How technology is helping to control your hearth
ACCORDING TO archaeologists, our early ancestors began to control fire about one and a half million years ago by bringing it into their caves and adjusting the heat simply with the amount of wood they fed it.
The continued control of combustion by humans has affected everything from aircraft and automobiles to the many ways we heat our homes. It is interesting to imagine our ancient cousins huddled around a smoky fire pit, struggling to maintain the flames against the elements, especially when we consider the many options available to us for controlling the heat in our hearths today.
The draft control on most wood burning stoves is operated by a simple slide or rotary control that opens and closes, managing air flow and adjusting heat output and burn time. Some years ago, a number of manufacturers also introduced a thermostatic control. Mounted on the stove, the control automatically senses the heat of both the stove and room, thereby adjusting the combustion air and heat output accordingly. This automation has two important effects: it eliminates the heat spikes common with simpler controls, and it typically extends the burn time of your firewood.
A few woodstove manufacturers are going a step further and borrowing technology from the central heating industry by putting handheld thermostatic remote controls in their woodstove lineup. So far these have been produced mainly by European companies, such as Efel from Belgium. Their model S33 is available with an optional programmable digital remote control, which puts thermostatic control of the stove’s heat output at your fingertips by sensing the heat of the room more accurately. The benefit of this is more precise control of the actual room temperature, eliminating the guesswork of other systems.
A few North American manufacturers are also working on their own systems to offer this type of control and we can expect to see more development in the near future.
These stoves offer much more precise control of their heat output than woodstoves, and greater efficiency, though they do require electricity to operate. Pellet burning was introduced in North America in the early 1980s and associated control technology has moved ahead rapidly.
A basic pellet stove is operated by simple controls that adjust the feed rate of pellets into the fire as well as the blower, which circulates room air into the stove’s heat exchanger, heats it, and returns it to the room. In their most basic form, they are similar to a simple woodstove draft control in that once the controls are set, they continue to operate at the same heat output until the stove runs out of fuel or the control is readjusted.
Most manufacturers of pellet burning stoves and fireplaces began to offer optional wall-mounted thermostats very early on. These did not add any great complexity to controlling the heat, but they did increase the comfort and convenience to the home owner. As with a woodstove, the use of a thermostat adjusts the temperature output automatically and extends the burn time of a bag of pellets, increasing efficiency in the process.
A few manufacturers, such as Quadrafire and Regency, are going even further by offering wall-mounted programmable thermostats that can adjust the house temperature while the occupants are either away or asleep. These employ timed setback settings, further increasing comfort, convenience and efficiency.
Industry rumour suggests that a few Italian companies are developing smartphone apps and Wi-Fi connectivity for their pellet stove customers. As well as enhancing the operation of the stove itself, this could offer the possibility of connecting the stove to a troubleshooting system with the manufacturer for repair and maintenance.
The first of these units had a simple and reliable system of a valve combined with a manual ignition system, such as a match. However, safety concerns about this method pushed forward advancements in the control systems, while also increasing convenience and even efficiency.
One of the first improvements was the ability to use a simple, wall-mounted on/off switch. This was followed by the option of a wall thermostat wired into the controls of the fireplace. Soon options were offered for programmable versions.
It wasn’t long before the first basic hand-held remotes were introduced, followed by thermostatic and programmable versions. Many of these remotes require a connection to the home’s electrical system; however some companies now offer controls that operate without electricity. One Canadian company, Valor Fireplaces, offers a remote that also lights the pilot light, thereby eliminating the need to get down on your knees to light it by hand.
A few companies are now also investigating the possibility of connecting the gas fireplace control to the internet through a home’s Wi-Fi network, however this is still in the early stages of development.
There have been many advancements in stove and fireplace controls and in today’s energy picture, much research is being put into fuel efficiency and environmental issues. Though wood is the most sustainable energy source for hearths, it may not be the most convenient for many people. As the infrastructure for natural gas continues to expand in Atlantic Canada there is growing interest in the region for this convenient option.
There is a tradition and romance to the notion of the hearth as the centre of the home, and many of us enjoy the simple act of sitting in front of a fire. Luckily, technology is advancing in many ways to make this easier, more comfortable and, above all, safer for more of us to enjoy with our families.
Steve Keeling is president of the Hearth Patio and Barbecue Association of Canada—Atlantic Chapter.