Woodstove questions
October 31, 2010 1:17 PM   Subscribe

What should we know about having a woodstove?

My partner and I are looking at an apartment with a woodstove tomorrow. I love the idea of heating the place relatively cheaply with one of these (it also has the usual baseboard heating, from what I understand, so we wouldn't be heating it solely with the woodstove), but I have never had one, or a fireplace. So, a couple of questions:

- What are some things we should ask the landlord about it?

- What should we know if we choose to live there and use it fairly regularly? We have two cats, and I would barricade it off when it's in use to avoid singed kitties.
posted by torisaur to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well first off, you need a source of clean, dry wood. Next, you need to be able to get that wood into the apartment relatively easily. and you'll need somewhere to dispose of the ash. Your landlord may be able to help you with all of those. Be aware that it will not totally replace your baseboard heat. Without something circulating the air, it will be hot near the stove and cold far away from it.

I wouldn't worry about the cats. They're smart enough not to touch something hot.
posted by cosmicbandito at 1:27 PM on October 31, 2010

You should ask if the chimney cleanings are your responsibility or the landlord's.

Absolutely look around to see if there's convenient wood storage inside and out. My parents heat their home (mostly) with wood in the winter, and they like to keep enough wood to fill a space the size of the fireplace inside. Usually they bring about double that inside because there's a nice alcove to hold it all.

Seconding that you won't have to worry about the cats. Expect them to spend a lot of time near it, however. :)
posted by WowLookStars at 1:33 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whether it will heat the whole apartment or not depends on a lot of factors: size and layout of apartment; insulation of aprtment; type of stove; type of firewood.

A really good airtight woodstove will heat a larger area and will use less wood. Don't worry about the kitties.

Where is this apartment located? Some cities have regulations against woodstoves because of the smoke. Here are some general guidelines for woodstoves.

I used wood heat for decades and miss it.
posted by mareli at 1:53 PM on October 31, 2010

You should know that it can be bad for your health.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:17 PM on October 31, 2010

Be very careful with your ashes. Your kitties will take care of themselves.
posted by Knappster at 2:25 PM on October 31, 2010

I currently live in a house which has a wood-burning stove as its main source of heat (in the UK). The main thing I'd recommend is to read the manual - this really isn't a joke. It might be because I'm not particularly bright, but it took me a while to understand how the dampers worked on my stove and how to best get the effect I wanted out of it. So it's worth checking if the landlord has the manual.

Also: do you have a cast-iron pan? Might be worth considering buying one, because then you can use the stove for, you know, cooking!
posted by smcg at 2:36 PM on October 31, 2010

We rent out a cottage with a wood stove in it, and it's surprising to us how many people don't realize that they have to remove the ashes regularly, or it doesn't draw very well. You'll get the best performance if you remove ashes prior to each use, but you can usually let it go to every two or three uses depending on how much builds up and whether you notice that it's harder to light the fire.
posted by Emanuel at 2:44 PM on October 31, 2010

I love my woodstove, esp. since it took a week to get my furnace fixed. Wood is dirty and ash removal can create dirt. It's easy to get the living room too warm, and still be cold in the bedroom. Get a fire extinguisher, esp. for anything left too close to the stove. Learn the safe clearance of your stove, and keep it clear, i.e., if the manual says it needs 30" on either side, keep the drapes and furniture 30" away. Get a metal container with a lid for ashes, and a flat stone to put that container on when you take it outside. I'm amazed how long ashes can stay live. I leave some ash in it, and clean ashes out every several days or so. With an inch of ash, I can wake up to a few coals the next morning, making the next fire much easier.

The forums at hearth.com have been very helpful.
posted by theora55 at 3:25 PM on October 31, 2010

fyi, unless you have a free supply of good, dried hardwood, it probably won't be any cheaper than the boiler system you have.

Unless a home is designed efficiently with the woodstove in mind, it really isn't anything more than decorative and fun and is marginally useful.
posted by HuronBob at 3:26 PM on October 31, 2010

Don't burn softwood, especially pine. These woods leave a flammable residue in the chimney that can cause a fire in the chimney. Get a Chimney Fire Extinguisher, in case you hear a thunderous roar in your chimney.

Don't burn treated lumber... ever. Nasty chemicals prevent wood from rotting, but you really don't want to breath them.
posted by Marky at 3:30 PM on October 31, 2010

Chimney fires are an enormous hazard. Have a chimney cleaner or someone else qualified look and see if the mortar is decimated, or if creosote has built up enough to catch fire.

Also get a fireproof rug for just in front the stove if the flying cinders would cause damage or cause a fire.

Finally, don't start the stove if someone under 5 years old is coming over. They won't understand the danger well, unless already taught.
posted by about_time at 3:55 PM on October 31, 2010

Small house, two cats, woodstove as primary winter heat. I also have baseboard electric that I keep permanently at 50 degrees F. I have fifteen years experience with that setup (cats have swapped in and out, but none because of woodstove-related trauma).

