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Wanting to shift to wood heating but in suburbs with mortgage/insurance  RSS feed

 
Posts: 68
Location: Eastern Great Lakes lowlands, zone 4/5
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Looking for some advice for a wood stove noobie.

My house is heated with natural gas furnace and forced air, and that makes me sad :( It'd be great to heat with wood from sustainable forestry or reclaimed heat-treated wood. My house is >100 years old and has a chimney made of brick, stone, mortar. A chimney inspection showed the chimney would need repairs to burn safely in the fireplace as is, but if a flue liner is used as with a wood stove it'll be good to go. So I started looking for wood stoves.

The house is small with a footprint slightly less than 1,000 sq.ft. The room with the fireplace has a vaulted ceiling (only one in the house with one). That fireplace room is also the biggest room in the house, but it is still somewhat small so a freestanding wood stove would need to be small to avoid feeling like it clutters the room or makes it much smaller. So I started looking for inserts.

New, EPA-certified, highly efficient (>80%) inserts are very expensive! Heard from 3 sources that it'd be $5,000 to get one of those and have it installed and ready to use. (I am rapidly becoming a more handy DIYer, but I'm not ready to install something as important/risky as a house heater.) This seems crazy to me, so I started looking at used inserts. The efficiency on those is not very good though, and because our fireplace is pretty small and gets much smaller toward the back, the options are pretty limited. Plus, so far I haven't spoken with any fireplace pro's who'll install a used stove or any I purchase on my own, though a friend said they might know a certified installer who'll do that.

As I explore different options I figured I'd check in here for guidance. Any suggestions? Specific questions bouncing around my head:

  • Small freestanding wood stove or insert? It'd sure be nice to be able to use the stove for cooking as an alternative to our natural gas stove/oven, but keeping the room close to as spacious as it is is a priority (unless I can convince my better half).


  • What do I need to watch out for if going the 'used' route? I've used wood stoves before but am new to homeownership and have no experience buying, installing, or doing long-term maintenance on wood stoves.


  • How much is efficiency worth, comparing a ~$2,000 used stove route vs. $5,000 new high-efficiency stove route? Our goal is to supplement/minimize our natural gas usage with fuel that can be renewable, good for people, and provide other foresty goodness. We have some wood access (scrappy difficult to harvest woodlot 30 minutes away, healthy woodland with good access 2 hours away, HT pallets 10 minutes away) and there are plenty of firewood sellers in our area. Is it realistic to do some number crunching and actually estimate if/when the stove would 'pay for itself' comparing a generic used insert vs. new high efficiency one vs. our natural gas heating?


  • If going an unconventional route like a used stove or even this cool code compliant prefab'd rocket heater, what should I do to make sure it won't cause chaos with our mortgage/insurance provider? For that matter, what should I expect to do (or not do) when buying any wood stove, when it comes to insurance? On the one hand I'm thinking to call them up and ask what they expect me to do, e.g. send them a brand and model # and ask them to confirm it's OK before buying. On the other hand, I'm not sure it's a good idea to draw attention to this at all. But, I'd rather hear their verdict before buying something, than after I've invested in something that'll effectively cancel the mortgage-required insurance coverage.


  • Lastly, while we're happy to invest in this house and leave it better than we got it, we will probably move to a more rural spot nearby within the next 2-5 years. Thus I want to keep things somewhat simple and resellable.
     
    pioneer
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    If you are going to be there 2 to 5 years, the payback isn't there buying a wood stove, even if you got your wood free.  If you want to figure it out, decide what amount you are paying for natural gas for 5 years vs the cost of the stove.  If you have to buy wood, you will probably need between 4 and 8 cords a year.  Here that will cost you about $75.00 a cord.  If you are talking about paying 5000 for a stove, I doubt you could pay for it in 10 or 15 years.
     
    pollinator
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    Split the difference and try to find a pellet stove: used pellet stoves are cheap, and you get the feel-goodness of using a renewable heating fuel.
     
    Posts: 414
    Location: Wellington, New Zealand
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    Have you just got an open fire place at present?
     
    R Spencer
    Posts: 68
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    Just an open fire place at the present. And a fairly new natural gas furnace. So as far as fossil fuel heating goes, we're in pretty good shape and are making good progress on home efficiency but have a long way to go.

