So you want a wood stove?

Living at the long end of rural power grid means dealing with frequent power outages. When buying our land I was aware of this issue and wondered how no one had installed wood heat in the years between 1971 and now. The house was centered around a massive chimney but sported a low, deep and toad-like brick hearth that would have sucked all the heat up it had we bothered to build a fire; we never did. The first winter was spent dealing with more pressing issues like the roof leaking or getting enough bedrooms for everyone. In the winter the worn glass doors rattled and in the summer swifts chirped all night. It was less a heat source and more a cavern opening into our home. Before the ceiling had been lofted it might have looked acceptable in a seventies sort of way, but it always looked squat against that giant wall.

This is what it looked like on move in day. Note the ten inches of brick over the opening.

Wood heat I needed, and wood heat I would have. To get a starting point I called a local business and asked what a new stove installed would cost. The answer was between seven and ten thousand dollars. Gone are the days of stoves made from steel drum kits and slammed into chimneys (“slamming” is a trade term for terminating a pipe in the chimney. More on that in a minute). With one income, four kids at home there was no way that ten thousand dollars was just going to drop from the sky so I started the long, slow process of doing it myself. So far I have spent about eighteen hundred with another four left to go. It has also taken me two years and it isn’t done yet, but you can be spared this fate if you learn from my mistakes.

First off you are going to need a plan. Where will the stove sit? How much space do you want to heat and how cold is it where you live? In my case it isn’t terribly cold but the house is rather large by my standards at two thousand square feet. The fireplace created a sensible location and means of egress for the smoke but being low I needed a stove that had a horizontal vent (or the ability to be modified to have one). that meant it couldn’t be more than thirty inches from the heath floor to the top of the vent.

At 29.5 inches from the Vermont Casting Defiant Encore fit… barely.

Secondly, you are going to need an EPA compliant stove if you live in the United States. In Oregon you cannot (for the most part) buy, sell, trade, or install a non-EPA compliant stove. Moreover you should want one: new stoves are two to three times more efficient at turning wood into heat in your living room and less likely to cause a chimney fire and destroy everything you own- if you are lucky. Check your state’s DEQ website and they will tell you what to look for. Old stoves were great for that long, slow burn but research has shown that the heavy black smoke they put out isn’t good for you, your kids or your neighbors. And nothing says un-neighborly like giving the Jones’s COPD. That being said, not all EPA stoves are created equal…

The two basic types of EPA-compliant wood stoves are catalytic and non-catalytic. Catalytic stoves come from the late 1980’s and 1990’s and were the first attempt at reigning in the smoke that caused paint to peel off cars in valleys like Missoula Montana. Using an impregnated ceramic filter to burn unused hydrocarbons they act essentially like a turbo-charger. Later advancements in airflow management negated the need for catalysts, which are delicate, wear out, require maintenance and attention they probably didn’t get from their former owners. My advice if you are buying a used stove is to avoid a catalytic converter if you can. They tend to be older and somewhat more affordable (mine was $900 compared with $3600 for a new stove) but you can pretty much add the cost of a new catalyst into the equation (mine are $200 but they vary from $100-$400) and will need to be replaced regularly. As much as I love this stove I probably would have kept looking had I known that when I started.

When I finally got to my catalyst it was a pulverized pile of dust inside the refractory box, another delicate expensive part in catalytic wood stoves. Luckily my refractory was usable unlike the catalyst. It took three hours to get to the catalyst and I broke two bolts in the process because judging from the amount of crud in there no one had opened it since it mattered when the president had an affair (that would be 1998 for you young folks). Researching the issue I found a lot of people weren’t so lucky and ended up with another $400 expense.

Next you are going to want a permit for the installation. Installing a wood stove will most places require a permit and an inspection. You can complain how “the man has got you down” all you like but do it anyway because of two simple facts: If you own a home and it burns down in a chimney fire, your insurance won’t replace it if you installed an unpermitted stove. Think you can just say “oh it came with the house”? Guess again; that first picture, of the fireplace I got that off the internet in about five minutes from an archived copy of the realty listing. Your insurance company will likely spend more time than that if you are asking them to cough up a quarter million dollars. Also insurance fraud is a crime and at that level a felony. Here in the “People’s Republic of Lane County” as the Posse Comitatus types like to call it the permit is a couple hundred bucks and a day of your life. Two bills and a day or ten years and thousands of dollars. Seems like a pretty clear choice to me.

But getting a permit means you need to know the law, which leads me to the fourth point. You need to get the owner’s manual. The code requires, among other things that the stove be installed to the manufacture’s recommendations. The biggest mistake I made was not getting the manual before I bought the stove. The manual listed all the distances and clearances for everything, along with the acquirement that the stove when installed on a hearth over wood have additional heat shield installed. I was lucky that the heat shield is still made and the price wasn’t too bad. Some stoves they are “NLA” (as in “No Longer Available” or “hello custom sheet metal work, good by tax return”). It also told me my mantle was too short by about twenty inches.

