European Hearth Trends
By Bill Sendelback
While contemporary styling continues to gain acceptance with North American hearth products, traditional styling still dominates. In Europe, where the contemporary look in hearth products got its start decades ago, contemporary absolutely rules and continues to gain ground.
Although there are some holdout regions for traditional styling, in general “There is really no American traditional styling in most of Europe,” according to Alyce Wittus, vice president of Wittus-Fire by Design, an importer of European hearth products. “In fact, they laugh at our traditional-styled products. They are just too bulky for the smaller European homes.”
Wittus defines our “American traditional” as the typical, very large, ornate wood stoves dominant in North America. She also points out that the smaller European homes with higher ceilings are one reason for the more vertical styling in wood stoves that we call “European style.”
Wittus adds that every European country has its own styling and product tastes. “In France and Belgium,’ she says, “they like tall, black, steel stoves, while in Germany, Hungary and Austria, the ‘kachelofen’ masonry heater fireplaces are popular, and in Italy it’s pellet stoves.” A kachelofen, or “tile stove,” is a masonry, whole-house heater made of refractory and tile, routing the flue gasses through the structure to extract flue gas heat, a stove or fireplace style common in central Europe.
|Round Stack stove with wood base from Wittus-Fire by Design.|
“Sales of modern or contemporary hearth products are increasing in most European markets,” says Rene Christensen, senior vice president of Sales for Jøtul AS, parent company of Jøtul North America, “but there still is a big segment for classic stoves, especially in eastern and Latin Europe. Jøtul is strong in both segments.”
“Contemporary styling is very popular in both stoves and fireplaces, with both seeing more linear and clean-faced designs,” says Niklas Gunnarsson, director of NIBE Stoves, recent purchaser of 65% of Regency Fireplaces. “People want to see as much flame as possible (does this all sound familiar?).”
Gunnarsson maintains that the rise in contemporary styling has led to the decline in sales of cast-iron stoves in Europe. “With sheet metal, it is relatively quick and easy to create modern designs. With cast iron, it is more costly and time consuming.”
“Quite frankly, when it comes to the design of fireplaces, the European market is pretty much far ahead of the North American market,” asserts Timo Steinhauer, Export Account manager for Spartherm, a German fireplace manufacturer now selling in North America. “Contemporary design and the understanding that a fire is not only a source of warmth, but a central design object within a modern, upper-class home, has been a standard for decades in Europe.”
Similar in appearance but not in structure to North America’s zero-clearance, factory-built fireplaces, European “fireboxes,” such as those made by Spartherm, are constructed of thick steel and/or cast iron with large heat transfer areas. Typical of this style are Spartherm models ranging in weight from 529 to 1,023 pounds, using 8-to-10 in. flues.
|Premium Edition A-3RL-60h by Spartherm.|
Steinhauer points out that with the “huge number of manufacturers” and a very competitive market, especially in Germany, it’s difficult for a manufacturer to develop fireplaces that stand out and are different from the products of other manufacturers. “This is why we have 45 people in our research and development department,” he says.
“The hearth products industry in Europe is very similar to that in North America,” says Alyce Wittus. “Wood burning is the strongest fuel category, but its demand is falling as gas hearth products are growing.”
“Wood burning (in Europe) is down in all regions, with emissions concerns and new regulations having a negative impact,” according to NIBE’s Gunnarsson. “Gas is still a small segment of the market, maybe 10 or 15%, but growing, especially in the UK. And pellet stoves are growing in southern Europe.”
“Yes, there are differences between our markets, but there are many similarities, too,” said Gunnarsson in a July, 2017, Hearth & Home article. “The difference is the products. In North America, you buy the product, at least in some regions, primarily to heat your home. In Europe, it is much more for decoration, and products are more like furniture. Another difference between our markets is how many brands and companies we have in Europe. There are around 250 brands in Europe, with a lot of small, individual companies and no real consolidation of the market.”
Ortal, a manufacturer of higher end, contemporary gas fireplaces, is happy to see the sales growth in gas hearth products in Europe, according to Spencer Lowe, general manager of Ortal USA, since Ortal only offers gas fireplaces. “And while contemporary is very strong in Europe, we’re seeing a trend toward what we now call transitional as we mix more logs with glass media, giving our dealers a chance to change out various media for a unique look.”
|Front Facing Clear 200H by Ortal.|
Another trend Lowe sees is a movement toward taller glass viewing areas. “Linear is huge in Europe. We’ve been seeing glass 12 to 14 in. high, but now we’re seeing that glass get taller in linear units because the customer wants to see more of the flames. The market in Europe is very similar to that of the West Coast U.S. in its movement to contemporary.”
Technology in hearth products in Europe is quickly moving toward being able to control the flame, lighting, and on/off functions with “apps,” according to Lowe. “We’re fast putting our remote controls on our phones.”
“Wood is still by far the biggest hearth products fuel category (in Europe),” according to Jøtul’s Rene Christensen. “After many years of decline in wood stoves in most markets in Europe, it looks like we have hit the bottom. Gas is growing, and while pellets are big in Italy and some markets in France, pellets are not really an industry focus area.”
Wittus adds that, because of the expense of residential electric power in Europe, pellet stoves are limited in appeal, and electric hearth products are not well accepted except in the UK. “Most European consumers with pellet stoves do not use them as primary heat sources,” she says.
