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Hamptons Life

Dec 3, 2018 10:59 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Wood Stoves And Pellet Stoves Bring New Efficiency

Dec 3, 2018 10:59 AM

As I noted in last week’s column, burning wood in a fireplace can be nice and cozy if you’re near the fire, but you also might notice that the same wood fire can make the rest of the house noticeably colder, as the fire tries to bring in outside air so combustion can take place. The open fire itself makes a fireplace innately inefficient and environmentally unacceptable because of the amount of pollution it creates. There are other ways to enjoy indoor fires, though, and some can do this without a loss of efficiency.

Very few, if any, East End residents use wood boilers, but once you head upstate you see them all through the rural areas. But even if you just want to make your fireplace more efficient, you can consider a fireplace insert that converts your fireplace into a much more efficient appliance and yet still a wonderful wood-burning experience. The next step up is a true wood-burning stove.

For generations, wood stoves and pot-bellied stoves were the backbone of most American kitchens, and as airtight stoves became popular, these stoves became more efficient and were often used for cooking as well as heating. They had to be centrally located, or there had to be several of them in the house.

Wood gave way to coal, coal gave way to gas, and gas then shared the kitchen with electricity, and the wood stove then was relegated to primary and secondary sources of heat. But, again, you still needed a supply of wood, and as Long Island’s population expanded east, there was less and less wood, and fewer and fewer homes had wood stoves in them.

Toward the later part of the last century, wood stoves made a comeback as their efficiency increased and the stoves became centerpieces of home décor, with colored enamel finishes and glass doors that allowed you to sit in a room, feel the warmth and also watch the fire. There were even stoves that allowed you to burn the wood with the stove door open, with a fire screen keeping the embers and coals from flying out. But that pretty much defeated the purpose of an airtight stove, since the door being open made it little more than another fireplace.

These cast and airtight stoves were much more efficient than the cast iron stoves that preceded them, and it was pretty common to get 60 to 70 percent efficiency from them. That’s about what we get from ours. It’s rated at about 70,000 BTUs at 70 percent efficiency, against our boiler’s 80,000 BTUs at around 82 percent efficiency. But our wood is free—and that’s the upside. The downside is that it still has to be split and carried, and the ash still has to be removed from the stove.

But as federal and state regulations have required wood stoves to be even more efficient and cleaner burning, there’s been a dwindling number of stove manufactures as the older designs fade away and the newer, more efficient designs meeting the new particulate regulations have forced the older inefficient stoves off the market.

They’re still around, though, and keep in mind that a good quality wood stove can last 20 to 30 years, only needing some annual maintenance. And if they have catalytic converters, those need to be changed out every few years.

You still need the wood, though. Or do you?

About 20 years ago, we began to see the emergence of a new kind of wood stove called the pellet stove. Pellet stoves are now the top sellers when it comes to burning wood, and being out here on the East End isn’t an impediment like a cordwood stove could be. That’s because you can go to just about any big-box store, tractor supply and even some larger hardware stores and buy wood pellets. They’re sold by the bag, and the bags are usually 40 pounds, costing from just over $5 a bag to around $7.50.

The pellets are compressed wood bi-products that burn very hot and give off the same flame and ambiance (depending on the stove you buy) as a traditional wood fire. However, there’s way less ash, the stoves are more efficient in terms of pollutants, and the flue pipe is much smaller than on a traditional wood stove and easier to install.

Sounds pretty wonderful, right? Well, maybe.

If you are contemplating a pellet stove, there are a few things to consider.

First, where will you store the bags of pellets? They do take up less space than an equivalent amount of cordwood (for the same amount of heat). They need to be kept dry, and you need to make sure that you only buy premium pellets, as discount (as in “cheap”) pellets will foul your stove and cause innumerable problems.

On the upside, a pellet stove can run for up to 16 hours or longer without needing to be refilled. But on the downside, in order to see any economies with a pellet stove, you’ll have to buy the pellets by the pallet or ton.

Most pellet stoves also need a source of electricity, since the pellets are moved from a bin to the firebox by an auger, powered by electricity. If the power goes out then the fire eventually goes out, unless your stove has the ability to be manually “fed” during power outages or has a battery backup. And pellet stoves can be way more efficient than any cordwood stove (up to 83 percent), and this also makes them pretty clean burning.

However, there are new EPA regulations that go into effect in 2020 that are going to require new wood-burning stoves to be even more efficient and much less polluting. This, again, will thin out the number of manufacturers who will be able to sell compliant wood stoves.

But if you like to burn those logs and still want your wood stove, there is hope. Thanks to some entrepreneurial students who have won several prizes for their design, including the MIT Clean Energy Prize, there’s a company that emerged called MFFIRE (mffire.com) that has a wood stove that’s still 70 percent efficient and meets the 2020 EPA standards. Not cheap, though, at just over $4,000. But that’s not so much more than I’d have to pay to replace my stove should it ever give out.

One other thing to consider with many wood stoves: A number of models have griddle tops or ledges where you can boil water in a kettle or even do some light cooking—another plus when that winter ice storm or nor’easter knock out the power. You stay warm and even have your coffee and pancakes.

But, again, no simple choices. You still need the wood (unless you go with pellets), and you still need the bucks. Lots to contemplate if you’re in the market for a wood stove, building a new house or renovating that cabin in the woods that might need one.

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