The cats are not a problem. At all. Please do not worry about this. Even very stupid cats will not burn themselves on the stove.

Here are some issues you might want to consider before signing up for a Wood Heat Experience.

Wood acquisition and storage. If you are planning to cut it yourself, where are you going to cut it? Do you own a woodlot or live somewhere that you can easily saw up good firewood? (In rural PA, where I live, you can buy a $5.00 permit to cut downed wood on state land for a year. Check your area's laws on that front if you're not sure.) Do you own a chainsaw and/or have experience running one? Do you own a pickup to haul wood in? Does spending fall Saturday mornings getting wood sound like a lifestyle you would enjoy? If you are buying the wood, can you identify wood once it has been cut up? (Maple does not burn like oak. Poplar does not burn like oak. Black locust is actually *better* than oak. Can you tell what you are being sold?) Do you have some idea of the going rate for wood in your area? Can you distinguish "wet" from "dry" wood? (My brother buys his wood, cut and split and allegedly "dry". It is about 1/3 dry, has a ways to go on that front. He's tried several different suppliers. They all lie about how dry the wood is.) Once you have the wood, where are you going to put it? Do you have an outdoor area or some garage space to stack the wood? How much wood can you store at a time? If needed, can you hand-split the wood to a stove-appropriate size? (Splitting maul is about twenty bucks at Tractor Supply or Lowe's or similar. It takes some practice but is not rocket science.) How far is the schlep from the wood storage to the wood stove?

Fire building, tending, servicing. How would you rate your fire building skills? (You will improve with practice, but the learning curve is less than fun.) Do you have storage for kindling, cardboard, etc.? Do you have the TIME to tend to a fire? (You'll need about half an hour three times a day to play with your woodstove, assuming you're efficient and are using properly-dried high quality hardwood fuel.) Do you have the tolerance for wood bits, wood chips, bark dust, ashes, and other assorted crap that will be tracked in and out of your living space? Wood heat is not neat. It is messy. Do you have a place to dispose of ashes? (Ashes stay hot for a VERY long time and can light things on fire unexpectedly. Metal container only for ash storage.)

Other considerations. You will need chimney cleaning once a year, before heating season. You cannot easily go away for a week or two without jacking your electric bill. You may wind up coming home to a relatively chilly house some nights -- for some people that's a dealbreaker. However, your cats will NOT freeze at fifty degrees. They'll be fine. The air will be very, very dry in your house in the winter unless you humidify it. Your house may not be evenly heated, especially if you do not have a blower for your woodstove.

On the whole, I'd say go for it if you can manage the wood storage and acquisition part of the program. If you will be buying your wood pre-cut and shrink-wrapped into little armfuls (the way they sell it in the city), I am not sure that you would be saving money vs. electric or oil or gas heat. You can maybe have pretend fires buying your wood that way, but it would never work for a large percentage of your heat -- too expensive.
posted by which_chick at 4:19 PM on October 31, 2010 [4 favorites]

A ceiling fan is good with a woodstove, even if the stove has a blower built in. The warm air needs to be distributed, otherwise it gets very hot at head height, and quite cold for your feet, so if you don't have a ceiling fan get a gentle desk fan or similar.

Buy wood by the cord, not in boxes from the market, unless you'll be cutting your own of course. Even if you're not cutting it, wood warms you twice, log by lugged log.

The woodstove in our yurt keeps going all night; it probably uses four to six logs in 12 hours (more when cranked up.) In winter an electric blanket reduces the wood we need to burn.

If your chimney catches fire, shut off all drafts, otherwise it's like a jet engine - quite exciting but not safe.

Get a METAL ash bucket; lid recommended. Figure out where you'll dispose of the ash.

Some firestarters are useless, other brands work wonderfully well.
posted by anadem at 5:32 PM on October 31, 2010

For what it's worth, one of our cats did jump right onto our very hot wood-pellet stove. For a fraction of a second. She was surprised, to say the least, but didn't appear to be seriously injured. She hasn't shown any inclination to sit on a hot stove again - nor a cold one, confirming Mark Twain's observation - but she's perfectly happy to curl up in front of it.

So I wouldn't say that cats are guaranteed to be perceptive enough to avoid a stove (our cat took the leap of faith after the stove had been warming our household for months, so she had plenty of time to get used to the idea that this was a big hot box), but at the same time it's probably not an inordinate danger for them. They have fast reflexes.
posted by Kiscica at 6:48 PM on October 31, 2010

A shop vacuum with a metal canister was a big help. So was a fireproof rug under the stove door.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 7:12 PM on October 31, 2010

Small house, two cats, wood stove as SOLE source of heat. Woo, I win! :-D

A lot of awesome advice here already. I would ask when was the last time it was serviced (which includes cleaning the stove pipe, checking it for cracks, and making sure everything is structurally sound).

You can get a carbon monoxide detector. You probably should. A leaky stove pipe can kill you all in your sleep. Personally, I bought a CO detector, it crapped out after the first year, and I never bothered to replace it.

