Fireplace Drafting Problems

Every fireplace season, we get calls from homeowners reporting that they can’t get their wood fireplace burning right, or that smoke spills back out into their house when the fire is going. So let’s take a look at what goes into your fireplace system, and what might be interfering with it:

Draft is the force pulling air from inside your house up through the chimney. Draft is primarily a function of the temperature differential between your fireplace and the outside air, as warm air from inside is drawn up the chimney to meet the cold air outside the chimney stack. The first implication of this is that it will be harder to start a fire on a warm day, since there won’t be a significant temperature difference to kick-start the draw of the chimney. It also means that when you first use your chimney after it’s been idle for awhile, you might have trouble getting the entry to the flue warm enough to get the smoke moving. If this happens, try holding a lit piece of newspaper or kindling up to the flue entrance right by the damper for a minute or two to quickly warm the flue and establish a draft. This can also be helpful on cold, damp days; humid air is heavier than dry air, so your chimney has to work harder to overcome that resistance.

If the flue is warm enough, the outside air cold enough, but you’re still getting smoke spilling back out into the house, the next culprit is likely to be a dirty flue or chimney cap. Creosote deposits will interfere with the airflow through your chimney, slowing it down and kicking smoke back into the house. Having your chimney cleaned and inspected every year or so helps keep this from ever becoming a problem, as well as heading off other potential chimney issues.

Sometimes, even a warm, squeaky-clean flue will refuse to draw properly, depending on how your home and chimney are constructed. A short chimney will oftenflue extenders have problems drawing properly; this can be addressed by adding a flue extender or chimney pot to the top of your flue. This flue extender can help address another cause of smoke spillage, negative pressure. We often have homeowners report that when they use their upstairs fireplace, smoke spills out of the fireplace directly below it. This is because basements, which are partially or completely below grade, are negative pressure zones, which try to pull air in from outside the house (think of it as a very weak vacuum cleaner); positive pressure zones, in upper levels of the home, are where the warm air is trying to escape to the outside. Since the two flues are directly next to each other, extending one flue may be necessary in order to get the smoke away from that negative pressure zone.

A flue extender can also combat the problem of stack effect, which occurs when your chimney termination is lower than a nearby rooftop. Hot air wants to go to the highest point in your house; if this point isn’t your chimney, the smoke will be drawn back into your home as it tries to reach the highest point in your building envelope.

Additionally, adequate replacement air can be a challenge for wood-burning appliances in newer, more energy-efficient homes. In an older, leakier house, cold air is pulled in around windows, doors, outlets, and even through the walls. While you normally want to keep that cold air outside, your wood stove or fireplace needs the replacement air to maintain combustion. In tighter modern houses, an outdoor air kit may be needed. This kit is simply a 4″ diameter duct that runs from the outside directly into your wood appliance, providing enough air to keep the fire from choking out and filling your house with smoke. An alternative to the outdoor air kit is to crack a window or door while the fire is going. For obvious reasons, this isn’t a great long-term solution, but it’s a wonderful diagnostic tool. If you consistently get smoke spillage from your fireplace, try cracking a window during your next fire; if that fixes the problem, it’s quite likely that either negative pressure or insufficient combustion air is your culprit, and an outside air kit may be the best solution.

Not every chimney problem has a simple solution, but there are often steps you can take to make it easier for your chimney to do its job. If your chimney isn’t working as it’s supposed to, it’s important to remember that it’s part of a whole-house system, rather than an isolated appliance, and the root of the problem may lie somewhere else in the house, rather than in the chimney itself.

Harvest Season on the Grill!

Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association Offers Nine Tips to Put a Little Barbecue Flame on Your Fruits and Veggies This Fall

Harvest season has arrived, which means it’s time for grilled fruits and vegetables! From grilled sweet corn to delicious mushroom burgers to fresh grilled peaches, there’s almost no produce you can’t take to the next level by throwing it on the grill. The Hearth, Patio, & Barbecue Association has 9 great tips to spice up your fall grilling and make the most of your lovely fresh produce. Check it out after the jump:

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What Do Efficiency Ratings Mean, Anyway?

Whether you’re comparing wood, gas, or pellet-fuel appliances, you’ll see an efficiency rating listed in the product information. Between uncertain fuel costs and increasingly strict air quality regulations, more and more consumers are looking for the most efficient heaters they can find. But what do those ratings mean? How are they measured?

