Reinventing the Wood Stove: Vital to Wood Heat’s Future

By John Ackerly | August 20, 2013

About 4 million Americans heat with U.S. EPA-certified wood stoves, and 8 million with old, uncertified ones. Neither group is getting the low emissions and high efficiency that they should, so a new breed of wood stove is needed to ensure that homeowners don’t routinely dampen down airflow to get longer burns. The solution is to control combustion air by a computer, not by a human.  

Computer chips are optimizing efficiency in virtually every major household appliance. Soon, sensor technology will control airflow, indicate the optimal time to refuel and average efficiency, when to clean the chimney and how many gallons of oil were avoided. This will not only increase efficiency and save money, but also reduce emissions and improve safety.

The Alliance for Green Heat and Popular Mechanics created the Wood Stove Design Challenge to showcase and test cutting-edge innovations along with newly designed hybrid, masonry, condensing and electricity-producing stoves. An expert panel of 10 judges selected 14 finalists from five countries out of 50 applicants, and the teams will compete in the Wood Stove Decathlon in Washington, D.C., in November. There, the stoves will be rigorously tested for emissions and efficiency, and assessed for potential end-user error.

Many in the stove industry are excited about a new breed, but others are resistant or sensibly cautious about new designs. To stay competitive, however, companies need to anticipate the most significant technology trends that are shaping their industry.

Connecting stoves to the Internet allows engineers to monitor how their stoves are being used and what can be modified to better them. This can also enable technicians to diagnose problems remotely, saving time and money by instructing the stove owner over the phone on proper maintenance and use.
Stoves that monitor and meter heat can be eligible for renewable energy credits (RECs) or certificates just like solar panels or geothermal systems. RECs give owners of renewable energy appliances an ongoing energy production subsidy, enabling a shorter payback period. This helped the solar panel industry take off, and it can do the same for wood and pellet appliances.

Will this technology innovation provide one more option, or disrupt and dominate the market? Pellet stoves added an option. This one will, too.  Automation and sensor technology may help reduce the cost of wood stoves and make it easier to meet the EPA’s upcoming stricter emissions standards. Regardless, wood heat needs an image makeover if it is going to be embraced as a major component of our renewable energy future. Otherwise, it will be sidelined or even restricted, like Montreal’s recent ban of the use of all wood stoves by 2020, even U.S. EPA-certified ones.

One of the hallmarks of energy efficiency innovation is the removal of the consumer from the equation. Savings are achieved not because one operates something correctly, but because the technology does. Our cars, furnaces, dishwashers and refrigerators embody this principle. Woodstoves are beyond ready to join this revolution.

The real value of the Wood Stove Design Challenge is not instigating the invention of new technology, but it will:

• Speed up the integration of technologies that already exist and make them more affordable.

• Bring together people from different disciplines to tackle challenges, share ideas and develop partnerships.

• Draw policymaker attention and raise the profile of the technology featured.

• Generate public enthusiasm and influence consumer attitudes.

• Engage youth and encourage inventors outside the industry.

When Ben Franklin invented the Franklin stove, he amalgamated existing designs into a mediocre stove despite the existence of far cleaner and more efficient designs already prevalent in Europe. Franklin’s major contribution was the ability to market a mediocre technology that people were ready and willing to use. His challenge was to get consumers to stop relying on smoky fireplaces, and he was pretty successful.  Today our challenge is to get consumers to stop relying on old, uncertified wood stoves and prevent them from routinely using EPA certified stoves poorly.

If wood stoves are going to continue to be a major residential energy player, we need a new breed that is genuinely clean, efficient and user friendly. Join us in November to be part of the process.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat