Reliving wood heat boom after 30 years

Posted March 27, 2009, at 7:10 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:45 a.m.

About 30 years ago, we were seeing a lot of TV programs on MPBN about using wood heat. They were hosted by some guy named Angus King. The programs featured Dick Hill, among others, and we were reminded of the joys of burning wood to keep warm safely.

Fast-forward 30 years and we are reliving it all over again, at least those of us who are more than 30 years old.

The fun part is that those of us who lived through that first go-around do not have to learn it for the first time, assuming we can remember that time.

I was just starting out in the solar business, and burning wood was something that I was not really too interested in.

Hill had patented a clean-burning wood boiler and it was the “gotta have” technology.

Madawaska, Dumont and Kerr-Jetstream — all UMaine licensees of Hill’s wood boilers — were quite impressive. These were the high technology for biomass heating in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

There are a ton of European and a couple of American wood gasifier boilers that are being sold here today. Most of them owe a debt to Hill’s work since they use the technological features that he described back then.

We also had the advent of catalytic wood stoves, which were a revolutionary improvement for making wood stoves burn clean.

Wood stove manufacturers have stopped using catalytic converters, as they discovered how to better mix air into the combustion process and burn wood cleanly.

One of the most commonly ignored issues related to wood burning has been the chimney (or “chimbley” or “chimley” — depending on what county you come from).

Old chimneys were usually not lined and were just built of brick or rock. If these chimneys were not lined, with either clay tile or stainless steel liners, a chimney fire could breach the chimney and burn the house down. We also used to hear a lot of fire stories where old clothing would be stuffed into holes in chimneys and stove pipes to seal openings — along with the requisite house fire that would ensue.

Fortunately, we do not hear these terrible chimney stories near as much anymore. I suppose it is because we have the wonderful opportunity to line older chimney flues with insulated stainless liners to preserve older chimneys and have a safe flue for stoves and heating systems. Or perhaps all the bad flue issues have burned away.

The technology of masonry stoves, which were generically called “Russian Fireplaces” back then, also has continued to evolve with better materials and techniques. One of those featured on those old wood heat TV programs was Albie Barden, who has an absolute treasure trove of information on his Web site: www.mainewoodheat.com. Be prepared to spend some time there since there are some wonderful galleries of masonry stove construction projects for both heating and cooking.

Of course, we have talked over the concept of wood pellets a lot. Wood pellets can be used in an automatic central system or a stove.

I like the pellet stove. It operates like a central heating system but is much less expensive and adds some ambience to the living space. Yes, you have to clean it, and there is a fan and auger to listen to, but it is a vast improvement over the wood stove, if you want to relinquish the idea of producing your own fuel to someone else.

The one thing about this business is that it seems to endlessly evolve and there is no one answer to everyone’s need.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at www.bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.html.

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