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


8 Responses

  1. P. Flashman



    Jon, It seems you missed your own point made in the opening paragraph: The issue is the 8 million non-EPA stoves that are still in use. I do agree that technology can add a bit of spice and efficiency, but it will also add cost and complexity. Phase 2 regs have already added a good incremental target but it is clear that the new target should be eliminating the old, pre-EPA, inefficient stoves that are being used BEFORE trying to eschew in new standards. Jon, hearing this pitch from a leading voice in the Biomass industry is a bit disconcerting. The truth is, if EPA forces the industry to squeeze more out of efficiencies, etc. the appliances will be so overpriced and complex that consumers will once again, go back to their garages and shops and just fabricate inefficient, polluting, "air-tight" stoves that will continue to pollute.

  2. JohnL



    I have a Osborn 2400 woodstove EPA certified . I don't damper down! There is no visible smoke coming from my chimney. The problem is the Wood boilers! They are giving us wood users a bad name. They are NOT certified. Indoor and outdoor wood boilers never should of been sold! The Phase 2 models are just as bad! When are you and others going to get it right! Boilers are ready have some computers did it make a difference! NO! Ban boilers!

  3. Chris N.



    John, First we need a nationwide stove change out program that provides a large enough incentive to get past the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality of many pre-EPA stove owners. Fairbanks AK has a wonderfully successful stove change out program and the answer was money. Of course the question is how to pay for it on a national scale. However, speaking just of cord wood appliances, the fuel itself if very different from the fuel sources of all the appliances you mentioned. Oil, natural gas, propane, gasoline, electricity etc., are all very predictable as each has a prescribed amount of energy in a measured unit. Trees are vastly different. There are hardwoods and softwoods. There are varying amounts of resins, moisture content and of course the human factor of how each of use wood burners load and operate our stoves. Catalytic stoves certainly earned a deservedly bad reputation back in the late 1980's. Yet today, catalytic stoves are much better in their ability to deal with most if not all the variables mentioned above. However, this was at a cost, a cost that then was passed on to the consumer in a slightly more costly product. Adding into such a design automation with O2 sensors, on board computers and diagnostics would add hundreds if not thousands of dollars to the cost of wood stoves. If you add significantly to the cost of wood stoves, will consumers ever get rid of thir old smoke dragons? I think the truth is the industry already makes some wonderful clean burning, highly efficient wood stoves. Not all , but many of the models on the market today represent significant improvements. Remember, just over 20 years ago you could purchase a wood stove legally that produced 80+ grams per hours of particulate. Today's top performers can achieve 3.0 grams per hour or lower! While economy cars today shed tremendous amounts of weight (a good thing) and now get 4 times better gas mileage than they did 20 or more years ago, wood stove have improved in many cases by 40 times! Let's put the efforts of The Alliance For Green Heat into the Stove Design Challenge, but while all those officials are standing there and looking over the next possible clean burning and efficient appliance, lets also get them acquainted with the vast improvements we have already made and get them working on changing out 8 million stoves. Now that's job creation!

  4. AllenC



    I think your economics are way off. The real challenge is to replace the 8 million smoky, non-EPA certified stoves. The industry has already reduced emissions from 100 g/hr to under 4.0 which should be recognized but to drive that farther down while leaving all the polluters alone is counterproductive. There is no possibility that what you suggest is a cost savings. At best the stove will cost more to design, build, sell and buy. At worst it drives out competition. Creating jobs and reducing pollution can both be addressed by creative stove change our programs.

  5. Garrett Lamppa



    The Kuuma Vapor-Fire furnace has been using a computer for years and has been able to achieve less than 1 gr/hr of emissions. Manually there is no way to burn as clean and efficiently without the use of the computer to control the burn. Chris says it perfectly with a program that changes out the 8 million old inefficient stoves. Talk about a job creator... Get on it Alliance For Green Heat!!

  6. Pete



    most of them 8 million wood burning stoves are people who can't afford a new any thing no matter what the incentive.KEEP GOVERNMENT out of it!!!

  7. Jeremy D'Herville



    Appliance source emissions standards, ignoring high pressure atmospheric influences upon the exhaust are not enough to make a vast difference to wood smoke air quality. They never were where any solid fuel combustion appliances have a verticle flue sticking up into cold air. It is well known that cold flues struggle to draw and will create excess smoke at start up and overnight as the heat from the firebox reduces. It is well known that flue height can influence combustion performance, and perhaps roof angles and nearby trees. So why are we being manipulated to asume appliance standards fix everything emissions related? It's an incomplete air quality standard that only manipulates the sale of new appliances without adequately addressing the whole system, without adequately addressing all the emissions influences. Appliances are tested in calibrated lab conditions that do not represent the atmospheric conditions of high pressure wintertime inversions. Wack a filter above an appliance and voila, less emissions. It's not reality. Stoves that incorporated catalysts verified the test suitable, later non catalysts did too - so they pass in the lab. Do they pass the wintertime inversion conditions in the field? No they don't. Do their lab ratings mean anything in the field? No they don't. Do stoves still produce creosote as a house fire risk and poor combustion due to flue pressure/ draw problems? yes they do. Are there lobbies, tainted by electricity, fuel and emissions trading corporate and industry organisation sponsorship, looking for justifications to rid the self sufficient technology from the market, yes. Equalise the high pressure/ low pressure conflicts above the exhaust and your conventional woodstove will work as well as a down draft or gassifier stove. There's a New Zealand cowl invention solving this other half of the issue which is not included in current emission standards. The firebox still does most of the work (ours is a 1990's Fisher double combustion design made in New Zealand), but without high pressure affecting the flow of heated gases up the flue pipe - no smoke after 2 minutes, effective damper control and less wood fuel needed to heat the home. Due to the lab test some appliance designs are going backwards. Bob Fisher had the airtight, double combustion appliance design perfect. He did not however invent a way to stop high pressure problems affecting the combustion from above. Neville D'Herville, an electrical engineer who designed and manufactured efficient electric central heating systems in the 1970's has incorporated his knowledge of pressure differential into his chimney cowl design. It's returning a great deal of positive feedback, patents pending in 40 countries, and is a revolutionary product for the industry to add to the current efforts made with appliance standards.

  8. Jeremy D'Herville



    Those who inherently couldn't do without an EPA label, or beg for tax payer wages from a control freak Federal regime; one attempting to PR spin us a way from self sufficiency; attempting to convince us the ability to snuff out air particles (where, apparently there is no safe limit) with their restrictions and fines, need a hit of reality. Their health links and equations are fundamentally questionable, their opinions are heard, and their raw data is hidden. The appliance national standard is flawed and moving an unecessary amount of people away from not only sustainable, but disaster safe heating technology. Self serving market opportunism is imbedded in the EPA and environmental lobby's health-scare PR around wood smoke. Toxicology does not point to the EPA's conclusions and justifications. It rather flashes a red flashing light around traffic pollution. I think offsets and tax credits are unnecessary. EPA standards are damaging this sustainable industry,they are not promoting it. They've put wood in the evil box with coal. And it benefits some people. What do consumers want? Not "what do businesses want". They live in real time. Not in fabricated future economic projections.


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