A hundred years ago, most American homes were heated with wood or coal. Now, it's the rare home that heats exclusively with such rustic simplicity. More often, homeowners want the ambience of a fire without the time-consuming business of wood gathering or storage. Fortunately, there are stoves available for just about everyone.
Wood stoves appeal to our essential caveman nature, pellet stoves to our desire for efficiency, and gas to our wish for convenience. The following introduction may help you zero in on the stove that best meets your needs.
A wood-burning stove, the type that takes real wood, provides a primal pleasure. If the power goes out and you have no heat or light, there is absolutely nothing that engenders a deeper sense of well-being than a wood fire. The crackle of the wood, the dry, cozy heat, and the dancing, shifting flames cast a living light that appeals to our most primitive instincts. We have fire. Life is good. Even when the power is on, a wood fire is a comforting focal point in a room.
Wood stoves require fuel, which means that you must have a source of wood. Either you must chop down trees, then cut and split logs, or you have to purchase wood. Depending on how often you use the stove, you can burn anywhere between 1/2 and 2 cords of wood in a season. (A cord of wood is 128 cubic feet or 4 x 4 x 8 feet.) What is vital however, both from the perspective of heat and environmental considerations, is that the wood be as dry as possible. That means seasoning over a summer at least, then dry storage under cover in fall and winter.
Probably the single most important aspect of owning a wood stove is maintenance. To maintain your wood stove and chimney, an annual cleaning to remove creosote that can build up over the winter is necessary. A relationship with a good chimney sweep is a good long-term strategy for safety and performance.
The following key points about wood stoves will help you get as much heat per dollar as possible:
Wood stoves, for all their charms, can be messy. Ash can be a nuisance and, during winter, you'll be constantly sweeping the litter on the hearth.
Pellet stoves have come along way since they were introduced in the 1980s. New stoves are energy efficient with close to 100% combustion in many models, which makes them a great solution for winter heating that is environmentally savvy. In addition to wood pellets, some stoves can also burn corn pellets as an alternate fuel source. They are much tidier to live with than ordinary wood stoves, because the pellets are clean and easy to load.
Pellet stoves are a more complex piece of machinery than wood or gas stoves. When they work correctly, they work very well, but they are not trouble free. They must be cleaned out thoroughly at regular intervals. Understanding your stove is necessary to make the adjustments needed to regulate burn rates for optimum performance. Each manufacturer offers detailed information about regular maintenance for their models.
Pellet stoves also tie you to the grid. Even with a battery back up system, pellet stoves require electricity to drive the auger that feeds the pellets into the burner. If the power goes out and you haven't set up a battery system, your pellet stove will provide exactly zilch in heat during the outage. Even with a battery backup, if your outage lasts more than 18 hours, you'll probably still be out of heat. Check with the manufacturer for more detail about what batteries can supply adequate power for longer power outages.
Gas stoves and fireplaces have been gaining popularity in recent years because of their convenience. At the flip of a switch, you can turn on a fire. The big advantage to gas fireplaces and pellet stoves is that they are efficient and clean. There is no need for a wood box and the litter that attends fire making. And there is no clean up required for maintenance. The only downside to gas is the growing cost as natural gas prices increase. Many gas fireplaces and wood stoves look pretty much like regular wood stoves if you don't look too closely. They are easily installed and require venting, but no chimney, which makes them ideal for a simple retrofit.
Regardless of the type of stove you choose, do a little research to find out what each manufacturer's warranties are and what is required for installation. With a minimum amount of footwork, you'll be able to select the perfect stove or fireplace for your home.
Find a local chimney sweep to keep your chimney clean and your home safe. To save a little money, schedule your chimney cleaning in the spring.