Wood Stoves, Inserts & Your Hearth

If your house doesn’t already have a standard fireplace, your decision to supplement your existing home heating system with wood burning brings you to a free standing wood stove.  On the other hand if your home already has a fireplace then you may have the option of installing either an insert or a stove.

And frankly, if you’ve got a standard fireplace, the sooner you ditch that sad technology, the better, even if that means boarding it up and caulking the edges! The standard fireplace is purely and simply a heat sink at all times: fired up or idle. Even with the doors closed and the damper shut, it’ll suck the warmth right out of your house.

My house has two fireplaces, one in the family room with a Vermont Castings Large Winter Warmer insert and one on the other side of the house in the living room, unmodified and rarely used. Shortly after purchasing the house, I was doing a little work close to the edge of the hearth and I could feel a draft and hear its whistle as this beast literally sucked the heat out of my house.  The following weekend I went out and bought some plastic heat shrink and seal it off good.

The nice thing about a wood stove is that you’ll likely have more options as to where exactly you place the unit, providing that you can vent it, distance it from walls and provide sufficient floor area for fireproof decking.  All of these things are very code specific, so check with your local building authority first. Centrally locating your stove in a large space or a center room within a multi-room floor plan provides for a more even distribution of heat. You’ll also likely have greater choice in stove sizing.  With an insert you’re stuck with the existing location of the fireplace and its size(output) will be limited by the size of your fireplace opening.

Just because you have an existing fireplace that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go with an insert though, depending on the shape of your hearth and space available in the room, there’s a good chance you could place a stove just in front of it and vent it up through the chimney. This would likely involve modifying your decking to accommodate the stove and meet code requirements.  A bit larger of project than simply dropping in an insert, but if it’s a wood stove you’re after, you may still be able to work out a viable plan of action.

Heat distribution and air circulation

Most of the inserts I’ve seen are designed to be installed fairly flush with the face of your hearth providing for only one radiant surface exposed to the room (the insert’s front face), hence most inserts come with a fan system.  If it’s not a standard component of your chosen insert but rather an option or accessory, then definitely take the option, it makes a huge difference.  The fan basically draws cooler room air in and around the insert, heating it up nicely and then dumping it back into the room with some force.  I would pass on any insert model that doesn’t at least offer a fan/blower system as an option.

Similarly, if you have a forced air system in your house, then having a programmable thermostat that allows you to run your furnace blower on different settings is great.  It’ll help distribute some of the heat from your stove or insert to the rest of the house.  My furnace blower comes on in high speed mode whenever the furnace starts up, but with my insert fired up and the thermostat in the adjacent hallway, the furnace rarely comes on. However, my furnace thermostat provides me with two complementary options: 1) blower always on in low speed mode or 2) blower on in low speed mode for 20 minutes of every hour.  Furthermore, if you have a cottage (two story house) as I do, then a ceiling fan strategically located above the stairwell is also a plus.

Keep in mind that in the event of a power failure or a prolonged grid down situation, none of the above circulatory aids will be available, making a centrally located free standing wood stove a superior device (greater radiant surface area) in my mind. Add the fact that your wood stove can double as a cook top during power outages and you’ve got a pretty versatile unit. Regency’s Hearth Heatermodel(picture below) seems quite unique to me among inserts in that it provides a partial cook top and more exposed heating surface for radiant heating. However, this unit is not a flush mount unit and protrudes quite a bit, so you’ll need a good sized step (footing) as part of your hearth to accommodate it. Note in the picture, the addition of ceramic decking on the floor to accomodate this unit, whose face is essentially flush with the old hearth footing. No doubt this modification was done to meet code requirements.

Regency's Hearth Heater Model. Unique in that it's somewhat of a hybrid between an insert and a stove.

A clever fellow I once met, cut two holes in his family room ceiling that housed his stove to allow warm air to naturally flow up to the second floor.  He covered the holes with attractive iron grates made by a local craftsman in his area.  In the end, getting the most from your insert or wood stove means finding a way to distribute the heat: location and air circulation are your principle tools here.

So far I’ve only talked about fans associated with inserts, but many models of free standing stoves offer a fan package as an option as well, and if you end up placing your stove kitty-corner in a room you may want to consider a fan package.

