Saturday, December 19, 2009

Wood Stoves and Insurance

Wood stoves are eco-friendly, economical and romantic, and many people are installing them in their cottages to experience these benefits. They are also useful in case the power fails (which it often does in cottage country), to keep your home or cottage warm. However, before you install a wood stove, you have to be aware of a) installation regulations, and b) the effect upon your insurance policy.

Installation Regulations

To install a wood stove, fireplace or chimney, a building permit from your local municipality is generally needed. In fact, municipal by-laws concerning installation supersede any regulations published by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or Underwriter Laboratories of Canada (ULC). The wood stove has to be positioned with specified clearances from the floor, combustible materials and walls. Unfortunately, the required clearances vary, depending upon whether the wood stove is CSA or UL certified, and whether any heat shields are in use, either attached to the stove itself, or to the walls around it. For an unshielded, uncertified stove, the following clearances generally apply:

Top: 150 cm (60 in)
Sides, rear and corner: 120 cm (48 in)
Door/ash removal sides: 120 cm (48 in)

Such a stove can eat up around 100 square feet of floor space, which is a large chunk of your living area. By using shielding on the stove itself or on the walls close to it, the clearances can be reduced considerably. If the stove has external jacketing or a metal heat shield attached to the sides and rear, and spaced out at least 5 cm (2 in) by non-combustible spacers, allowing for air circulation at bottom and top, then the clearance on the sides, rear and corner can be reduced to 90 cm (36 in).

If you opt for heat shields on the walls, these clearances can be reduced further, but they will depend upon the type of material used. The percentage reduction in clearances is specified in CSA Standard B365, parts of which are quoted in an excellent downloadable Guide to Residential Wood Heating from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

Certified wood stoves come with a manual that specifies the tested clearances for the stove, both shielded and unshielded, and these are always less than those for uncertified stoves.

In addition to clearances, there are regulations about the composition and size of the flooring pad on which the stove will sit, and about the chimney it will use. The CMHC guide provides a lot of useful information about safety rules concerning these topics. It also gives a guide to types of wood, the purchase of a wood supply, and maintenance of your wood stove and chimney.

Wood Energy Technology Training (WETT)

WETT Inc. is an organization that provides training to inspectors, installers and chimney sweeps, and certifies that they have taken the training. Certification relates to the people taking the training, and not to wood stoves themselves or their installation. Therefore it is incorrect to say that a stove is WETT-certified; it is only possible to say that it has been installed or has passed inspection by a WETT-certified inspector.

More and more, insurance companies are demanding that wood stoves be installed and inspected by WETT-certified persons before they will cover them.

The effect on your home insurance

Many insurance companies are becoming picky about insuring homes and cottages with wood stoves, but they are not consistent in their approach or their rates. Their general assertion is that wood stoves are inherently more dangerous, cause more home fires, and should therefore attract a higher insurance premium. Presumably this assertion is based on their actuarial analysis of claim statistics to which the general public does not have easy access.

The best fire statistics for Canada that I can find come from the Council of Canadian Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners (CCFMFC), and the most recent figures available are from 2002, but even these are incomplete (data for two provinces are missing entirely) and unreliable. They are summarized in ways that make it difficult to quantify residential fires caused by wood stoves. There is a move afoot by the Canadian chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) to promote legislation to set up a better fire statistics collection and reporting system.

From my own (non-actuarial) analysis of the CCFMFC data for 2002, it appears that:
a) 0.26% of all reported fires are caused by "misuse of equipment (over fuelling, wood burning appliance)". It is unclear whether "over fuelling" refers entirely to wood burning appliances, and one assumes that such things as chimney fires are included. Even if we assume that all these fires can be attributed to residential wood stoves, the percentage only rises to 0.6% of all residential fires.

b) By far the greatest percentage of residential fires appear to be caused by smokers’ material and open flame, cooking equipment, heating equipment, and other electrical equipment and wiring. It is difficult to determine the actual percentage, but judging by the sources of ignition, it must be in excess of 90%.
The percentage of residential fires caused by wood stoves is therefore very small, and one could argue that insurance premiums should not be any higher than for other forms of heating, particularly if the wood stove has been inspected by a WETT-certified inspector, and has been found to conform to all building codes and clearances.

Anyway, whatever logic the insurance companies are applying, they are now frequently demanding that existing wood stove installations be brought up to date so that they conform to the most recent regulations. This can be a very expensive proposition, as they are known to demand conformance to safety rules that are not even specified in local municipality by-laws. It has been known for cottage owners to be forced to spend thousands of dollars to bring their wood stove installations up to scratch. If you are thinking of switching your insurance to another company because their premiums are more attractive, check that they will accept coverage for the wood stove based on your last inspection report before signing any contract. If they won’t, it may be worth having the installation inspected by a WETT-certified inspector yourself to determine what upgrade costs you are likely to incur. You may find it more economical to stay with your existing insurer.

If your insurer demands a WETT inspection before they will renew your policy, ensure that they are made aware that if you are forced to go through the upgrade process to have your installation approved by an inspector, they will then be on a level playing field with other insurers. Once your wood stove passes its inspection, you will have more incentive to approach other insurance companies for coverage.

Have you experienced problems with insuring your wood stove? If so, please let us know by commenting on this blog.