Not only is the brick ugly, its useless.

The other thing you will need to learn is the difference between “non-combustible” and “fireproof” sheet rock is considered “generally non-combustible” but that wont cut it near the stove or chimney- you will need to use Fireproof material: cement board, tile, slate are fireproof. The floor protection thickness will also be in the manual. I got lucky on two fronts; one my existing hearth was 1/2″ over the floor and the required cement board covering was 3/8 inch meaning two 1/4″ Hardee backers leveled with the hearth and exceeded the floor covering minimums. Secondly when I went to tear out the wall above the bricks I found cement board under it meaning all I had to do was put another layer of cement board up and it was flush. It could have just as easily gone the other way.

Code-compliant hearth. Note the temporary mounts to hold the slate over the openings.

If you end up doing a mantle facade I strongly recommend This Old House’s article on how do it: it contained a lot of good advice that made the job a lot easier. Even though I went with screwing cement to the brick because it is a process I am more familiar with dealing with the openings and how to orient the tile around the fireplace opening answered a lot of my questions. Also make sure to use high-temp mortar, as a lot of the waterproof cements used for bathrooms won’t work for a firebox. The same goes for grout between the tiles.

The last piece of advice I have is to shop around: the same tile can be vastly different prices. The sticker price on the slate ledger I used is seven dollars a square foot. I found it for less than two on clearance at Home Depot and they shipped it to my store.

The next advice is specific for chimney-exhaust. In the “olden days” of my youth it was acceptable to simply run the pipe up into the chimney far enough the smoke went up instead of down and call it good. Much has been learned; the act of decompressing hot exhaust into an expansion chamber will cause it to cool leading to creosote deposits and fires. Now called slamming it is illegal and inadvisable. Here in the Northwest where a full-burn fire is rarely warranted and softwoods the predominant wood source these deposits can be build up quickly. Now the standard is a full chimney liner attached to a cover at the top with a screened cap.

Many of the installers I talked to didn’t even want to do a chimney lining. Having done one now I understand: it is a terrible, thankless, messy, painful and back-breaking job and if you do it right no one will ever see it. The first thing you need to do is remove the steel flue from your fireplace, which if your fireplace has never been cleaned will cause an ungodly amount of ash and junk to fall on you. Eye protection (as in goggle not glasses, as gets everywhere) a dust mask, coveralls, latex gloves and painters tape to attach the gloves to the coveralls are about necessary. Remember caustics burn too.

After that if you are like me and have to make an eight inch opening because your manual says you cannot reduce the size of the chimney pipe (remember what I said about the manual? This is another thing I should have considered before buying the stove) you will have to deconstruct the “ledge” or “shelf” at the back of the fireplace. This is where everything that has fallen into the chimney will be resting. I found about a cubic yard of ash, along with mummified birds, rats and squirrels in there. The location of this shelf requires it be taken apart while you lay on your back up below it, meaning everything will land on your face on the way out. It took me, a skilled novice about a day to make an opening large enough to weasel the pipe through; it was about the worst day of home improvement of my life including the day I nailed my foot with a nail gun.

The basic concept is to take a steel pipe, wrap it in fireproof insulation (this was $600 and the largest single purchase after the stove) and stuff it down your chimney, through the hearth opening and into the fireplace. Once you get the steel wrapped in fiberglass insulation covered in aluminum it is about as flexible as a telephone pole after three beers and joint; it can be moved but only so much and very slowly. If you are like me and do things alone you will spend a day running between the roof and the fireplace cursing. Honestly most days are like that for me only without the roof-fireplace part. Once that is done you will want to cap the opening so it doesn’t end up full of rats and squirrels too. You will also need a chimney cap attachment which in my case was an unusual size, luckily the shop happened to have one someone else ordered but never picked up.

One of the last things you will need is a barrier between the chimney and your house; this is in case there is a fire it doesn’t come shooting out into your living room. In my case the flue opening was gone so I opted for a 14 gauge steel cover over the fireplace. In retrospect a straight pipe through the roof would have been easier, but a I couldn’t stand the aesthetic or the waste of space. Also triple walled piping also isn’t cheap and having just spent several thousand to replace the roof I was not too keen on cutting a hole in it. But I will never look down on anyone who takes that route again.

Its been an interesting learning curve, and I would never be where I am at without doing it myself, but I am sure now that I will never seek to be a chimney sweep or installer as a job. The near end result is far more pleasing than where I started, for all the sweat and effort it had better be. Hopefully if you read this your install will go a little more smoothly.


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