Issues and thoughts on fans

Fans of course consume electricity and make noise.  Frankly I wish manufacturers would put the decibel ratings of their fans on the stove/insert model’s spec sheet. In an information age, this seems totally unacceptable to me.  One of these manufacturers will get smart and strike a deal with Panasonic and start putting their whisper quite fans in their inserts.  I installed a Panasonic fan, rated for continuous use, in my downstairs bath and I can barely hear it when its on.  While the fan in the upstairs bath, recently installed by a local HVAC guy, sounds like a 747 lifting off. Personally, I’ve noticed that my insert’s fan has gotten louder over the years, so much so that I rarely put this unit’s variable speed fan on its highest settings anymore—bit of a drag because generally I want the max cfm of air circulation I can get from the unit.  Of course my insert is 10 years old now, so some degradation of the unit is to be expected.

Another poorly engineered and energy wasting feature of my insert, is the lack of a thermal cut-off switch, which means late at night, long after the fire has died down, the fan continues to run, essentially until I get up in the morning and turn it off. Happily, most new insert/stove fan systems have a thermal switch which automatically turns the fan on once a certain temperature is reached and then, as your fire cools down, turns the fan off below a certain temperature. An important overlooked feature that has now been corrected.

The other issue I have with my fan system is inaccessibility.  Simply put I can’t replace or do any maintenance on the unit.  Being able to pull the fan unit out and clean it up every few years would probably help with my noise issue.  Failing this, simply being able to replace an aged fan unit in its entirety would be a good feature.  I’ve noticed only one insert that offers front access to the fan for cleaning and service, it’s the Vermont Castings Merrimack.

Finally, if you really want to go green, there’s the non-electric Ecofan, available in 100 cfm and 150 cfm models, they aren’t cheap, but they’re built fairly solid and seem to work well.

Going green: non-electric 150 cfm Ecofan.

As far as output goes, from what I’ve seen typical insert fan systems are rated around 150 cfm, so the Ecofans are comparable provided their cfm ratings are accurate.  What I can tell you, is that a friend of mine has the small 100 cfm Ecofan on a wood stove in his kitchen, and I was amazed. Apart from being green, this fan remains functional in a grid-down situation. My insert protrudes about 4-5″ from my hearth and has a top plate that gets fairly hot, not nearly as hot as a cook top, but it might get hot enough to power one of these fans, so this item will be going on the Christmas wish list for next year.

Other features and considerations for modern stoves and inserts

Air-washed viewing glass plate: Being able to view your fire, a must have option for many of us, necessitates a glass plate front.  However, this means regular cleaning to maintain a clear view.  My older insert, which does not have the air-wash feature, forces me to clean the glass frequently: usually done every time before firing up.  Many newer models provide for a constant flow of air over the front glass, this sheet of forced air acts as a buffer, keeping your glass plate cleaner, for longer periods. Of course a solid cast door front, is your lowest maintenance option…no glass to clean. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an insert with a solid door, so this option is likely restricted to stoves.

All cast iron vs. steel-cast-brick combos:All cast iron models are quite beautiful and you’ll certainly pay up for them.  But I have mixed thoughts on whether there is any real advantage to them, other than aesthetics and possibly extra firebox space.  Cast iron is not indestructible and I’ve noticed with time, that various interior parts of my stove are warped and may soon need to be replaced at considerable cost.  No doubt some of this damage is simply wear-and-tear over the years, but some is due to abuse on my part.  That is, from over firing my stove, and rest assured that over the years, you too will over fire your stove on occasion. Hence, I may opt for a steel cased, refractory brick lined model for my next insert.  How long the brick lasts, I can not say, but intuitively I would think that it adds a significant element of protection to the unit itself.  If changing out the bricks some years down the road means significantly extending the useful life of your stove, then it may be the way to go.  With brick lined models you’re probably giving up some firebox space, but if you have a large fireplace opening, as I do, then it’s probably not an issue.  On the other-hand if you have a small fireplace opening, you may want to consider an all cast iron model for the slightly greater firebox space.

Clean-out & the ash pan:If you’re planning to use your stove/insert to supplement your current heating system, then you’re going to be burning a lot more wood than the occasional, romantic wood burner type.  Hence, being able to clean out the fire box of ash easily and without too much mess is important. One of the things I like most about my all cast iron insert, is that the bottom of my firebox is a cast iron grate that sits above a large pull out ash pan.  I can do quite of bit of burning before having to empty the pan and when I need to, it’s easy access makes for quick, clean work.  A mundane, but often over looked feature of would-be buyers.

