Simple Wood Stove Is No Longer So Simple

Spurred on by the diversification of fuels and strict federal pollution regulations, the `hearth industry' has become more technologically sophisticated

TOUGH federal pollution standards, imposed five years ago, have forced wood stove manufacturers into extensive product redesign and have put hundreds of companies out of the business.

What used to be thought of as a low-cost, old-fashioned, and environmentally aware means of heating has matured into an often costly, technologically sophisticated appliance.

One place to view the new face of the ``hearth industry'' is the Vermont Castings showroom, just east of Bethel's town center. There you see not only the ornate, enameled wood stoves that have been this company's hallmark, but wood-pellet stoves, gas stoves, and wood and gas fireplace inserts.

Prompted by such diversification of fuels, the industry's marketing of stoves has become more sophisticated since the oil crunch of the late '70s stimulated rapid growth.

``The bulk of our sales is still wood stoves,'' says Scott Searle, director of marketing for Vermont Castings.

But Mr. Searle sees a growing niche for wood-pellet stoves, which use fuel made from compressed sawdust. Sales of such stoves account for considerably less than half the 140,000 wood stoves sold last year industrywide. Nonetheless, the pellet stoves have a particular appeal for suburban, often elderly buyers, Searle says. The fuel is less messy, easier to handle, and one load burns longer than wood. But pellet stoves are also complicated mechanically, and will not keep going when the electricity is knocked out.

Pellets are now ``the hot solid fuel,'' says Roger Castleberry, vice president of sales and marketing for the United States Stove Company in South Pittsburg, Tenn. His firm, an old-timer in the industry stretching back to 1869, got into pellets after they first hit the market in 1984. It markets a simplified stove that can run on a battery, if need be. The stove sells for $899, Mr. Castleberry says. The factory showroom price for a ``classic black'' Vermont Castings unit is $2,199.

Another manufacturer, Earth Stove Inc., Tualatin, Ore., also has been experimenting with a simplified pellet heater. ``We've been able to eliminate many of the mechanical and electrical parts with this unit,'' says Jess Baldwin, the firm's eastern regional manager in Marion, Ind. His product is priced at $1,095.

But the fastest-growing segment of the hearth industry is gas-fired stoves. ``They're growing in leaps and bounds,'' says John Crouch, director of local government affairs for the Hearth Products Association. ``People cannot ignore the low cost of gas right now, and as our population ages a bit, they're willing to spend a little more on convenience.''

That convenience now comes with the aesthetic appeal of a wood fire. Realistic-looking ceramic logs and drafting systems, which create a bright yellow flame instead of the blue one usually associated with natural gas or propane, could fool most people into thinking they had their feet up in front of the ``real thing.'' Yearly sales of gas units are in the 100,000 range. Meeting federal standards

Wood, however, remains the stalwart. And the race to meet and surpass Environmental Protection Agency pollution standards has pushed the industry to a point, Searle says, ``where we're nearly as clean as central heat.''

The technology that is used to get there has two branches: employing catalytic combustors, not unlike those used in cars, and redesigning a stove's insides to produce a hotter, cleaner burn without the need for a combustor.

The catalytic stoves burn more slowly and can hold a fire longer, Mr. Baldwin says. The non-catalytic units burn hotter, do not require the replacement of the roughly $200 combustor every few years, and will not malfunction if household waste containing lead-based inks or other chemicals are occasionally thrown in the flames.

Both systems, if properly installed and used, virtually eliminate creosote buildup and the danger of chimney fires.

Arriving at the retooled, clean-burning stoves was an arduous task. Fred Francis, an inventor whose company, Frantech Stoves, is based in Victoria, British Columbia, worked for two years on a method of insulating the baffle and drawing more air into a stove, at a cost of $100,000.

Mr. Francis's non-catalytic design is licensed to Napoleon Fireplaces-Wolf Steel in Ontario, Canada, and Chippewa Welding in Wisconsin, which makes Energy King stoves.

``Ideas have brought us all together,'' says Francis, noting that technology similar to his is used throughout the industry, as is the ``air wash'' system that keeps the glass doors of newer wood stoves free of soot.

While the technology was costly to develop, it has not led to uniformly lofty prices for wood stoves. There is ``keen price competition,'' Castleberry says. United States Stove Company models, which are sold largely through farm and home supply outlets such as Agway, start as low as $300 and climb to $1,000.

``We make Chevrolets, not Cadillacs or Rolls Royces,'' Castleberry says.

Vermont Castings may not tout its stoves as ``Cadillacs,'' but the company likens its products to fine pieces of furniture. Its wood-stove prices range from around $800 to more than $2,000.

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