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Etiquette for getting cozy with wood stove Warmth is rewarding, but always remember to keep it clean


ABOUT THIS TIME of year, those of us who don't already have one start thinking how nice it would be to bask before a nice warm fireplace or wood-burning stove -- something that's not only toasty but also not dependent on gas or electricity.

Like any dream, this one requires a reality check. There's a reason that the reliable old utility company has so many customers: Convenience. Modern furnaces and heat pumps require little maintenance, but wood stoves and fireplaces need a lot.

They need to have their flues cleaned once a burning season -- some chimney sweeps recommend cleaning once for every cord of wood burned.

They need seasoned and well-dried wood, which burns more cleanly and reduces the buildup of creosote, which can cause dangerous chimney fires.

They need you to install a carbon monoxide detector, if you don't already have one, to monitor for concentrations of the odorless, flavorless, invisible -- and deadly -- gas. (You should already have a CO detector if your furnace burns gas or oil, which can also be sources of carbon monoxide.)

They need to be installed properly. Wood stoves are easier to install, and to retrofit, than fireplaces, and, since they radiate heat from all sides, provide more heat than a fireplace. Fireplaces actually pull air out of the house, which can make it colder if you're not sitting right in front of the flames. Fireplaces can be fitted with glass doors, fans or other heat-recirculating systems to make them more efficient, though that also makes them less charming.

However, if you're ready to make the commitment that caring for a wood-burning device requires, there's nothing cozier than a fire on a cold winter's night.

Installing a fireplace can be a disruptive process; it requires building the structure in your house, and that means a lot more carpentry, not to mention masonry. It's not a task for the average homeowner. However, do-it-yourselfers can do most, if not all, of the work of installing a wood stove.

When you shop for a stove, look for something that fits your space and has been tested for safety and certified by a recognized testing laboratory, such as the familiar UL, or Underwriters' Laboratory. In addition to the commercial testing labs, the Environmental Protection Agency has been certifying wood stoves to ensure that they are clean-burning and will not contribute to air pollution.

A used stove can cost half what a new one does, though new stove prices run from a few hundred dollars up to a couple of thousand. And, if the installation is complicated, or you need a very tall chimney, that can cost more than the price of the stove. There are good reasons for buying a new, or at least a newer, stove: It's less likely to have been altered and more likely to have been inspected.

The stove you buy should have clear specifications (often attached to a metal plate on the back of the stove) for the required distances between the stove and combustible surfaces walls, ceilings, floors).

A wood stove with no added protection must be at least 36 inches from all combustibles. Most manufacturers these days are building in protection at the sides, bottom and rear of their stoves to reduce that distance.

The testing labs certify these distances -- that's what the building inspector will be looking for when he checks the installation.

An older stove might not have been inspected, meaning you'd have to comply with the 36-inch requirement.

Once the stove has been tested, it can't be altered. Drilling holes, cutting down the legs or welding on attachments can alter the safety of the stove.

It's a good idea to look for a stove that will allow you to reduce clearances, so you don't have to put the stove in the middle of the room. Some stoves have optional heat shields to further reduce clearances.

The main thing is to shop carefully for the stove, because what you buy affects every aspect of the installation.

Next: Installing a chimney.

Randy Johnson is a Baltimore home-improvement contractor. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at homeworlark.net, or write to us c/o HOMEWORK, 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.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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