Tips for wood stove users: 4 - 7

Tip #4: Avoid long, low fires

Especially if you have an "airtight" stove, avoid low, smoky fires. Yes, long burn time is a convenience. But believe it or not, you are getting much less heat from your wood if the fire is smoky. 

How to spot a too-low burn

Once the fire is underway (half an hour or so after starting it), when the fire is established and into a normal burn cycle, go outside and look at the chimney. If you see lots of smoke exiting the flue, something's wrong. You are either burning the stove too cool, or using poor firewood, or something on the stove isn't operating properly. (For example, if it is a catalytic stove, the catalytic unit might not be operating properly.)

It sounds terribly obvious. But many people neglect to take a good look at what's coming out of the chimney. If smoke is billowing from the chimney, take it as a warning sign that your stove is not operating as it should. 

Tip #5: Don't over fire the stove

Some people think it is good to let the stove run cherry-red for half an hour or so periodically, "to burn everything out of the flue." Please, please, don't do this! It not only damages the stove, but poses a serious fire danger to your home and your family. 

Over firing causes stress to the structure of the stove, possibly warping or buckling internal components, or worse, cracking the stove. And although it probably will remove deposits of creosote in the stove and stovepipe and maybe even in the flue, it is a very dangerous game! Creosote burns at temperatures in excess of 2000 degrees – hot enough to damage the chimney liner, and possibly catch the house on fire, right through the chimney. 

Over firing a stove to clean out the venting system is a little like putting a torch to your gas tank to clean up a spill. It might work. But you are asking for a disaster. 

For safety's sake, learn to operate the stove within the correct temperature range – not too low, and not too high. 

Tip #6: Know the indicators

Learn to "read" your stove and venting system. If you experience a buildup of creosote in the chimney, for example, it doesn't just mean that it is time to call a chimney professional to clean it. It means the stove is not operating correctly. More frequent cleaning is certainly a good idea. But listen to what your chimney is telling you, and figure out what's going wrong. 

And if you find that your stove just doesn't seem to be operating as well as it used to, it probably isn't! It could be time to regasket the doors, or clean the baffles, or have the chimney cleaned. 

For help troubleshooting your system, see the wood stove troubleshooting section and ask your chimney professional for help if you can't figure it out. 

Tip #7: Practice regular stove and chimney maintenance

Your chimney should be checked and cleaned, if necessary, at least once each year. But don't forget about the stove. It needs regular maintenance, too. Each spring, when the heating season is over, clean out all the ashes. Inspect the stove inside and out, using a strong flashlight. Look for cracks, separations, or other signs of damage. Some people spray a light coat of oil on the inside of the stove to inhibit rust during the humid summer months. 

A coat of stove paint on non-enameled stoves will leave the stove looking like new. Just remember that the first time you light the stove, it will smoke as the new paint cures. Light the first fire on a day when you can open windows and ventilate the place. 

Check the door gaskets periodically. Change them when they are worn out. This can make a big difference in efficiency and performance, and even increase the life of the stove – and replacing gaskets isn't particularly complicated or difficult. 

How to check stove door gaskets

When the stove is cold, hold a dollar bill in the door and close the door on it. Tug on the dollar bill. If you can easily pull it out, it is time adjust the doors or re-gasket them. If the dollar's in there tightly, the gasket is okay. Check all around each door gasket for loose spots.

If it is time to replace the gaskets, write down the model of stove you have, and measure how many feet of gasket you will need. Go to your local stove shop, and they'll show you what supplies you will need and how to do the job. (Note: If there is a small piece of gasket that's loose, bring it with you.) Or, hire your chimney professional to do the job for you. 

Finally, read the maintenance section of your stove owner's manual. It will tell you about specific maintenance needed for your model of stove, such as cleaning catalytic units, replacing worn-out burn tubes, etc. Most of these procedures are relatively easy and inexpensive, and they'll keep your stove operating at peak efficiency.

Smoke Signals: Have a question about your chimney?