The bad news is that there isn’t one standard rating system used by manufacturers, nor are they required to tell you which system they’re using. The good news is that by learning a bit about what the ratings mean, you can put manufacturer claims in context and compare apples to apples when buying a stove or fireplace.

What does “efficiency” actually mean?

In the simplest terms, the efficiency rating on an appliance tells you how much of your fuel will become usable heat in your home. A pound of wood, gas, or pellets contains a certain amount of potential energy; some of this energy will be used in starting and sustaining combustion, some of it will go up the chimney (carrying away particulates and other undesirable byproducts of combustion), and the rest will come out into your home as heat.

Wood Heat: EPA vs. Real-World Performance

Wood stoves and inserts are sometimes advertised with two efficiency ratings: EPA and cordwood/real world performance. EPA testing procedures are focused mostly on particulate emissions, and are very highly standardized. These tests use milled lumber (often pine), precisely stacked, with the stove draft set to its lowest (and smokiest) setting; this is also referred to as a “crib wood” test. While this is useful for determining how much air pollution a stove will generate, it has very little to do with how efficiently your stove will convert firewood into usable heat in your home. Many companies choose to do their own testing with cord wood (usually hardwood) and realistic venting setups, in order to give their customers a more accurate idea of stove performance. Unfortunately, there’s no requirement that companies tell you which efficiency rating they’re listing. For environmental impact, focus on the emissions listing (gm/hr of particulates released into the atmosphere) rather than the listed efficiency rating. For real-world efficiency, a good rule of thumb is that 67%-75% is a good range for quality non-catalytic stoves, with catalytic stoves occupying the 75%-83% range.

(Note: just to make this even more confusing, the EPA is currently in the process of revising its compliance and listing standards. While this process is ongoing, look for “cordwood/HHV/actual measured efficiency (CSA)” in your stove literature.)

Gas Heat: Steady-State vs. AFUE/EnerGuide

Gas stoves, inserts, and fireplaces are rated in two different ways. The Steady State efficiency rating, which offers a higher and more impressive number, is taken only once, after the appliance is fully heated up and burning steadily. While this number is technically accurate, it has very little to do with how your stove will perform over the course of its lifetime, and under real-world conditions. We prefer to work with vendors who list the EnerGuide, P4, or AFUE (annual fuel usage estimate) ratings. These efficiency readings reflect performance over the entire burn cycle, from ignition to cool-down, and use realistic venting setups. If you’re looking at efficiency ratings, and seeing numbers in the high 80% range, you’re probably looking at the steady-state efficiency of the fireplace. The more honest EnerGuide, P4, and AFUE rating systems give numbers ranging from around 60%-70%. A 65% efficiency rating is actually quite good, and an 85% rating, although it sounds much better, probably doesn’t reflect an actual increase in real-world efficiency or performance.

To sum up: efficiency ratings can be confusing, and don’t always give a complete picture of how an appliance will perform in your home. However, with a little bit of time and research, you can put those numbers in context when comparing different products, and make a more informed decision about which stove, fireplace, or fireplace insert will be the best fit for you!

 

Introducing Orion Coolers!

Orion cooler2

Click for larger image

Whether you’re tailgating, camping, or just enjoying a day at the park (with, say, your Kamado Joe Jr. Smoker), the Orion Cooler, now available at Wooden Sun, has you covered!  The Orion’s impressive features include:

  • 35% more insulation than comparable coolers, holds ice longer (check out Orion’s field notes page for user experiences)
  • Standing Pad
  • 6 Tie Down Points
  • 4 Aluminum Bottle Opener Corners
  • Lockable/Certified Bear Resistant (seriously, this cooler doubles as a Bear Box on camping trips!)
  • Low Profile Camming Latches
  • Motorcycle Grip Carry Handles
  • Camo Colors (6 standard colors, plus the Home Team custom series)
  • Rugged Rotomolded Shell
  • 
Made in the USA
  • Smart, Real-World Sizing (25- to 85-qt)
  • 
Drain Plug
  • YakAttack Tracks / RAM Integration for easy
  • 
Highly Functional Tray System
  • Sectional Divider/Cutting Board (optional)

Add in a Wetterlings axe or hatchet, and you’re set for anything from an afternoon of rafting to a week in the backwoods.

Charcoal: What Should I Use? For Us, Natural Lump Charcoal Is the Only Way!

May is National Barbecue Month, and what better way to kick off the celebrations than an in-depth exploration of charcoal, its different forms, and how it got that way? But wait, I hear you say, charcoal is charcoal is charcoal, isn’t it? It’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Here, then, is an overview of the two most common kinds of charcoal, and the difference between them.

