What's hot in home heating stoves?

Jeffrey Anderson | Improvement Center Columnist | September 6, 2013

Winter is just around the corner and depending on where you live, it may be bringing the high heating costs associated with the season. A cozy, warm house is nice until those utility bills arrive at the end of the month -- keeping that furnace cranking can get expensive. What about a supplemental heat source -- an option that allows you to turn the thermostat down a few degrees?

Pellet, gas, and wood stoves can provide heat when and where it's needed, and many models can throw in a little ambiance as well. There are numerous styles and sizes available -- everything from single-room stoves to those large enough to heat a whole house. Which of these heating options might be a good choice for you and your home?

Wood stoves: time-tested reliability

Wood stoves have been used to provide heat for many years, but those available today are a little more advanced than the old stove in your grandparents' house. Most modern stoves burn much cleaner than their older counterparts and must meet strict EPA-emission regulations. An EPA-certified wood stove can only emit up to 7.5 grams of smoke per hour if it's a non-catalytic model and 4.1 grams if it has a catalytic converter.

Wood can be a fairly inexpensive heating fuel -- especially if you gather it yourself. If you plan on purchasing wood, the price is often determined by how far you live from a forested area. WisconsinFirewood.com quotes prices for average hardwood ranging from $187 to $287 per cord. Select wood such as cherry and maple can be much higher.

How many cords you use each winter depends on the area being heated and how often you use your stove. Here are a few features to look for when shopping for a wood stove:

  • Size -- Most manufacturers offer several stove sizes. Choose a unit that matches up to the square footage of the area you intend to heat.
  • Wood size -- Smaller stoves require small pieces of wood. If there's already a stack of wood in your backyard, make sure it can be used in the stove model you select.
  • Efficiency -- Many manufactures report the efficiency of their various models -- high efficiency means less wood.
  • Wood burning time -- How often do you have to feed the stove? Stoves that have burning times of 10 or more hours can mean fewer trips to the wood pile.

So is a wood stove right for you? Let's look at the pros and cons:

  • Pros: It's hard to beat the ambiance and warmth of a wood burning fire. You also have the option of choosing a freestanding model or going with an insert for an existing fireplace.
  • Cons: All woodstoves require a flue that must be cleaned on a regular basis. The stove itself must also be kept clean and have the ash removed.
  • Good for: families that enjoy the romance of relaxing in front of a visible flame and have a fairly close source of firewood.

Pellet stoves: environmentally friendly

Pellet stoves are similar in many aspects to wood stoves but are a bit more eco-friendly. These stoves burn pellets that are made from wood scraps -- no trees are cut down to serve as fuel. Pellet stoves also burn a little more efficiently than wood units -- many models are 75- to 90-percent efficient.

The stoves themselves are a little more advanced than many wood models. Most pellet stoves feature an electric motor that feeds pellets from a hopper as needed. This means you can stock the hopper and relax without having to worry about trips out into the cold to gather wood. It also means that having battery back-up for the stove is almost mandatory if you live in an area where the power often goes out.

Pellet stoves are available in numerous sizes and styles, and most manufacturers offer quite a few trim options such as brass door trim. A big advantage of pellet stoves over wood models is that many can be direct-vented. This means a dryer type vent can be used rather than having to install a flue. Direct venting offers much more flexibility as far as locating the stove in your home -- you just need proximity to an exterior wall.

Wood pellets are normally sold in 40-pound bags and are available at many home improvement and farm supply retailers. The most economical method for purchasing the fuel is by the ton. Wayne Crawford of Acme Stove and Fireplace Center in Harrisonburg, Va., believes the type of pellet used can greatly affect the amount of maintenance your stove requires. He recommends burning premium pellets that have less than 1 percent ash.