Get a fire extinguisher and keep it near the stove, but not so near that if the stove becomes a ball of fire, you can't reach the extinguisher. Maybe like 10 feet away.

What I wish someone had told me at the beginning: once the fire is started, close the door, and open the vent in front about halfway. Then CLOSE THE FLUE ABOUT HALFWAY. The flue is the little flappy thing on the stove pipe. Close it at about a 45 degree angle.

Check your city's regulations. For example I know that in the city of Seattle, your stove is allowed to smoke only for the first 10 minutes. So you'd have to get up to speed with the stove, to avoid smoking out your neighbors.

And watch your local weather forecasts and air quality monitoring for burn bans.

When you scoop out the ash, do this into a metal bucket. (I have a collection of half-melted buckets.) Set this bucket outside somewhere. Give it 24 hours to be really truly for sure positive that it's not still smoldering.

The more dutiful you are about scooping out the ashes, the more efficiently your stove will run. I scoop ash about every 2nd or 3rd time I use my stove (which in winter is 2-3x daily.)
posted by ErikaB at 7:31 PM on October 31, 2010 [2 favorites]

Everything which_chick said, plus a few more thoughts ...

Get a box fan for the room with the stove, and point it at the stove, on high. This'll circulate more air in the room, and will help the heat spread throughout the apartment.

You should check with your landlord to see if fireplace tools are included / available. If not, you'll need to drop $50 or so to get a basic poker, shovel, and tongs set.

Also, you'll want to have some kind of gloves. Ideally, leather fireplace gloves that go way up your arms; at the very least, leather work gloves.
posted by Alt F4 at 7:34 PM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Woodstoves are great for really cold days, power outages, and to supplement normal heat. And try heating your water there or a cast iron skillet to make food, it's fun. They produce a nice radiant heat as well as heating the air.

Use seasoned, split, dry hardwood

Get a little thermometer (usually magnetic) to stick on the stovepipe pretty near where it exits the stove. They sell these at fireplace/stove supply stores and probably at better stocked hardware stores as well. It should generally be hotter than 300 or 350 degrees, less than 500 or 600. Too low and you get lots of smoke and dangerous creosote buildup. Use the dampers (adjustable things that let different amounts of air in) to regulate how hot it's burning. More air => hotter fire. (Hotter fire will burn up your wood faster of course as well.) You'll need to experiment to figure out how to do this well with your stove. Look out at your chimney, you should only see a little bit of visible smoke once the fire gets going.

If you don't have a brick or stone hearth underneath and also in front of it, get a metal thing to put down on the floor, there will be occasional sparks. They sell these at fireplace or good hardware stores as well.

Clean (with a chimney cleaning brush) or have the chimney and all pipe sections cleaned every year. Have it inspected at least once by a licensed sweep.

It will take some practice to learn how to light it economically-- you will usually need to have a good amount of kindling on hand. You can split a larger piece of firewood into kindling with a sharp axe after some practice, or just get a splitting maul which is overkill for kindling but really easy to use. Keep these sharp and be careful (watch your feet and legs). Google for tips on proper axe use. Experiment a bit with how you stack the wood inside the firebox. I usually put one piece of firewood in, lay some kindling on it in different directions with a good amount of air spaces in there, with newspaper underneath, then add a smaller piece of firewood nearby. Light the newspaper, make sure it's getting plenty of air (leave the door open partially maybe) and the kindling makes a small but roaring little fire. Add more kindling to keep it going. Once the larger pieces have started to burn, I add one or two more large logs depending on the size of the firebox, keep plenty of air going to get those lit. Then close the door and dampers a bit (but not all the way), and check it periodically to make sure it's not going out and that it's burning hot enough (but not too hot) as I wrote above and that it doesn't need more fuel added.

Yes, clean out the ashes periodically. (I save some ash and unburnt charcoal for the veggie garden, and throw the rest out in an ash pit. Most dumps have a place to dump ashes as well.)

I have thankfully never had to use them, but I keep some things called "Chimfex" on hand. It's a stick with some chemical inside that you can put in the stove if a chimney fire does break out, it attempts to slow or stop the chimney fire. http://www.chimfex.com/ . You can find it cheaper on Amazon though.

Also keep a small fire extinguisher on hand.

I keep an old iron kettle from some junk shop on the stove with water in it, to add some steam to the air (it gets a bit dry).

Enjoy the winter!
posted by thefool at 10:05 AM on November 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know this is old, but I just found it. All great advice. I have four cats, and I regularly take pictures of them all wiped out in front of, behind and even under the stove. They cook for an hour or so then come sit with us on the couch, so you get a little furry hot water bottle to curl up with you for a while. Then they cool off and repeat. I love so many things about the stove, and the way my cats regularly worship at its feet is chief among them. I wouldn't worry about them.
posted by nevercalm at 7:29 PM on February 26, 2011

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