As we have had the stove for just over a month now, I thought I’d do a review of it and what it is like having it as our main source of heating. We’ve discovered a lot about fires, fuels and heating since we got the stove and we’re still learning. I thought it’d be a good place to share some thoughts and advice that we’ve picked up since ours was installed. This might not seem interesting to those with no interest in stoves, but it would’ve been very useful to us when we got ours, so I’m going to put it out there!
As I mentioned in a previous post, the stove we settled upon is an Esse 200 XK SE and is rated at 8Kw, though the heating output depends wholly on the type and amount of fuel being used. We chose this model not only because it is large and we had an inkling that we’d have a large space for it (we ended up with a full inglenook), but because it is one of the only Defra-approved stoves that would allow continuous burning and that was very important to us. Most stoves will say in the manuals somewhere that they’re approved by the manufacturer for occasional use only, which means a couple of logs in the evening rather than a belly full of fuel going day in and day out. As we were looking to the stove to replace almost all of our gas use, this was a necessity for us. I also particularly liked the look of the Esse as we wanted a traditional stove rather than a modern one.
The airwash of any stove is important if you’re wanting a stove to provide ‘entertainment’ as well as heat. The general gist is that the more you pay for a stove, the better its airwash will be. Esse stoves are definitely not cheap and thus the airwash is second to none. The glass does fog up when left damped down overnight with solid fuel, however a quick wipe over with a damp kitchen towel and the glass is like new again. Even burning wood, which is notorious for sooting the glass, ours is as clear as a bell, which is something that other stove-owning visitors have commented on.
Lighting the stove is really easy and, after a few abortive attempts at the very start, I now have it sorted. Depending on what’s being lit, you need different ratios of kindling and scrunched-up newspaper. Because of the size of the stove’s fuel-box, to light a smokeless fuel fire I use almost all of a tabloid-sized newspaper (the free local ones they stick through the door are ideal!) and quite a bit of kindling. If you don’t use plenty of kindling when lighting a solid fuel fire, it simply will not get up to temperature and will smother the fire out again. Wood is much easier to get going and needs only a handful or so of the kindling with plenty of newspaper. Remember the task is to get the flue gasses it to their best operating temperature (on most stoves between 115º and 245ºC) to avoid creosote/tar deposits on the chimney.
Our stove did come with an official Esse mitten, however because it is a mitten, it doesn’t work very well to pick big logs up with or do many of the tasks that I need it for. I thus bought a pair of £3.50 welder’s gauntlets online and have been very pleased with how well they have worked for loading coal and protecting me against the fierce heat of the embers.
I can’t recommend stove thermometers enough! It will make sure that you’re on the right track when it comes to starting a fire and getting it up to temperature. There are three zones for stoves: ‘too cold’ – your wood will form creosote in the chimney; just right – your stove is operating at the best temperature; and ‘too hot’ – you’ll either cause a chimney fire or disfigure the casting of your stove. It is vitally important that you pay heed to your stove thermometer as it is the only way you can know that you’re burning efficiently and safely. For around £10 it is an investment that will last indefinitely and will save you time, effort and money in the long run!
Over all, we have been using a roughly half smokeless solid fuel (a 25% petro-coke 75% anthracite fuel) and half kiln-dried wood (hardwood and softwood*). This was mostly because the place I was buying my wood from was fairly expensive, however I have just found another local company online which sells excellent quality kiln-dried hardwood in bulk at a much better price. Since finding a good source of wood, we burn mostly wood and a little bit of the smokeless fuel when we need a long-lasting fire at night.
There are pros and cons to both and in general we prefer wood as it is a carbon neutral, locally felled (and a very pretty!) source of heat. Wood also produces minimal ash and doesn’t need to be cleaned out of the stove like solid fuel does. If you need instant heat, wood is your fuel, whereas solid fuel takes a good hour to start throwing heat out but lasts much, much longer than wood (~12 hours per load compared to wood’s 2 hours). If you’re looking to burn wood, please make sure that it has a moisture content of less than 20%. Buy a cheap moisture-meter online and test your fuel before you buy it and burn it. Kiln-dried wood should be around 10% moisture, which is great and means a long-lasting, low-soot and high-heat fire.
On the other hand, solid fuel is good if you’re not around to keep chucking logs into the stove (out at work etc) however it is messy to clean out and difficult to get lit. Solid fuel, depending on the type, can work out to be cheaper than wood, however it depends on what sort of wood and how much you use. We’ve worked out that 1.3 cubic metres of kiln-dried wood is equivalent to the cost of the solid fuel and should last us 3-4 weeks. If you can get a load of green logs, stack them and season them yourself for a year, then you will have a very cheap fuel source. However, if you don’t have the space for that, then buying pre-seasoned or kiln-dried is the way to go.
Due to the Defra restrictions, no Defra-approved stove can be fully choked off as it increases smouldering and smoking, so fuel doesn’t last as well as it could, but solid fuel definitely does last until morning, whereas logs tend to last a few hours longer than usual and then burn out.
