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lessons learned on the journey toward independence

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Of Clogged Combustors and Wood Stoves

b2ap3_thumbnail_Combustor.jpgOkay, so I have a confession to make…

2016 was a crazy year in our lives and last fall I was so pushed for time that I was late in getting my firewood in.

So late that some of it wan’t totally cured and much of it got soaked by the rain.:-(.  Kind of a bad spot to be in with winter approaching!

I tried to compensate by splitting the wood smaller and burning hot fires, but it caught up with me.

The catalytic combustor in my stove, which was already getting old, didn’t take very kindly to this sub-par wood.

In fact, it decided to clog up.

It would simply put out the fire if I turned it on, so I was left with burning combustion-less (which works but is not as efficient).

The Downsides To A Combustor

It is not uncommon for a catalytic combustor to need replacement every 5-10 years (your mileage may vary), so I was expecting this, but it caught us at a bad time.  In December we had the longest stretch of arctic weather I ever remember seeing (over a month without breaking 30°F and most of it far below that).  So I didn’t really want to cool the stove off and change it out right then.

In addition, combustors are not cheap.  For my stove it would cost in the neighborhood of $200-$300.

How I Unclog My Combustor

But I discovered something this winter that I’ve noticed in the past, and I’ll pass this on in case you find it helpful.

If I am naughty and clog my combustor up, I can often clean it out by simply burning really hot fires for a few days.  I’ll leave the combustor off and get the stove tho enough so the stove thermometer is near the upper end of the safe zone.  I’ll let it burn there for a while and then turn the combustor on.  Likely the temperature will start falling soon.  Once temperature gets back down to the middle of the safe zone, I’ll take the combustor off again and let the fire flare up, repeating this cycle as often as possible for a few days.

Needless to say, it works much better to do this during a cold snap, or else you’ll be opening up windows all day (which isn’t a bad thing).

After several days of this, I usually find that my combustor is working much better.  Maybe not back to normal, but much better than it was.

Once the weather warms up this spring, I will probably follow the manufacturers instructions for cleaning the combustor, but it’s a fairly involved process and I really don’t want to do it in the middle of winter.

If the thorough cleaning doesn’t do the trick, then we’ll purchase a new combustor.  And hey, that wouldn’t be a bad thing to have around as a spare, would it?

Why Not Combustor-less Stove?

All of this may bring up the question—why not just get a stove than doesn’t have a catalytic combustor?  You certainly could, and I totally understand why.  But for the sake of discussion, I’ll mention a couple reasons why many folks keep their combustor stove.

For one thing, thanks to EPA regulations, I’m not aware of very many combustor-less stoves available.  Not very many at all.  There may be more, but Vermont Castings is the only brand that comes to my mind that makes a few combustor-less stoves.

Burn times are typically longer for stoves with a catalytic combustor.

In addition, I do like the amazing job that a good combustor does.  The combustor is reducing particulate in the stove’s smoke, and the way it does that is by re-burning the smoke that would ordinarily go straight up the stovepipe.  That means more BTU’s from your stove.  And just to illustrate how efficient they can be, I have gone over a YEAR without cleaning my ashes out!  This is in a climate where we have a fire burning continuously for close to 6-8 months out of the year and intermittently for another 2-4 months.  That is phenomenal, as it shows how little of that wood is left once the stove is all done with it.  5 cords of wood in the bottom of one stove!

What If The Combustor Bites The Dust?

If your combustor (or mine) is beyond repair and you are not able to come up with a new one anytime soon, all is not lost!

As long as your stove is a good one, it should be very air tight (regardless of the combustor) and should function just fine without it.  Yes, it will plow through more wood than normal.  Yes, your burn time will be reduced.  But it will work and it should keep your home warm.

And that’s why I’m not overly worried about using a stove with a combustor in it.


  • Guest
    Tami & Jon Thursday, 26 January 2017

    Hi Nick: We got our wood stove installed before Christmas this past 2016. WE LOVE OUR STOVE!!! We decided to not go with a cat converter type stove...many reasons but one is what happened to you. They are just one more thing to have to clean or take care of. And having a farm, we didn't want one more thing to worry about. We bought one of the newest models of JOTUL. We love our Jotul F55 Carabasset wood stove!!!! It is so amazing! It heats our home of almost 2800 sq ft just great! We turn on our circulating fan on our furnace which uses practically no electricity it circulates the air around the house and heats the house really well.

    I thought I would share what works for us. Maybe someone else will be looking for a wood stove.! Tami & Jon

  • Guest
    Wayne Thursday, 26 January 2017

    I am new to country living, and wasn't prepared properly for winter, (to much wet wood, and cutting more in the snow)by bringing several pieces of wood in and standing/laying them by the fireplace and constantly rotating in new pieces as I burned the dry ones, we have done quite well this winter. Next year, will get more wood and earlier.

  • Guest
    Jean Saturday, 28 January 2017

    Is it possible to add a cat converter to a stove that doesn't have one? Are they added into the stovepipe--and removed when they no longer function? I'd love to have a better and longer burn.

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