The charcoal briquettes you get at the grocery store are actually compressed chunks of ground charcoal and sawdust, as well as non-wood products such as coal dust, limestone, starch, borax, and sodium nitrate (not exactly what we want in our food!). The advantage charcoal briquettes have is their even size and density, which allows for a more predictable burn rate in less expensive grills. The disadvantage of briquettes is that they produce far more ash than lump charcoal, and this ash can choke the fire, limiting the heat output. With a small charcoal grill, this may not be a problem, but the volume of ash produced means that briquettes won’t work in ceramic smokers like the Primo or Kamado Joe. They also cannot be easily used for more than one cooking session. Additionally, briquettes have no flavor of their own, and so impart no flavor profile of their own to the food cooked over them.

Traditional charcoal kiln. Image courtesy of Kamado Joe.

Traditional charcoal kiln. Image courtesy of     Kamado Joe.

Lump charcoal, on the other hand, is made from hardwood which is burned slowly in a low-oxygen environment over a period of several days, through a process known as pyrolysis. (Readers may remember from our chimney safety post that pyrolysis can occur when clearances to combustibles are not met for wood stoves or fireplaces, or when venting materials aren’t connected right; essentially, this means that an improperly-installed wood stove can gradually turn your wall studs into charcoal! Pyrolysis: bad for houses, good for cooking.) This low-oxygen environment is created when wood is either placed into an oven/kiln, or covered with earth and straw, then closed off and left to burn slowly and steadily until the wood is fully oxidized and hardened. The hard wood chunks are then broken down into lump charcoal, which is filtered to remove crumbs and dust.

Because it has no fillers or binders, lump charcoal produces less ash than briquettes, burns hotter, and heats about 20 minutes longer per pound of fuel. Here at Wooden Sun, we use 100% hardwood charcoal in our grills and ceramic smokers, and feel that for flavor, lump charcoal really can’t be beat. We also like to cut the air off after cooking, let the fire die out, and use the remaining charcoal for the next grilling session, which is very difficult to do with charcoal briquettes. A bag of good lump charcoal should have very little dust (there’s always some that settles in the bottom during shipping, but more than a little indicates that your charcoal supplier hasn’t adequately filtered their product before packaging), and only a few small chips.

Whichever form of charcoal you choose for your outdoor cooking, steer clear of lighter fluid. It can impart a nasty chemical flavor to your food, as well as being environmentally unfriendly. There are a variety of fire starters available out there (usually made with some combination of paraffin and compressed sawdust), and products like the Looft Lighter and BBQ Dragon will keep hot air moving over your charcoal to get it up to temperature faster.

 

-P.S. The links below aren’t actually relevant to your choice of cooking fuel, but your blogger encountered them in the course of her research, and found them too interesting not to share:

Spring Inventory Reduction Clearance Sale!! Up to 80% Off!

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Big changes are afoot here at the Wooden Sun! Over the summer, we have plans to remodel our store, bring in new product lines, and expand our work into more outdoor projects! To make room for new products and displays, we’re putting all of our showroom units on sale, at discounts ranging from 10%-80% off our usual retail pricing. From April 15th-May 22nd, come into the Wooden Sun showroom for big discounts on a wide range of gas & wood stoves, fireplaces, fireplace inserts, and outdoor cookers! And be sure to look for our grilling accessories, on clearance from 10%-25% off retail price!

At the same time as we bid a fond farewell to our old inventory, we’d like to welcome the Kamado Joe line of ceramic grills and smokers to the Wooden Sun family! Every Kamado Joe cooker comes standard with cooking racks, rolling cart, grill lifter, and ash tool, so you can get started grilling right away. These grills will also be included in our sale, at 10% off retail.

Check Out Our New Masonry Stove!!

Soapstone new

Buck Stove model 21, Soapstone wrap by Alberene Soapstone

We’re very excited about our newest offering, a compact masonry heater! One of the masons from Alberene Soapstone brought all the soapstone blocks up to our showroom, and he and Kim spent a couple of hours getting those into place all around the stove.

Soapstone is a wonderful material for a heating appliance. A very dense stone, it retains a lot of heat, and releases it slowly over time. While the stove heats up more slowly than a steel or a cast iron stove would, it retains that heat longer, and therefore continues to heat the room long after the fire has gone out.

 

The narrower blocks create visual interest.

The narrower blocks create visual interest.

