Reviewed by George Baral
Updated September 11, 2023
As the winter temperatures linger and the snow continues to fall, huddling indoors where it’s warm is always tempting. One popular way to create a warm, cozy feeling in your home is by installing a wood stove. The sight, sound, and smell of a wood-burning fire can tap into fantasies about surviving in the Canadian wilderness or simply provide a sense of sanctuary against the cold. Wood stoves can also be a cost-effective heating option.
Whatever the reasons, wood stoves are still a favorite among homeowners. 6% of Canadian households use wood stoves as their primary source of heat, and many more have wood stoves as secondary heat sources. Many people have freestanding wood stoves, but they are also available as fireplace inserts. Inserts vent through the chimney, while freestanding stoves attach to a chimney through a chimney connector.
If you plan to install either type of stove or purchase a home that has one, check with your insurer to see if an inspection is required. If a wood stove isn’t properly installed it can lead to a house fire or carbon monoxide poisoning.
Don’t let that idea scare you, however. With so many wood stoves out there, it’s clear that there are safe ways to operate them. An inspector can also show you how to properly operate your stove. Meanwhile, here are safety tips to consider as you prepare to enjoy your own wood-burning heat source.
Harder is easier. Choose hardwoods, such as maple, oak, ash, hickory or beech, as fuel for your stove. They burn more slowly and deliver more heat.
Green means stop. You’ll need dry wood for your stove. Green wood is really about 50 percent water and won’t burn well. You can collect wood yourself, but you’ll need to dry the green pieces for at least a year. Your hardwood logs are ready to use when there are obvious cracks in the grain ends and they emit a hollow sound when tapped together.
Alternatively, find a reliable log supplier; there are accreditation organizations that indicate whether a supplier’s logs are really as dry as claimed. If money is no object, or for those times when convenience trumps other considerations, you can purchase kiln logs or dried briquettes, which generally have energy added to them.
Vent. No, we’re not talking about anger management, but about proper ventilation for your stove. Vent pipes must extend about one metre or more above the top of your home.
Safe installation is important—don’t locate the stove on a combustible surface, such as a wood floor, and don’t connect it to a chimney flue used by another appliance, whether another stove, a boiler or a furnace. Doing so could lead to the release of deadly carbon monoxide fumes.
If you use a wood stove, fire is always a hazard. You should already have a smoke/fire alarm installed in each room of the house and tested regularly; carbon monoxide detectors throughout the house are also recommended. A smoke detector and carbon monoxide alarm should also be installed near the wood-burning stove. In addition, make sure you have a family escape plan that everyone understands. Practice it at least once a year.
Wood stoves get quite hot and interior walls can be damaged if the stove is nearby. Consider installing a heat shield to protect them; some models come with heat shields included. The stove requires proper clearance all around, so keep wood furniture and all flammable items well away from it. Consult the manufacturer’s recommended clearance distance and follow their suggestion.
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Be sure that the flue damper is completely open when your stove is in use. This small device allows the toxic fumes emanating from the burning wood to escape. It is closed when the stove isn’t in use to prevent warm air from escaping up the chimney, but if you forget to open it all the way when lighting the stove, the room will quickly fill with smoke.
Stash the ashes. Remove the ashes from your stove regularly and put them in a metal container with a lid to cool off for a couple of days before putting them in the trash; they may contain embers capable of starting a fire. Keep your ash stash about three meters away from buildings or vehicles.
In the 1800s, people used young boys as chimney sweeps to climb into their chimneys and clear away the buildup of the condensed material, called creosote, that collected inside. Today, luckily, there are professionals who service chimneys and you should engage one regularly.
Allowing buildup to accumulate in your chimney can lead to a destructive fire, You can also remove some of the buildup in your stovepipe using a stiff wire brush. But if you use your fireplace a lot, we recommend that you have your chimney inspected and cleaned every year.
Ensure that the outdoors surrounding your home is also safe from potential fire hazards caused by burning wood. Trim back brush and tree branches near the chimney to a safe distance.
Keep your roof clear of flammable debris, leaves, and pine needles and locate your woodpile at least 10 meters from the house to avoid a fire hazard. Place a mesh screen spark arrester atop your chimney to prevent stray sparks from landing on the roof. Check your local requirements for the proper mesh size.
Follow these handy hints and you should be able to enjoy the wonderful warmth of your wood stove without fears of your house burning down.
To ensure a safe wood stove, make sure there are no combustible surfaces nearby—carpets, drapes, etc. Install a heat shield behind or around the stove to avoid damaging nearby walls. Keep fires small, and always have a fire extinguisher nearby.
Wood burning stoves are typically regulated by local bylaws and building codes, so regulations are different depending on where you live. Check with your local municipality to learn all the regulations for your area.
The best fuel for a wood burning stove is very dry wood, especially hardwood. Choose wood that has a moisture content of 20% or less, as dry wood produces far less smoke.
Want to learn more? Visit our Home and Personal Safety resource centre to find more information about protecting your family and your home. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized home insurance can be.
About the expert: George Baral
George Baral has an MBA and a masters' degree in chemistry. He spent almost 35 years inspecting and evaluating heating and air conditioning systems before retiring. He obtained a California general contractor's license to start a company focusing on energy-efficient construction, became certified as a LEED AP and earned a NATE (North American Technical Excellence) certification, which provides advanced training for HVAC technicians.
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