What Do Efficiency Ratings Mean, Anyway?

Whether you’re comparing wood or gas 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/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!


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:


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!



On the Care and Feeding of Your New Awning

So you’ve just gotten a fabulous new awning/canopy/solar shade. First of all, congratulations on all of your newly-usable outdoor space! We hope that your new awning beautifies your home and improves your summer afternoons for many years to come. By keeping direct sunlight from entering your home, your new shade product should also keep your home much cooler, significantly reducing your air conditioning bill. Although both Aristocrat and Eclipse shading products are made with a coated, durable aluminum-frame construction and sturdy marine-grade fabric, some basic care and maintenance will help to extend the life and beauty of your awning or canopy.

Routine Maintenance

You should clean your awning on a regular basis, before dirt, bird droppings, or roof residue have a chance to get embedded in the fabric. Loose dirt can be brushed off with a soft brush, and you can hose the fabric down without having to remove it from the frame. To remove stains, use a mild natural soap like Ivory® Flakes or Woolite® in lukewarm water (no more than 100 degrees F). Do not use harsh soaps, detergents, or chlorine bleach. Allow the fabric to dry completely before you retract your awning, and don’t let water pool or puddle on the fabric. When retracting your awning, make sure no twigs, leaves, or other debris get rolled up in the material. We recommend retracting your awning in strong wind, hail, rain, or snow, particularly in winds of over 20 mph. The fabric should roll off the top of the roller tube, never from underneath; if your awning fabric is unrolling from below the tube, rather than above, please schedule a service call.

At the start of the outdoor season, it’s a good idea to hose down the aluminum arms of your awning and wipe them with a soft cloth, to make sure no dust or grit has accumulated during the winter. Although the framework is self-lubricating, it’s a good idea to lubricate the moving parts yearly with a dry silicone spray lubricant to maintain optimal, quiet operation. If unusual creaking occurs when you operate your awning, try lubricating it before calling your dealer. The most prevalent place where an awning needs lubrication is at the end of the roller tube, on the side opposite the motor or gear. Be sure to keep the spray away from the fabric.

Preparing Your Awning for Winter

You should retract your awning for the winter season. If your awning has a hanging valence, you should remove this and store it in a dry space, following the instructions below. Do not store the valence in a plastic bag, as this can trap moisture.

Valence removal and replacement

Awnings and fire do not mix.

Awnings and fire do not mix. (click to enlarge)

A Final Note

Please, readers, don’t store or use grills or smokers underneath your awning. This picture shows the damage that can result from having such a high heat output underneath your awning or canopy. In addition to posing a danger to your home and family, this is a sad fate for such a lovely awning.



Awnings & Canopies

Often, the sunny patio or deck that’s so perfect for during the fall and spring gets so hot during the summer that it’s impossible to enjoy.  An awning or canopy provides a cool, shaded area, perfect for children & pets, and the ideal place to enjoy a summer barbecue.  A retractable awning extends your home’s usable living space, complements an outdoor kitchen or grilling area, and can increase the value of your home.

girls+dogsThe sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and children and pets are particularly susceptible to sunburn and/or dehydration.  A shaded outdoor area remains cool and helps keep home residents safe from the damaging UV rays of the sun.  The kids can play with the dog while you weed the garden, and afterwards you can all enjoy the view together in comfort.
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Hearth and Chimney Safety

Chase after chimney fire

Outside of chase after fire was extinguished.

Chimney fires are a serious matter, and can cause hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in property damage.  In the last three years, approximately 72,500 chimney fires occurred in the United States, causing about $92 million in property damage and resulting in 30 deaths.   In November of 2013, a chimney fire damaged a home in Louisa County (see photo to the right).  The fire was not catastrophic only because some residents were home and awake. This fire was caused by a wood stove being placed too close to combustibles (osb board). The combustibles were behind a stone facing, which is a common problem. Many people think stone acts as a heat barrier. In fact, stone is a very good conductor of heat and the heat was simply transferred to the board underneath, which spontaneously caught fire after a process called pyrolysis lowered the combustion temperature of the wood.  Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and ensure proper clearances! When a manufacturer refers to a “heat shield” or “protected surface” it means a noncombustible material with a 1″ air space between the combustible and the heat shield — it must be open on 3 sides or at the top and the bottom allow air to freely circulate behind the heat shield.

