Tips on how to pick and run a stove

Kya deLongchamps looks at the practicalities of choosing and fitting a stove as part of a single room or a whole house heating plan using wood, coal or oil.

Acontrollable stove is the economical, contemporary take on an open flame fire. Containing the heat and directing it to where we need it, (be that out into the room or into a back boiler too, for central heating radiators), today’s stoves can wring the BTUs out of a variety of fuels, instead of gifting the heavens up to 70% of our hard-earned heat.

A properly maintained, correctly installed stove fuelled by wood, peat, bituminous or anthracitic coal is also cleaner than a traditional fire, easier to light, and is relatively safe to leave alight overnight. 

According to the Stove Industry Alliance, a wood-burning stove is potentially 43%-50% cheaper than an oil or liquified petroleum gas heating system.

It’s vital that any stove, whether free-standing in the room, or inserted into a wall, is scaled to the room and installed perfectly by a dedicated fitter. 

Tips on how to pick and run a stove

Paul Higgins of Paul Higgins Heating and Plumbing, Cork, is an experienced contractor fitting flues and stoves who deals with the vital issues of appropriate installation day to day.

“I don’t think people are always aware that the cost of materials and labour can actually amount to more than the stove itself. Boru stoves have an app that can help you work that out.

“If there is no chimney, for example, you will have to put in a twin-wall stainless steel flue and extra fittings. So for your average 2-storey three-bed semi, that alone will cost about €1,200 plus Vat. 

"I use Mi-flues twin-wall flexi flue liner. It’s good quality, Irish- made and works out about €30 a metre.”

If you’re home all day, and spend most of your time in one area, a ‘dry’ stove can be an able companion keeping the ambient temperature comfortable all day long. 

The warmth in one room will cosy up the areas immediately adjoining the room hosting the stove. 

Tips on how to pick and run a stove

By turning off your thermostat on the central heating, this can reduce your heating bills overall. Coming in and lighting up, the room will be toasty within as little as an half hour.

Chris Nagle of Nagles Fireplaces & Stoves in Mallow, says: “You can link a boiler stove with an oil or gas-heating system but we generally find a non-boiler stove in the areas of your home that you use over 80% of time, to be far more cost effective. 

"Obviously every case differs and this is why we recommend going through all options.”

With no boiler, there’s no plumbing to worry about, so installation is far less invasive and will concentrate on the area of the hearth and flue. And what does that kW (kilowatt) rating really tell us about a stove?

“Kilowatts and looks are what most customers focus on,” Chris says, “but the physical size of the stove and amount of fuel used should also be considered.

“There are numerous standard calculators available for kW output but these really are only an indication. We always recommend keying in the amount of time spent in the room, insulation levels and the amount of glazing,” he says.

Multi-fuel might seem the obvious choice over a dedicated wood stove, however, the efficient combustion of coal and anthracite demands different things than the burning of wood. 

Tips on how to pick and run a stove

A stove is not just an attractive lump of cast iron. It’s engineered to very specifically direct the air entering the firebox and to extract the best energy potential of the fuel.

Coal for example is highly calorific and burns at a high temperature. It requires air directed from underneath in an open grate. 

Wood, an environmentally friendly biomass, burns best sitting on a bed or ash in a closed grate with air directed from overhead. If you mainly burn wood, a dedicated wood stove gives uncompromising performance. 

An air-wash system, allows air into the fire from overhead where it warms up and then washes down into the heart of the fire on a deep bed of ash.

Clean (tertiary) burn is a further advance — this takes the otherwise wasted hydrocarbons in the smoke and combusts them with an extra inlet of clean air. 

This not only increases the heat coming from that valuable fuel, but cleans the smoke leaving your stove. Washes of air also keep the stove glass cleaner — a useful bonus.

Flues are something of a mystery to most of us. I ask Paul Higgins if there is any advantage, beyond a bold visual pillar, for leaving the stove pipe on show, right to the ceiling?

“Well, yes, there’s great heat coming from it, as it’s not insulated but you have to make sure it’s not a burn risk for elderly people and small children. Keep in mind the area you’re scaling too, as enamel pipe isn’t cheap.”

Are there common mistakes people make around flues? Paul takes a sharp intact of breath: “It is really difficult to put a 150mm flue liner down a 200mm flue pot. It is a head-wreck of a job and if you are on a fixed price, some people will cut corners. 

"There are builders and plumbers out there who are putting an adaptor into the flue pot instead and connecting it to the stove that way.

“But by doing this, you can’t guarantee that the flue pot can take the levels of heat being generated by the stove. 

The flue pot could crack or collapse and cause a fire. Best practice is also that the area behind the stove is sealed with a fireproof board, the flue liner is fitted and it’s then surrounded by vermiculite from the top of chimney down. 

