Pushing the limits of my mental health: Wood burning stove and chimney installation

Certainly we have had our ups and downs with the building of the house. From the nightmare with the basement depth to firing the septic contractor (aka Mr. A-hole) to the headache over the basement forming to the well water problems and the firing the idiot/criminal concrete contractor to the window delivery delays and mistakes (plus a number of smaller problems, delays in products, shipping wrong materials, etc etc) – we had had our fair share of issues, but through it all, although very stressful at the time, we had found a solution and I hadn’t gone entirely insane from stress and lack of sleep. That is until the wood burning stove and chimney were “installed.”

I’ll back up a bit. When we were designing and planning the house, the number 1 item that we wanted in our house was a wood burning stove. There is nothing that I enjoy more than sitting in front of a fire on a cool day. I was never entirely sure how to articulate my love for a fire before, that is until while reading our bible on house building, ‘A Pattern Language: A Timeless Way of Building’ by Christopher Alexander, and I came across his chapter on: The Fire.

“There is no substitute for fire,” he assertively writes, “Television often gives a focus to a room, but it is nothing but a feeble substitute for something which is actually alive and flickering within the room. The need for fire is almost as fundamental as the need for water. Fire is an emotional touchstone, comparable to trees, other people, a house, the sky.”

We had followed this pattern language to a ‘T’ when designing our main living space, the fire was the centre point of the room, it could be viewed from the kitchen, dining, and living rooms. There is no need for a TV in a room with a fire. In terms of placement, we sat it squarely in front of our main window – therefore when it is alight we can enjoy the fire, but when it is not then we can look beyond it to our view of the river and valley.

To make this all work, of course, we needed to ensure we had a beautiful but also highly efficient wood stove. We had done a lot of research on this and were most drawn to the Scandinavian stoves – Morso and Jotul in particular (which is not a surprise given our love of Scandinavian design – but they also make damn good stoves). We ended up choosing the Morso 2110 stove simply due to it’s interesting blend of traditional and modern styling, which we are hoping our home will also encompass. It is also sized well for our space, not too big and not to small, and really, although our house will be super-insulated, simply putting less wood in can reduce the risk of overheating. Indeed, having a wood burning stove in a super-insulated house can be considered unnecessary, however for us, 1. we wanted one, and 2. it is important for back up heating in the event of an extended power outage (of which we had had a few in the past winter).

We had actually purchased the stove last year, when we found it on sale at a fireplace shop in another city. It’d been sitting in storage since then and I was so excited to have it in place – after all, as you may see, I’d been obsessing about it for months.

So in the day following the pouring of the main floor concrete, we hauled the 300 lbs beast onto the main floor and unwrapped it.

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Hello you handsome devil.

We had made some calls to our insurance company previously (who don’t like fire like I do), as you may guess your insurance premiums go up with a wood burning stove, but they also require that you have it installed by a “WETT (wood energy technology transfer) certified professional.” We found a company in town, Wheatland Fireplace, that had these certified installers and also sold the top-rated chimney and stove pipe, ICC Excel and Ultrablack.

Because I was paranoid and protective of the freshly completed concrete floors and that the stove be positioned precisely in front of the window, my contractor and I measured, levelled and positioned the stove so that the installers would not need to move the stove at all. I called them in the morning to tell them so and to NOT TO MOVE IT. My contractor, who was there as well told them to be “very careful” as the floors were finished.

IMG_2996And wouldn’t you know it, when I got home, this is what I found: a nice deep gouge and scratch right in front of the legs of the stove.

Are you f*cking kidding me?!

I called the company immediately, although they were closed for the weekend, “I’m not sure what part of DON’T MOVE the stove you didn’t understand.” Of course this being a finished concrete floor, there is no way to remove this scratch. It may lighten when we seal it and polish it or it may become more noticeable – either way, I was not happy.

As I started to inspect the work of the chimney installation, it got worse, I looked up and saw this:

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Yes, that is daylight coming through. I’m going to venture a guess and say that daylight coming through the roof is not a good thing. I climbed up on the ladder for a closer look and found that they had attempted to fill a 1/4″ gap with silicone! That just seemed crazy to me – these are professionals?

And as if that wasn’t enough, that red band of tape that says “do not place insulation above this line”, was positioned about 10″ from the joists. We are placing 20″ of insulation in the attic.

Ok breathe, it is the weekend and nothing can be done until Monday. Over the weekend we covered all of the floors, upstairs and down with Ram Board, a temporary cardboard-type floor protector and wrapped the stove in bubblewrap and a blanket. As fate would have it, on Sunday night we had a massive rain storm, almost 3″ of rain fell over the next 24 hours, I barely slept as I feared what I might wake up to when I got to the house in the morning.