    It could be that the more sensible thing is to focus efforts and money on home efficiency, and if anything get the cheapest wood insert we can to better seal the fireplace and so we have the option of burning wood when we'll be in that room watching it and enjoying its warmth.
     
    pollinator
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    First of all, I'd contact my insurance company to see if they approve a woodburning stove and if so, what are their requirements. The insurance companies I had in the past were more amenable to pellet stoves. They get really nervous about wood stoves.

    Second, since you're in the suburbs I'd chat with my neighbor's to see how they feel about woodburning stoves. Some neighbor's might be vigorously against the idea. Most stoves produce smoke to one degree or another, except for pellet stoves.

    I'd look into a pellet stove.....if you have an easy source for pellets. They don't require a chimney...they can vent hotizonally through a wall. Most don't require wide clearances. We used a Vermont Castings pellet stove for 9 years. It was a very pretty stove when operating. It isn't the best stove around, but it was ok, though pricy. Pellet stoves require electricity to run, so be aware that the house could fill with smoke if you lose electric. We had a battery back up system on our pellet stove since we lived in an area that had frequent power outages.
     
    R Spencer
    Posts: 68
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    Thanks for the input Su. All of my immediate neighbors use their fireplaces (no wood stove) on occasion so I presume it's OK. They seem interested and are encouraging, though skeptical, about our other outdoor permaculture antics.

    Good to hear the recommendation to just call the insurance company and ask. This makes sense to me, but a few friends have warned against reaching out to them as if it were asking for trouble. My thinking is, if I wasn't interested in their opinion on these things, I wouldn't be paying them! In reality it's reverse: I have to pay them to live here, therefore I'm interested in their opinion.

    My partner and I haven't been as interested in pellet stoves but I'll rethink it. We figure a wood stove is a backup/supplement to our newish gas furnace which came with the place. Since pellet stoves require factory-processed fuel and electricity, it's much less useful alongside the gas furnace, since if the gas furnace isn't usable then the pellet stove won't be for long either. Both pellet and wood stove enable heating with less or no natural gas in our house, but the wood stove has the big added benefits of accepting fuel we can source entirely on our own and directly from forests, along with aesthetic value. But as I consider it more, a pellet insert could be a decent option, and at a glance they seem cheaper.
     
    Posts: 114
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    A lot of the newer freestanding stoves don't get hot enough to really cook on.  You might be able to get water to a low simmer after a long while, but good luck frying anything on the high-efficiency stoves, unless you get one with the top that swings away to reveal a cooking surface.  Unfortunately, those are harder to find and more costly, at least in my region.  We recently got a freestanding stove, and we quite like it, but the potential for cooking on it was...disappointing.  

    If you're looking to save money, I would recommend improving your home's efficiency.  Wood stoves are expensive, and installation is even more expensive, and then there are the expensive insurance implications.  We did all the calculations and decided we wanted one anyhow, but it sure was tough committing to the extra annual fee on the insurance.  All of the insurers we contacted had no extra charge for a gas heating stove, nor for a wood fireplace that was set into a wall, but a 25% (or more) additional cost for a freestanding wood stove.  If the wood stove is the primary heat source (burning more than 2 cords per year), the additional fee goes up to 75%.  We're in Canada, so you may be able to do better in the US, but make sure you do your research with the insurance agencies.  
     
    pollinator
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    Whether you were planning on staying or going i would still suggest spending the money on energy efficiency upgrades rather than the wood stove first.  More/added insulation, weather stripping, new windows etc etc.  Lots can be done DIY without having to pay a contractor which would allow you to spend more on the materials.  By increasing your efficiency , you would see lower energy bills and more comfort in your home.  After doing this then I would revisit the woodstove idea.  And YES, consult you insurance company first.  It would be a shame to have a fire that was contributed to the woodstove and they look at you and say "sorry" your weren't covered for that.  
     
    R Spencer
    Posts: 68
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    Thanks for the feedback & tips! I'll make efficiency projects a higher priority and will definitely check in with insurance as a next step for any wood stove plans.

    I didn't realize the newer stoves don't get hot enough for cooking unless specifically designed to do so. Good to know! That's a bummer since backup cooking is a big motive for a wood stove in the first place.
     
    Walt Chase
    pollinator
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    R Spencer wrote:Thanks for the feedback & tips! I'll make efficiency projects a higher priority and will definitely check in with insurance as a next step for any wood stove plans.

