Wood Stoves Compete on National Mall

Alliance for Green Heat Executive Director John Ackerly discusses outcomes of the Wood Stove Decathalon held in Washington, D.C., in November.
By John Ackerly | December 22, 2013

Competition can bring out the best in us.  In sports, it can bring out higher contender performance levels while allowing fans and sponsors to learn more about the sport and have fun with it. At the Wood Stove Decathlon in November, competition brought teams together, creating a sense of community that grew amongst them, their partners and judges.


According to the U.S. EIA, 13 million U.S. households used wood to heat  homes last year, with 2.8 million using it as primary heating fuel. Wood heat is reducing fossil fuel use faster than all other renewable technologies combined and still has opportunity to grow if we can demonstrate the technology is up to snuff.  


The decathlon was designed to help build public support and trust that wood stove technology is on the move, becoming cleaner and more automated.  But holding a competition of innovative stoves, some of which were still prototypes, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was not without risk.  What if they smoked and contributed to the perception that all wood stoves are old and dirty?  What if mobile particulate samplers couldn’t withstand a rigorous testing schedule?  What if antibiomass groups picketed the event?  Fortunately, the event went smoothly, thanks to the scores of companies, institutions and individuals that donated funds, time, materials and labor. 

Twelve stoves competed and were scored for emissions, efficiency, affordability, consumer appeal and innovation.  The winning stove was a sophisticated, naturally drafting, catalytic hybrid stove that will retail for $2,000.  Produced by Woodstock Soapstone in New Hampshire, the stove is the result of decades of refinement and can meet the strictest emission standards the U.S. EPA is considering in its new regulations. Two second prizes went to Travis’s Cape Cod and the Wittus’s Twinfire, a unique down-drafting wood stove that won top scores in efficiency. 

Some observers thought the automated stoves with onboard computers, sensors and fans would sweep the prizes. While they did very well—especially in the innovation and emissions categories—the nine judges handed the top prizes to naturally drafting stoves with no electronics.  Results could have been reversed if we were able to test stoves for longer and run them as consumers do, not as trained experts. Other than catalytic hybrid and automated stoves, the other class that stood out was the masonry stoves that have been refined over centuries. 

Here are a few of the longstanding benefits of the competition:

• Big players in the combustion sector that serve Detroit automakers showed up to explore the possibility of teaming with stove manufacturers to apply some technology that already exists in our cars to our stoves.    

• Members of Congress and officials from EPA, U.S. DOE, USDA, U.S. Department of Interior, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development saw modern wood stoves, and talked with the engineers who built them and to the judges, nationally recognized experts. They also saw six to eight stoves burning at one time without any visible smoke.

• High-level administration officials attended, including Janet McCabe, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for air and radiation, Sally Jewell, secretary of the interior, and several USDA political appointees. In this age of restricted travel for federal employees, we came to them.

• Key players on all sides of the issue met and engaged ideas in a positive atmosphere.  Attendee diversity was enormous compared with industry trade shows and included many representatives from the D.C. nonprofit community.

• The event was accessible and intriguing to the Washington press corps, resulting in stories by the New York Times, National Geographic, NBC, the National Journal and scores of smaller regional outlets. 

At the decathalon award ceremony, the community spirit of the competition really came alive. Receiving the $25,000 first prize, Tom Morrissey of Woodstock Soapstone announced that he was giving part to two other teams who made it to the event on shoestring budgets.  Receiving the $5,000 second prize, Travis Industries, led by Kurt Rumen, gave the check back to the Alliance for Green Heat to help pay event expenses.

Three members of Congress spoke: Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. Rep. Tonko used to lead New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and expressed his determination to help this sector grow. Benishek recalled how just last week he had been splitting his own wood to heat his home.  And Van Hollen closed by saying, “The Wood Stove Decathlon is a terrific showcase for the creativity and innovation being brought to next-generation wood stove design.”  

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat