Wednesday, January 14, 2015


When we bought this house, one of the features we loved was that it had a fireplace. Our old house had one and we loved to spend our winter weekends enjoying family time in front of a fire. During our walk through of the house with the previous owner, he had told us that he had a phobia of burning wood so he had installed an electric insert. Assuming makes an ass of you and me as the saying goes and so I assumed that he had simply slid the insert in place and simply sliding it out would remake it back into a wood burning fireplace. I was wrong.

What he had neglected to say, is that he had removed bricks and part of the metal liner to get the electrical insert in place. My options were to tear the entire thing apart and redo it or to buy a wood burning insert that would fit the modified opening. I chose the later. The insert was put in place and for the most part works pretty good but I've always had a hard time starting a fire in the thing without filling the house full of smoke. I can do it when the weather is milder but when it is really cold, the down draft of cold air is so strong that the smoke ends up rolling into my house and not up the chimney.

Part of the problem which I only discovered after the thing was installed is that the area for the hot air to rise up to the chimney is a slot just two inches in behind the door. The idea was that this creates a layer that protects the glass from getting all sooty which it does well... once the fire is going. However that two inches also means the line between smoke going up the chimney and into the house is pretty fine, especially when starting a fire before a upwards draft has been established.

I tried all the tricks people use with conventional wood burning stoves like making a torch out of newspaper and burning it first or buying sap sticks which burn easily and hot or lighting a pile of wadded up newspaper and shutting the door to let it burn first. All of them didn't work for me. The down draft of cold air from the chimney would over power any newspaper torches and blow them out. The sap sticks and pile of wadded up newspaper would burn well but as soon as I closed the door to establish the draft, the cold air would snuff them out filling the firebox with smoke leaving me with two choices. Open the door and try again letting all that smoke out into the room or wait until the fire went cold and try again. However, the smoke still seeped out unless I sat there and held the door tight to the frame. I bought all sorts of fire starters but either they were terribly expensive or couldn't stay lit long enough to start the draft after the door was closed. I kept on battling this, filling the house with smoke and then airing it out before finally setting down to enjoy the fire. I also tried other things and finally found something that works.

In the picture above, you see these pellets of wax and compressed sawdust (looks like a Chinese sesame seed bun) that are readily available in hardware stores. I light one of them in the firebox, close the door and they burn well enough that they stay lit and keep burning after the door is shut. They sputter and produce a poor flame for a few minutes until the draft finally kicks in and then burn brightly. That is my que to start placing some sapwood sticks and split logs in the fireplace and in no time I have a fire going with nary a wisp of smoke in the house. Best of all, a pack of 100 of those only cost me about 15 cents a pellet and one pellet is all it takes to start a fire. Finally after two years of trying, I can now enjoy a fire from the start and not have to first sit in a smoke filled basement waiting for it to clear out before I can start enjoying.


sage said...

I had a similar stove in Utah and I remember those failed attempts of starting a fire and smoking us out... It was in the basement and had a long flue. After we put in central heat, we mostly used the upstairs fireplace and seldom used the stove. Those little firestarters are handy.

Ed said...

Sage - I wish I had discovered them sooner. The only ones I had previously discovered that worked as well were the fireplace starter logs but those were a few bucks apiece. My parents have a wood insert from the same company but it is a different model and bigger. It's draw up the chimney is in the back of the box so conventional newspaper tricks works just fine for them.

Anonymous said...

The one here has two draft controls. One, that air wash to keep the glass clear and another that comes up from below the firebox. I've found using the air-wash while lighting the fire will do as you say. What I do is open the draft wheel fully then light the firelighter/paper/tinder. Fill the firebox with whatever I'm using that day, be it timber coal or anthracite, and close the door and leave it closed. Once you have opened the lower draft the tiny bit of heat will change the pressure and suck itself out the flue.
Me, I very rarely bother with the airwash control for once the fire reddens it will get hot enough to burn off whatever soot on the glass. Truly I always thought it was a bit of a gimmick really. Oh, I control the heat via the air intake under the firebox.

Ed said...

Vince - Unfortunately, to get a stove insert this small to fit in the existing opening, I had to forego all those controls. The only thing I can control is how much air is fed the fire from a slot above the firebox. That makes things a bit trickier when starting a fire as far as keeping the house smoke free.