Understanding wood and pellet stoves

Wood Heat for Your Home

by Debra Karplus, MS, OTR/L


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"Heating and cooling accounts for more than half the energy used in most homes," according to Ed Begley Jr., actor and environmentalist, in his 2009 book Guide to Sustainable Living. If you live in an area with distinct seasons, you know how costly heating and cooling can be after examining your monthly gas and electric bill. Perhaps wood heat, or some alternative fuel source, to supplement your furnace could lower your winter power bills.

In colonial times, Americans stayed warm indoors by burning wood.

Before homes had furnaces, people heated homes by burning wood. Fireplaces became popular during the 1600s. Fireplaces are cozy and beautiful, but a fireplace is not a cost-effective way to heat a home because much of the heat escapes through the chimney.

Cast iron stoves proved to be a better, more efficient method for home heating. During the 1740s, Americans began using the Franklin stove, invented by Benjamin Franklin. The more sophisticated Franklin stoves of the 1820s allowed families to cook food on top of them or even inside them.

Today, many families use wood stoves for home heating as a secondary or primary heat source.

There are several options for alternative heating. People in many parts of the country still burn wood indoors, in addition to using their furnace. The price of heating with wood involves the one time cost of purchasing the stove and installation and yearly expenses of fuel and chimney cleaning. It's a terrific way to heat your home less expensively, especially when you find free firewood in your own neighborhood. You may be surprised at how plentiful wood is; you just have to look!

If you can find free firewood, then a wood burning stove may be your best and least expensive option. You can purchase the stove itself for as little as $250. A larger stove will hold more wood and thus burn hotter and longer. Stoves that are larger, more decorative or have more features, such as blowers for circulating the heat, will cost more. Installation could be pricey, especially if you need to put up a chimney, as you never want to use the same chimney for a gas furnace and wood burner; that could put you at risk for a house fire.

You can have the warmest heat by choosing the correct firewood.

Firewood needs to be dried or seasoned; there should be no moisture inside a log. Sometimes it takes a few years for wood to season. Unseasoned wood does not burn easily, produces little heat, and makes the inside of your chimney sticky with dangerous creosote. Many people don't like burning wood from pine trees because of its never-drying sap.

Firewood from certain kinds of trees creates more heat than other kinds of tree. Woods that are considered to be hard woods, such as hickory, oak, or maple, burn the hottest. Soft woods, such as birch or willow, produce much less heat. Learn what kinds of trees grow in your area.

A pellet stove may be the right option for your home.

If you don't have access to free firewood, then your home may best suited for a pellet stove. With the popularity of Presto-logs in the 1930s, pellet stoves evolved; their popularity gained impetus during the oil crisis of the 1970s. You'll pay more for the stove itself, over $2,000, plus the installation cost, but the price of the pellets isn't unreasonable. Depending on how hot you'll keep your home, expect to use about a ton of pellets per season, which costs about $150 and stores neatly in a space approximately 64 cubic feet.

People often prefer pellet stoves to wood burners as they're easier to use. The pellets are simply compacted wood or sawdust. Some burners also allow the use of seeds, grains, and wood chips. Simply put the pellets into the hopper that's part of the stove. The pellets will automatically feed regularly into the stove creating constant steady heat. Unlike a wood burner, no adjusting is involved. Clean-up is also easier and less messy.

A corn stove sells for about $1,400. It's similar to a pellet stove but is designed to burn whole kernel shelled corn. It has a device to stir the corn.

Evaluate all aspects of wood heat before making your decision.

Wood burners or pellet stoves can be freestanding or inserted into a fireplace. Also, they can be installed in the basement, rather than the family room, through duct system. This circulates heat through the entire house. Before purchasing and installing a wood or pellet stove, check with your insurance agent to be certain that your homeowners insurance will cover your home, and obtain in writing any special requirements, such as distance from the wall.

Prices on all of these options will vary by year and by region. You'll want to check with the local country extension service and suppliers to see how much of any fuel you'll need in your area and to find out what it will cost. Then do the math for yourself to see what works out best for you.

Sitting by the fireplace or wood stove is a relaxing family activity. Whether you're playing board games, reading, or taking a snooze, the cozy warmth of an indoor fire feels wonderful and is a sensible dollar stretching source of energy. Stay warm this season!


Debra is an occupational therapist, accountant, teacher and freelance writer. She is a writer for Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners. She also writes for Grand Magazine and has some items (fiction and non fiction) selling on amazon.com (kindle). Learn more about her at DebraKarplus.blogspot.com.

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