This absorbs the intense heat from the liner and reduces possible damage to the flue,” he says.

Solid fuel demands manual labour. If you want a living flame without the work. 

Plus the joys of push button ignition, have a look at oil fed stoves from firms including Stanley, Franco Belge, and Nestor Martin. Supremely convincing for room heating alone, my choice would be Stanley’s attractive 3.6kW Oisin in a range of colours.

Larger oil stoves (9kW plus) can run several radiators, heat water and be dialled back to behave as space heaters alone when needed. 

The running costs for oil are estimated to be in the area of one litre of kerosene per hour when operating at full capacity or a quarter litre on a low setting.

They do require an 8mm oil supply line, an electrical source and a continuously ducted flue.

Whatever the fuel source, keep in mind that the addition of a boiler to serve radiators divides the duty of any stove, lowering its ambient output to the room.

I asked Paul and Chris for their final warming words on getting the most from a new stove. Paul Higgins says:

“I see a lot of people buying cheap imported stoves online that aren’t suitable for purpose and they often don’t have any comeback .

“You can also have problems getting spare parts for them. Also, since last September, when you buy a stove, you have to buy a carbon monoxide alarm to fit nearby. Don’t scrimp on that.”

Chris Nagle adds: “We cannot stress the importance of buying quality European stoves and employing professional fitting.

“When these are combined perfectly along with regular maintenance you will have a fantastic heating appliance for many years.”

THE SILENT KILLER (CO)

There is a common and potentially lethal misconception that carbon monoxide is not something that those of us with solid wood stoves and open fires need to be concerned about.

The truth is that any fuel-combusting element in a house can create CO gas, and in the worst case scenario this invisible, odourless gas can leach back into any room, harming your family or in some cases even causing death.

Half the fatalities caused through CO inhalation are in fact , from fires and it’s possible to be subtly poisoned by CO over time without ever realising it.

Carbon monoxide alarms offer some protection from an incident with CO, but long term it’s a problem that needs to be tackled with mindfulness of the dangers.

Remember that certain improvements such as the installation of insulation, sealing up all draughts in the house, can lead to more stale air collecting around your living spaces.

Only a professional’s skill, married to day-to-day monitoring, will ensure complete safety with any fuel burning appliance in or around the house.

The National Safety Authority of Ireland offers the following advice:

“To prevent carbon monoxide, ensure your appliances are installed and serviced annually by a registered gas installer, a registered oil technician, or a qualified service agent for your fuel type.

“Also make sure vents, flues and chimneys are kept clear. Make sure the CO alarm complies with EN 50291, carries a CE mark, has an end-of-life indicator and carries an independent certification mark.”

For a comprehensive guide to CO including early indicators of poisoning, log onto

www.carbonmonoxide.ie 

FUEL TO THE FIRE

No solid fuel stove will perform well without the correct, dry fuel, and when it comes to wood, time storage and proper handling make all the difference.

Various species, due to their moisture content, sap type and the density of the wood fibres take different amounts of time to season.

A cubic foot of hardwood (ash, oak and beech) will give up to 50% more kWs/units of heat that an average softwood. It’s important that the fire burns hot, heating the flue and keeping it clean. Less wood needed, means less storage needed for the logs too.

Evergreen wood can be so highly resinous that it’s really only suited as kindling, but drying it out, that pitch-like substance becomes an energetic ingredient in the burn.

Pressure-treated, stained or painted wood should never be burned in a domestic stove as the material is chemically heavy and could poison the air, inside and out.

The harder the wood, presuming it’s at the correct level of moisture content to burn, the greater it is as an energy store released into the firebox and back to the room and/or boiler.

The cheapest buy is softwood at 25%, in a loose bulk delivery, but it’s also the least calorific (seai.ie). Overly damp, sticky wood will stay cooler, smoulder and create tar that will build up in your chimney and flue pipe, and it’s a nasty substance that could eventually ignite.

Cutting, splitting and stacking is a skill that some physically vigorous, wood-stove owners embrace as part of the experience of operating a stove, but most of us rely on an outside source of suitable timber by the bag or pallet.

A reputable supplier will have metered the wood for its suitability to burn (25% is a base minimum, 20% is a lot better), but there may be promising signs visible to the eye too including splits to the end grain.

All wood, especially green wood, must be kept off the ground and stacked to allow air to circulate around it, keeping it dry.

Fight shy of wood cut less than six months ago, and even if splits logs appear dry, find an area inside the house to allow them to give up any final moisture for a day or two before burning.

Check out the regular domestic fuel comparison chart covering everything from Grade A anthracite to peat at SEAI www.seai.ie 


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