Unfortunately, the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having lately means that we haven’t had very many chances to fire it up, but we’ve been able to have one or two small fires, and can report excellent heat retention! The time it takes for the soapstone to fully heat up means that this heater isn’t the best option for occasional fires, or if you need to warm up a room quickly, but if you want to maintain cozy, even heat over several hours, consider the beauty and practicality of soapstone!

No Power? No Problem!

Early 2015 brought us a lot of winter storms, and winter storms always bring at least one big power outage. Out in the country, it can be days before you get your power back, but you’ve got to stay warm in the meantime. Fortunately, Wooden Sun has your winter heating needs covered.

Valor G3Valor gas fireplaces and inserts are designed to function without a fan, and therefore without the need for electricity. In addition to the convection heating you get from all gas fireplaces and inserts, Valor has some of the best radiant heat technology in the industry. While few Valor appliances are large enough to heat your entire home, they will easily keep a few rooms warm and cozy while you wait for the power company to do its thing.

Regency Hampton H300Wooden Sun carries a variety of wood-burning stoves and inserts, to heat anywhere from 600-3000 square feet. While inserts often work best with blowers, they’ll still put out quite a bit of heat without the fan, so you don’t lose your heating capability when the power goes out (your faithful blogger has a wood insert with a very noisy blower, and she can get a great deal of heat out of the appliance without having to resort to the fan).

WiseWay pellet stoveWe’re also very excited about our most recent addition, the Wise Way brand of gravity-fed pellet stoves. While other pellet stoves rely on electric motors and augers to get the pellets from the hopper to the burn chamber, Wise Way pellet stoves have a simple gravity-feed system, which means you can still use your stove when the power goes out. Note: the zig-zag portion of the stove is actually the outlet from the burn chamber, which means that you can see the fire through the window on the side as it streaks upwards!

 

 

Common Gas Fireplace Problems: You Probably Don’t Need to Panic

Following up on our recent post about how to address concerns about wood stove performance, here’s a post about your gas stove/insert/fireplace. Since the direct vent gas appliance is a closed system, drawing air from and venting to the outside, there’s much less variation from home to home and appliance to appliance. However, there are a few issues that can crop up with gas units, so here are some common service requests we get, with a couple of troubleshooting steps to try on your own:

My Fireplace Won’t Turn On

At the beginning of each fall, we get a lot of service requests from people trying to turn their gas fireplaces on for the first time in several months, only to find that those fireplaces won’t start. The first, and most obvious question: how are the batteries? Your gas appliance may have batteries in both the remote and the receiver, so it’s important to read your owner’s manual to figure out how many sets of batteries you need to check. It seems obvious, but we’ve gone out to fix several malfunctioning gas appliances, only to discover that the only thing the customer needs is new batteries. It’s worthwhile to keep a battery tester around the house to help you determine whether or not that pack of AAs in the kitchen drawer is still good.

If the batteries in your remote and/or receiver are good, the next step is to make sure the fireplace is getting fuel. If you have a propane tank or natural gas line, are the tank and valves set in the on position? Your gas appliance should have a valve in the firebox, or a key in the wall or floor nearby, and the propane tank will have a knob on the tank outside that opens or closes it. For problems with a natural gas line, contact your city utilities office, and for propane, contact your propane company.

And if you can get your fireplace going, but it keeps turning itself off suddenly, check to see if you’ve left it set in thermostatic mode. We often have that problem in the showroom over the summer, particularly with units we don’t turn on very often; we’ll set the remote to act as a thermostat over the winter, and then in the summer, the fireplace keeps automatically turning itself off!

The Glass on My Fireplace Looks Smudged

Each time you start your gas fireplace, you’ll notice some condensation on the glass. This is a normal part of the startup process, as the water vapor in the air inside the firebox begins to evaporate. This condensation will dissipate within a few minutes, as the firebox heats up and the flames turn yellow. Over time, you can get some buildup on the inside of the glass (residue from that startup condensation), but this is harmless, and easily cleaned off during your annual maintenance call.

My Fireplace Smells Weird

When you start your gas fireplace for the first time after it’s installed, there will be an “off-gassing” period as the residual factory paints finish curing. This, again, is harmless; open the window for your first couple of fires, and the gasses should dissipate fairly quickly. When you then start your fireplace, stove, or insert for the first time each year, you’ll get a slight odor for that first fire or two, as small amounts of dust that have built up over the summer burn off. This shouldn’t last very long; if it lasts more than a couple of hours, or if you start to smell gas or plastic, shut your fireplace off and call your local certified gas appliance expert.

