D's mother gave us an extraordinarily generous Christmas present, in part because she felt bad about how really sucky 2012 was for us and wanted to do something really nice. She paid the entire cost of buying and installing a wood-burning stove insert to fit into our fireplace. Yay! It costs about $2500, so this is Christmas largesse indeed.
The reason this is such a nice gift is that the fireplace in our house (as in many of the 1920s-ish homes in our neighborhood) is fairly shallow, which means that it's actually a challenge to build a nice fire without smoke coming into the room; plus, it's hard to manipulate the flue because the handle was gone long before we bought the house, so it takes a wrench to get it opened and closed. And then there's the fact that open fireplaces are actually a heat drain, with more heat escaping up the chimney than the fire produces, so we never build a fire when it's really cold outside. All of which is to say that we don't build fires nearly as often as we'd like. I find the flame incredibly psychologically valuable during the grim, dark days of winter; there's something almost primal about what the fire does for our mood and emotional outlook, but it's a big enough pain to build them that we don't get that value as often as we should.
But a wood-burning stove insert that fits into our fireplace would take care of all of those problems -- more energy-efficient, less smoke, all around a good thing, but far too expensive for us to pay for ourselves. So yay for mother-in-law! And today was installation day. Hurrah!
... except ... aargh! It turns out that it's not just the fireplaces that are small in the older houses in our neighborhood; it's also the chimneys. So after the stove people had carried the 300-pound stove into the house, they then discovered that the requisite 6-inch steel pipe won't fit up our chimney. So no wood-burning stove for us. Did I mention "aargh!"? They were pretty bummed too, not least because they then had to carry the heavy stove back out to their van. They said it was rare enough to have a too-small chimney that it's not even the sort of things they look for before installations (obviously). So frustrating! All four of us just sat in the living room clutching our heads for a bit after they broke the news this morning.
So here's what we're doing instead: We've taken the plunge and are getting a pellet-burning stove. It only requires a 4-inch pipe, which will fit up our chimney. Unfortunately, it also costs $400 more, and we can't possibly ask my MIL to pay more than she already is, so we're out some $$ after all. Plus we'll have to buy a flat of pellets, which apparently will cost $250 for a ton, which is the standard weight of the purchase. So we're out some money in January that we hadn't budgeted for, which means the whole thing has become one of those gifts that is lovely but costs us money. (It's our very own Statue of Liberty.)
And, money aside, at first we were pretty unhappy about the whole thing. Pellet stoves just don't look the same! Or, rather, the outside of the stove insert will look almost exactly the same -- we're getting the same stove in the pellet version -- but the flame is really different -- much more vertical, and without those friendly logs crackling away. More like a logless bonfire, really, and less like a fireplace fire. So we considered just saying "forget it" to the whole thing, but by then we'd gotten excited enough about the idea of having a stove insert, with all of its energy-efficiency, that it was hard to imagine returning to the status quo of just not having fires very often. So, after spending probably an hour in the store sitting in front of the pellet stoves (and also considering gas stoves, although there's no way we could have actually afforded those), we took the leap and ordered the pellet stove.
But once we got home -- completely worn out from the experience in a way that probably seems silly, but the whole experience had been curveball, and our entire morning had taken quite a different turn from what we expected -- D started looking up info on pellet stoves, and the more she read the better she felt. More energy-efficient and far less polluting than wood, for starters. (When my mom lived in Denver, which has major air pollution problems because of its mountainous geography, the city government announced which days one could and couldn't burn fires, because the smoke added so much to the air pollution.) Plus it's much greener to buy the pellets, which are made of the sawdust left over after lumber mills do their thing, than to buy kiln-dried firewood. And even though it's costing us $400 more to get it installed, apparently the wood pellets are cheaper enough than firewood that it will pay for the extra expense in a year or two. And the theory is that it will warm the house enough (we have a tiny house!) that we'll save on heating costs as well. Plus it has an automatic starter, which means that it's supposed to be easy-peasy to start a fire, which means that I could even build a fire when D. is out in the evenings, which I never do now because I'm just not that skilled at making fires in our tiny, tricky fireplace. So we're looking on the bright side, even though this is not the path we expected to take.
We're hoping the new stove will get installed at the end of next week (although things seem to get delayed with this company, so we're not holding our breath). Only once we're absolutely sure that the new stove is well and truly installed will we go to the effort of selling our old firewood (we still have probably a quarter of a cord of wood left) and buying pellets. Having been burned (hah! pun alert!) once already, I'm not counting on this new stove until everything is signed, sealed, and delivered. And I'm sure we'll get used to the different flame after awhile and that it will all be worthwhile.
An exhausting little adventure on the last weekday of winter break, but hopefully one that will prove worthwhile in the long run.