Oh, Woodstove! How you challenge me.

In my last post, I mentioned how our woodstove has been working. How well it was heating the house, how just a small vent in the floor was necessary and how smooth the whole operation was in general. Well, I spoke too soon.

We’ve now been heating the house with our furnace. The woodstove has not been fired for just under two weeks and it’s really starting to get on my nerves. When the laws of the Universe were made, they covered the basic running of things; when changes were made, extensions to these laws were created. An example – just for interest’s sake: Bergmann’s Rule (simplified) states that “populations of animals from warm-blooded species living in cooler climates tend to be larger than animals of the same species occurring in warmer climates. This is a result of the surface area to volume ratio being higher in the larger animals so heat loss is reduced.” And the extension of this rule: Allen’s Rule: “In warm-blooded animals, there tends to be a reduction in size of protuberant parts (legs, arms, bills, tails) in cooler climates to minimize heat loss.” I bring this up because Murphy’s Law has a new extension called the Lowe Paradox which goes on to state that: “despite all precautions taken and assurances made to the contrary, it will still go wrong if Evan has had a hand in it.” Here is what happened:

Winter was closing in. The temperatures were consistently falling lower and lower and our first winter storm loomed on the horizon. Inside our house, however, it was warm and dry thanks to a properly installed, twice-inspected and insured woodstove. As the winter storm approached, it brought with it high winds and blowing snow. And high winds. Did I mention the winds? They were strong.

One day, the stove was blazing away, happily heating our home and all of a sudden, it started to puff smoke into the house. Just little puffs at first, but they slowly grew to larger puffs and billows until it seemed as though more smoke was coming in than going out. The temperature fell to -18, or -38 with the windchill. Our stove was all of a sudden not working and we had to rely on the furnace. I finally got a chance to look a the stove on the weekend and discovered that the wind had gusted hard enough to somehow dislodge the clean-out cap at the bottom of the outside chimney. “Well,” I think to myself, “no wonder it wasn’t drafting properly – the cap was off. I’ll just put it on and light a fire.”

Before anyone gets ahead of me, I know enough to light a small fire in a cold stove to get the draft going again, which I did. I lit a small newspaper fire and let it burn as the smoke continued to flow into the house. “It’s cold. I’ll need more heat to get this drafting right.” I think. I toss in more paper, which burns and whose smoke pours into the basement. “I need more heat, and this paper isn’t cutting it.” thinks I. I go out to the shed and get a propane torch – the ones used for soldering – to heat up the fire box and chimney. I spark a flame and heat and heat and heat the stove. For twenty minutes I held the propane torch to the firebox and when I lit the next batch of newspaper, the smoke still crept into the house. “It’s just going to need more heat – it’ll reverse soon.” I try and convince myself. I throw in some kindling and a small, dry piece of cord wood. Well, I’m here to tell you that that didn’t work.

Smoke poured out – think water rushing out of a garden hose – and it was thick and acrid. I closed the damper, but still it came. I opened the damper and it came more. I was left with only one solution: let it burn. I couldn’t take out the burning log because, really, how safe is it to run through the the house with a burning log? Instead, I grabbed my ShopVac and reversed the hose on it so that it would blow air out of the hose and suck in at the vacuum. I jammed the intake as close to the woodstove as I could and ran the hose out of the window, which was fortunately close enough. For five hours the vacuum ran, pulling out some, but not all, of the smoke. The smoke it couldn’t get floated upstairs making the rooms hazy and unpleasant to be in We went outside to get away from it. I checked in on how things were doing periodically and, remarkably, heard the smoke detectors finally sound the alarm when the rooms were so full of smoke one practically had to feel their way across them. (Yet try and bake a potato in the oven. The alarm seems to have a hair trigger then.)

The fire finally burned itself out, the smoke cleared and things returned more or less to normal. Upon further investigation, it turns out that basement woodstoves with an external chimney pipe are just about the most difficult ones to use. They suffer from pressure differentials between the upstairs and downstairs, making drafting difficult and the stove pipe, being outside, cools down faster than normal, also making drafting difficult. Equally difficult is the re-warming of the pipes and the possibility of downdrafting when temperatures fall quickly is also present. But that’s okay – I’ll fix it. Leaving a window cracked a bit will help with the drafting. Adding a direct cold-air vent to the stove will help greatly. I’m not sure if such a thing exists for our stove or if I will have to make one, but installing one is the plan. Adding another section of pipe to the chimney’s top will add to the drafting and using a tiger torch, that wand of propane and flame, will help get the heat back in the pipe so that we can finally have a fire again.

Making sure the bottom doesn’t fall off of the chimney again, however, will be of the greatest help.

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