Monday, December 5, 2011

I Like Burnin' Stuff

While Ben and I always intended to turn the garage into a living room, we initially didn't think about adding the wood stove until my brother Matt said "You should put in a wood stove." He's always full of grand ideas and this was one of his best.  I love my wood stove.  It's a large, 650-degree, cast-iron toy. I think that if you're going to heat your house with wood you've got to think of it as a hobby or else it will become tedious very quickly.

There are many different kinds of stoves out there.  Pellet stoves, for one, burn compressed wood or biomass pellets. They're efficient, and require a lot less work than a wood stove. I, however, love the romance of a wood fire. There are essentially two different kinds of wood stoves, catalytic and non-catalytic.

Catalytic stoves send the exhaust through a honeycomb shaped ceramic catalyst that burns smoke at significantly lower temperatures (about 600F). This turns smoke and other pollutants that would normally be sent up the chimney into usable heat.  The result is a long, slow, and cleaner burn.  From what I know of non-catalytic stoves, they use air injection to burn combustible gasses in a secondary combustion chamber.  The benefits of each are as follows:

Catalytic : Cleaner exhaust, more even heat output, an overnight burn, higher efficiency

Non-Catalytic: More "lively" fire (I'm not exactly sure what that means), no catalytic combustor to maintain and replace, easier to operate

Ben and I want to supplant most - if not all - of our heating by using the wood stove so we decided to install a Defiant catalytic stove from Vermont Castings. I think the company tries to sell this stove as a two-in-one catalytic and non-catalytic stove. But you would operate it in the same manner as a catalytic stove.

Operating a Catalytic Stove
To get it started initially, what I like to call a 'cold start,' crumple up about 5 pieces of newspaper. One of the drawbacks to having a catalytic stove is that you must be watchful about what you're burning, meaning no glossy magazines, or cereal boxes though I suppose that's a good thing because burning the coatings on those types of things leaches toxins into the air and are, generally speaking, not very earth-friendly to burn. I even avoid newspaper pages with lots of ink on them, meaning the Art's section usually gets tossed into the recycling bin.

Next, place small kindling on top the paper (your sticks and twigs) followed by larger kindling (your branches and small logs).

Light the fire, starting at the back of the firebox so that you don't burn your little fingers.

Close the door. In theory, a well engineered stove and chimney will do the rest. The paper will light the twigs. The twigs will light the logs and you've got yourself a rip roarin' fire.  However, sometimes you may need to "prime" your chimney to give yourself a good draft. You can do this by loosely crumpling up some newspaper and throwing it in the back of the fire box. Repeat until a good draft is established. The goal is to warm the chimney so that the warm air starts rising and creates a draft.  The best chimneys are shorter and located in the interior of the house.  The heat from house keeps the chimney warm and makes it that much easier to create a draft.  Furthermore, a chimney that runs up the interior of the house will repay the favour and warm the house better than a chimney on an exterior wall.  Ben and I designed a tall chimney on the exterior of the house.  Subsequently, we need to prime the chimney to get a good pull, especially on really cold days.

Once you've got your fire started, keep feeding it logs until the ember bed is about 1-2 inches thick.  Once the ember bed is established (this could take up to an hour), and the surface heat is above 450F, close the damper to operate the stove in catalytic mode.  If equipped, use the primary air handler like a thermostat to adjust the heat output.

When it's time to go to bed, I load up the firebox and push the air handler all the way back to reduce the amount of air getting into the firebox to create a slow burn.

A Hot Start
In the morning I awake to a stove that's about 350F and still has a good ember bed.

This is a good time to de-ash the stove.  To do this: open up the damper. Take a fireplace shovel and move the ashes around so that they fall through the grate into the ash pan below. While wearing gloves, swing open the ash pan and carefully lift out the ash pan. Properly dispose of the ashes and return the ash pan.

Put in a couple of smaller logs and when they catch fire close the damper. When the fire reaches 450F use the air handler to control the heat output.

Wow. That was lengthy, and I really just scratched the surface of the Wonderful World of Burnin' Stuff.  A couple of take away thoughts are as follows for those of you who just look at the pictures and forgo my verbosity.

Tips for Buying and Operating a Wood Stove
The number one tip I would offer is to be honest about how much work you want to put into the stove.  If you don't want to spend a couple of weekends hauling and splitting wood, it's probably best to buy a pellet stove.

Secondly, look for a stove with as many conveniences as possible.  A swing out ash door may not seem like a big deal at the time, but when you've got to clean out the ash every day, it makes a big difference.

If you're set on a wood stove, try to gauge what is important to you.  If you want your stove to fire through the night or you are looking for a stove that burns clean consider a catalytic stove.  If you want as little maintenance as possible and to have a lively fire (I still have no clue what that means) opt for a non-catalytic stove.

Lastly, buy a wood stove thermometer so that you can better control your heat output and avoid overfiring your stove.


  1. We have a woodburning fireplace and we love it too! I love coming into the house when it's cold and blowing outside and the fire is crackling. Wouldn't have it any other way!

  2. Cool! Or should I say, warm! I didn't know you had a wood burning stove! I'm going to be asking you tons of questions now. Like, how do you get that black stuff off the glass? I tried windex and lots of elbow grease. Is there an easier way?

  3. The black stuff comes off when you have a fire at very high heat. At least, that's how it works with our fireplace. It tends to get black again when we burn wood on slow-burn.

    There's nothing cozier than snuggling by the fire when it's so inhospitable and icky outdoors (It gets to -40 Celsius, here!).

    We don't heat entirely with wood, but we supplement with it. On days where it's particularly cold or we just feel like it (most days in the winter) we add a log or ten. Our only problem is; with the cathedral ceiling and balcony upstairs, the bedrooms get very hot and dry, and the basement gets very cold. We've played with the ventilation, which helped a bit.

    Good luck with your black stuff!

  4. Hmm... I tried that. I got the stove up to 750F and it was still black :( Do you think my wood isn't cured enough?

    -40! That's awesome. I don't know if you know this about me but I just love the cold! I'm incredibly jealous of the long winters you get. Do you have much wildlife up there? We've got coyotes and deer but nothing super cool like wolves and bears.

  5. Hey, not sure about the wood. Ours has been sitting long enough that it's already cured. Here's an article on cleaning wood stove glass:

    Haha, you like the cold?! We should trade places in the wintertime! (kidding).

    We get deer all the time, to the point that they became pests that ate our cherry trees and my flowers! We've had porcupines, a few resident chipmunks, blue jays, treefrogs, and the like. We have two breeding pairs of an endangered giant woodpecker (I think it's called the Pileated Woodpecker) which is probably the coolest animal we have. Those things are the size of crows! Jeff has seen a moose in the front yard, once. I believe we have black bears but neither of us has seen one. Not sure about wolves, although they're interesting, I don't think I want to come across one!