So, You Want to… Heat Your House With a Wood Stove
There's no denying the rustic, romantic appeal of cuddling up on the couch and basking in wood stove heat. Before you commit to a new way to heat your home, though, learn the ins and outs of this appliance.
Recently, you were visiting friends, and as the night grew colder outside, you were snug indoors, mesmerized by the warmth and glow of their wood stove. “Let’s get one!” you exclaimed to your family. As charmed as you were by the stove, your partner and children were even more so. A wood stove: What a good idea!
But is it really such a good idea? As with so many other things relating to the home, it depends. Before you go shopping for a new heating apparatus, learn whether wood stove heat will suit your home and family.
How Does a Wood Stove Work?
Wood stoves made of metal have been around for more than 400 years, and while they’ve become ever more efficient, the way they work hasn’t changed much. First, you place logs into the firebox, or the fireproof central “belly” of the stove. Once ignited, the logs burn in this closed, controlled environment, with air from vents feeding the flames. The stove radiates its heat into the room, while smoke and other waste products vent through a pipe to the outdoors.
To do its job, a wood stove needs to get hot, typically between 500 and 800 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s important to maintain this middle ground. When temperatures are too low, the stove doesn’t generate enough heat, and the pipe doesn’t get hot enough to burn off creosote. If this byproduct of combustion is allowed to build up, it can lead to fires. At the other extreme, stove temperatures that are consistently too high can cause components to warp or crack.
Pros and Cons of a Wood-Burning Stove
There are good reasons that we moved beyond wood heat long ago. For those of us who enjoy our modern comforts, heating the house with a wood stove would be a monumental inconvenience. For others, however, a wood stove offers the chance to heat the home in a way that emphasizes self-reliance and independence. Which camp do you fall in? Weigh the pros and cons before you commit to warming your home with wood stove heat.
- In areas where wood is dependably available at low cost, heating your home with a wood stove can save money over a gas or oil system, particularly if you’re able to harvest your own firewood.
- Unlike fossil fuels, wood is a renewable resource. For some, that’s reason enough to think seriously about making the switch from a traditional oil- or gas-fueled system.
- Particularly if you’re using a wood stove as the sole source of home heating, wood heat provides a way to decrease your reliance on the grid.
- There is something deeply satisfying, on a primal level, about wood heat. It offers a connection to the land, and to human history, that simply cannot be matched by a system that’s controlled by a thermostat on the wall.
- It’s a lot of work to fell trees, saw them into logs, and split those logs into stove-length pieces. There are techniques and best practices here that might take the neophyte several seasons to master. Be realistic about your abilities and tolerance for heavy work.
- Even beyond keeping the woodpile fed, heating the home with a wood stove takes real commitment. For instance, if you’re not willing to bank the stove at night (in essence keeping the fire going), you need to start a new fire every morning.
- In the absence of a backup heating system, there must always be someone at home to tend the fire, lest the plumbing pipes freeze.
How to Use a Wood Stove
The first step in figuring out how to use a wood-burning stove should always be to consult the manual for the stove you own. In general, though, here’s how to get a fire going:
- Start a fire by opening up the damper, putting crumpled newspaper at the bottom of the stove, adding kindling, and placing logs on top.
- Light the paper and give the kindling a chance to catch. Keep the door open, watching carefully for wayward sparks, until the logs are burning brightly.
- Once you have a good fire going, close the door and keep it closed unless you’re adding logs to the fire.
Some stove owners, especially those with newer models, recommend building the fire in reverse, starting with logs and then placing newspaper and kindling above. Whichever process you use, never overload the firebox; to maintain a hot fire, air needs to be able to circulate.
When you’re using a wood stove, it’s crucial to burn only seasoned wood, or wood that has been aged and dried. (If you don’t know if it’s dry enough, use a moisture meter.) Hardwoods like oak, ash, and maple are best. Properly seasoned softwoods may also be an option, although they burn fast and might be best suited as kindling. If you own a multifuel stove, you can burn various mineral fuels like anthracite coal in addition to wood.