The average temperature of the downstairs is 25.5ºC when burning either wood or solid fuel. If we were heating the downstairs to this temperature with gas, there is no way we’d be able to afford it at the price gas is currently! I have never been in a house so warm, and the warmest we’ve got the living room is 26.7ºC – practically tropical! Upstairs, the temperature happily stays at around 20ºC and the wall in our bedroom that the chimney passes through works like a huge storage heater and traps the heat, becoming toasty warm.
*The general consensus for many years was that softwood (pine, spruce, hemlock etc) were not good to burn because of the amount of pitch (resin) that they hold, which creates creosote in your chimney. Whilst this is true if the wood is not dry, if your softwood is kiln-dried, you then have a fuel which is easy to light, burns hot and fast and creates no more creosote than anything else. It is the steam that creates creosote, which is removed by kiln-drying. Most stove manufacturers say it’s fine to burn softwood as long as it is dry. All the Scandinavian countries use softwood as that is their main wood fuel type and they’ve been using stoves a lot longer than we have ;-)
Cleaning and Maintenance:
I have spent quite a while perfecting the best way to clean the stove and it seems that a good shovel, a Henry vacuum cleaner and a metal bucket with a lid is the way to go. Be very careful lifting ashes, even if you think they’re cold, as they can retain their heat for more than 24 hours and remain a fire hazard. I have a covered metal bucket that sits outside and gets brought in when I de-ash the stove, and even in the cold of winter after 24 hours outside, it can be hot to the touch!
I let the stove go out completely around once a week, so that I can give it all a proper going over. Once cold and the ashes have been removed, I make sure the inside is very cold with my hand and then use a Henry vacuum cleaner to remove the trapped ash and charcoal/coal that I haven’t been able to remove by riddling or shovelling. Don’t try to do this with a bagless vacuum as they simply can’t handle the small particulate matter and will clog.
I wipe down the glass with a damp paper towel and vacuum the outside of the stove with a brush attachment. I make sure that the vermiculite bricks are all okay and in their proper places before laying the kindling for the next fire. When not in use, make sure that you clean the stove out and leave the door cracked open, so that the chimney can breathe, otherwise you risk your stove rusting due to condensation.
For the sake of your house insurance, you will need to have your chimney swept at least once every 12 months by an accredited chimney sweep. Do your research and ask around locally for one that is reputable and does a good job. Ours came highly recommended from everyone we spoke to and having had my first sweep I can tell you he is worth his weight in gold!
The only downsides for me is the time that it can take to clean it out and the sooty hands you will get for the first few weeks until you perfect your own way of cleaning and de-ashing the firebox.
If the outright cost of buying wood every 6 weeks or so seems expensive, consider that you will only likely be doing this for the worst of winter (November to March or April) and during this time, you will use very little other heating. This means that you control the bills and can alter your usage to suit your purse, though. Other than that, there are no downsides for us. The average medium-sized house’s heating bill is £954/year and we’re on track to be considerably less than that even with the cost of wood.
- Research, research, research before buying a stove. Use the wonderful WhatStove website to read reviews from other owners before you decide on your model. Prioritise what is important for you – cost, type of fuel, continuous burn, cast iron, good airwash, smoke exempt?
- Find a reputable dealer of stoves. Not all sellers and installers are equal and it will save you a LOT of headaches if you find a good one. Ask questions and ask to see examples of their work. Search online for reviews and ask people who have used them for their thoughts.
- Remember you don’t have to line your chimney. If you live in a house with a patent chimney, and as long as you don’t have any draw problems, you should be fine without a liner (this info comes from both installers and chimney sweeps!). Any good sweep worth his salt will be able to do a smoke test for you for very little money. At best, liners last only the amount of time they specify then you will have to replace them, however they can control a chimney’s draw if that is a problem.
- Make friends with your local chimney sweep. They are the most wonderful source of knowledge for all things chimney and stove. If you’re new to the stove lark, ask advice and if they’re as good as mine, they’ll spend time explaining anything and everything!
- Find a good source of fuel before you get your fire. If you’re planning to season your own wood, consider buying some well in advance so that you can begin the process cheaply. If you want ease, look for recommended suppliers of kiln-dried wood or people who have seasoned it themselves. Never buy without testing it with a moisture meter (it must be less than 20% to burn) and never buy wood sold by weight – it is illegal for merchants to sell by weight as weight is usually water.
- Buy a stove fan. They work by the heat of the stove causing the blades to turn, which convects hot air and draws in cold air. This moves air from your chimney nook and raises the efficiency of your stove for very little outlay.
- Consider buying some spares for your stove. Vermiculite baffle bricks, baffle plates, door seal ropes and door glass are all ‘expendables’ and not covered by the warranty. For our Esse, to replace all of the above, would cost about £130. This isn’t something you will have to do regularly, but make sure you know where to get your spares from and buy official parts when necessary.
Most of all, enjoy it. I guarantee that as long as you get a good stove, you will love it for many, many years to come.