Buying a wood burning stove: what to know

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | December 1, 2015

Wood burning stoveIf your region typically experiences cold weather this time of year, your furnace may already be running to keep the chill out of the house. In rural areas where natural gas is unavailable and you depend on oil or propane, you can amass a pretty hefty fuel bill by the end of the heating season.

Is a wood burning stove right for your home?

You may be able to supplement your current heat source with one or more wood stoves installed strategically in your home; you may even be able to heat your entire home. But before buying a stove, here are some things to consider:

  • Functionality. Most wood or pellet stoves primarily function as space heaters for individual rooms, but also can work well for a larger, open living area. If you're heating an entire house, they make more sense for a smaller two-story home than a home that's spread out on one level.
  • Supply. Do you have a plentiful supply of sustainable wood nearby? As a source of fuel, wood is heavy; transporting it long distances reduces its cost-savings considerably. If you purchase from a dealer, know how to avoid paying too much. The standard measure for selling wood is by the "cord," which is a stack 4-by-4-by-8, but the actual lengths of the pieces may vary from dealer to dealer. Costs for wood vary a bit each year and from region to region depending on supply, but by supplementing the use of an oil or propane furnace with a wood burning stove, cost savings can be significant -- as much as $500 to $1,500 a season. Of course, if you can chop your own, you can save even more. Keep in mind, storing a winter's supply of wood also requires space for 128 cubic feet of wood per cord -- ideally, you need a dry place like a shed.
  • Local restrictions. Your locale may limit the use or installation of wood burning stoves because of particulates and other pollutants, including carbon monoxide, released during use. This occurs more with older stoves. Contact your local government agency concerning regulations. In some areas when air quality is poor, they may need to temporarily ban wood burning, something to consider if you are planning to use wood as your sole source for heating. If you already have a wood burning stove that's 20 or more years old, check for incentives offered by local governments to convert to a newer model that uses either a catalytic converter or a non-catalytic process to burn up harmful gases and creosote released from the wood as it heats your home. Upgrading to a newer stove can also improve the energy-efficiency of heating with wood.

What type of stove is best?

Which are the best wood burning stoves? The ones that most closely suit your needs. Consult with a reputable dealer to help guide your purchase, but here are some of choices to make when shopping:

  • Wood vs. pellet? You may have reservations about having to get up on really cold nights to manually feed a wood burning stove. In the old days, you might have a big stove with a large capacity so it could burn slowly through the night, but that isn't an efficient way to utilize wood as fuel. A hotter fire burns cleaner. For convenience, a pellet stove feeds the fire from a hopper automatically based on the thermostat setting, but it runs on electricity, either from the grid or a back up battery. If you lose power, you're out of heat. The other drawback with a pellet vs. a wood burning stove: cost of fuel. Pellets must be manufactured and shipped, which increases their cost, but on the plus side, they are made from otherwise wasted wood. Other benefits: the stoves cost less than premium wood stoves, both to purchase and install. According to the Department of Energy, a pellet stove costs anywhere from $1,700 to $3,000. Unlike a wood stove they can be vented without a chimney; and they burn with almost no smoke.
  • Steel or cast iron? The difference between steel and cast iron is in how they are manufactured. Steel stoves are welded together, while cast iron stoves are poured into a mold. Steel are more utilitarian and heat up faster, while cast iron stoves take longer to heat but retain heat longer and offer aesthetic flourishes. Cast iron stoves may cost a little more for their looks, but every so often you need to have the joints resealed so air leakage doesn't make the fire burn too hot. Today's premium steel stoves feature replaceable parts and some incorporate soapstone panels that hold heat longer; however, that makes them slower to heat up.
  • Smaller or larger? Besides the aesthetics -- too small a stove in a large room or vice versa -- size does matter when it comes to efficiently heating your home. A safe rule of thumb with today's higher efficiency stoves is to choose a medium-sized stove. Larger, open-plan houses typically require a large stove to heat the whole house, whereas small stoves are suitable for a cabin or one large room. An experienced professional is your best resource when deciding on the right size stove for your home and your particular needs. This is not a decision you want to make with only the input of a big box store salesperson.
  • Catalytic or non-catalytic? Both types combust harmful gases and creosote. A stove equipped with a catalytic combustor uses a platinum grid to capture and burn them. A non-catalytic stove directs exhaust gases into a hotter secondary chamber to combust them. Catalytic combustors can burn out and need replacing from time to time; however, they provide a higher level of efficiency and certain operational conveniences such as thermostatic control and top-loading features. If you plan to heat your home primarily with your wood stove, they have the edge. Non-catalytic stoves cost less and offer ease of operation, as well as a livelier flame for those of you who are mesmerized by burning logs.

As with any home investment, base your buying decisions not only on cost and good looks but functionality and comfort. Finally, don't forget that you're "playing with fire." Have an experienced professional install and properly vent your stove.

Photo credit to Myryah Shea

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.