Both Types of Stoves Have Advantages and Disadvantages. Here’s How to Weigh the Options.
The idea of wood heat is appealing to many people. In many ways it can be more economical than conventional heat provided by natural gas, propane and especially oil and electricity. If you’re heating with firewood in a wood-burning stove and have access to an ample supply of firewood the savings can really add up. But heating with wood-fired stoves comes with a price on other levels.
If you burn firewood in a wood-fired stove as your sole source of heat you know the drill. You need to stack seasoned firewood in a sufficient quantity to get you through the winter. In particularly cold locations this could mean a face-cord or more.
If you’re lucky enough to have a plentiful supply of firewood on your property you’re also familiar with the tasks of cutting down the trees or branches, sawing them, splitting them and allowing them to season. It may be free but you’re earning that firewood through your labor.
The Wood Pellet Option
Wood pellet stoves are becoming more and more popular as a source of wood-fired heat. The principal is simple. Hardwood pellets are fed into a burning pot by an auger and give off significant heat.
The national average for a 40-pound bag of pellets is $5.00 and they will last for one to two days depending on the heat setting of the pellet stove. Pellets are usually bought by the ton averaging $200 a ton and consist of fifty 40-pound bags. That can last you anywhere between a month and a half to 3 months depending on your usage.
All of which gets to the big question. Which type of stove is right for you. Here are some points to ponder and then we’ll chart them to give you a scorecard.
1. The First Comparison: Fuel Cost
You need to estimate the total amount of firewood you would need to get through cold days and nights versus the total amount of hardwood pellets. If you’re cutting your own firewood there’s not cost comparison. Your firewood is free assuming you have the physical capability to harvest, cut and stack your own wood.
If you buy firewood by the cord, compare the amount of firewood you would use to heat your home for a month to the amount of wood pellets you would need to heat your home for the same period of time. If cost is critical to your decision about wood-fired heat, the lowest cost for your fuel source could be a deciding factor for wood-fired versus pellet-fired.
2. Heat Control and Management
Pellet stoves have an electronic dashboard with a thermostat and a temperature setting. It reads the temperature of the ambient heat in a room and adjusts the delivery of pellets to the heat chamber to maintain a selected temperature. Some pellet stoves also have a blower to distribute heat more efficiently throughout a living space.
A wood-fired stove has no thermostat. The heat output is determined by the amount of wood in the stove, adjustments to the flue and air-vents to diminish or increase air-flow, the type of wood that is burned and the quality of the stove as a heat exchanger. There are no electric fans but cast-iron objects on the top of the stove along with cast iron, heat-powered fans are often used to at least provide some heat distribution.
If ease of use and exact temperature control are important to you a pellet stove is easier to use and manage, but many people have no trouble adjusting their wood-fired stoves to accomplish the same end.
3. The Electricity Conundrum
Because pellet stoves require electricity to drive the auger; power the control panel and manage the thermostat -they will not perform in the event of a power outage or in an off-grid environment.
However, pellet stoves with gravity feeds have hit the market recently, and do not require electricity to operate but they lack the control of a thermostat for heat regulation. You need to manually adjust the pellet feed-rate to keep the heat output consistent.
4. General Maintenance
Both wood-fired stoves and pellet stoves require maintenance. The amount of maintenance and the kind of maintenance varies depending on the fuel source.
Wood-fired stove maintenance
Ash disposal is one of the regular maintenance chores for any wood-burning stove. Ash disposal from a wood-fired stove presents some unique challenges. For one, the combustion is rarely total and there are always bits of charred wood and bark remaining. A small metal shovel is usually used to remove the ash and it’s then dumped into a metal bucket.
One of the unique challenges of wood-fired ash disposal are the hot coals that often remain in the ash while it’s being shoveled. These glowing coals represent a fire hazard and the ash needs to be taken outside for disposal soon after cleaning. The residual coals will also give off a smoke odor which can fill a room for a while.
An obvious solution is to let the fire and coals totally extinguish before cleaning, but that can be problematic if the temperature outside is extremely cold and the wood-stove is your only source of heat. An electric space heater can help in the short-term but if you’re off-the-grid you either need to put up with the smoke smell or grab an extra sweater.
