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June 9, 2006 7:57 PM   Subscribe

Help me use my wood-burning stove!

My new house has a daylight basement with a wood-burning stove. It's claw-footed, cast iron, with the LODI brand name stamped on the front. I have a few questions for the pyromaniacs in the house. I'm originally from SoCal and have never even seen this kind of stove in a house before.

* The door has a rope-like fabric thingy that appears to be an insulator for the door (it fits into a groove and is somewhat protected from the flame). This rope thing is coming loose. Is this really an insulator, or some kind of a hack by the previous tenant? Is it safe to glue it into the slot?

* The stove/oven sits on an L-shaped aluminum hearth with a brick face, set against the wall. This hearth thing is definitely an add-on -- it sits in front of the wall and it not actually a part of the wall. Is this a normal device for these kinds of stoves?

* The bottom of the stove has a sliding door, allowing you to vary the amount of oxygen that is fed into the bottom of the stove when the door is closed. Do I have to clean this door structure? Will ash eventually pile up underneath the stove, or is the design such that ash is contained in the stove itself?

* The stove appears to have vents on the top. These vents are not part of the chimney pipe and do not emit smoke. What are these things for?

Any and all help is appreciated.
posted by frogan to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The "rope" in the door is actually fiber glass. It is glued in place using a special high-temperature glue available at most hardware stores. It functions as a seal to prevent air from leaking into the firebox from around the doors. If this seal is not perfectly complete, all the way around, or if it is old and compressed so that the seal is no longer fitting tightly, then it will be impossible to control the burning within the stove. (You would be amazed at how fast the heat will rise inside, to the point where it can set the chimney on fire.

The bricks around the wall are fire bricks, able to withstand very high temperatures. They are necessary to prevent the metal sides of the stove from becoming so hot they sag.

The brick hearth you speak of is necessary to prevent the nearby floor and wall from igniting if the stove gets really hot (I run my wood burner at 900 deg F in the dead of winter. The chimney, on the other hand, should never exceed 500 deg or the built up creosote could ignite and form a chimney fire that could burn down the house. This temperature is maintained by how much air one allows into the stove through the control vent. I have a thermometer on the stove top and another on the metal chimney pipe.)

I do not know the exact structure of your stove and so I can only comment in generalities. Usually one needs to clean out the ashes from beneath the fire when they build up to more than an inch or so. Ashes remain hot for days! They can ignite wet hardwood days after the fire, so you must be very careful about disposing of them. I would also use a brush when the stove is cool to clean any build up around the vent, so that you have the full control of airflow that the stove was designed for.

The vents on the top connect to a heat exchanger inside the firebox - usually toward the rear. Cold air from the area of the floor is drawn up into the heat exchanger and once heated it exits through those vents. This provides a huge benefit in the efficiency of the stove. (My stove has a fan to force this process so that the overall efficiency approaches that of an oil burning stove.)

You can find a stove top mounted fan, based on the Stirling Engine principle, for sale on the internet. It uses heat from the stove to turn the blades. This fan significantly adds to the ability of the stove to distribute the heat it generates into the room.

An efficient wood burning stove can save you a lot of $ in heating a home (in my case over $4,000/year over gas heat). Before all the flak begins about environmental pollution, the wood I burn is all deadwood, and my using it as fuel merely accelerates the process of its eventual destruction. I don't introduce new CO2 into the atmosphere. As for smoke, the very hot fire produces no visible smoke, so I figure the pollution is not too great either.
posted by RMALCOLM at 8:30 PM on June 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Before making use of this stove you should have the chimney examined and most likely cleaned. A dirty chimney is a serious fire hazard.

I grew up with a wood stove, best thing ever after being out in the cold. RMalcolm pretty well nails the parts.
posted by fenriq at 9:45 PM on June 9, 2006

strongly seconding the chimney cleaning

I inherited a woodstove a couple years ago. I replaced all the fiberglass cord and figured out how to run it, but one day about three months into using it, the chimney began to make an odd crackling sound and within minutes we had a full fledged chimney fire (this in a 100 yr old wood farmhouse).

The fire department arrived 10 mins later through a massive snowfall and managed to put it out, but they told me that most times when they get the wood stove/chimney fire call it is too late to do anything.

A couple of months later I personally witnessed a substantial brick farmhouse burn to the ground, literally to the ground, after a chimney fire.

The catch-22 is: if you don't run the stove hot, you'll get a creosote buildup. If you run the stove hot, you risk a chimney fire. With modern insulated stainless steel flues the risk diminishes, but the big risk factors for chimney fires include (a) old fashioned ceramic flue (b) bends in the flue (c) large exposed exterior flue (d) no absolute proof that the chimney has been cleaned in the last year.

