The Early Days

How To Build a (Propane) Fire #10: What the hell is taking so long?

How To Build a (Propane) Fire #10: What the hell is taking so long?

Howdy folks!

We hear y'all asking, "What's taking so long?" And it's a good question.

Here's where we're at: we've invented a new technology, refined it, solved all the technical problems and turned it into a pretty dang delightful product. We've made it manufacturable, and all the parts are designed and sourced. We're nearly ready to go into production.

What's the holdup?

We gotta make this fire pit legal

We want you to be allowed to use the HOWL during a burn ban. For that to happen, especially in Canada, the law says it has to be CSA- or UL-approved.

That’s a good thing. Certifying is how you know that we're doing the work to minimize the risk to forests and humans.

To certify the HOWL, we have to:

  1. build it to meet or exceed international safety standards
  2. hire one of the three testing companies to test it (UL, CSA, or Intertek)
  3. get their blessing to print their logo on the product

Usually this is pretty simple. Usually, a product seeking certification is basically the same as what already exists. But that's not the case with the HOWL.

The HOWL Campfire is so different that testing companies don’t know what to do with it

Product standards differ by category. So a Portable Camp Stove has different requirements than a Patio Heater, and both are completely different Decorative Outdoor Fire Pit. The thing is, no one’s ever tried to make a propane fire that's hot like a wood fire before.

Now that we have, the testing companies can't agree on which category to put the HOWL in.

Even inside their companies, the engineers can't agree. Here are the categories they're considering:

  • The Decorative Outdoor Gas Appliance category includes ammo-can fires and Amazon fire bowls. The HOWL's bright yellow flames make it seem similar. But the heating component seems like it’s something else.
  • The Gas-Fired Outdoor Infrared Patio Heater category includes wall-mounted restaurant patio heaters and umbrella-shaped space heaters. The HOWL is similar since it keeps you warm outside. But with those flames it’s definitely NOT for use in a covered or enclosed space, so it seems like it's something else.
  • The Portable Type Gas Camp Stove category includes Coleman cook tops and MSR backpacking stoves. With the HOWL, you could place a skillet over the flame or the BarCoal exhaust. But that’s really not the main purpose, so it seems like it's something else.
  • The Gas-Fired Construction Heater category includes jobsite torpedo heaters. The HOWL also delivers heat you can feel outdoors. But that decorative flame is pretty different, so it seems like it's something else

If there's no category for this propane fire pit, which tests does it need to pass?

We don’t know. And that means we don’t know if we need to redesign it or not.

But what is it designed for now?

When we started this project two years ago, we had a meeting with "TestCo 1". One of their engineers said we absolutely had to fit into the Decorative Outdoor Gas Appliance category. He sounded so certain that it never occurred to us it could ever be otherwise.

We actually hated having to design for this category for two reasons:

  1. You’re not allowed to cook on a product that’s classified as Decorative. 
  2. The Decorative category limits you to a max of 5 psi of gas pressure. At that time, our BarCoal Technology required 15 psi, and we didn't know if we'd ever get it to work with just ⅓ of the gas pressure. 

So we pushed back. We asked the engineer at TestCo 1 if we could get certified in the Camp Stove category instead, since 15 psi is allowed there, and we wanted you guys to have approval to cook.

But in that category, you can only use 25,000 BTUs of fuel per hour, which isn’t enough to power both the BarCoal and the A-Flame.

So then we asked if we could test in the Construction Heater Category. Those standards allow crazy dangerous exposed flames, more psi, huge BTUs, and tons of heat output. But the engineer from TestCo 1 didn’t like that idea for some reason.

He doubled down: "It's Outdoor Decorative or bust. These are the universal standards,” he said.

So we designed the HOWL to fit into the Outdoor Decorative Gas Appliance Category

We got intimately familiar with all 170 pages of ANSI Standard Z21.97. We spent the next 18 months working insane hours and pouring out huge chunks of our savings to nail the standards. 

To get to 5psi, we had to scrap the original BarCoal system and rebuild it from the ground up. It felt like an Apollo 13 level of achievement. We then designed, built, tested, and iterated until the HOWL Campfire more than passed every test in the Outdoor Decorative Gas Appliance category. 

Here are just a few examples:

  • It must ignite in a 10 mph wind (The HOWL ignites in a 30 mph wind)
  • It must stay lit in a 35 mph gust. (BarCoal stays lit in a 120 mph wind, and maybe more. We haven't been able to test higher wind speeds). A-FLAME starts to blow out in a 45-55 mph wind.
  • It must take 15 minutes of hard rain, rest 10 minutes, then light immediately and return to normal operation in 3 minutes. The HOWL takes the soaking, then lights up and operates normally within seconds.

So the HOWL works in everything nature can throw at it. It certainly exceeds the certification standards. 

After running hundreds of our own tests, we felt unassailable. We told "TestCo 1" we were finally ready to send them a production sample for testing. 

But it turns out, regulatory categories are open to interpretation

A new engineer at TestCo 1 stepped in. He wanted the HOWL to meet all the standards in the Decorative Outdoor Gas Appliance category. But he also wanted it to pass some additional tests from a different category: Gas-Fired Infrared Patio Heaters.

It was like we’d gone to law school, went in to take the Bar Exam, and on the day of the test, the proctor decided to throw in a few sections of the M-CAT. 

In the years we spent designing the HOWL, we'd never even looked at these additional tests, and they seemed impossible to pass. Yet if we couldn't certify, it would be the death of the business and of our dream.

So we shopped around

Originally, went with TestCo 1 because their sales rep told us they were the only ones who could certify us for sales outside the US.

We called up TestCo 2 and TestCo 3 and learned that all three testing companies can indeed certify for international markets. Sure wish we had made those calls a couple years ago.

TestCo 2 and TestCo 3 are also saying they'll take different approaches. It’s all pretty confusing, to be honest. We’re basically working with all three testing companies at the same time now, just trying to get a straight answer on which company will certify which version of the HOWL to which set of standards.

At this point, we still don't know if or when the HOWL will get certified.

We’re sorry to leave you hanging like this. We don't like hanging either. But we’ll let you know as soon as the direction is clear. In the meantime…

Keep carrying the fire,

— Randall, Alex, Kelly, Nicholas, and Diego

Reading next

How To Build a (Propane) Fire #9: The New Twin Jet BarCoal Design
How To Build a (Propane) Fire #11: Ready for Certification

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