Wood-burning stoves also cause creosote to build up in the chimney requiring chimney cleaning at least annually. The amount of creosote buildup depends largely on the type of wood you burn. Dry, well-seasoned wood burns hotter and cleaner than green woods. Hardwood also burn cleaner than softwoods that can have resins like pines or birch. Woods that create a high creosote buildup could require a chimney cleaning twice or even three times over the course of a year.
Regardless of the type of wood, wood-fired stoves also release significant emissions into the atmosphere. If you’re concerned about that, a pellet stove burns much cleaner from an emissions standpoint, but they also require unique maintenance steps.
Pellet Stove Maintenance
Pellet stoves combust hardwood pellets to a fine ash. They also burn very clean resulting in very few emissions. As a result, the chimney pipe for a pellet stove does not require cleaning. However, the ash needs to be removed from the stove and disposed of and a specialized vacuum is needed to make this easier.
A vacuum makes short work of ash removal from a pellet stove. If the stove has a glass panel on the door, ash will also build up and will need to be wiped off with a damp rag. The stove needs to cool down before any cleaning is done, but because the cleanup is quick there is less loss of heat in a living space during maintenance while the stove is off.
Off-grid, gravity fed pellet stoves have a removable ash box to make cleaning easier without an electric powered vacuum.
5. Installation Factors
Wood-fired stoves typically exhaust smoke through a double-walled pipe that extends above the roof. Many local codes require the addition of a double-walled pipe even if a brick chimney is present. This complicates things somewhat from a labor standpoint and adds to the installation costs.
Pellet stove installation is much simpler from a venting standpoint. A double-walled pipe is still required, but the chimney can be directed through the side of a house making for a simpler installation.
Both wood-fire and pellet-fired stoves also require an insulating pad or layer beneath the stove to reflect heat from floors and need to be installed at a certain distance from any wall.
6. Stove Cost
The costs for a pellet stove versus a wood-stove are comparable based on the features and the size. The BTU’s or “British Thermal Units” that determine the heat output of a stove also matchup fairly evenly from a cost standpoint. Pellet stoves tend to cost a bit more if the electronics associated with the thermostat and other features are robust.
There are also some complaints out there related to the cost of replacing the electronics on a pellet stove if they fail in any way. Wood-stoves are very simple and low-tech, so repairs and replacement parts tend to be much cheaper.
7. Fuel Availability
Pellets are not easily available in all areas. There availability is growing since the popularity of pellet stoves has grown but check to see how easy it is to buy pellets or have them delivered. If that’s a problem you might want to consider a wood-fired stove as an option. You could always order pellets online, but shipping costs can be much higher than local delivery of pellets from a home-center or other supplier.
Most areas have a source for the purchase of firewood by the cord or by the ton. You can either load it yourself or have it delivered. Some sources will deliver and stack the wood for you for an additional fee. A cord of firewood is legally defined as a stack 4 feet wide by 8 feet long by 4 feet high.
A cord of firewood weighs on average a little more than two tons. A lot of this depends on the type of wood. Some woods are denser and heavier than others. Ask your local firewood supplier for a quote on a price per ton and ask them how much of a cord that equals. You can then do the math with the average price of pellets in your area for a ton and make some basic decisions on cost. Ideally you’ll want to buy a firewood that’s a hardwood like oak, hickory or maple. All pellets intended for pellet stoves are hardwood pellets.
The Fireplace Insert Option
Both pellet stoves and wood-fired stoves can be installed in an existing fireplace.
A fireplace on its own is an inefficient heat source given the fact that most of the heat goes up the chimney. An insert is a cast-iron box that holds the heat and radiates it out into the living space more efficiently. It’s still not as effective as a free-standing wood-fired or pellet stove, but the installation is much less, it’s more efficient than a fireplace and in most cases does not require the installation of a separate two-walled pipe.
Both Types of Stoves are Space Heaters
A space heater is defined as a single heat source radiating heat into a specific living space. There is no ductwork to deliver the heat to other parts of the house whether passively or through forced air powered by a fan. The potential problem this can create is even heat distribution. The room with the stove can feel too warm while other rooms in the house feel cold. There are some solutions. Some easier than others.
One solution is to install a second stove especially if you have to heat a large area of living space both upstairs and downstairs. This second stove could have intermittent use depending on how cold it gets. The obvious choice for stove type would be compatible with your primary stove. If you’re burning firewood to heat the downstairs you’d be better using the same kind of stove upstairs.