I arrived only to find water running down the shoddily installed chimney pipe, streaming onto the stove and puddling on the floor! I frantically wiped the floors with towels and pulled the blankets off of the stove. The Ram Board had miraculously done it’s job (thank god) in protecting the floors and the bubblewrap had preventing any water from entering or pooling on the stove itself. I left a garbage bucket on the stove to collect the water (it had to be dumped twice during the day).

Furious, I called the chimney installers, I was shocked at the nonchalant response to my concern of water pouring into the house. “We will be there in the next couple days,” they told me. No, you will be here today, I told them, this is a crisis. Of course, they did not show up that day or the next. On the third day the same installers returned – with more caulking in hand! I told my contractor to go on the roof and spray it with a hose to test it before they ;eft. After adding more caulking they sprayed it down while the watched the water continue to run down into house. So, naturally, what did the installers do? They drove to the city to get better caulking! Oh my god, I couldn’t believe it. More caulking was not the solution. But they told us they “guaranteed” this would work. Best stuff. Leave it for two days, then test it again.

I was obviously skeptical, but I waited the two days, in fact, I waited three days, and tested it with a light shower of water – shockingly, water continued to run in the house. I called them again and said that this was not acceptable. They need to replace and install the system – it was clearly not installed correctly and MORE CAULKING was not the solution (besides that when I was up on the roof looking at the gap, they must have used at least an entire tube of the stuff, it was glopped everywhere and was actually running down the roof, what a mess).

Over the next week, I was told on four separate occasions that the head installer was coming out the next day – he did not show up any of these days.

Finally on the fifth day the head installer finally showed up (really at the last minute as that afternoon it rained another 2 inches). I found out later that he was actually the only WETT certified installer with the company, the other two guys who’d come before were not. One of them had only been working there for a month. The head installer was able to fix the problem by tightening the storm collar and repositioning the flashing. The rain tested it out and it did not leak.

In hindsight, I am actually grateful that it happened to rain two days after the initial “installation.” Could you imagine if it hadn’t rained until a month later when the attic insulation was done and the ceiling was sealed off? We wouldn’t have known for months that it was leaking – until we started to notice a mildew smell or rotting of the pine ceiling. Oh, what a nightmare that would have been.

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9 thoughts on “Pushing the limits of my mental health: Wood burning stove and chimney installation

  1. “Fire is an emotional touchstone comparable to trees” beautiful quote and captures the true essence of having a wood burner installed in new houses. I plan on having one and loved reading about ur experience. 🙂

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  2. Hi, we are about to start building a well-sealed (passive house standard) house in Ontario. We had given up on the idea of a fireplace or stove due to all we had read about potential back drafts, etc. Even fully air/exhaust independent models seemed risky, so I am very interested in hearing whether you had any of these concerns, and if so how you assuaged them. Are any special procedures required when operating the stove?

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    1. Hi Trevor – don’t give up on the wood stove! I had read the same things and I have to say none of them were accurate. I had read about back drafting being a major issue and it resulting in negative back pressure potentially popping your air seals, and so on…
      But we really wanted a wood stove. I figured worse case scenario we use it rarely and crack a window when we burned it. This was the main reason we’d put an operable window so close to the stove.
      The first number of times I used it I was very cautious not to burn it too long and to always crack the window a little bit even when it was -20 outside.
      But after awhile I started to realize that it didn’t seem to make a difference. I could keep the window closed and still start the fire no problem.
      Unless you are building an EXTREMELY air tight house and I mean like less than 0.5 ACH, I don’t think you will have any issues at all.
      We’ve had very rare backdrafting but only because I tried too quickly start the fire with out getting a good draw first. We’ve never had any issues with depressurizing the house. I honestly don’t treat it or use it any differently then the one at the log cabin up north.

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      1. Hi Kent,
        Thanks for your reply. We are going to make it as air tight as we can, so sub 0.5 is certainly possible. From a wood combustion perspective, I’m not sure there’s a significant difference between 0.4 and 0.6, especially considering the actual air leakage is equally affected by the size of the house (i.e. a 100m2 house @ 0.8 is equivalent to a 200m2 house at 0.4). I read the instructions for a Morso stove, and it suggests opening a door when starting the stove, and that’s a general tip without any reference to how air tight or leaky the house might be. I assume you have the external air kit? I can’t tell for sure from the pictures, but I think I can see something on the main blog picture that could be an air intake above the deck.

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      2. Hi Trevor – no we did not install thee external air kit. I was worried about causing air leakage from that on a constant basis. Do you have an operable window relatively close? Like within 20 feet? That would be sufficient I’m sure. And with our house, like yours, we don’t need to burn a lot of wood or for a long time… the insulation and airtightness retain a lot of the heat so for a whole winter of intermittent use last year I used less than a half cord of wood. Our airtightness is 0.7 ACH by the way

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