Wood-burning stoves stoke concerns about homeowner's insurance

Sales of wood-burning stoves are heating up. The number of U.S. households being heated with wood jumped by 34 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s a bigger increase than for any other type of heating fuel.

Using a wood-burning stove as primary or secondary source of home heat can be a great way to cut your energy costs. But it also brings up questions about your home insurance and concerns about safety.

wood burning stoves home insurance Insurance concerns

Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, suggests that before you install a wood-burning stove, you should contact your home insurance agent. If a home fire is triggered by a wood-burning stove but you didn't notify your insurer about the stove, your policy might be voided, Worters warns.

Normally, if a home fire is caused by a wood-burning stove, it will be covered under a standard home insurance policy.

“Anytime a homeowner makes a structure change, it’s always advisable to talk with their agent early in the process,” says Jeff Reinig, senior vice president of home product management at Farmers Insurance. “It could change the amount or pricing of insurance.”

Proper installation is critical

Worters says the resurgence of the wood-burning stove as a source of home heat has led to a growing number of fires that can be traced to careless installation or misuse of a stove, Worters says.

“From an insurance standpoint, fire is always the primary concern," Worters says.

For example, a fire sparked by a recently installed wood-burning stove destroyed a home in early December 2011 in Redding, Calif., according to media reports. The damage was estimated at $175,000.

Worters notes that some home insurers may require proof of certification indicating that a wood-burning stove was installed properly. Without the certification, she says, your home insurance premium might increase slightly.

While the potential for a large-scale fire from a defective wood-burning stove is worrisome, Reinig says the most common insurance loss he’s seen related to wood-burning stoves is from embers flying out of a stove, damaging carpets and floors.

“The more tile and other ceramic underneath and around the stove, the less chance there is for damage,” Reinig says.

Some home insurers may be less likely to provide coverage if a wood-burning stove is your only source of home heat. "We don’t like to see the wood stove as the only source of heat,” Reinig says.

The heat is on

More than one-third of Americans use wood-burning stoves, fireplaces and other fuel-fired appliances as primary sources of home heat, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

In two states, households using wood as a primary heat source more than doubled from 2000 to 2010, according to the Census Bureau. Michigan saw a spike of 135 percent; Connecticut experienced a 122 percent increase. In six other states, wood heating grew by more than 90 percent:

• Massachusetts -- 99 percent.

• New Hampshire -- 99 percent.

• Maine -- 96 percent.

• Rhode Island -- 96 percent.

• Ohio -- 95 percent.

• Nevada -- 91 percent.

“Heating with wood may not be hip like solar, but it’s proving to be the workhorse of residential renewable energy production,” John Ackerly, president of the nonprofit Alliance for Green Heat, says in a statement. The alliance promotes the use of wood as fuel for heat.

As of 2010, about 2.4 million households used wood as a primary heat source, the Census Bureau says. The bureau says 57 percent of U.S. households that primarily heat with wood are in rural areas, 40 percent area in suburban areas and 3 percent in urban areas.

Safety precautions

The Insurance Information Institute says you should make sure any wood-burning stove you buy is made of sturdy material, such as cast iron or steel. When choosing a stove, look for one listed by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or another recognized testing lab.

Used stoves should be checked carefully for cracks and other defects. Especially important is to check the legs, hinges, grates and draft louvers. Ackerly notes that many Americans are dusting off old, inefficient wood-burning stoves for their homes.

If you live in a mobile home, be sure your stove is approved for use in that dwelling.

Once your wood-burning stove is properly installed, don't forget about maintenance. Here are some tips from Maine Mutual Insurance and the National Fire Protection Association:

1. Get your wood-burning stove, as well as a coal-burning stove, fireplace and chimney, inspected and cleaned professionally each year.

2. Install smoke detectors on each floor of your home.

3. Make sure a fire extinguisher is within easy reach of the wood-burning stove.

4. Burn only dry, seasoned wood.

5. Start the fire with newspaper or kindling -- never with a flammable liquid, such as lighter fluid or gasoline.

6. Keep the doors of your stove closed unless you're loading wood or stoking a live fire.

"The most efficient wood stove is not going to save any money if the end result is a house fire," the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension warns. "Since the wood stove is a potentially dangerous device, treat it with respect and show proper adherence to installation procedures."

For more information about safely using a wood-burning stove, visit the website of the National Ag Safety Database.

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