The first item to consider is where you live. Especially if you’re in a conurbation, you may live in a smoke control zone, which limits your options. The emergent Clean Air Act, coupled with Ecodesign 2022, will effectively export many of the same restrictions nationwide. This is a good development, but will depend on effective enforcement, which at present is a complete joke. The Stove Industry Alliance reckon that 70% of wood smoke emissions in London – a smoke-control zone – come from open fires, and some fireplace manufacturers carry brazen documentary evidence on their websites of beautiful, but completely illegal, open fires that they have installed in SW postcodes. There’s an apocryphal rumour that the current mayor of London, a vocal campaigner for cleaner air, has an open fire at home. Whether or not it’s true, it’s a suitable fable for the lack of rigour in current enforcement, and for how there’s one rule for ordinary people trying to go through the appropriate channels, and another for those who think, or possibly actually are, above the law. Our only local smoke-control zone at present is Southampton.
The first essential for any kind of fire in the home is some variety of flue. We have considered this in some detail previously, whether you are building a new masonry chimney, lining an existing one, or constructing a free-standing insulated flue system. Different appliances require different diameters and lengths of flue. A large open fire will require a chimney that Father Christmas could squeeze down; by contrast, a DEFRA-approved stove can operate on a 5” flue diameter. Some high-spec stoves will require a chimney at least eight or nine metres tall if they are to function properly, others with low flue-draught requirements will operate on chimney heights well below the 4.5 metre minimum recommended by Building Regulations. Speak to a specialist before setting your heart on a particular stove; most architects and builders don’t have a clue.
The next aspect to consider is what kind of fire you want.
Open fires obviously pre-date stoves, and carry a lot of romantic baggage: roaring flames, crackling logs, the distinct smells of the smoke of different woods. Without the mediation of glass and steel and air controls, there’s a primal connection between mankind (and dog or cat) and fire that is particularly satisfied by this immediacy.
Weighing against this sensory indulgence are the many downsides, not least the profligacy of an open fire in the Anthropocene.
They are a good way of demonstrating wealth. Given that it would be idiotic, not to mention illegal, to actually burn money for heat, an open fire is a viable second option for showing that you have plenty of cash to spare. Not only will logs disappear in an instant, the fire will also suck any centrally-heated air out of the room and conveniently dispose of it above roof height. This chimney effect will reliably work even when the fire is cold, but when you have a blazing fire, you will be changing the air in the room every ten minutes or so. The replacement air has to come from somewhere, and if you don’t have outside farmhouse doors with mouse-nibbled inch-high gaps at the bottom, you will need an air vent in the wall or floor big enough for a cat to climb through. From a regulatory point-of-view, the analogy here is a superhero-level battle between Sections L and J of the Building regulations that exposes the Tyranosaur-scale yawning contradictions between them.
Besides the inefficient consumption of fuel (because you can’t regulate the airflow, you can’t control the burn rate, so the logs will burn as fast as they can), the prodigiously wasteful effect on your central heating efficacy and the fact that it will actually produce a net heat loss in your home, an open fire also multiplies emissions and particulates. The Clean Air Act promises to make them illegal, at least in new-builds or refurbs, but based on weary experience, we’ll probably still find them in hotels and the houses of the very poor and very wealthy in a hundred years’ time.
Slightly more efficient than open fires are convector fires; the best-known name in this line is Jetmaster, which has shifted over half a million of its convector boxes in its decades of existence.
Originally marketed as a cure for smoking fireplaces, and promising around 50% efficiency, these are metal fireboxes that slot into a fireplace and allow a lot more of the energy to be both consumed in the fire and distributed to the room via convected warm air. While they do nothing to address the issue of prodigious fuel consumption – the logs still disappear at a rate of knots – they do offer a significant improvement in efficiency over an open fire, and will actually keep you warm if it’s your sole heat source. We have sold many ourselves over the years, though very few in the recent past, and typically to customers who would replace it with a stove a decade later, recognising the many and massive advantages of this vastly superior technology. Jetmasters are still available today, though for how much longer is anyone’s guess. If you’re wedded to the idea of a completely open fire, this remains probably your best bet to sneak in under the radar with the current mess of regulation before the rules definitively tighten.
Far more interesting in this vein are the lift-door stove models offered by one or two manufacturers, notably Stuv, which offer all the advantages of an open fire inside the umbrella of effective stove technology.
These have a glass ‘guillotine’ door that slides up and down on runners. With the door closed, the fire burns safely, efficiently and slowly; with the door open, you experience the crackle, hiss and atmosphere of a traditional open fire. These units are more complicated, bulky, expensive and tricky to install than either Jetmasters or pure stoves, but they do tick a full range of boxes that neither of the alternatives offer, and also promise to be the one option for open fires to possibly survive the current wave of legislation.
Which brings us neatly to stoves. Before delving into greater detail, a word on fuel choice. We’re concentrating on wood-as-a-fuel, by far the most ecologically-sound option, but smokeless fuels are still widely sold, and can be burnt on many of the appliances mentioned here. Generally, anything described as multi-fuel will have an integral grate, with an appropriate combustion-air-delivery system to enable the burning of smokeless fuels.
