Keeping the flames leaping in 14 stoves will be Ben Myren’s task at the Wood Stove Decathlon starting Friday in Washington, D.C.
It’s a job for an expert “fire master” and Myren fills the bill. He’s president of Myren Consulting, a Colville company that tests and certifies wood stoves according to federal standards.
“He’s one of the smartest, most experienced stove testers in the country,” said John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat, the Maryland nonprofit hosting the competition.
To ensure that uniform fires provide accurate test results for the D.C. competition, Myren has written a 12-page protocol outlining how the fires will be built, including the dimensions of the wood that will be used. The contest’s judges include a Washington state Department of Ecology employee, Rod Tinnemore, who works in the department’s air quality program.
Stoves from Scandinavia, Austria, New Zealand and the United States will be rated for heat output and emissions during the five-day competition at the National Mall.
“We started the challenge because there’s not really much information on what the cleanest and most efficient stoves are,” Ackerly said. “We want to educate consumers on how to identify them.”
Wood and pellet stoves hold tremendous potential as a carbon-neutral, renewable energy resource, according to the Alliance for Green Heat.
Wood releases carbon dioxide when it’s burned, but most U.S. firewood comes from trees that are already dead, Ackerly said. Removing the dead wood allows new tree growth to occur, which will absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“Burning wood is 70 to 80 percent energy efficient with these modern stoves,” he said. “Even if you don’t accept it as carbon-neutral, you come out very carbon-positive.”
More than 2 million U.S. households use wood or pellet stoves as a primary heat source. In parts of the Northwest, New England, the Great Lake states and Southwest, at least 10 percent of homes rely on wood or pellet stoves for most of their heat.
Yet many of the models in use are old and inefficient, leading people to dismiss wood stoves as “old-fashioned, polluting technology,” Ackerly said. However, “there’s a real high-tech future here that’s automated and virtually smokeless.”
One of the breakthroughs is oxygen sensors in the stove’s combustion chamber, he said. The sensors allow the stoves to manage their own air flow, eliminating the smoldering fires that result from human error, Ackerly said. Modern stoves also alert homeowners when they’re running low on wood, so it can be added at the optimum time, he said.
In highly urban areas with existing air quality problems, “we still don’t think wood stoves will be a good solution,” Ackerly said. But where wood stoves are in use, everyone benefits from cleaner-burning models, he said.
Many of the stove models at this weekend’s competition are priced at $3,000 or less, making them competitive compared to installing solar panels, wind turbines or geothermal heat, Ackerly said.
“It really is something the average family can afford, unlike other renewables,” he said.