By E. H. Hackney • Photos by Chris Mayo, Amrak Chimney Sweeping
Winter is here and it’s time to get your wood stove ready for the heating season. According to current statistics complied off city-data.com for Cedar Crest, Cedar Grove, Chilili, Edgewood, Moriarty, Tajique, Tijeras, and Torreon, nearly 20 percent of East Mountain homes are warmed by wood, and it can be a safe, reliable, and cost-effective heating source if handled with respect.
Two primary causes of home fires from wood stoves are the improper handling of ashes and chimney fires caused by excessive creosote deposits that form from burning wood. If the fire in your stove gets too hot, it can ignite the creosote, resulting in a chimney fire. The best way to avoid this is to clean your chimney once or twice a year. You can purchase the brushes and do it yourself, or hire one of several chimney sweeps in the East Mountains.
It used to be that one of the major causes of creosote build-up was closing down the air inlet to old spin-draft stoves, says John Smaniotto, who has nearly 40 years of experience in wood stove maintenance and cleaning through his business, the Canyon Chimney Sweep. “But stoves today now feature small holes drilled in the sides, which allows you to burn wood more slowly, cleanly, and safely,” he says. “Plus, new emissions requirements in 2020 mean that we won’t be able to purchase any of the old junk stoves in the U.S. Only clean stoves will be available.”
These new stoves are better insulated, collect less creosote, and, because they must burn cleaner than 2.5 grams of particulate an hour, are also less pollluting. While the East Mountains are exempt from the regulations that govern air quality in Albuquerque, Smaniotto says that if you’re in the market for a new stove, it only makes sense to buy a stove that meets the new regulations.
What if you have an old stove? “I would advise burning less wood at a time and letting it burn freely, rather than filling the stove with wood and throttling it down,” Smaniotto says.
But don’t burn just any wood, he cautions. “Try to avoid ponderosa pine. It burns like paper and only puts out heat for about 10 to 15 minutes.” And if you try to burn it slowly, it builds up to dangerous levels of creosote.
Mixes of piñon, juniper, and cedar are popular because they are less expensive, but they make more ash and creosote and put out less heat per cord. Instead, try to burn oak if you can afford it. It might be more expensive up front, but it burns hot and creates little ash and creosote. Best of all, you can burn it slowly and get more burn for your buck. Whichever wood you use, it should be well seasoned.
In addition, do not burn trash, cardboard, holiday wrappings, or your dried-out Christmas tree in your woodstove. They burn too hot and increase the risk of a chimney fire—plus, some papers contain unhealthy dies and chemicals. Likewise, don’t burn painted or treated wood, and never use liquid fuels, like gasoline or kerosene, in your stove.
The ashes in your stove may appear cold but can still contain hot embers capable of starting a fire. Use a covered metal container to hold ashes while they cool. Smaniotto advises using a double-bottom ashcan. These are relatively expensive but are safer and more durable than a single-bottom container. Not all trash removal services accept cold ashes, so check with your carrier before you bag your ashes and put them in the trashcan. And remember that the transfer station does not accept ashes—hot or cold. If your removal service does not accept them, you can either bury or pile cold ashes on your property or sprinkle them over garden and compost beds.
If you are considering getting a wood stove or replacing your old one, have it installed properly. It is not recommended as a do-it-yourself project. There are a number of codes for stove installations, which vary with the type of stove and chimney being used. Newer stoves and chimneys can, in general, be located closer to walls and combustibles than older ones.
You can take additional safety precautions by removing tree limbs from above your chimney and keeping your roof and gutters free of pine needles, which could ignite. Maintain a perimeter of at least 18 inches in front of your stove that is free of combustibles like wood or carpet. Three feet is ideal. Remember to have a fire extinguisher available and to check the batteries in your smoke alarm yearly.
Wood is still a good way to warm your home, and by following a few simple rules it can be done safely. Plus, there is nothing like a wood stove for the simple pleasure of sitting and watching the flames dance.