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Owning and operating a wood stove is like many activities: easy enough when you know how, but challenging when you don’t. Having a roaring conflagration sitting in a metal box inside your house can be a little intimidating, especially when you’re new at it.
As with most things, it makes good sense to know the basics first. This includes following manufacturer’s instructions, making sure the stove is installed correctly, ensuring that the chimney is well-designed and installed, and remembering that combustibles are, well, combustible.
But mistakes happen when people don’t know how to avoid them. Following are a few which not everyone may be aware of:
1. Remember to keep everything cleaned out. Most people know the importance of keeping the inside of the chimney clear of buildup, but don’t forget the ash pan (located underneath the firebox and fills up quickly with ashes), the stovepipe connecting the stove to the chimney, and the stove itself. Full ashpans can block airflow and keep a fire from burning well. Regular stovepipe cleanouts are especially crucial with wood cookstoves—people tend to burn cooler fires in these, especially antique models. Another factor to remember is that the longer a stovepipe is and the more turns in it, the more buildup can occur. Cookstoves often have long twisty stovepipes and require a little more diligent maintenance for this reason, as well. And stoves themselves—again, particularly cookstoves—can have spaces and crannies that build up ash and debris.
2. Remember that the weather outside affects how your stove will operate. Wind, for example, creates a stronger draw, which makes a fire burn hotter and faster. Cold air outside draws better, too. Humidity also affects the way a fire burns. It is wise to be aware that what it takes for a comfortable fire can change with the weather—literally—and to take note of how your stove behaves in various conditions in order to adjust your own actions accordingly.
3. Stoves vary greatly. What works well with one may not work in another, for reasons including size, age, style, installation, chimney, climate and more.
And you cannot rely solely on the experiences of others—ask for recommendations, but know that there are many different personal preferences. My brother, for example, heats his house with an antique Round Oak, while my primary heat source is a modern Amish cookstove.
4. Know that firewood varies greatly. Not only do different species of trees act very differently from one another, from pitchy softwoods like white pine that burn fast and hot and loud to super-hard hardwoods like oak that burn slow and steady to many other combinations, but dryness, age, size and shape all matter, too. Smaller pieces burn more quickly, and round wood—as opposed to split pieces—tend to burn faster and hotter, too.
5. Certain woods are less safe than others to burn. Green wood—that which has not had time to dry after felling and cutting—burns cooler, which can cause creosote buildup and possibly result in a chimney fire. Softwoods burn hotter but can build up pitch, which is also flammable.
6. Never use accelerants. Adding petroleum-based combustibles like gasoline or kerosene is dangerous. There’s playing with fire, and then there’s playing with potentially explosive fire. There’s a reason the expression “like pouring gasoline on a fire” exists—it’s a bad thing to do! When facing a sluggish burn, don’t try anything risky just to speed things along. Exercising patience is better than risking injury to yourself or damage to your home.
7. Don’t throw water into a burning woodstove. At best, you’ll have a houseful of smoke and a sludgey mess under your stove. At worst, the grates could crack or the stove could be otherwise damaged. The best thing for too-hot fires is to avoid them in the first place. But if you end up with a woodstove fire that feels out of control, the best thing to do is to get out of the house and call the fire department. If you can safely close up the stove—reducing as much air intake as you can—before getting out, do that.
8. Similarly, don’t shoot a fire extinguisher into a burning wood stove. I knew of someone who did that once, and regretted it. You will, too. Call 911 instead!
9. Avoid stuffing a cool firebox chock-full of paper. It’s okay to use a little paper to start a fire, and okay to add paper to an already-burning fire. For me, too much paper is a summertime problem. I toss junk mail, paper towel rolls, used tissues, and other paper waste into the stove firebox for several days a cool morning comes along when it seems reasonable to burn it off. But if the firebox is stuffed full, and especially if the paper has been dampened by humidity, it is likely to smolder instead of catch fire. This will result in a very unpleasant houseful of smoke. A better way to burn waste paper is to collect it elsewhere and burn just a little at a time.
10. Don’t burn chemicals. Plastics, pressure-treated wood, and other materials can result in potentially toxic volatile organic compounds being released into the air.
11. Tell your insurance company! It’s tempting to keep the fact that you use wood for heat and cooking a secret from those would probably increase your premium if they knew. But if you ever had a fire or other damage resulting from woodstove use, recouping your loss could be pretty complicated.
Nobody is born knowing how to run a woodstove, and there is no shame in being a novice. So just stay smart, follow general guidelines, steer clear of anything that seems questionable, and don’t be afraid to ask.
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