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Woodstove Ratings: Will We Get A Lemon?

Q: We're in the market for a wood stove, and in doing our research we came across a website that invites people to rate their stoves (http://www.hearth.com/ratings/search.php). One of the models we're looking at on your website has been rated by about a dozen people, and everybody gave it rave reviews except two people, who both HATED it! We've heard about cars that are "lemons", and wonder if that happens in the wood stove business. More to the point, what would we do if we ordered a stove from you and it turned out to be a lemon?

Sweepy You don't specify which model you're looking at, so I went to the hearth.com ratings site and had a look at the ratings for several models we carry, as well as several that we don't, and I agree that there are a few pretty bad reviews for some models that otherwise get raves.

Wood stoves are nowhere near as complex as automobiles. They have far fewer parts, and a thousand times fewer things that can go wrong. The woodstove manufacturing process turns out virtually identical stoves every time: in our 25 years as woodstove dealers and Chimney Sweeps, we've never seen or heard of a "lemon". Thus, we must assume that the rave reviews and rant reviews that are written about the same model in the same time period are about identical stoves.

If you throw out the totally irrelevant posts, like reviews of discontinued models or (my favorite), the rant from the guy who bought a used, disassembled stove of unstated age and put it together himself with whatever parts were provided by the previous owner, you'll notice that, by and large, the bad review writers all have the same complaints:

The stove doesn't heat the size house it is advertised to heat
The fire is hard to light
The fire doesn't burn as long between refuelings as advertised
The viewing window doesn't stay clean as advertised
Smoke comes into the house when the stove door is opened

So why do people burning stoves that normally get rave reviews have such different experiences?

Because the people writing the reviews don't all live in houses with the same insulation and the same floor plans, located in the same temperature zone. They don't all have the same chimneys with the same drafting characteristics. They're not all burning the same wood. And they didn't get the same pre-purchase advice from their dealer.

One thing I noticed while reading the bad reviews was that many of the houses described were as big or bigger than the maximum size house the stove in question was rated to heat. When stove manufacturers rate a stove to heat up to 1600 square feet, they are saying that will only happen if conditions are ideal. That 1600 sq.ft. house must be a one-story house with excellent insulation, 8-foot ceilings, double-pane glass (and not an excessive amount of it), and a wide open floor plan. The buyer with a 1600 sq.ft. 2-story glass house with 20' cathedral ceilings located in Northeast Alaska should not expect his experience with that stove to be a good one.

Another thing I noticed was that the same people who complained of hard-to-start, low output, and/or short duration fires also mentioned dirty viewing windows. One even complained of liquid creosote actually leaking out of his stovepipe. Each of those problems is caused when green fuel wood is burned. Two or more of these problems mentioned in the same review is a virtual neon sign, flashing "WET WOOD!" People who are burning green or wet wood are going to hate their woodstove no matter what model it is.

The other most common complaint is smoke spillage into the room. There is a popular misconception that wood stoves somehow push the smoke up the chimney. In fact, the opposite is true.  The chimney is the engine of the system, and must draw the necessary amount of air through the stove. The reviewers who write that the stove smokes when they open the loading door are really saying the chimney updraft is insufficient to exhaust the smoke while the door is open.  A short side note: I noticed quite a few complaints of smoke spillage out the front door, in models that I know have a side loading door. Buyers want a big view of the fire, so manufacturers try to provide the biggest front doors possible, to maximize the size of the viewing window. Bigger door openings are more likely to allow smoke spillage when the door is opened, so many models with big doors incorporate a smaller, side door for loading wood when the fire is going. The moral: if your stove has a side loading door, use it.

It was also interesting to find that the majority of the reviewers who complained about their stoves also complained about their dealers. This isn't surprising: a good stove dealer would have recommended, for example, that the Alaska resident from the example above would need a stove rated to heat a much larger area than 1600 square feet. A good dealer would also be able to recognize and diagnose bad or wet fuelwood and insufficient chimney updraft problems, and recommend fixes. It seems to me that the great majority of the bad reviews would not have been written if the dealers involved had done their job.

As to your concern about what might happen should we sell you a lemon, I can assure you we have no lemons for sale. And we back that up with our 30-day product guarantee.

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12/12/06

I just did a Google search for "wood stove ratings" and the first website that appeared was yours, specifically your "Will I Get A Lemon" page. I just wanted to drop you a quick line to say thank you for such an awesome page. This article sifts through tons of muck and garbage to give me the useful information I was looking for!

Sincerely,
Peter Pohli

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