You’ll also want to maintain a bed of ashes at the base of the firebox, typically around ¾ of an inch (check the manufacturer’s instructions). You will periodically need to shovel out excess ash, leaving the larger bits of unburnt wood. (Of course, this task should be put off until the ashes have cooled down.) If your wood stove is equipped with an ash pan, you just need to push the ash through the grate into the pan below. Either way, always dispose of ashes in a metal container with a tightly fitting lid and take it outside the house, safely away from any combustible material.
How to Circulate Heat From a Wood Stove
A wood stove-based heating system presents many challenges. One that continually frustrates even veteran wood-stove custodians is the art and science of dispersing the heat that the stove produces. Here are a few ways to go about it:
- One way to disperse heat from a wood stove is to use a wood stove fan, which sits on top of the stove. When the stove reaches a minimum temperature, the heat of the stove drives a motor that causes the fan blades to turn. As they do, the fan pushes that heat outward into the room.
- Another option is to buy a plug-in blower. This electric-powered fan installs on the stove (different models fit different stoves) and pushes heat away from the wood stove.
- To get the warm air really flowing, many wood stove owners position stand-alone fans strategically throughout the house. Fans that are mounted high, such as ceiling fans and small doorway fans, can be effective at pushing heated air to cooler areas farther from the wood stove, while a box fan placed on the floor in a colder area can push cool air toward the stove.
Wood Stove vs. Fireplace
When most of us hear the word “fireplace,” we picture an open hearth in the living room or a stone chimney billowing smoke into the evening. We cherish the charming vision of cozying up to a blazing fire, yet the aesthetic value of a fireplace vastly outweighs its heat production. In fact, fireplaces are notoriously inefficient. Just like an open window, the typical fireplace rapidly leaks heated air (air you’ve paid to heat) out of the house.
If you’re considering the relative merits of a wood stove vs. a fireplace, note that a wood stove has some distinct advantages. Like a romantic hearth, a wood stove offers something beautiful to gaze at, but unlike the typical fireplace, it’s a source of heat that doesn’t seriously compromise your home’s energy efficiency. So, if you’ve always wished that your home had a fireplace, or if you’re looking for an improvement over your existing fireplace, maybe it’s time to look into the beauty and function of a wood stove. To get you started on the search, check out an EPA-certified wood stove from Pleasant Hearth, available at The Home Depot. The brand was among our top picks in our researched guide to the best wood stoves.
Keep in mind that while a wood stove can be a viable sole heating solution for homes in some parts of the country, it more commonly serves as a companion to an existing gas- or oil-fueled system. What you ultimately decide depends largely on what you want to get out of the wood stove, and what you’re willing to put into it.
Wood Stove Installation: Cost and Other Considerations
There is huge variability in wood stove costs. The stove itself can run from about $400 at the very low end to $4,000 at the high end, depending on size, materials, style, quality, and special features. You also need to factor in the cost of a wood stove pipe to carry smoke up through the interior of the space as well as a chimney pipe for venting through the wall or ceiling to the outside. Depending on the length and style, the required pipes and connectors could add a few hundred to more than $1,000 to your cost.
Because wood stoves are extremely heavy and get very hot, placement and installation can be complicated. You’ll want to make sure you have a space for a wood stove that meets the following criteria:
- The stove should sit close to the center of the space to be heated and away from exterior walls.
- The floor below the stove must be covered with noncombustible material, such as brick, ceramic tile, concrete, or stone. In fact, the floor itself may need to be reinforced to handle the weight of the stove and the platform or hearth below it.
- You’ll also need a heat shield—metal, brick, stone, tile, or some other noncombustible surface—behind the stove. Both stove and pipes must be situated at least 3 feet away from combustible items like furnishings, curtains, and firewood, and typically 18 feet away from unprotected ceiling or walls. (Always check the manual for specifics.)
Given the requirements and variables, wood stove installation costs vary widely, from about $325 to more than $4,000. And while a competent and experienced DIYer may be able to take on the job, wood stove installation is best left to professionals.