The Second Time Around
By Bill Sendelback
PhotoS: ©2019 Jesse Schloff PhotograpHy. www.jesseschloffphotography.com.
Back in the late ’70s, anyone (everyone?) with a welding torch was making steel wood stoves in their garage just to meet consumer demand. But with its beginnings in 1978, HearthStone pioneered a unique approach in North America, offering quality wood stoves in soapstone, a natural material that looks different from the usual black-steel box stove, and also offers slower and longer release of heat that provides more even warmth over a longer period.
Times have changed, and the industry has changed, but today’s HearthStone continues to offer high-quality soapstone and cast-iron wood and gas stoves, and fireplace inserts – and now outdoor living products.
Increasing regulatory efforts in the early 1980s to reduce particulate emissions from wood stoves caught up with many of those early wood stove makers. Most went out of business because of the costs of meeting the new emissions standards.
HearthStone was also affected, causing it to close its doors in October 1988. Luckily, what was left of HearthStone was purchased in January 1989 by Spanish foundry and enameling giant Industrias Hergóm, S.A., an event that has resulted in a brand new and very successful HearthStone Quality Home Heating Products headquartered in a 61,000 sq. ft. facility in Morrisville, Vermont, and with a warehouse in Provo, Utah. More recently, it posted a 15% sales increase in 2018, just the latest in a number of very positive sales years.
“Knowing how those old EPA rules caused the collapse of that HearthStone, and many other wood stove manufacturers, was one of the reasons why, when the current NSPS was announced, we buckled down and really got serious about being ready,” says Dave Kuhfahl, president and 24-year veteran of today’s HearthStone.
“We spent half a million dollars on a new laboratory, including three EPA test facilities to develop and test our NSPS Step 2, 2020-certified, wood stoves. We have five engineers and an engineering manager doing our own in-house EPA testing. We know just how each model will perform before each one is sent to an EPA-certified lab for final testing.”
Such preparation has paid off for HearthStone. The company now has eight wood-burners certified to the 2020 standard with emissions levels as low as 0.6 gph and ready to ship; more models are in the EPA pipeline getting ready to receive 2020 certification.
HearthStone now offers both soapstone and cast-iron wood and gas models. Although the company’s sales of cast-iron models in 2018 passed that of its soapstone models, the company is still proud of its unique soapstone heritage.
“Some manufacturers add soapstone to their stoves, but it’s more of a decorative thing with those units,” according to Kuhfahl. “In those models, the soapstone is not exposed to the fire. We are the only ones featuring a layer of soapstone in the stove, exposed to the fire, to take advantage of the heating benefits of soapstone.” The company now even includes a soapstone lining in its cast-iron models rather than using common refractory material.
Ironically, after beginning with wood stoves, by 1992 gas models were 80% of the company’s sales. “We pioneered gas stoves in the industry with our Sterling model back in 1991,” says Kuhfahl, “but I was a wood stove guy, so when I arrived in 1995, it seemed to me like we were missing an opportunity in wood stoves.
“So, by 2000 and Y2K, we were the opposite, 80% wood stoves. But with the changes since then in the hearth products market, we have built up our gas business, and again 80% of our business is gas stoves.”
More recently, HearthStone is no longer a “one trick pony,” selling only hearth products. “We have the reputation of offering the best wood and gas stoves,” says Kuhfahl, “but I want to make sure that HearthStone has ‘more legs under its stool.’ It’s time to make sure that, as the hearth products industry changes and contracts, as it has, we as a company have more options. Outdoor living products seem like a good counter-seasonal opportunity for us and our dealers.”
Introduced at the recent HPBExpo, the company now offers its HearthStone Outdoors line of heavy-duty, stainless-steel, freestanding and table-top, wood-burning patio ovens. Its largest 5.8 model is also able to use LP or natural gas. Part of this new outdoor living line-up is wood-burning, circular, cast-iron fire pits in 19- and 38-inch heights, available with cast-iron or soapstone griddle surfaces plus accessories for these new offerings. More recently, the company added high-quality, cast-iron cookware.
“Besides being counter-seasonal and a growing opportunity, this is a market that is easy, with no EPA and little regulatory pressures. With the foundry capabilities of our parent, Industrias Hergóm, S.A., we actually can cast the fire pit in one shot.”
With these recent product additions, HearthStone soon will be branding its offerings differently. “We still are HearthStone, but we will have divisions such as HearthStone Hearth, HearthStone Outdoor, and HearthStone Kitchen,” adds Kuhfahl.
In addition to its HearthStone-branded models, the company also offers its Green Mountain-branded line of economy-priced, cast-iron wood stoves and inserts. These models, too, include HearthStone’s signature soapstone firebox lining. These three wood stoves and inserts are 2020-certified while retailing for around $3,000. “It’s been hard for our production to keep up with the demand for these models,” adds Kuhfahl.
To meet the EPA’s NSPS 2020 standards, HearthStone uses its TruHybrid technology, a combination of secondary air or tube-type and catalytic technologies. “I was not a big fan of the old catalytic stoves,” says Kuhfahl. “Products of combustion went directly into the combustor without being pretreated.”
With HearthStone’s TruHybrid system, flue gases are pretreated using secondary air technology, greatly reducing the emissions levels before the combustor finishes the job, dropping the emissions levels to as low as 0.6 gph in HearthStone wood-burners.
Based on 2015 studies, HearthStone learned that many catalytic stove consumers don’t engage their combustor because they don’t understand how the stove operates, says Kuhfahl. “So we came up with a system that functions cleanly even when a consumer doesn’t quite know how to work the stove.”
With stoves operating without the combustor engaged, the stove uses its secondary air technology to operate as a clean-burning, non-cat stove. Then, when the combustor is engaged, that combustor operates at lower temperatures, increasing the life of the combustor. This TruHybrid technology is represented by the company’s Green Mountain GM80, a finalist in the Wood Products category in the recent 2019 Vesta Awards Program.
While HearthStone is introducing new products, it wants to make certain its current models are the best it can offer. With the recent regulation requiring barriers on the glass fronts of gas burners, the company did not want to just attach an ugly “hockey mask” screen to its existing models.
“We actually stopped building our gas stoves for about six months and redesigned those models so that now we have an internal, built-in screen that solves the child safety issue and also takes care of any concerns about glass breakage from possible late ignition,” says Kuhfahl. “And these screens are designed so they cannot be removed.”
HearthStone’s parent, Industrias Hergóm, S.A., also is in the hearth products business in Europe, offering its Nestor Martin, Efel, and Hase brands. HearthStone now includes the Hase brand of vertical, European-styled, wood-burners in its offerings in North America. “And in the future, we may do something with the Nestor Martin brand and 2020-certified models,” Kuhfahl says.
With almost 80% of its sales in North America, Kuhfahl says, “We try to find dealers who need our line and are willing to support it rather than just cherry-pick dealers who will actually sell our products and not simply put them on display. If we can get that respect and loyalty from a dealer, we will respect them by recognizing a protected, physical territory for them.”
As many successful manufacturers and dealers say, every one of HearthStone’s 48 employees is valuable and contributing to the company’s success. “It is a cliché, but without them we wouldn’t be as successful as we are,” says Kuhfahl. “We are fortunate that our average years of employment are 16 years. We have employees who have been with us from the beginning, and one shipping guy has been with us for 40 years.”
HearthStone obviously is successful in the tough and volatile hearth product industry. Maybe that’s because of the company’s operating philosophy. “Innovate, don’t copy,” says Kuhfahl. “Make it the best that we know how, with the best materials available.”