Door swing: Seems like something simple or even irrelevant.  But it’s not.  Check the pics below of my hearth.  My wood storage is on the right, I am also right handed, so having a door that swings open from right to left, while not an absolute must, is definitely preferred.  Check your potential stove options, some models have doors that can be installed to swing open in either direction, many do not.  Consider the layout of your hearth, where you’re stacking your fuel (i.e. to the left or the right of your stove/insert) and how much your stove/insert may protrude from your hearth. These things will help you decide which direction you’d prefer your door to swing.

Catalytic vs non-catalytic:Catalytic stoves have some of the highest heat efficiency and lowest emission ratings to be found.  Of course the manufacturers who don’t offer catalytic versions would likely argue that point.  However, stoves/inserts with catalysts start to burn gases at significantly lower temperatures than non-catalytic stoves, hence their big advantage.  This means that your stove’s optimally efficient operating temperature is reached sooner and last longer—as the stove cools down. It also means that you don’t have to fire the stove quite as hard, to get and keep temperature up in the highest efficiency range.

Having said this, the catalyst—a rectangular wafer package slightly smaller than a tissue box—which sits inside the secondary burn chamber at the back of my insert costs about $300 with tax and needs to be changed out every 3-5 years, depending on usage, making for a fairly expensive regular maintenance item.  To extend its life and keep the stove working as efficiently as possible, you’ll have to access that back area of the stove and clean the ash and soot from the catalyst. It’s a tough call, the extra maintenance and cost, but I think that if I were going with an all cast iron model, then I would opt for a catalytic model for the lower burn temperature to prolong the life of my cast iron. If I were going for a refractory brick model, then I would probably pass on the catalyst option. I think the debate still rages on with this option.  But what I can say, is that I am seeing fewer catalytic type models on the market these days and more models boasting technologies that are just as efficient.

Thoughts on indoor wood storage and your hearth

If you’re going to move from a being a casual fire builder for aesthetic reasons to supplementing your home heating with an insert or stove, then you’re definitely going to burn a lot more wood than you did before. No doubt you will eventually desire some kind of receptacle or cubbyhole, near by, usually part of your hearth, so that you can keep a good quantity of wood within arm’s reach of the the stove.  Now changing up your current hearth may not be practical or even be in the budget.  But if you’re starting from scratch, keep this in mind, because I can guarantee you that those couple of arm loads that used to suffice for the occasional fire will not do: you will soon tire of running out to the garage, side of the house or wood shed every few hours for more wood.

Take a look at the hearth in the image above, the image of the Regency Hearth Heater.  This type of little cubbyhole will just not do. However, I find such inadequate hearth design typical of standard open style fireplace designs.  Below is a picture of my original hearth, classic tiny wood storage area, good for nothing really.

My orginal hearth with inadequate cubbyhole type wood storage area.

An ugly, improvised solution below.  It’s okay to laugh, I’m having a good chuckle myself as I write.  The vertical metal rod, recessed and epoxied into the concrete actually lasted two seasons before wear and tear finally killed it.  This quick fix did allow me to stack considerably more wood on the hearth, but as you can see I ended up piling more on the floor in front of the hearth.

Improvised solution. Anchored vertical metal rod.

Well as luck would have it, at the end of that second season, while taking down the metal rod, now twisted under the weight of the wood load, I felt a cool draft.  Turned out the draft was coming from the cubbyhole.  Upon further investigation I found a significant wall cavity above the cubbyhole! Why on earth, given that space, did they choose to flush mount stone and close it in, leaving only a tiny wood storage area below, I have no idea? But given the failure of my metal support and ugliness of it all, I was overjoyed by my find and set out with a new plan in mind.  If it wasn’t for a section of soffit, within this cavity, that should have been blocked off which was causing the draft, I might have never found the cavity itself.  My solution was not a simple one, having to match the original field stone, nor a cheap one: try finding a stone mason these days.  A few pics of the solution below.

The hidden cavity revealed!

Finished wood storage area, side view.

Finished wood storage area, front view.

Suffices to stay this was a pretty major remake of my existing hearth.  The stone mason and his helper were there chipping away at stones for an entire week and this remake cost more than the stove insert. Of course if you’re working in brick and starting from scratch, your cost will be significantly less. Fortunately I found the cavity, unfortunately my existing hearth was stone, so I had to work with what was there.  Bit of a budget buster this one, but I am very pleased.  It may be a bit hard to tell from the picture, but I can stack three logs deep in this space, giving me at least one face cord of very handy, hearth side wood storage: hallelujah!

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