Innovation, aesthetics, and efficiency: Trends from the Wood Stove Decathlon

Wood stoves have kept homes warm for centuries, but today’s wood stove bears little resemblance to its predecessors. Nowhere was this more evident than in the technology and designs on display at the Wood Stove Design Challenge last week. Organized by the Alliance for Green Heat on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the Wood Stove Design Challenge was a five day event dedicated to showcasing the innovation, beauty, and efficiency of modern wood stoves and discussing the future of the industry through a series of panel discussions.

Woodtock Soapstone

Images courtesy of Woodstock Soapstone

It was also a competition — 14 finalists displayed their ingenuity through low-emission, high efficiency, innovative, and affordable wood stove designs. The 10 industry expert judges crowned the stove from Woodstock Soapstone the overall winner. The New Hampshire company showed just how innovative wood stoves can be, with its steel hybrid stove ranking among the top three across four categories, including market appeal, affordability, carbon monoxide emissions, and particulate emissions. To learn more about the technology behind these stoves, as well as where wood stoves are headed in the future, I caught up with David Agrell, Associate Editor, Home, who has been covering the Wood Stove Challenge for Popular Mechanics. Having profiled the finalists, he had a unique perspective on both the features that distinguished each entry as well as the larger trends in wood stove technology. Here’s what he highlighted as the biggest innovations in wood stove design as well as his take on the future of wood stoves.

Innovations in wood stoves

1. Automation: While most stoves require manual maintenance, automated stoves monitor changes in the burning environment, such as oxygen and fuel, to produce the perfect fire without requiring homeowners to keep a constant eye on it. With entries like SmartStove, Mulciber, and HWAM Autopilot IHS, users could stock fuel, set an ideal temperature, and walk away, leaving the stove to electronically track temperatures and manipulate oxygen levels to ensure perfect temperature transfer and efficient burning.

2. Efficiency: The most enduring myth about wood stoves is that they’re inefficient — even though they’ve been clean burning for nearly 20 years. In the Wood Stove Decathlon, efficiency counted as one-fifth of the score, spurring contestants to develop some of the most efficient stoves in existence. Each stove achieved peak efficiency of between 83 and 85 percent, with the Wittus Twinfire ranked most efficient among the field.

3. Retrofitting: Another stunning innovation came from the IntensiFire firebox insert. Although an untraditional stove entry, this insert was New Zealand inventor James Stewart’s way to instantly transform an old, dirty wood stove into a clean-burning model of efficiency. James’ low-cost IntensiFire downdraft device fits inside traditional wood stoves and burns wood up to 60 percent more efficiently.

4. Aesthetics: David noted that efficiency is irrelevant if no one uses the stove. For that reason, the aesthetic appeal of a stove is just as important as its efficiency, and it’s not difficult to achieve, much to the credit of heat-resistant glass-ceramic. All 14 stoves in the competition used glass to offer a view of the fire and better appeal to a market in which enjoying the fire as it burns is just as important as efficiency. Therefore, glass that resists smoke and ash buildup has become just as important in preserving views.

The future of wood stoves

1. Green focus: Today’s wood stoves burn 50 percent more efficiently than traditional wood stoves and produce 70 percent less particle pollution indoors and outdoors. And the push for green wood stoves will continue. Whether it’s a retrofitted device that improves older stoves or an advance in materials like glass-ceramic, wood stove innovations are likely to focus on maximizing efficiency.

2. Automation: Several contestants explored automation in their entries, and it’s likely we’ll see the development of even more automatic stoves in the future. As the younger, tech-savvy generation purchases houses and installs heating systems, they’ll be looking for a simple, hands-off option that offers the warmth and visual appeal of the fire without requiring the homeowner to build or maintain it.

3. Market appeal: The greatest challenge facing modern wood stoves is the perception that they’re dirty and heavily pollute the environment. While glass provides wood stoves with an undeniable appeal, manufacturers must educate consumers about the truths about stoves. Few who attended the Wood Stove Challenge were even aware that, effective until Dec. 31, 2013, the federal government is offering a tax credit for purchasing a wood stove that’s at least 75 percent energy efficient. Education, just as much as technology, is crucial to the future of wood stoves.

Last week offered a glimpse into the potential of wood stoves. Despite warming homes for hundreds of years already, wood stove technology is constantly being refined, and, as David pointed out, the combination of aesthetic appeal, efficiency, automation, and education could keep the flame lit for decades to come.

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Hi there! I’m Karen Elder, Marketing Manager at SCHOTT North America. I’m responsible for developing and executing marketing and PR strategies for the Home Tech department. I also play a role in product development where I have the opportunity to work with our customers to implement innovation and design. Improving kitchen design is particularly exciting, partially because I love entertaining family and friends and the kitchen is the hub of every dinner party! Before coming to SCHOTT North America, I held communications roles at Coolbaker’s International and I also managed customer relations at CT Innovations. I’m an active member of the Emerald Circle, which supports the efforts of the green building and sustainable living industries. And I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Evansville. On the weekends you’ll find me outdoors, traveling, and attending music festivals and concerts.

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