    I didn't realize the newer stoves don't get hot enough for cooking unless specifically designed to do so. Good to know! That's a bummer since backup cooking is a big motive for a wood stove in the first place.



    What i bolded isn't necessarily true.  It depends on the individual stove.  Was just in the wood stove store the other day to get a temp sensor for my wood stoves blower fan.  I had to wait until another customer was finished and I looked around the store at new stoves just to kill the five minutes.  There were several models that would most definitely been usable for cooking on the stove top.  
     
    Travis Johnson
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    I am not a huge fan of the new EPA Compliant stoves. They cost a lot of money, and really are not helping a whole lot. The wildfires alone in California had more air pollution in one day then every woodstove ever made in the last two thousand years. Then to think that a woodstove would cost $5000 when a used one can be purchased for $100 (or free) makes the decision easy. I can make any woodstove air tight with some woodstove gasket material, pop rivets and a drill.

    But if you plan to move in a few years, I would not install one. I had a woodstove in a house I am selling and I took it out. Leaving it in tells any potential buyer, "this house cannot be heated with the current system", or it is expensive to heat." adding in the high cost of insurance, or getting the woodstove past a home inspection only muddies the waters.
     
    R Spencer
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    Some updates:

    Our insurance provider said wood or coal burning stoves of any kind are permitted as long as they're UL-approved, installed by a pro, and not our primary heat source. They also said no rate increase at least not at this time. So that's a huge plus!

    Good point about resale Travis. I'm not too worried about that because our gas furnace/forced air system is very common, the house is pretty small, and the furnace is so good and new that I think people wanting to use gas will be happy with what they're getting. The wood stove would be a bonus, "you can use the fireplace more safely and efficiently than usual, and if you wanted you could reduce gas usage by heating more with this." Plus, even after we move out of here, we think we'd hold onto it and rent it rather than sell right away.

    Anyway, we're now looking more at used small freestanding wood stoves that don't take much floor space, or a pellet insert.

    When looking for used stoves, what do you look for to know you're getting something good? So far all I heard from friends is to know the dimensions we need and a brand we trust then look for that, and before buying inspect it to look for any cracks. Would cracks be pretty obvious? Any other tips in going for used?

    Travis I'm getting handier everyday but I wouldn't be comfortable mending a stove yet. Have some machinist friends who would be, but then that might not count as "UL-approved" as far as insurance is concerned.
     
    pollinator
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    Hi R. Spencer,
    I'd like to add that if you are planning to move within a short timeframe that there may be may other areas to focus on than the fireplace, as Walt previously indicated. We bought our house over ten years ago, knowing that the fireplace needed work (and it still does). There is a chance that your idea of the perfect fix, may not be inline with a new owners ideas, and if you are looking to sell, that wood burner taking up space where the original chimney could have been repaired, may be seen as a negative. In our case, we know that the mortar is failing in our chimney, and if we fix it, it will be safe for wood burning once again. That doesn't happen to be on the top of our fix-it list, so we haven't had a fire there (for over 10 yrs). We have chosen to go the route of more energy efficient windows and adding insulation as priorities. If someone had put a woodburner in our living room with its current layout, it would make it cramped and limit walkways. If you know for certain that the market for a home such as yours, in your area, is almost always wanting a woodburner as the main source of heat, then it might be a worthwhile upgrade. But if many are okay with the option of having a fire (even with having to repair the chimney) then it might not be worth the cost. If you end up buying a stove used, look to evidence of rust/holes, that can be a fire hazard in and of itself. You will need proper backing for the floor and area (normally behind, but could be in front of) the unit to prevent any fire issues. I wish you the best of luck!
    Regards,
    Denise
     
    Travis Johnson
    pollinator
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    The biggest issue is with broken grates. They are impossible to repair, hard to find, and while able to be recast with new, can be expensive.  Glass is not as bad (if the stove has any), but can be equally hard to repair. I would also check to see if the ash door or firebox door shuts tightly or if it is warped.

    With any used item, a person has to look beyond surface rust, but rust holes are a real concern. A person would be really surprised at how easy an old stove is to clean up. A fresh coat of woodstove paint and the stove just gleams.

    Fire bricks that are cracked or missing are no big deal believe it or not. Fire brick cracks just looking at them, so its not an indication of anything, and at $3 to replace, are really cheap. Gasket material around the ash and firebox doors are also easy and cheap to replace if it is crappy or missing. Door latches can be freed up if they are stuck or hard to work as well.

