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Hearth & Home February 2017

Outside The Box

By James E. Houck

Manufacturers, are you interested in a new opportunity?

Here are a few that you might consider, one of which involves shedding your present business model of high-cost, high-technology products, for one of low-cost, very simple units – but with 3 billion potential customers.

History is replete with stories of companies that have changed their core product with changing times or when new opportunities have presented themselves. Often new products or services are allied to existing ones, making the transition easier. Some of the world’s most profitable and enduring companies have achieved their long track record of success by constantly reinventing themselves.

Examples of corporate giants that have thought “outside the box” and thrived, are IBM, Xerox, Nokia, DuPont, and Corning, to name a few. It has been said that building a successful company is like science, where you need to follow the trail wherever it leads.

It has also been said that a successful company is like a great white shark. In its prime, it chews up the competition, but if it dares to sit still for too long, it dies. The business of manufacturing, distributing, and selling hearth, patio and barbecue products is no different than any other in that regard.

It can be estimated that there are currently 24.1 million wood-burning fireplaces without inserts in U.S. homes. (43.6 M occupied housing units with usable fireplaces) X (on average 1.2 fireplaces per housing unit) X (0.50 are wood-burning in contrast to 0.36 gas and 0.14 electric) X (0.92 without wood-burning inserts) = 24.1 M wood-burning fireplaces without inserts.

There are several identifiable opportunities for our industry that are allied to our historical core business areas but are somewhat outside the box. These include the opportunity offered by the large inventory of existing cordwood fireplaces that are candidates for modification due primarily to environmental concerns; the huge interest the public has in outdoor camping and picnicking that utilize products similar to those used in patio or home barbecue settings; and the staggering number of people that use solid fuels for cooking and heating in third world countries. Certainly some in the hearth, patio and barbecue business have made inroads into these areas, but the opportunities still remain enormous.

Of the 40 million campers in 2015, approximately 15 million camped in RVs and the rest primarily in tents. In contrast, only 2% camped in cabins and 1% had a bivouac or no shelter (2013 data).

Twenty-Four Million

There are approximately 24 million wood-burning fireplaces without heating inserts installed in homes in the United States. Wood-burning fireplaces have a “bullseye on their back” when it comes to air quality regulators, as conventional fireplaces have high particulate emission rates typically in the range of 40 to 60 grams per hour. As noted by some, even with these high emission rates, over the course of a year most fireplaces contribute far fewer particles to an airshed than their wood stove brethren because they are generally used infrequently.

However, there is still a 24-hour fine particulate, ambient air quality standard for fine particles (PM2.5) and, as noted by one air quality regulator as an archetypal example of the problem, “On Superbowl Sunday and Christmas when many fireplaces are in use they can contribute significantly to the exceedance of the 24-hour federal ambient air quality standard.”

Percent of campers making camping-related purchases by item (2012).
The number of people that use solid fuel for utilitarian cooking or heating in North America is insignificantly small as compared to the rest of the world. (16 million/3 billion = 0.5%)

Options to reduce air emissions from existing wood-burning fireplaces are limited to: (1) the conversion of wood-burning fireplaces to gas fuel with gas log sets, (2) the use of artificial wax/fiber firelogs in lieu of wood, (3) the installation of utilitarian pellet, gas, electric, or EPA-certified cordwood inserts, usually turning them into heaters with the loss of aesthetics, or (4) the installation of a wood-burning retrofit device.

Picnicking has a long history of providing leisure entertainment.
Photos: ©2017

The installation of gas log sets, the use of wax/fiber firelogs, and the installation of inserts have all proven themselves as solid options; however, they do not truly preserve the romance of a wood fire desirable to many consumers, i.e., its visuals, its aroma, and its crackle. Seemingly, the only option resulting in a traditional fireplace wood fire is a retrofit device that allows for the use of cordwood.

There are four fireplace retrofit devices listed and qualified for low emissions as part of EPA’s Burn Wise program. However, to date, there seems to be little penetration of retrofit devices into the 21 million strong marketplace. Opportunities for the hearth industry to think outside the box to service this need are still there.