By and large, these will also burn wood effectively, often with enhanced controllability via updraught and downdraught controls that are very useful when lighting or resuscitating a spluttering fire. Because wood burns from the top-down, pure wood burners have different air-delivery systems, which often allows for higher nominal efficiencies, but which preclude the burning of smokeless fuels. All Clearview stoves and most Chilli Penguins are multifuel, and Barbas give a multifuel option on most of their stoves.
The basic wood burning stove is a metal box with an air supply regulated by a lever or rod or combination, flued into clear air above the dwelling, allowing the slow-burning of wood with the capture of an enormous proportion of the heat generated, which is then distributed to the room either as direct radiant heat, or as convected warm air. Generally, the method of dispersal makes no difference to the amount of actual useable heat delivered.
The most effective place to put a stove is in the middle of the room, and if you were in an army barracks 50 years ago, or are unlucky enough to have ever been incarcerated in a Gulag, you might have first-hand experience of trying to nab a bed closest to the pot-bellied stove in your shed.
For most of the rest of us, in the UK at least, we are most likely to have experienced a stove in a re-purposed fireplace, and it is certainly the case that the British stove design idiom has its origins in this adaptation.
As a result, most UK stoves are squat with short legs or no legs, though a larger proportion are emerging that nod or fully acquiesce to a wider gamut of functional design solutions for room-heating.
The basic modern stove unit is a metal box, either cast-iron or steel, or some combination thereof, with a glazed door, refractory brick lining, a baffle plate to convolute the escape route of the smoke, allowing more of it to be burnt up, a simple lever for air-control and some sort of airwash system to prevent the glass from sooting up during combustion, which radiates heat in roughly equal proportions from its five uppermost surfaces.
It is, first and foremost, a tremendously efficient means of heating a room, extracting almost all the potential heat from a fuel which literally grows on trees, and delivering nearly all that heat into the room.
Normally, it is sized for versatility of installation, and many models sit about two foot tall. The downsides to this general ubiquity are that 1. You have to bend down further to stoke the fire. 2. That when installed in a fireplace, a proportion of the heat from the top and sides of the stove are going to heat up the masonry surrounding the stove rather than radiating directly into the room and 3. When installed in a free-standing capacity, it is going to heat the wall behind it to a high temperature, which might require protection of the wall surface.
Generally, the higher and wider your fireplace is, or can be made, the more air will flow over the surface of the stove, and the more heat will be returned quickly and effectively to the room. If your fireplace seems too small, it may be possible to open it up to accommodate a larger stove.
The term ‘convection stove’ usually refers to a free-standing stove that is designed to back onto a wall. By adding a ventilated extra casing to the stove, radiant heat is converted to convected heat, cooling the outer surfaces of the back and/or sides of the stove. This allows it to back onto, or be installed adjacent to, plastered walls without the risk of damage to the wall surface or necessitating the use of a supplementary heat shield. Where the walls are combustible (in most instances, wood or plasterboard, or highly vulnerable to heat, like glass) these stoves are ideal, as the specified distance to combustibles is usually greatly reduced. The Contura 810 stove, for instance, can be installed just two inches off a combustible wall in some circumstances (and with a suitably insulated flue).
This kind of stove is normally installed with a twinwall flue system, which allows a great deal of latitude in siting the stove. Some stoves, notably from Contura, can even be installed on turntables in the middle of the room, so that the stove can be turned to face whichever part of the room is currently being used.
Convection stoves also tend to be taller, making maximum use of the vertical space in which they sit (which is rendered useless otherwise); this makes the door and combustion chamber a more convenient height for loading, and, of course, puts the fire on a level where it is horizontal to a seated human, always a nice touch.
In many modern houses with fireplaces, the construction will involve a very small chamber, designed to fit a ubiquitous template for a wide variety of gas stoves or Milner fire-back open fires, usually about 16 inches wide and just shy of two feet high. Typically constructed of pre-formed concrete, they can be very difficult or impossible to open up. The stove industry has responded by designing small inset stoves that can fit these small fireplaces.
Using the same basic convection technology that featured in Jetmaster fires, but with the greatly enhanced efficiency that comes from a closed appliance, these inset stoves work to very high standards, and return as much as possible of the heat created inside the cavity to the room, either radiated through the door or via convection. As a rule of thumb, however, inset stoves typically deliver less heat to the room than their free-standing siblings, simply because the business-part of the stove is buried in the wall.
Having a small ‘traditional builder’s opening’ fireplace does not preclude the possibility of installing a bigger stove, however. The chimney itself can still be used by a larger appliance, but would require that the stove then sits proud of the chimney breast wall and flues back into the chimney. Inevitably, this consumes more of the volume of the room, but can be a great solution where space is not at a premium or where a significant or specific visual impact is desired.
Continental inset stoves (and a growing offering from UK manufacturers), which are typically installed in purpose-built constructions, tend to be larger in size, and can offer a sleeker, more sophisticated aspect than a free-standing stove.
They can also be installed into larger fireplaces, though the opening often has to be reduced to fit the stove, or into a newly-built false chimney breast, which can also be constructed to contain features such as log storage. They can also be installed at varying heights in the wall, which can be very dramatic in aspect.
One last option to consider, if you are a keen chef and would like to use your stove for cooking: Clearview and Chilli Penguin stoves are both designed so that you can cook or boil a kettle on their top-plates, and both manufacturers also offer oven-stoves.
In short, there is nearly always an option to suit most requirements. If yours are not addressed here, please get in touch!