 

Common Wood Stove Problems: You Probably Don’t Need to Panic

Every season, we receive several calls from concerned stove-owners, worried that their stoves are malfunctioning and/or dangerous. The good news is that many of these problems are not actually problems at all, and merely things your stove will do from time to time. Let’s address some of the issues you may encounter in your wood stove or insert, as well as some troubleshooting steps you can take before scheduling a service call:

Discoloration

Some change in the color of your stove can be normal. If you have a stove with porcelain enamel cladding, the enamel may darken as it heats up, then return to its original color as it cools (the bordeaux enamel from Vermont Castings, for example, darkens to a particularly vibrant deep red when the stove is going).

Some wood-burning appliances have a stainless steel firebox, rather than the traditional firebrick or refractory cement. Although this lighter, thinner firebox will transmit heat to your room faster, the lighter constructions means it’s also subject to a certain amount of warping and discoloration (which looks like rust, but doesn’t damage the material of your firebox). During a chimney sweep and inspection, we will inspect any warping or discoloration in the firebox, and assess whether or not it’s severe enough to cause a problem.

Drafting Problems

Sometimes, problems with draft can cause the smoke from your wood stove to come back into the room, rather than going up the flue as it’s supposed to. While a blockage in the flue or the cap may be responsible, there are some steps you can take before scheduling a chimney cleaning.

Image courtesy of woodheat.org

Image courtesy of woodheat.org

The most frequent cause of cool, smoky fires is wet wood, so the very first thing to check is your firewood supply. Firewood that has been properly seasoned (cut, split, stacked to allow free air circulation, and left in the sun and air for at least 9 months) has a moisture content between 15-20%. Dry wood will have cracking and splitting at the ends, as shown in the picture next to this paragraph. Also, if you hit two pieces of firewood against each other, wet wood will make a dull “thud,” whereas dry wood will make a hollow, resonant “thunk.” While this isn’t as scientific or precise as a moisture meter, it will give you a reasonably good idea of how dry your firewood is. Another way to check the quality of your firewood is to look at the smoke coming out of your chimney. At the start of a good fire, the smoke coming out of the chimney will be white; after the fire is fully established, you shouldn’t see very much smoke at all, only a slight distortion from the heat radiating out of the top of the chimney, and a little bit of translucent steam.

Sometimes, the weather outside can be the problem. Damp, heavy air provides more resistance to draft, and it will be harder for your chimney to get a good draw at these times.  And a good draft requires a difference of temperature between the indoor and outdoor air, as the warm air inside your stove is drawn up the flue towards the colder air outside. If the temperature outside is above 55°F, this temperature difference will not be high enough, and it’ll be hard to get a good draft going. You can help your chimney out by pre-heating the flue (holding a burning rolled-up newspaper as near to the flue opening as you can get, for example), but some weather conditions will always interfere with wood stove performance.

Depending on where in your house your stove is installed, some problems with draft may be unavoidable. All homes have a neutral pressure plane, above which air is trying to leave the house, and below which air is trying to get into the house. Many basement fireplaces, unfortunately, are in negative pressure planes, which means they can sometimes experience backdraft from the flue connected to an upstairs appliance. There are steps we can take to reduce this backdraft, like extending one flue so that the smoke isn’t as readily pulled back into the house, but it’s an unfortunate reality that your wood stove may not perform equally well in all parts of your home.

Uncommon Stove Problems: Contact a Professional

While many stove issues are comparatively minor, there are some situations that require the immediate attention of a certified wood service professional. If the wall in front of your chimney, or surrounding the thimble where your stove plugs into the wall, becomes hot to the touch (some warmth is ok, but the wall shouldn’t be too hot to touch), or begins to discolor, stop using your stove immediately, and call your local certified stove technician. If the wall is hot or discolored (turning brown around the thimble, for example), this indicates that pyrolysis is occurring, and often that you have had (or are having) a chimney fire. We inspected just such an installation last year; the flue liner showed evidence of multiple chimney fires, and the wood studs in the wall were beginning to char around the edges. We removed the damaged parts and relined the chimney, but this could easily have started a house fire if left unresolved.

The bottom line is that your wood stove is a complex system, and it’s important to pay attention to how it’s working. If you notice something unusual, don’t panic! There will always be variations in the way each stove performs in different environments, and most of these variations aren’t cause for concern. But as always, if you’re unsure, feel free to call your friendly neighborhood Wooden Sun technicians, and we can discuss your stove problems with you.

Have a safe, warm, and happy fireplace and stove season!