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Wood stoves not old-fashioned anymore


Back in the '70s, the energy crisis and the back-to-the-land movement coincided to produce a mania for wood stoves. There was something old-fashioned and appealing about them, and a lot of people who had seen their utility bills go through the roof thought an alternative form of heat a good idea.

Nearly 20 years later, the energy crisis is still with us. People are still avid for products and systems that will lower their energy costs.

Home builders and manufacturers have responded with a wide range of products and techniques that have tightened up housing to reduce loss of winter heat or summer cool air.

Along the way, however, once-popular wood stoves took some hits. First, unless you live on a farm and have plenty of timber to cut, wood can be expensive. Even if you have a lot of wood, cutting and splitting it is hard work. Storage is a problem; if you stack wood next to the house, you may be providing a pleasant habitat and buffet for termites and other pests. If you stack it a good distance from the house, it may be hard to get to when bad weather strikes.

And once you have the wood, there are still problems. Burning wood in stoves -- especially the older, less efficient models -- hTC causes pollution, both outdoors and in. And burning anything with a flue can lead to chimney fires.

All of this doesn't mean you can't have a wood stove. They're excellent sources of heat, and some of them are beautiful, homey devices that provide visual warmth as well. If you're replacing an old furnace and you're thinking of using a heat pump, a wood stove would make a good source of auxiliary heat. You just have to consider several factors before installing one.

The first thing you need is a good flue. Old houses often have a lot of chimneys. But they're not flues unless they're properly lined. You can't simply hook up a wood stove to an old chimney; there's a serious danger of fire. Even if the old chimney has a tile liner, you still need to have it examined by a qualified "sweep" to make sure there is no damage and no blockage.

There are a number of chimney-lining systems, however. You'll need to check the housing codes for your area to see which ones are allowed; some areas (including Baltimore, which has its own reasons for being concerned about fire) have been slow to accept these newfangled ways to restore flues. Two common systems are to put an insert in the flue and pour a concrete-like substance around it; or to install a metal liner in the chimney. Look in the phone book under "chimney builders and repairers." (Two companies that work in most parts of the country are Supaflu and Ahrens. Both are UL-listed, or safety tested.)

Pollution problems can be addressed both in the operation of the stove and in the design. A fire that burns heartily creates less smoke, so it puts out fewer particulates (mostly carbon). An inefficient stove, or one that is choked down to prolong burning, produces the most smoke, and the most pollution. In addition, wood stoves that use indoor air for combustion reduce oxygen in the air you are trying to breathe.

Modern wood stoves are designed to burn more efficiently, and the most clean-burning are certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. New stoves also reduce the amount of particulates that pollute indoor air, and they can be installed to draw air for combustion from outside. Besides reducing the smoke, an outside air source keeps you from wasting the air you pay to heat, and it doesn't draw oxygen from indoor air.

Finally, if chopping, storing, hauling or simply paying for large chunks of wood doesn't appeal to you, there are alternatives.

One is a pellet stove, which burns pellets (the size of pencil erasers) made of sawdust, recycled paper and cardboard, wood scraps, nut hulls and other agricultural waste. The fuel comes in bags and the devices are so clean-burning, according to the Fiber Fuels Institute (a trade group), that EPA has exempted them from air-quality regulations.

Another alternative to wood, though it doesn't exactly mean "going off the grid," is gas. One company producing gas stoves with flames it claims are a "dead-ringer" for wood-fire flames is Vermont Castings, of Bethel, Vt.; its stoves come in the old-fashioned, iron styles that appeal to people who like the look, but not the hassle, of a wood stove. Vermont Castings also makes a sleek-looking pellet stove. Although some of its models are sleek, Whitfield Pellet Stoves, a division of Pyro Industries, of Burlington, Wash., also has a pellet stove with a traditional wood-stove look.

Check the phone book for stove dealers; most brands are available nationwide. For a brochure about pellet stoves, send a self-addressed, business-size envelope (no stamp necessary) to: Fiber Fuels Institute, 5013 Miller Trunk Highway, Duluth, Minn. 55811.

Next: New choices for old houses.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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