Get safe heating with a wood-burning stove

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips

I grew up in a home with a wood-burning stove. That old cast iron stove was a hulking presence in the living room, where it radiated so much warmth that sometimes we would have to open a window, even in the dead of winter. In the morning the entire house was toasty warm -- no cold floors to shock us awake!

But I always had a little bit of fear of that wood stove. Besides learning (the hard way, of course) that a wood stove gets impressively hot, I was always wary of just how it worked: by means of a fast, hot fire. Sure, it was contained in the firebox, but the act of lighting up a fire in your house can feel all kinds of wrong.

I admit that I was relieved when that old wood stove was replaced with a fancy, sleek propane stove. It was replaced simply because my grandparents were getting older and could no longer handle splitting, carrying, and stacking the wood that served as fuel for so many years. Instead, my grandmother sighed over the cost of propane and wrote surprisingly pricey amounts on her checks.

Over the last several years, it seems there has been a return to wood stoves, at least in my corner of the world. Step outside during the winter and you'll smell it -- the scent of seasoned hardwoods burning merrily away in a wood stove, sending billows of fragrant smoke into the air. Around here the wood is plentiful and propane is more expensive than ever, so burning hardwoods can make a tough winter much cheaper.

Old houses and wood stoves

In many old houses, wood stoves were the most common way of heating. Long before propane, natural gas, electricity, or fuel oil, there was wood, and it worked just fine as a way of heating an entire home. If you can get beyond the fact that you are lighting a fire in the center of your house, wood stoves can be a wonderful way to get back to the old-fashioned way of doing things, as well as a frugal commitment to saving money.

But how can you know for sure that wood stove is safe?

Though wood stoves are often seen as dangerous, it's not the stove itself that can be a hazard. It's improper handling of the fire or incorrect installation that can burn the place down.

A wood-burning stove must be placed on a surface that can stand up to the heat, such as stone or brick. There must be plenty of clearance between the stove and the wall -- at least 36 inches -- and heat shields along any close walls are always recommended. The stove itself should be UL-listed, and the chimney must be sturdy and safe. In fact, some building codes require the chimney to be factory-built.

If there is a fire, you can bet that it originated in the venting system. Nationwide Insurance reports that 90% of all wood-burning stove fires are caused by improper venting. The vent system is a stovepipe that actually connects the stove to the chimney. This must be up to code and professionally installed and inspected.

And that brings us to the most important point: Never, ever install or service a wood stove on your own. Wood-burning stoves must be handled by a professional every step of the way to ensure that your home stays safe!

Remember that your safety also depends upon what you burn. Use hardwoods, such as beech, ash, maple, hickory, or oak. They should be well-seasoned for at least one year before burning. These hardwoods burn hot and fast, which helps you avoid creosote buildup over time.

Finally, no matter what kind of heating you have in your old house, have plenty of smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms in the building, and change the batteries twice a year. To learn more about wood-burning stoves and safety, visit the Insurance Information Institute.