Other Heat Sharing Options Include:
- The installation of vents in holes in the ceiling above where the stove is located to allow the warm, rising air to travel through the vents into unheated spaces. This can also be done high on a wall to provide that same heat sharing, although this is a passive design so while the amount of heat reaching other rooms will be increased, it won’t be as significant as vented, forced-air through ductwork.
- A stovepipe heat-trap can be installed on the stovepipe above the stove and capture and direct heat as a secondary heat exchanger. This can be easily installed but is best done during the initial installation because it requires disassembling the pipe to attach it.
- Another option is the use of cast-iron figures on the top of the stove. You’ll often see these in the shapes of wildlife and the idea is that the heat from the stove is transferred to the iron to increase the amount of heat-exchange to the surrounding air.
- Cast iron fans are not powered but the heat rising from the stove causes them to slowly spin directing some of the heat around the room and towards opening to other rooms. The distance the heat will travel is limited because eventually the heat will rise but it helps.
- An old pioneer trick was to put a large cast-iron object like a Dutch oven on a stovetop and then transport the Dutch oven to another part of the house or cabin. It was then placed on a couple of bricks or a pile of stones and the hot cast iron exchanged heat with the surrounding air. This wasn’t very effective and only raised the room temperature a few degrees for a short period of time, but every little bit helped when the temperatures were far below freezing.
A Side Note on Wood Ash
If you’re ever inclined to make soap that way our pioneer ancestors used to make it, you should know that wood ash was a primary ingredient in the soap-making process. Rather than burying your ashes in a pit behind the house or cabin, save them for soap making day. In a nutshell, water is percolated through the wood ash and leaches lye from the ashes. This lye water is then concentrated by boiling and added to a fat and cooked, poured into molds and when hardened -you have soap. Just a thought.
Making the Final Determination Between Wood-stove and Pellet Stove
Here are some of the considerations affecting a decision between a wood-stove and a pellet stove. The factors are graded from 1 to 3. The size of the score does not indicate superiority. It is simply an assessment of your priorities and concerns. At the end, total the scores and you might have some clues about which type of stove is best for you.
|SITUATION SCORE (SELECT ONE)||3||2||1||Score|
|Firewood availability||I can harvest my own||Locally available for purchase and delivery||Hard to get or too expensive|
|Pellet availability||Limited availability or too expensive||Available but more expensive than firewood||Available and on par with firewood price|
|Money available for installation||Cost of installation not a factor||Willing to invest but cautious about costs||Money is tight. Looking for low cost installation|
|Cost of stove||An important consideration. Money is tight.||A minor factor but on my mind||Not important if benefits positive|
|Maintenance||Willing to do any maintenance necessary||Will do maintenance as needed||Prefer low maintenance|
|Temperature control||Willing to do manually||Will do but it’s a bother||Want even temperature control|
|Off-grid concerns||I am currently off-grid or very concerned about it||On-grid but concerned about power outages||Aware of concern but not a priority|
Evaluating Your Score
The potential total score can range from 7 to 21. Here again, the amount of the score does not indicate one score is better than the other, but the higher your score the more likely you would be better served by a wood-burning stove. If your score is lower that indicates a pellet stove is worth considering. The baseline is 14 so a score above 14 would skew you towards a wood-stove, while a score below 14 indicates you may prefer a pellet stove.
This score is not the final word on your decision. There may be a factor or two that are very important to you, so you have to weigh those factors as you decide which type of stove is best for your needs and concerns.
A Final Word
You have to think long-term when considering all of the factors affecting your choice.
- How much money can a wood or pellet stove alternative save you on conventional heat sources powered by gas, oil or electric?
- Can a single stove heat your entire home or is it an addition to a main living space to reduce your heating costs?
- How long will your stove last before it needs major maintenance or repair? Traditional wood-stoves are simpler from a technology standpoint than most pellet stoves and require less major maintenance. Some antique wood-stoves that are more than 100 years old can still operate safely and efficiently.
- Do you have the physical capability to fuel either stove whether it’s cutting wood, stacking and carrying it, or lifting and stacking 40-pound pellet bags?
When all is said and done it’s very satisfying to experience the self-reliant reward of creating your own heat. You just have to make sure you make the right decision the first time.