    Missing legs, or other parts can be found for old stoves, but it depends on how much time you went to spend on hunting down parts. I once had a pot bellied stove given to me, and within 24 hours I had found (2) missing legs for it, had repaired the mitten rail brackets by welding them, and had it painted and installed. That was pretty good for a 1893 stove! So it can be done, but I know where to find parts and can weld cast iron too.

    DSCN5237.JPG
    [Thumbnail for DSCN5237.JPG]
    Woods and Bishop Pot Bellied Stove
     
    R Spencer
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    Thanks for the info everyone! Very helpful.

    We will still look into a fireplace as we'd be much happier able to heat with wood and we think future buyers will buy into that also. In a few ways we're sort of betting future buyers will value permaculture improvements to the place, mainly in terms of landscaping. For example, growing a few coppicable hedges, people could fuel their home heating (in small part) from their suburban backyard!

    We'll look for a cheaper end one and not dish out big bugs for marginally better newer units. And fireplace or not, we'll prioritize home efficiency improvements.
     
    Posts: 47
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    You mention that your fireplace gets narrower towards the back.

    So I have two questions:

    1) Is the fireplace also rather shallow (meaning from the opening to the back wall of the fireplace) when compared to a 'normal' fireplace?
    2) If you look up inside at the ceiling of the firebox of the fireplace, is it tapered up and towards the back of the fireplace?

    If yes to both of those then you have a Rumford fireplace and it would be well worth the cost of fixing the chimney. The Rumford is the only fireplace that I'm aware of that will yield a net positive heat for the room and house it is used in after taking into account air supply drafts and the like.

    I have one that I built from a kit and it is amazing how much heat it produces. Usually a teepee type fire is built by leaning the logs / splits vertically against the back wall of the fireplace.
     
    Denise Kersting
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    Hi Duane,
    I by no means want to hijack this thread, but could you let me know what depth (front to back wall) you would consider a normal fireplace vs. a Rumford fireplace? Thanks!!
     
    Posts: 491
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    R Spencer wrote:Some updates:

    Our insurance provider said wood or coal burning stoves of any kind are permitted as long as they're UL-approved, installed by a pro, and not our primary heat source. They also said no rate increase at least not at this time. So that's a huge plus!



    A wood stove is our only source of heat for our 1,100 square foot house and we wouldn't have anything else. Wood is a waste product here and someone is always trying to get rid of it. So we heat our home free for the rest of our lives as long as we cut and split the wood ourselves.



    We can get by with just a tiny 15''x15" Morso Squirrel because the heavily insulated walls are 8 inches thick and we live in California. It's a clean burning EPA approved stove, so just a few minutes after you start a fire zero smoke comes out the flue and you can't even tell its burning.

    The previous wood stove lasted for 32 years and was still in excellent condition when it sold for $500...



    ...which ironically was what I paid for it new. (lol) It didn't have clean burn technology but was rated to burn coal so all of the cast iron innards were extremely robust. That's why it lasts so long. If you do get a wood burner, I highly recommend one rated for coal as coal burns blazing hot like a forge so everything inside needs to be extra thick.



    The Morso Squirrel's firebox is also rated to burn coal and will easily last 30+ years.

    I've had a wood stove in my home continuously since 1971, and whenever I moved I always took it with me.

     
    R Spencer
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    Duane Hylton wrote:
    If yes to both of those then you have a Rumford fireplace and it would be well worth the cost of fixing the chimney. The Rumford is the only fireplace that I'm aware of that will yield a net positive heat for the room and house it is used in after taking into account air supply drafts and the like.



    I don't think my fireplace is a Rumford one, it looks deeper than those (our fire box is 20" back if I recall correctly) and is only slightly shaped like an isosceles trapezoid (whereas the Rumford fire boxes I see online look very much like a shallow isosceles trapezoid).

    Greg thanks for the tip on getting one that can burn coal, to get the thicker walls. That Morso Squirrel looks pretty nice!
     
    Duane Hylton
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    Hi Denise, and R Spencer,

    From the building code:

    A standard fire box must have a depth of 20 inches minimum.

    A Rumford exception allows 12 inches, but at least 1/3 of the width.


    You can read the NJ version here:New Jersey Code
     
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