Fire in the home!

The wood-burning insert before we moved in, 2007

Another tool in our challenge to keep the house warm without turning on the furnace is the fireplace. In 2007 there was a wood-burning insert which produced more heat and more efficiently than a regular fireplace.

As we got our ducks in a row to formally buy the house from Julie the mother-in-law, however, the insurance company told us we had to jump through some hoops before they could insure the house. One of them was a WETT inspection of the fireplace. It makes sense they want to make sure the fireplace is safe.

Fireplace WET Report
We failed.

Unfortunately, we failed. The bricks did not extend 18″ from the fireplace and, more importantly, the insert was not EPA certified. A perfectly good insert made by a local company who did not go through the expense of registering with the EPA. There was no way around it, we had to replace it.

We could have installed a simple fireplace, but we decided to double-down on the wood-heating idea and invest in a state-of-the-art unit that would use less wood to produce a lot of heat and less smoke. We had a good stack of wood and the in-laws have a forest of it and they were willing to help.

We passed!
We passed!

It wasn’t cheap (I’ll find the receipt but it was around $2000) but it’s a great unit we got from a local company Big Valley Heating and has helped us save that $2000 in furnace oil I was telling you about. There was a $250 rebate from Metro Vancouver available for replacing old with new, but we still haven’t found the time to apply for it. Has this happened to you with rebates?

The new insert neede a clean.
The new insert needed a clean this year.

In our discussions with Monte Paulsen, the energy advisor who is helping us with our renovation and retrofit, I have come to understand that a fireplace, no matter how efficient, does not fit in with a net-zero home. Although the unit is sealed and little air is escaping through the chimney, there is no insulation and the metal appliance and brick chimney are allowing heat to escape.

The economic advantage of burning wood to heat your home is won and lost with the price of the wood. If you are buying wood, a fireplace makes no sense. If the wood is free, as in our case, it makes some sense, but the amount of heat that is lost 24/7 from the chimney and wall is unlikely to be replaced by the amount produced when you light a fire. Sigh.

We use our fireplace to reduce what we send to the landfill. Some packaging mixes metal and cardboard. I burn it and then pick out the metal later for recycling. This also works for nails in scrap wood I’m burning. I run a magnet through the ash to pull out the steel bits. It’s easier than pulling out the nails first and better than throwing the wood into the landfill. We also burn wax paper cups, wax paper, grease and other bits that won’t recycle or compost.

Sadly, no matter what, you are polluting. The carbon dioxide that the tree has helpfully pulled out of the air is released again along with other carbon compounds. Deeper sigh. Unfortunately any wood-burning appliance in your home is contributing to climate change and, in the long run, is not going to save you money.

With this in mind, after a year or two of owning the new unit, I came to terms with the fact that burning wood inside the house was not part of the plan. It makes me sad to think we will lose that experience of a crackling fire on a winter’s evening. The best we can do is a simulated fireplace that mimics the look of a fire and gives off some heat. Really deep sigh.

Just as we thought it would be ok to write on the bathroom walls because they would be ripped out soon anyway, so I did not worry about ensuring our wood supply was good and dry for this winter. When the reno comes, the fire will go. Now, with our Empty Tank Challenge, I am moving wood around the yard from damp spots to dry spots. The kids are helping (reluctantly).

I also had to re-glue the gasket around the door of the insert and clean the glass, but now we’re good to go.

My wood-burning explorations have also illustrated the need to look at the house as a complete system. Besides polluting and leaking heat, our fireplace makes other rooms in the house cold.


The thermostat soon climbs. By 8:43 we had 25C.
The thermostat soon climbs. By 8:43 we had 25C.
Oops, 27C is really getting too warm.
Oops, 27C is really getting too warm.

Let me explain. The smart programmable thermostat is in the dining room next to the living room where the fireplace is. It is smart, but not smart enough to know that, although the dining room is 25 degrees (77F) because of the fire, the bedrooms are still cold, and it doesn’t turn the furnace on.

We end up with sweltering living and dining rooms but still need electric heaters in the kids rooms upstairs.

This problem is only going to get worse with the furnace turned off, and I think we’ll need a heater in the bedroom, and maybe the bathroom. Are we going to save any money replacing oil furnace heat with electric heat? Time will tell. At least we’ll use less fossil fuels.

The boy loves the fire
The boy loves the fire

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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