Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Meet the teams: A young company automates the wood stove and challenges the established stove industry

This post is the ninth in a series introducing the 12 teams participating in the 2018 Wood Stove Design Challenge in November.

By John Ackerly and Shoshana Rybeck, Alliance for Green Heat 

Ryan Fisher
In 2013, a group of students from the University of Maryland with absolutely no experience in stove building, entered a stove into the first Wood Stove Design Challenge. They had built one of the first automated stoves in America and it worked surprisingly well though it clearly was a prototype that needed a lot of work. Some seasoned stove experts scoffed at their efforts, but they persisted and despite the odds, released the stove onto the market 2017.

The team is back for the 2018 competition with a new stove which is simpler and sleeker. Along they way, they morphed from a University team to a company, MF Fire, based in Baltimore and backed by some venture capital.

“We’ve learned a lot,” says Ryan Fisher, the 28 year-old COO of the company, who never imagined he would end up in a career working with wood stoves. They still have a lot of skeptics but they are starting to earn a niche in the industry as they continue trying to disrupt it. The company is based on the premise that “wood stoves haven’t changed much in decades but there is no reason a wood stove should be polluting, inefficient or difficult to use.” They use sensors that can find the combustion “sweet spot” that any stove can hit, but few stoves or operators can stay in the sweet spot for very long.

MF Fire developed an app where a user can control temperature and monitor the status of the fire inside the stove. Throughout, it’s collecting data to learn more about the environmental conditions as well as when the user likes to burn. Ryan told us that they “locate thermocouple within the stove in combustion areas. Based on the current and past readings of the stove as well as user inputs, the smart controller is able to make automatic adjustments to the combustion.”

MF Fires stoves can be 
controlled via aphone app

The company is now able to sell it for $4,000, trying to tap into environmentally conscious consumers who appreciate high tech appliances. The basic version of the stove, the Nova, that they are entering into the 2018 competition sells for only $2,490 but will have optional automated features that will bring the price over $3,000. The stove has a catalyst that is manually engaged and went through certification testing and met the 2020 standards as a single burn rate stove. Their model uses Schott Robox glass, a spondor of the 2018 Wood Stove Design Challenge. The company is now waiting for the EPA to formally approve the test and post the certification results.

Using technology to maximize efficiency - and safety
The new NOVA stove 

In addition to thermocouples that relay temperature data to the smart controller, the Catalyst and the automated version of the Nova have an induction fan integrated in the stack that can modulate air flow through the stove. Induction fans are perhaps one of the biggest ways to automate the operation of the wood stove in an industry relying on natural draft chimneys. Ryan says that “one of the biggest benefits of the fan is that it gets through the dirtiest part of the burn very quickly from a cold start. You can close the door right after lighting, and the sensors and fans will ensure the stove gets plenty of air. Unlike most other wood stoves, there is no need for leaving the door or ash pan ajar on Catalyst during startup.”

The thermocouple sensors, fan and smart controller also greatly enhance safety. They can prevent over-firing, which can be dangerous to the stove and lead to chimney fires, and they can prevent the conditions that lead to creosote build up in the first place. And, the MF Fire Smart App has wood stove safety features, including a built-in alarm that will alert an owner that a stove door has been left ajar, enabling the door to be secured quickly and safely.

MF Fire: A technology development company, not just a stove manufacturer

Ryan Fisher and the original Catalyst
MF Fire has been working on developing the smart controls for the stove, that will allow the user to better track their stove’s behavior, control its burn, and operate it safely.

MF Fire is a technology development company first and foremost, working to introduce modern smart controls to an age old form of heat production. Ryan believes that approaching this challenge from a technological development standpoint gives them a unique outlook that they are excited to share in November. Some stove manufacturers are churning out stoves designed 20 years ago and are mainly manufacturing companies, and have minimal in-house R&D capability. They may be skilled at creating well built stoves but they are part of a status quo in the industry that is not keeping up with the rapid technology changes that encompass modern appliances in the HVAC and all other sectors.

That technical acumen within MF Fire led their very first stoves to meet the stricter 2020 EPA emission limits and they hoped that their company would have an edge in the market as of 2020. Now that the EPA has signaled a willingness to consider delaying the stricter standards until 2023, MF Fire may not have the edge that they were hoping for. They still believe that there is a more environmentally conscious, possibly younger demographic who want to get off of fossil fuels with an advanced, modern wood stove. The 2018 Stove Challenge provides a platform to prove their new stove and introduce it to a wider audience.

Contact the team

Ryan Fisher, COO

Paul LaPorte, CEO

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