While there are many possible factors contributing to any chimney fire, the most common is the buildup of creosote, whether glazed or powdery, which results from incomplete combustion of a wood fire.  In addition to burning well-seasoned wood in a responsible fashion, it’s important for homeowners to make sure to have the chimney and fireplace cleaned and inspected each year by a certified hearth professional.  Not only will the sweep make sure that the chimney is clear of creosote and other buildup, but he or she can provide information about any damage (loose pipes, damaged masonry, etc) which may interfere with the safe, efficient operation of wood-burning appliances.

Laurelwood Condominium Fire

Damage to the three units was catastrophic. All three had to be completely gutted and rebuilt.

In early February of 2012, several units in the Laurelwood Condominiums at Wintergreen Resort were damaged by what initially appeared to be a chimney fire.  Investigators later determined the fire to have been the result of sparks coming from the firebox and getting into a gap between the firebox and hearth extension in one of the units.  A protective metal strip was not installed as required by code and the manufacturer. Wooden Sun has been retroactively removing the hearth and installing the missing metal strips, a costly but necessary repair.

Installing fireplaces safely is important!  Make sure to check the required clearances to combustibles for your wood-burning appliance, use adequate hearth protection (insulated hearth pad, stone hearth, etc), and never leave an open fire unattended.  Additionally, a spark guard or screen door can keep burning embers in your fireplace where they belong, rather than on your carpet or furniture.  Finally, always remove fireplace ash to a metal container, rather than plastic or wood, and never place the container on a combustible floor after removing ashes.  Embers can remain hot for days, and any ashes should be treated as though they had burning embers in them.

Is Wood Heat Right for You?

Benefits of Heating with Wood

Image courtesy of woodheat.org

Image courtesy of woodheat.org

Why heat with wood in the first place?  To begin with, wood is a very cost-effective fuel source.  In central VA, wood costs next to nothing (or nothing at all, for many people!), and is vastly cheaper than gas, fuel oil, or electric heat pumps.  Even when the power goes out, a wood-burning appliance will keep your house warm for hours on a single load of wood. You can get a toasty, full night’s sleep or go off to a day’s work and not have to worry about the plumbing freezing up.  Wood is also a sustainable, renewable resource, and when burned properly, has a very limited impact on the environment.  Finally, a wood stove, fireplace, or insert has great aesthetic value; people gather around the hearth to enjoy the glow of the flames and the warmth and cheer they provide.

Fireplace and Woodstove Myths

Many people believe that tile, rock or other noncombustible material acts as sufficient insulation on a wall or floor, reducing clearance requirements and protecting the underlying structure of the home.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  There are certain wall and floor coverings that are specifically designed to protect the home from the intense heat that comes off a stove or fireplace, but sheet rock, brick, etc. will not.  In fact, stone conducts heat very effectively, and can result in wall joists becoming even hotter than they otherwise might.  This heat can, at best, warp and damage the wood and other materials of your walls and floor, and at worst, actually cause fires to start within the structure of your home.  Here’s an example of the aftermath of a hearth fire resulting from improper insulation of a hearth and wall.

On a related note, clearances are not necessarily the same from manufacturer to manufacturer, or even from model to model.  Be careful to check the manufacturer’s requirements for any product you buy, and discuss clearances with your local hearth professional.


Traditional Masonry vs. High-Efficiency Fireplace: Which to Choose?

When choosing a fireplace for your home, there are many things to consider, and benefits and disadvantages to each system.  A masonry fireplace has great aesthetic advantages, and creates a cozy ambience many homeowners are looking for.  Additionally, it can increase the value of a home by a great deal.  However, a traditional fireplace is generally very expensive ($12,000-$20,000 for fireplace, hearth, and chimney system).  Additionally, while the room the fireplace is in will become very warm, the masonry fireplace actually pulls its combustion air from the rest of the house, resulting in a net loss of heat throughout the home.

BIS Tradition CE

Image courtesy of securitychimneys.com

If you decide to go the high-efficiency fireplace route, the cost will likely be marginally lower ($9,500-$20,000 for the fireplace and venting/chimney system).  The high-efficiency systems provide the same aesthetic value as masonry fireplaces, but offer greater heating value for the money, as less heat is lost up the chimney, and the fireplace does not cool the rest of the house as it heats one room.  However, these systems are more technologically complex, and therefore have shorter lifespans, than a traditional masonry fireplace system.