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Information about wood burning stoves
How to prepare a fire, light a wood burning stove and keep a fire burning
Lighting a fire sounds like an out-of-place idea. We wrongly get the notion that live fires belong to the Stone Age, not 21st century smart homes. BUT the reasons for getting a wood fire stove are numerous, including the need to save money. It’s reported the sale of open fires and wood burning stoves are booming globally at the moment, often in response to soaring energy prices in gas.
So it makes sense to keep the home fires burning! But, how? Firstly, take note of differences between ordinary fires and wood burning stoves. A wood burning stove is an enclosed metal box. A lot of heat energy is needed to make it hot – especially if it is cast iron. Air intake is controlled by one or more valves. It is cleverly designed so you can preheat the air and make the stove burn much hotter than a conventional wood fire. The wood stove is more efficient for converting fuel to heat compared to an ordinary fire.
Wood fires can be started with firelighters or old newspapers, the same as conventional fires. A bed of ash helps start wood fires so don’t throw all your old ash away.
Open the stove door and place several sheets of scrunched up paper on top of the ash. Some folk roll the paper into cylinders and twist the ends together. Then add bits of kindling* on top of the paper or firelighter**, arranged in a ‘wigwam’ position.
Light the paper and have larger pieces of dry, seasoned wood to hand ready to add as the fire catches hold.
* Kindling is an easy burning material but typically a soft wood like pine chopped into small pieces with a hand axe.
** Firelighters are usually made of paraffin wax. Some manufacturers add a bit of paraffin or other light fuel to the wax to make them burn better. They can smell more than newspaper but are easier to use and more efficient in starting the fire.
Air input controls
Build up the temperature of the stove using soft wood such as pine (which burns easily) and use harder woods such as oak once the stove is really hot. Aim to get a wood stove hot as quickly as possible and only add more wood when there is a bed of glowing embers. Also, leave the door open until the fire is going properly. Once the fire has warmed up you can close the door.
Your wood burning stove may have primary and/or secondary air input controls or valves.
The Primary Air Input Valve draws in cold air under the burning wood from the room.
The Secondary Air Input Valve [if your stove has one] takes air which has circulated around the stove and over the front viewing glass, helping to remove soot and keep it clear. This means the secondary air is already very hot when it meets hot gases from the burning wood. Gases therefore ignite in the upper parts of the stove, making it hotter and releasing more heat energy from the wood compared to an open fire.
Keep any valves open when lighting the stove and as it warms, to encourage oxygen to the fire. Once it is really hot, you can close the primary (cold) air input and use only the secondary (hot) air valve to control the fire.
This makes the fire operate at a higher temperature and means you can get more heat energy from the wood you are burning. Hot air ensures flammable gases are burnt and not lost up the chimney (as is the case with a conventional open fire). If your fire is burning too quickly or it is too hot you can reduce the secondary air channel.
Be aware that if you close both valves completely the fire will go out due to a lack of oxygen. If the fire isn’t burning well, open the primary valve for a bit or slightly open the door to get oxygen circulating to the flames.
Make sure wood used is seasoned (stored long enough to dry out fully) before use. The process usually takes a year for newly felled wood if put in a wood store.
Lighting your fire
Lighting and maintain a wood stove differs to an open fire as you need to control the air supply so remember the stove needs to heat before wood burns efficiently. One of the many advantages is that a wood stove can be left burning whilst you go out the room, as it is safely enclosed.
How a fireplace works
Air in a room feeds the flames of a fire when it is sucked through the grate of a clean fireplace. Gases are released, lighter than the air itself, and lift up the chimney to the atmosphere outside. The touch of these substances causes the material commonly known as ‘soot’ to stick to the walls of the flue, including creosote which is flammable i.e. can cause chimney fires. These deposits begin clogging up the flue over time and could entirely block the chimney. The result is an inefficient and potentially dangerous fireplace. That’s why a clean fireplace and chimney are vital – not just allowing harmful gases to escape the room but fires need to suck in an air supply through a clean fireplace grate or they will die out.
Basic rule of thumb – keep safe from fire hazards! Your fireplace and chimney flues must be kept clean.
How often should I clean my chimney?
Simple answer: at least once per year BUT chimney sweeps also advise customers to clean chimneys after a period of prolonged disuse (e.g. after the Summer). It is also advised to clean chimneys before the end of the heating season to clear animal nests, and to prepare for the idle period. If a chimney is used more often, it’s sensible to also sweep it more often. Ask a professional chimney sweep for advice about the best cleaning schedule for your chimney(s), as recommended by the Solid Fuel Association. It is always better to be safe – chimney fires can be a dangerous hazard.
Smokeless fuel – once per year
Coal – twice per year
Wood burning – quarterly when in use
Gas – once per year if designed for chimney sweeping
Oil fired – once per year
Why is chimney maintenance important
Fuels burning in an appliance, including carbon monoxide, are the by-product of combustion. Removing these fumes from the living area is the main purpose of a chimney. Toxic gases are carried away up the flue but the draft (flow of air) also gives the proper air-and-fuel mixture needed by the heating appliance.
It is alarming how many chimneys used every day are the wrong size or conditioned improperly. The result is that chimneys are unable to perform their intended function.