“Germany is one of the biggest fireplace markets in the world,” says Spartherm’s Timo Steinhauer, “as plenty of people there have the money, the single-family houses and the will to buy top-end fireplace products. Wood is clearly number one in Europe, but the gas market is growing rapidly. The biggest markets for pellet appliances are Italy and France, but the pellet industry in Europe is having a hard time, facing major competition among more than 80 manufacturers.”
In North America, 45,000 to 50,000 pellet appliances are estimated to have been sold in 2016; in Italy alone, 275,000 pellet stoves were sold in 2014!
The hearth products industry in the UK differs from that on the Continent, but there are similarities. “The biggest trend in the UK hearth market is toward gas stoves,” according to Erica Royle, editor of Fires & Fireplaces, the UK’s hearth products trade magazine. “Besides continuing sales strength in electric fires, there is such a strong return to gas fires, particularly high-end, designer-type products, that some traditionally wood-burning-only companies are now introducing gas models. Wood burning in the UK has declined or at least plateaued.”
Part of the reason for the decline of wood burning throughout Europe is the concerns about particulate emissions and the growing regulatory efforts toward wood burning – similar to what has occurred in North America. These actions have caused European manufacturers of wood burners to concentrate their R&D on meeting the upcoming regulations (sound familiar?).
“There is a big focus on particulates from old wood stoves,” says Jøtul’s Rene Christensen. “The media has brought this up, and that has negatively affected wood-burning markets in Europe. The solution, of course, is new, modern, clean-burning wood stoves, but the media doesn’t bring that up.”
|Fireplace Contura i51 steel by NIBE AB.|
Manufacturers such as Jøtul welcome the EU’s new ENER LOT 20 regulations, focusing on particulate emissions and other environmental issues, and set to go into effect in 2022. The program will set maximum levels for particulate emissions, organic gaseous compounds, carbon monoxide and nitrogen monoxide. The EU’s Ecodesign program also sets emissions limits by Jan. 1, 2018, in an effort to have Ecodesign Ready stoves reduce particulate emissions by 90% compared to an open fire.
“No big innovations in hearth products are happening in Europe as we all are working on systems to reduce emissions and meet upcoming standards,” says NIBE’s Niklas Gunnarsson. “This is a big challenge for our industry because it is not enough just to throw in a catalytic combustor. The main players in Europe already meet our 2022 standard, but we at NIBE have higher ambitions and want to go beyond that standard.”
Gunnarsson points out that, although standards and testing are somewhat similar between Europe and North America, they are not the same. “Our EU-tested models won’t meet your NSPS, and your EPA-certified models will not meet our EU standards. It takes a lot of work and costs to get products to meet both.”
Bob Ferguson, president of Ferguson, Andors & Co., a product development and regulatory compliance consultant focusing on hearth products, concurs. The firm develops and tests stoves and fireplaces for sale in both Europe and North America.
“Testing and certification in North America and Europe are similar, but our standards are more stringent over here,” says Ferguson. “I’m not saying that European model are not clean burning, but if they test clean in Europe, they may not test clean here. North American standards are tougher on emissions. The EU standards measure different things by different methods, and our safety standards are also different. Testing is different in the UK, too.”
Ferguson also points out that some European countries have their own standards because of differences in fuels. For instance, Europeans use as many as six different gases while we in North America test gas appliances to just natural gas and LP. “Unfortunately, now there is no harmonization between testing and certifications in North America and Europe,” says Ferguson, “and this makes it very expensive for manufacturers that want to sell in both markets.”
This testing conundrum is one reason few North American manufacturers have taken a shot at the European market. Sherwood Industries entered the worldwide market in 1992, one of the first manufacturers to sell pellet stoves in Europe.
|P4 pellet stove by Enviro from Sherwood Industries.|
“We pulled back in some of those export markets to concentrate on North America,” explains Stuart O’Connor, vice president, in a 2015 Hearth & Home article. “Frankly, exporting is not very profitable due to the complex testing required in all the different markets.”
United States Stove Company has entered the UK market with private label wood stoves designed for that market and sold through its UK distributor, says Jim Pitchford, director of Sales. “Our best-selling wood stoves here in North America are just too big for the European market, and European models are too small for our market. They only would fit today’s ‘tiny houses’ over here.”
Napoleon/Wolf Steel has been very successful exporting its products to Europe, but it has been its grills and not its hearth products. “Reaction to Napoleon fireplaces was lukewarm at best,” said company president Ron McArthur in the August 23, 2017, issue of Toronto’s The Globe and Mail. “Most Europeans preferred wood-burning stoves with streamlined, modern designs that contrasted with the Wolf Steel’s bulkier, more rustic aesthetics. For years we tried to adapt, change designs, modify and comply with all the certification processes. When we finally said ‘No, it’s not going to work,’ it made sense for us to stop.”
Yes, the hearth markets and products are similar on both sides of the Atlantic. But there are enough differences to continue to offer barriers for products headed in either direction. Few manufacturers want to spend the extreme costs and efforts needed to cross that pond. Nevertheless, European and North American designs and technology do find a way to meet those hurdles, to the benefit of both sides.
|Reflex 75T Edge from Stovax.|