Our wood stove served us well for nearly 20 years. But we committed one of the cardinal sins of heating with wood: repeated over-firing. By running the stove too hot, we damaged the interior. An inspector said it was still safe to use, but we knew we needed to replace it within a year. And that we had a lot of research ahead of us.
Plug in a fridge and it should work more-or-less the same regardless of where you live. Find a washer you like, install it, and it will clean your clothes the same way whether it’s in the basement or the kitchen. But wood stoves are different.
Choosing the right stove means considering all kinds of factors, such as the size of the space you’re heating and how warm you like it, how air-tight the space is, and the location of the chimney (interior chimneys draw better than exterior).
Glenn Mason owns Safeguard Chimney Sweep & Stoves in Spectacle Lake, N.S. He’s installed stoves for 29 years and sold them for eight. He says size is one of the most important factors in picking a stove, but “almost as important is the look. You have to walk by that stove every morning and if you don’t like the look of it you won’t be happy.”
Too small a stove can make you reach for sweaters, while one that’s too big may make a room unbearably warm or cause you to burn it slowly, which emits pollutants and clogs up your chimney.
Finding the right stove depends largely on your goals, says Neal Jackman, owner of Emberley Fireplace in Mount Pearl, N.L. “Am I trying to reduce my heating bill? Do I want it for the ambience in the room when I’m reading a book or watching a movie? Some people use it periodically and some burn it all winter.”
Every manufacturer offers guidelines for what size space their stoves will heat, but square footage only tells part of the story. A stove that handily heats 1,500 square feet in British Colombia’s Lower Mainland may struggle to warm your Goose Bay, N.L. home. Insulation is another factor to consider. A drafty farmhouse will benefit from a larger stove than the same size home built to efficient R-2000 standards.
Mason says efficiency is the biggest improvement in wood stoves over the last decade. “People are looking for longer burns and a stove that burns clean,” Mason says. Most high-end stoves will burn efficiently. Some use a catalyst to lower emissions, while others are engineered to create a secondary burn that re-ignites gasses from the fire.
The other big change, says Jackman, is simplicity.
Our old stove had three separate ways of controlling air flow, plus two thermometers to watch. No wonder we took shortcuts. Many of today’s efficient stoves have just one air control, and some work automatically, taking the human effort out of it altogether.
“Some people I wouldn’t sell certain stoves to because they’re too complicated,” Mason says. “They don’t understand it.”
Because of all the variables that come with wood heat, online forums and reviews are less helpful than those for appliances. Maybe a poster who calls a stove a piece of junk is right. Or maybe it wasn’t properly installed. Or maybe the top of the chimney is too close to the roof and doesn’t draw well. A review by someone who loves the stove they bought last week isn’t helpful either because wood-stove performance is a long-term affair.
So where do you turn for reliable information? Jackman says he usually directs people to woodheat.org, a comprehensive site from the non-profit Wood Heat Organization. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation also offers print and online information.
Ultimately, your best bet is an experienced salesperson who can assess your home and needs.
Mason says, “I don’t think I’ve ever sold a stove where I don’t go out and look at the place and see if it’s going to work for them. Who wants to pay a few thousand dollars for something that’s not right?”
His parting advice: “Take your time and do the homework. My advice is always free to people. If I sell you the wrong stove, I won’t hear the end of it.”
If you know what you’re doing, you can buy a wood stove and install it at home yourself.
But given frequently changing safety regulations, the vagaries of individual homes, and the potential dangers of a botched job, hire an installer who completed the Wood Energy Technical Training Program (WETT-certified).
Jackman says many insurance companies will insist on proof that a WETT-certified technician installed your stove: “If you are burning wood, they want to know from a liability perspective that it’s safe.”