SHUHS alum gets heating industry’s attention with new pellet stove design

Scott Swanson

Of The New Era

Geoffrey Johnson was merely responding to a small domestic crisis when he invented what may turn out to be a revolution in the pellet stove industry.

Seven or eight years ago Johnson, now 61, bought a pellet stove for the home where he and his wife, Jean Hoxter, lived in Redmond, Wash.

“We’d had a wood stove that the kids used to haul the wood in for and chop it,” Johnson said. “When they got old enough to leave home, I had to do it myself.”

He figured a pellet stove would make more sense. But Jean didn’t like it.

“If we opened the (stove) door, we got dust,” Johnson said. “If we cleaned out the ashes, we got dust. (Jean) said, ‘You know, you can build a better stove than this.'”

Johnson had some experience with creating things with his hands. He grew up in Sweet Home, where his father, William Johnson, was an English and French teacher. Geoff Johnson graduated from Sweet Home Union High School in 1964 and spent the next several years working on construction crews building Foster and Green Peter dams. Then he founded a company called Custom Fiberglass, which built Lotus sports cars, for some 20 years.

In 1980 he and Jean were married and started running a company that he’d founded, called Tierra Cosmetics, until they “essentially retired from the cosmetics business” and turned it over to their daughter, Kelly Johnson. That’s when he got interested in pellet stoves.

“I was retired so I thought, ‘Why not?'” Johnson said. “So I started experimenting.”

After six years of work – and six working prototypes – he developed a revolutionary stove design that was so unique it won the Vesta Award (named after the Greek goddess of the hearth) for new technology at the Hearth Products and Barbecue Association trade show March 15-17 in Reno, Nev.

“It was a pretty prestigious award because I’m up against people like Lennox – multi-million dollar companies.”

Unlike conventional pellet stoves, Johnson’s invention has a vertical tubular glass combustion capsule, measuring 4 inches in diameter and 10 inches high, in which wood pellets are burned. While burn pellets are piled on the floor of the combustion chamber in conventional pellet stoves, which are constructed like wood stoves, Johnson’s stove spreads pellets, which drop through a tube from the hopper on top of the stove. When the pellets fall to the floor of the combustion capsule, they scatter and burn individually – and more completely – on a flat plane rather than in a pile.

“Because they burn independently, it doesn’t cause fused ash or clinkers,” Johnson said, referring to the residue that stove owners have to clean out every month or so. He said his stove requires cleaning about every eight months. “It produces three tablespoons of ash per day if you run it for a 24-hour period.”

Johnson says his stove is about a third more efficient than conventional pellet stoves because it burns fuel at a much higher temperature.

“We don’t want coals, we don’t want them stacking up,” Hoxter said. “We’re trying to burn each of those pellets completely, to get as much energy out of each individual pellet as possible.”

Their stove is also quiet, because it does not contain two fans like most pellet stoves do, and is also relatively cool to the touch, because it is a radiant stove rather than the exposed burn chamber design that is typical of wood stoves.

The fact that it is a radiant heater is what makes it stand out, said Ben Myren of Myren Consulting, a Colville, Wash. firm that specializes in accredited lab testing of stoves for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Myren said Johnson’s stove is the “most different pellet stove I’ve seen in 15 years, easy.

“What makes this stove unique is its radiant heater,” he said, adding that what makes Johnson’s stove unique is its single combustion blower located at the end of the chimney, which cuts down on noise and “weird harmonics” sometimes caused by the fans on conventional pellet stoves.

“All the rest are basically the same,” he said. “They have a heat exchanger, a convection blower and a combustion blower.”

The outside fan is also safer because carbon monoxide can’t leak into the house, he said.

The stove made a splash at the Reno show, where they had an indoor and outdoor booth, Johnson and Hoxter said.

“This is all industry people, so it’s not open to the public, ” said Hoxter, who has a background in interior design. “What’s kind of refreshing about all this is that most people entered in this were from large companies. It was refreshing that the little guy working out of a garage was able to win this honor.”

She said she was at the inside booth most of the time and heard attendees talking about how the show was “kind of quiet.”

“I kept going over to see Geoff, and there were six or seven people stacked around the booth, all clamoring to get in to see Geoff. People said it marks a real change for the pellet stove.”

Johnson said the response he got was that the industry hasn’t seen new technology for two decades.

“This is the most exciting new technology they’ve seen in 20 years,” he said. “This is literally changing the stove industry.”

Paul Henninge, an industrial designer in Burlington, Vt., who was a judge at the Reno show, said that while Johnson’s stove is visually off the beaten track, he likes the concept. He said some observers at the show questioned whether the current visual look would sell well, but he said if that turns out to be a problem, it could be redesigned.

“I thought it was a very exciting product,” Henninge said. “I happen to like it because it has a sort of (visual) purity, sort of like a radiator.”

Henninge said the timing is good for a heater designed for a limited space – zone heating – rather than central heating an entire home, a trend born in the 1950s and ’60s.

“It’s actually very inefficient to try to heat a large home to a certain temperature,” he said. “All of the renewable resource products are aimed toward the zone-heating trend. A design like (Johnson’s) could have some potential.”

Before the stove can go on the market, it has to pass certification testing, which is under way at the OMNI test labs in Beaverton. The tests will ensure that the stove meets Environmental Protection Agency standards for particulates in exhaust and carbon dioxide emissions.

“A crucial test for a pellet stove is the burn-back possibility,” Johnson said, referring to the danger of fire getting into the hopper where fuel pellets are stored. He noted that on most pellet stoves the hopper is on the side, while on his stove it’s on top, at the end of a thin tube through which the pellets drop.

“With our design, that’s impossible. There’s virtually no possibility of burnback.”

The stove will go on the market through a newly established company, Snoqualmie Stove Works, that will be run by their son Steve and daughter Kelly. Johnson said they intend to license the technology to other stove companies under a non-exclusive agreement.

Johnson said he’s self-taught, having never attended college.

“To some degree, that’s an advantage because I don’t have predisposed ideas of how things should be done,” he said.

“This stove came about strictly because of a new way of looking at things. It opens up a lot of possibilities, just because it’s a different design that you never thought about before.

“Seriously, this is light-years ahead of conventional stoves.”