Without (d) you MUST get the chimney cleaned or you are putting everyone in the house at risk when you light the stove. My chimney had been cleaned about a year previously but the creosote had built up to such an extent that there was only an inch wide gap at the top of the flue, the creosote having built up to such an extent.

Having said all that, there's really nothing like a wood stove for heating. i'm installing one in the house I'm building.
posted by unSane at 10:55 PM on June 9, 2006

RMALCOLM has a lot of good advice so I'll just piggyback a few things.

1. if you don't have a thermometer for your stovepipe, you should get one. This will help you burn at the right temperature [you always want to get a fire real hot at least once in its burn cycle to minimize creosote buildup, but not so hot that it can damage your stove and surroundings]. These are cheap and stick to the stovepipe with magnets
2. gloves. invest in some stove gloves if you don't have any, preferably ones that go a ways up your warms. These are much more useful for manhandling hot wood around to get your fire to burn properly. Don't be shy, get good gloves
3. the little air vent is adustable. You want a lot of air when you're starting your fire and you want to tamp it down to have less air coming through once your fire is burning so it will burn longer, especially at night. If your stove has top vents, you may be able to shut this almost all the way. Mine had a heat sensitive piece of metal on it that would adjust how far the thing opened.
4. make sure your chimney is clean and have it cleaned every year, as unSane says
5. most people have some sort of shelve or metal ash can for putting hot ashes into. You don't have to clean the thing every day, but if there's a lot of build up, take out the ashes and put them in something firesafe like a metal bucket, do not put them in your trash.
6. I don't know if you know this, but different woods burn very very differently, so do a little reading. Also take the time/effort to get dry wood. This will burn better and more efficiently and be less likely to leave any sappy deposits in your chimney. It makes a huge difference, use seasoned wood.
6. There are good books and websites about heating with wood, may as well familiarize yourself with them. This site has some starter information and the wood section of this site does as well.
posted by jessamyn at 11:11 PM on June 9, 2006

When you get your chimney cleaned, find someone who really knows what they're doing, rather than some guy who owns the tools and a ladder. If you don't know anything about the history and use of that stove, someone needs to professionally clean and inspect the whole shebang - installation, condition of stove, condition of chimney, etc.

Then, I would strongly recommend that you find someone -- a friend, family member, stove serviceperson, etc -- to come to your house and give you a hands-on tutorial. Wood stoves are great, but they take some knowledge to use safely, and some intuition and experience to use effectively.

You will love having a wood stove. There is something very satisfying and primal about warming your home with fire, something that connects you to the past. Enjoy!
posted by shifafa at 12:09 AM on June 10, 2006

Not much to add here, given that your questions have been answered, but I would amplify shifafa's first comment: Don't just get your chimney cleaned; get it inspected by a competent sweep. You don't say what sort of chimney you have: stainless insulated, single-wall steel, masonry, etc. The stainless chimneys are very durable and probably just need periodic cleaning. Singlewall (other than a short stretch from the stove to the wall or ceiling thimble) is outdated and dangerous. Masonry, unless in excellent repair, can be very dangerous in that sparks can exit through gaps in the mortar into spaces in the wall or attic, and you don't want that (understatement).

And yes, yes, there's nothing like a concentrated source of radiant heat to make winter a cheery season.
posted by bricoleur at 8:06 AM on June 10, 2006

I have heated our house with nothing but a wood stove since 1990. Live northwest of Chicago, can't think of a more enjoyable way to heat the house. A good stove is a blessing. You should expect not to have any odor of smoke in the house and a faint wonderful aroma outside when the wind is blowing your way when working in the yard.

We have a our stove in the corner of the kitchen next to the entry way from our front room. I do have a pedestal fan behind it to create a circular air flow. Our house is shaped roughly like a square doughnut with the middle being solid.

I firmly agree with all the safety recommendations that have been given. However I would like to share some things that I have learned.

Get your self an ash bucket, (as jessamyn recommends) you will be able to remove ash with hot coals safely providing you take the bucket outdoors right away.

Your wood will go twice as far if you keep your fire as far from the center of the chimney as possible. In our stove the chimney sits towards the back and centered across the width. For years I started and kept the center of the fire underneath the chimney. Once I moved the fire to the very front of the stove and along the sides I have been able to use half the wood that had been used. Instead of the heat going straight up the flue, it goes up along the side and across the top of the stove before exiting.

I keep two small wood carts with wheels and rotate the stock much like a grocery store does. When one cart is emptied I move the next one up to be used, and fill the empty one so the wood and be that much drier. I keep my wood under a shelter and probably don't need to do this, but what the heck.

Hope you will find this helpful.
posted by ok at 3:48 PM on June 10, 2006

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