Forty Million

Forty million people went camping in the United States in 2015. There are approximately 13,000 public campgrounds and more than 10,000 private campgrounds in North America. The total number of days spent camping per year was reported as 517 million in 2012. Many products and services provided by the hearth, patio and barbecue industries can, with little or no modification, be directed to the camping market.

Outdoor cooking, outdoor heaters, manufactured fuels, outdoor illumination and outdoor furniture apply to the campsite as well as to the patio. With the popularity of recreational vehicles there is a considerable market for indoor gas cooking, heating and illumination appliances. Backpackers have portable cookstoves and lanterns.

Camping includes wilderness camping, tent camping at developed and undeveloped sites, RV camping, cabin camping, youth camping, and church camping. Both the camper and the proprietors of developed RV parks, cabins, and traditional campgrounds are potential customers. Specifically, camping represents a market for metal, plastic, wicker, rattan, and wood furniture; outdoor fabrics; gas, charcoal, and electric grills; fire starters, charcoal and outdoor firelogs; grill parts; utensils; accessories and cooking related items; patio heaters; gas lanterns; and LPG appliances. Amazingly, more than $1.5 billion were spent in the United States for camping equipment in 2015.

One Hundred and Twenty-Seven Million

55% of the U.S. population (127 million people) 16 years of age and older participated in picnicking in 2008 as determined by a USDA-sponsored National Survey on Recreation and the Environment. Of course barbecue grills; fire pits; lanterns, portable chairs and tables; as well as other accessories associated with the patio are also part and parcel of the picnicking experience.

Three Billion

Worldwide over 3 billion people use solid fuels for cooking and/or heating. Most of this solid fuel is biomass (wood, animal dung, charcoal, and crop wastes) plus some coal.In contrast, in North America only 16 million people use solid fuel for utilitarian heating or cooking. Solid fuel use in most of the world is for cooking; again in contrast, less than 200,000 people in the United States in 2013 reported using solid fuel regularly for cooking.

Biomass cookstoves and their venting are primitive in most of the world.

Arguably, we in North America do not have an intuitive grasp for the global issues and business opportunities associated with worldwide residential solid fuel usage. We cater primarily, on a global scale, to a very small number of consumers that mainly use solid fuel for heating, recreationally in fireplaces, and recreationally as charcoal in barbecues.

In contrast to North America, most of the world’s population is poor and the heating and cooking equipment is primitive as compared to our standards. Most produce high air emissions, are inefficient, and many are not well vented. As a consequence, 4.3 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the use of solid fuels (2012 data).

Exposure to smoke, primarily from cookstoves, causes a range of respiratory, cardiovascular, eye, and skin ailments, from cancer to emphysema to heart disease. Worldwide, the greatest killer of children ages 0 to 5 is from household air pollution exposure. Beyond these truly shocking and horrendous health statistics, the use of inefficient biomass cooking and heating equipment contributes to deforestation and exacerbates climate change.

The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic can be dramatically seen in satellite images because of deforestation in Haiti primarily due to the collection of wood used directly or made into charcoal for residential fuel.

For industries such as the North American hearth and barbecue industries,manufacturing and distributing improved biomass cookstoves that produce lower emissions and have higher efficiencies along with good venting systems seems like a “natural.” Yet few, if any, in these industries seem to have made that leap.

The technology is straight-forward and there have been a wide range of “improved” cookstoves designed and produced by various organizations with their distribution often subsidized by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and governments. There is, however, a major paradigm shift – the demand is for a large number of low-cost simple units, not a limited number of high-cost, high-technology units with aesthetics paramount to which we in North America are accustomed.

Envirofit wood stove. SilverFire Hunter stove. EcoZoom charcoal stove. BioLite BaseCamp.

About the Author
Dr. James E. Houck has been involved in environmental research and the hearth industry for over 30 years. He currently is an independent consultant and can be reached at:

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