So you want a woodstove…

Ten foot long mantle with a twelve inch wide hearth.

Well I certainly did. As soon as we moved in and looked at the low narrow fireplace with it’s ostentatious marble hearth extension clashing with the painted brick mantel, under-tall and over deep fire box waiting to suck the heat out of the house. Out of scale with the room, lopsided and awkward looking, a relic of a time when heating oil was cheap and President Nixon ran the air conditioner while putting logs on the fire at the White House. Forty years later and oil is about four times more expensive in real dollars across decades of stagnant wage growth and the free heat laying around the back hillside was too tempting to pass up. but accessing that potential energy without the funds to buy a new wood stove and have it installed (about ten thousand dollars here in my neighborhood) proved to be a challenge. In the end I ended up with a legal installed wood stove for about a third the cost, and that’s probably about as cheap as you can get it. What follows is a lessons learned on my part and maybe you can save some time and heartache should you be interested.

If you get nothing else from this article, take this to heart: you will have to get a permit. An unpermitted woodstove is a bigger liability than you think. From a reputable source: “an unpermitted wood stove puts you in extreme legal jeopardy. If you have a house fire caused by an unpermitted wood stove your insurance is unlikely to cover it, and in the event of damage to other people’s property or injury you may be liable due to negligence.”. Also, as you see it is a big job and even doing it yourself it isn’t what I would call cheap. Without a permit it is not a home improvement but a liability; you will likely have to remove it before selling or renting your home. If you rent you will have to remove it and any modifications to the house when you leave.

The first step is to get familiar with your local ordinances on woodstoves. With new EPA rules in 2018 going into effect you will likely have to buy a new (or newer) woodstove but that may depends on how the local code folks interpret it. I have good luck calling the code department and getting straight answers in layman’s terms, though to be fair as I read codes and government specifications for a living I am not exactly a layman, but it never hurts to understand the perspectives of the people who will be judging your work. There are a lot of moving parts and before you start spending money it is good to have a plan. And your plan is going to depend where you live. Yes they can be a pain but they exist because we all need air and with oil prices likely to remain high more woodstoves will likely be in use, and an EPA woodstove puts out one sixth of the emissions of an old air tight one.

There are three terms that you will need to clearly understand: Laws, Codes and Manufacturers Recommendations. Laws are are rules passed by a governing body, usually giving oversite authority to a local agency, Codes a regulations written by those authorities and Manufacturer’s Recommendations are how the company builds your new-to-you stove designs the stove to be used. The codes invariably say something to the effect of “installation shall be in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations and relevant codes. If there is a difference the more stringent shall apply.” If the manufacturer says the stove needs a twenty inch stand off from the wall and the local code says two feet, then two feet it shall be. Note that in codes “shall” means “exactly as stated, no exceptions” so no substitutions or “yeah buts” apply. When these rules get you down, and they will, remember that there is a dead person behind each one and take a breath. They are not perfect as they are the product of imperfect humans, but they are an attempt to help protect people. If you live in a rural area you will probably read about fires and deaths caused by woodstoves and heaters most winters. You do not want to be one of them.

Before buying a woodstove, determine where you want it in your life. It has to be a place that is useful like a central living space, but it will also take up a fair piece of that precious real estate so putting it where people walk is an invitation to injury. Ideally you will want a 36″ wide walkway around the stove. This may mean getting a smaller stove, moving furniture or some combination. In my case the existing fireplace was a natural starting point. Having a 20 foot tall brick hole in my roof was too much to pass up. The other choice is to set the stove against an outside wall and run a double wall pipe through a special fitting in the wall or run a pipe up and through the ceiling. Keep in mind that double wall and triple walled pipe is very expensive as are the wall and roof fittings. If you have standard ceiling-crawlspace-roof setup you will need two through fittings. If you have vaulted ceiling you will have a long shining steel cylinder in your visual living space. Unlike love, major home improvements are forever so take some time with this. Once you have a space and a plan you can start shopping for a stove. keeping in mind the space you have available. To save space you could consider a stove insert but keep in mind they depend on fans to really get the heat out and if you want to heat when the power is out this can be a problem.

In my case the space was set and because I have a large living room the size of the floor pad was not a deal killer, but the wood stove would have to be over the floor and not every stove can be installed that way. I wanted to go through the firebox to avoid drilling a hole in my roof or chimney so the outlet had to be horizontal and rather low. I searched on craigslist and when I found a promising stove I would download the manual and review the installation section. A used stove has to have a EPA compliance plate on the back If it doesn’t have that it is not a stove and may not even be yard art- in Oregon noncompliant stoves have to be destroyed before a home can be sold with some exceptions for cooking stoves and historical artifacts. If there is no manual online it is likely too old to use. Take this seriously as buying a car; it is a major purchase with a lot potential energy to cause injury and damage. Another option is to visit local stove dealers and look for floor models that are being discontinued. In over-retailed America there are new color and design changes every year, and last years models often sell at a serious discount.