Wayne also suggests steering clear of pellets made from Southern woods. They can contain softwoods that may gum up the inside of your stove as they burn. Wood pellet costs vary based on the quality of the product -- Maeder Brothers Quality Wood Pellets, Inc. of Weidman, Mich., sells premium pellets for about $200 a ton. They advertise that a 40-pound bag of their pellets should keep an average stove supplied for about 24 hours.

When shopping for a pellet stove, here are a few features to look for:

  • Ash removal -- Many pellet stove models feature a removable ash tray that makes cleaning the unit much easier.
  • Thermostat -- Higher-end pellet stoves often have a thermostat that automatically adjusts the heat output of the unit. If the unit you're considering doesn't have a thermostat, ask whether one might be available as an option.
  • Size -- Always choose a size that matches the square footage of the area you intend to heat.

So is this the supplemental heat source that's right for your home? Take a look at the pros and cons:

  • Pros: Models with direct venting offer installation flexibility, and the fuel is very eco-friendly. The auto-feeding hopper's many-units feature means less work and more heat.
  • Cons: Pellet stoves often require more maintenance than wood models due to the moving parts that supply the fuel. And if you don't have battery back-up when the power goes off, your pellet stove turns into a large knick-knack.
  • Good for: families that want the atmosphere a wood fire can provide, but are concerned about protecting the environment

Gas stoves: clean burning

If your idea of the perfect supplemental heat source is one that requires absolutely no work on your part, a gas stove might be the right choice. Gas stoves use natural gas or propane as fuel and are pretty much maintenance-free. If you already use gas for some of your appliances, installation may only involve installing another line. However, even if you don't use gas in your home at the moment, a small propane tank can be placed outside to supply a gas stove.

Gas stoves are available in many styles and configurations -- some even feature glass doors and realistic artificial logs to give the appearance of a wood fire. Many gas stove models feature direct venting that provides flexibility when locating the unit within your home. Another advantage these stoves offer is that they continue to put out heat even when the power goes out.

Gas stoves are considered to be one of the most eco-friendly types of supplemental heaters. They burn much more efficiently than wood or pellet models, but that efficiency and lack of maintenance might come at a price. Biomass Magazine reports that in the future natural gas might become much more expensive than pellets and wood as supplies dwindle.

When shopping for a gas stove, here are a few items to look for:

  • GreenSmart pilot flame -- A continuous pilot flame consumes gas even when the stove isn't being used. Choosing a model with a GreenSmart pilot means the pilot will only be on when you need the stove.
  • Variable speed fans -- These are standard on some models and available as options on others -- they assist in moving the stove's heat throughout your home.
  • Remote control -- A remote control thermostat allows you to control the gas stove from the comfort of your armchair.

Should you consider installing a gas stove before winter's arrival? Consider these pros and cons before making your decision:

  • Pros: Gas stoves don't require lugging wood or pellets or cleaning ash from the unit on a regular basis. Direct vent models offer the ultimate in installation flexibility -- an important consideration if you happen to live in a condo or townhome.
  • Cons: The cost of gas may go up in the future and even if you choose artificial logs, it's just not the same as a wood fire.
  • Good for: anyone who wants a supplemental heater that works when the power goes off and requires very little maintenance.

Stove installation: not a DIY project

Is installing any type of heating stove a DIY project? Tina Henson of Sunfire Hearth, Patio & Spa in Martinsburg, W.V., believes all installations should be done by a qualified professional. While many jurisdictions don't require a building permit to put a stove in your home, doing the job improperly can be hazardous to your family and home.

She recommends using a contractor with the expertise to ensure the unit is installed according to the manufacturer's instructions to avoid potential problems. When placing a stove in your home, maintaining correct clearances and proper vent sizing are often the most important considerations.

Regardless of what type of heating stove you choose, it can give you a break on your winter heating costs.

About the Author

Jeffrey Anderson has a Degree in English from V.M.I., and served as an officer in the Marine Corps. He worked in Residential and Commercial construction management for 25 years before retiring to write full time. He spends his time writing, remodeling his old farmhouse, and in animal rescue.