Town Council considers woodstove inserts

The Town Council on Wednesday night, May 7, was set to consider new timelines for replacing woodstove inserts, after the town’s Board of Realtors raised objections.

Under a new ordinance passed last year, old woodstove inserts are to  be replaced with code compliant stoves, or replaced with pellet stoves, within 60 days of a real estate transaction.

In 10 years, all non-compliant woodstoves in Mammoth are to be replaced, according to the ordinance.

The 60-day window does not leave a home seller or a homebuyer a lot of time, the Board of Realtors argued, particularly in light of time constraints for the relatively few qualified installers in the area.

In discussions with realtors, the Board argued, there are times when the 60-day limit cannot be met due to simple logistics (i.e. availability of contractors and appliances).

Also, there are times when the work related to the woodstove may be part of a larger project or part of a longer planning process for potential work on the unit.

To address these potential conflicts, the proposed code amendment before the council required the building permit to be applied for within 60 days and then for the permit to be administered under the Building Code, which allows 180 days for completion and has provisions for the permit to be extended.

The current language requires an inspection of the required work within 60 days, but the amended language requires inspections according to the provisions of the California Building Codes.

Also, the amended language allowed for one 30-day extension to the time limit to submit the building permit.

The time frames are important to ensure the buyer is aware of the requirements and to see that the associated benefits of air quality and fire safety are addressed in a reasonable time frame.

In a study that took a year for then-building inspector Johnny Goetz and Fire Chief Brent Harper to complete, Goetz said he looked at 17 woodstove inserts in one older condominium project and found 11 of them to be unsafe.

In another, he inspected 60 units and 27 of them had problems with woodstove inserts.

The problem, he said, was a phenomenon called pyrolysis.

When woodstoves are situated too close to combustible materials (usually in back of, or alongside the inserts),  it causes a chemical change in the wood, lowering the temperature required to make it catch on fire by spontaneous combustion.

Research on the Web indicates a normal piece of 2x4 will spontaneously ignite at 600 degrees F.

If the woodstove or flue pipe is too close, it will draw the moisture from the 2x4. When this happens repeatedly, the piece of wood can spontaneously ignite as low as 200 degrees F.

Generally, experts say, this happens in three to five years. The woodstove can be used for years without a problem, and then suddenly there is a fire.

Although there is no way to know for sure, Goetz estimated there are between 2,000 to 4,000 unsafe woodstove inserts in homes or condos in Mammoth. Most of them were installed into an existing, open-faced fireplace.

The town has gone through various phases on safety and environmental issues related to burning wood for heat, but none have had the impact recently of the new ordinance relating to woodstove inserts.

“It’s a ticking time bomb,” said Goetz.

Goetz and Fire Chief Brent Harper said the potential for catastrophe is so great that Mammoth needed new standards for new and reconstructed woodstove inserts.

To replace them is expensive, said Harper, and would require up to 10 years for all the woodstove inserts to be replaced by the four contractors in town who do such work.

“I’d like to swap them all out,” Harper said, “but it does run between $8,000 and $10,000 each depending on the façade that’s on the front of each fireplace, so it’s pretty expensive.

“Obviously our community relies on people coming here and being able to burn a fire, not only for the heat, but also for the ambiance.”

A far less expensive alternative, he said, would be to replace the insert with a pellet stove. That way, the façade of the fireplace would not have to come down.

In the 10 years ending in 2012, Goetz said there were eight major home fires, all of them attributed to faulty woodstove inserts or their installations.

No one was injured in any of the fires, he said.