As you shop you will see bargain stove manufacturers. They will sell new for what used American and Norwegian stoves cost. Invariably they are made in China, and Chinese steel ,and Quality Control, in general are suspect. The metal you are putting in your home will routinely be heated and cooled multiple times per day for decades. I chose to stick a stove manufactured in a country with a robust quality and safety culture. There are ways to save money but this isn’t one of them. Spend some money here; a new stove like the one I used in $4400 at the factory, mine was $1100 including a new catalyst. I chose Vermont Castings because they have the reversible flue I needed to get through the fire box, but there are plenty of other good companies out there.

Once you have a stove, get the Manufacturer’s manual and installation guide and read it. This and the county code will be your Bibles. Highlight the clearances relevant to your installation for easy reference. I cut out a piece of cardboard the size of my stove and used masking tape to mark my hearth and fire backing to ensure adequate space around the stove. Once the layout worked I cut the backing cement board. Remember that stone can only be glued to stone. If you mortar tile to wood the bond will fail because wood expands and contracts differently than stone. Make sure that the grout used on fireplaces are rated for the use. Some grouts contain plastics and you don’t want it melting or worse under your stove.

The next part is for anyone using their chimney for the exhaust. Be forewarned this is a messy and miserable job. To work correctly and safely the stove will need an insulated liner that is slightly flexible and get it to bed through two tight bends in four feet. You will likely have to remove the flue and part of the smoke shelf where everything that has fallen down your chimney ever rests mummified in ash. You will do this on your back with all the detritus and mortar falling down on your head. Safety goggles (not glasses.) and a respirator mask are essential. The upside is you don’t have to cut a hole in your roof.

Fire back is the inflammable wall behind the stove and hearth is the inflammable floor under it. Keep in mind that inflammable means it will not burn, ever. It may crack or crumble but it will not light. Anything with a fire rating is flammable. Drywall is not inflammable although many people treat it as such. Any Drywall behind your woodstove may have to be removed to a certain height depending on codes and manufacturer directives. Cement board is easily available but does not come in the same thickness as drywall. Drywall is either 3/8 or 5/8 inch and the cement board I found came in 1/4 and 1/2 inch meaning I had about an eighth inch difference in depth between the wall and fire backing. This is a good reason for a mantle in my opinion. I used one layer of cement board over the brick and two on the floor required 3/8″ inflammable material under the brick work, and it became my habit to always add to the minimum requirement on this project. When the time came to cut the drywall above the brick I found it had been laid directly over cement backing so the fireplace had been safe at some point and someone had intentionally laid drywall over it. Do a lot of home projects and you will find a lot of this kind of skullduggery, don’t be that person for the next homeowner and do it right the first time.

When it comes to the stone work you can spend as much as you like. To keep costs down I became a fan of the closeout aisle at the hardware stores; by waiting I was able to get that for about 1/3 the retail price. But take care with your choice. Bad stone is not like bad paint when it comes to changing your mind later. My general advice is to avoid colors and patterns that are flashy or trendy. Trendy is a way to make you buy the same thing more than once- and this is not something you will want to do twice. Imagine how you will feel about the design in twenty years, or the color when it is time to repaint. When in doubt black stoves go well with everything, and most stoves can be found in black, and gray- brown tile and slate hides ash pretty well.

Once the stove is done and the liner stuffed down the chimney or pipe punched through the roof you can assemble the parts and add the pipe above the roof and add a fire cap to keep the rain and birds out making sure to use three screws per pipe connection comes the final inspection. If you buy a used stove expect to replace all the gaskets and catalytic converter if it has one. Replace the door gaskets even if they look good; I left the ash pan gasket because it “looked fine” only to replace it one chilly morning three two weeks later.

Have a chimney sweep check your work and inspect the stove before you call the county inspector for a permit. They are skilled trade workers who know the codes and safety rules and can keep you from costly re-inspections and maybe save your life. My chimney sweep visit was a $75 and he pointed out three things I needed to do before inspection. If only everything in life was that cost effective.

Once the work is done and the permit completed, I urge you to start with small fires and work your way up. A stove is like a person and they all have their own quirks. Get to know yours slowly and take a few trips around the block before setting off cross country. Be safe and get a new fire extinguisher and check your smoke alarms. And enjoy the warmth. It takes a lot of work but the results will be worth it.

First power outage with a working stove with bread leavening on the chair.

Here is a site that explains chimney lining better than I can:

And about insurance and woodstoves: This article mentions that some insurance companies require professional installation. If this happens to you than I would say that there are many companies that provide insurance and it night be worth shopping around at this point.

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