Figuring it Out

Last night, after an 11-hour drive from our home town to our place in Maine – – we arrived at 3:45 a.m. – – we came home to a freezing house.  No big deal – I’d just start a fire and head off to bed.

Sure enough, after layering the stove with newspaper, kindling, and dry wood, I got a roaring fire going with just one match.  The problem was that the fire  didn’t stop roaring.   Although the fire was contained within the wood stove, it was giving off so much heat that the stove-pipe made loud popping noises like it was getting ready to explode.  The glass door and soapstone sides were so hot that I thought they would crack or splinter.  I closed the damper thinking that less air and less draft would reduce the size of the fire, but it continued crackling and literally roaring.  Our house’s inside temperature went up from 56 degrees to 64 degrees in about 15 minutes.  Normally that might take a couple of hours.

Then our smoke alarm went off.  I made my exhausted, grumbling husband climb the retractable attic stairs to ensure there was no chimney or attic fire. (I am currently in an air cast nursing a broken foot so I couldn’t easily climb those stairs, or I wouldn’t have bothered him.)   As it was now 4:30 a.m., all that my husband could think about was his 8 a.m. teleconference with work , less than four hours from now.  After opening a few windows and turning on some ceiling fans, the smoke and fire alarm abated.  Once my husband was convinced that we weren’t in mortal danger, he trudged off to bed.  I, on the other hand, was convinced that if I fell asleep,  we might never wake up again.

I decided that I was going to stay up until the fire went out (you can’t really extinguish a wood-stove fire with water in a non-emergency, because you create a real mess in the house, including ash mud, and rusted cast iron which stains everything).  So I became a wood stove babysitter.  I stayed up until the logs were reduced to a nice layer of orange, glowing coals.  I then put a single log on the coals – and whoosh! – again the fire started roaring. The stove was again over-firing,  I couldn’t blame it on the most common cause – overloading the wood stove with too many logs.   The damper was at the lowest setting, so it wasn’t due to too much chimney draft.  In only ten minutes, the entire log was consumed – normally this takes a few hours.  This was one hot fire!

Stymied, I went on the internet to the wood stove manufacturer’s website.  I started reading manuals, troubleshooting guides, and FAQs.  The symptoms all pointed to over-firing the stove, meaning, it was running way too hot, and this is not a good thing.  Besides the obvious potential danger, over-firing a stove can damage it beyond repair by cracking the soapstone tiles or fire-brick lining, or ruining the chimney liner.  I only hoped that the extremely hot temperature surge hadn’t permanently ruined the stove.  I had visions of calling the nearest wood stove store, 40 miles away, and begging them to make what would be a very expensive house call and repair scheduled at their convenience, while meanwhile being unable to use the stove for who knows how long until they could come.

“Think!” I chided myself between yawns.  “Think!”

I read and re-read the specs several times.  Suddenly the technical aspects of wood stove engineering and design started to make sense!

It turns out that the ash box, the small tray that fits inside a locked door under the stove, must be closed, and it was.  But the grate to the ash box must also be closed.  As carefully as possible, I moved the hot coals to the side of the stove and scraped away as much ash as possible from the grate to try to see how it was positioned.  The grate was open!  Basically I had created a huge draft of air under the fire, which kept it stoked to an exaggerated degree.  Once I closed the grate, we were back in business.

A simple, elegant solution.

I realize that for most of my readers, this has been an incredibly dull post. Who the heck cares about an ash grate or a malfunctioning wood stove?

But for me, it was a very exciting revelation.  Because of our remote location and the time of night, I could not just pick up the phone and easily call for help.  I had to figure it out myself.  I had to stretch my brain cells.  I had to learn about something that really didn’t interest me all that much, and become so familiar with its operation that I could analyze cause and effect, and figure out a solution to a problem.    I struggled.  I was tired.  But for safety’s sake, I really couldn’t give up.  I persevered.  And I succeeded!

Although I was by now exhausted (the sun was coming up and I hadn’t yet come to bed!), it was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.  While we don’t always succeed, or get the answers we seek, many of us have become rather complacent about trying, or exerting ourselves.  Don’t know the answer? Google it!  Call the repairman!  Instant gratification!

But there is something to be said for struggle, and whether it’s a struggle of the mundane (like an over-fired wood stove) or something bigger (i.e. acceptance of a manuscript after many rejections; a breakthrough in research after many failures).  We appreciate things so much more when we have to strive hard to obtain them, or to succeed.

I have nothing against internet search providers or repairmen (I was very happy to find wood-stove forums and manuals online in the middle of the night).  And most of us don’t have time to fiddle with things we know little about, have the interest or take the time to learn something new.  I am no foe of instant gratification, but it sure can make us lazy, spoiled and demanding!

Although I’m feeling a little cranky now due to lack of sleep, I’m feeling a great sense of accomplishment.

And it’s not only about a malfunctioning wood stove.

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