comes in red, sand, blue and brown.

"The Vermont Castings line is more upscale and is for the person who wants a stove that's both aesthetically pleasing as well as energy efficient," says Jim Nelson, manager of Watson's stove and fireplace department. He also runs Nelson-Walsh Contracting, an Eldersburg concern that installs wood stoves.

"Many people retrofit a home with a wood stove although it is easier to install the stove as the house is being built," says Mr. Nelson. "Installing a stove can take anywhere from two hours to two days depending on whether you are fitting a stove into an existing fireplace or if you need an entire flue run built."

Wood stove costs vary greatly. "Prices range from $600 to $2,200. Anything below $600 is either used, reconditioned or not very good," says Ralph Baumgardner of Baumgardner's wood stoves & Fireplaces in Westminster.

"For under $2,000, you can get Colonial, contemporary or something in between. And it has as many extra features as anyone could imagine. For $600, you will get a stove that's probably not catalytic, but is made of steel, uses clean air fTC technology, has an ash handler and offers a clear view of the fire."

*Wood stove information

*Product information: Write to Energy Publications, Box 2008, Laconia, N.H. 03247. Publishes product descriptions and photos, articles on woodstove operation and installation.

*General information: Wood Heating Alliance, 1101 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Auite 700, Washington D.C.20036.

*EPA information: Wood Heater Program (EN-341) U.S. EPA, 401 M Street S.W., Washington, D.C. 20460; (202)382-2874.

*Techincal questions: National Appropriate Technology Assistance Service, (800) 428-2525.

*Brochures and fact sheets: Conservation and Renewable Energy inquiry and Referral Service, (800) 523-2929.

*Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, 811 S.W. Sixth Avenue, Portland, Ore. 97204. Write for information on stove sizing, catalytic stoves and test data on Oregon certified stoves;

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