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Consumer Resources

Which Stove is Right for Me?

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When choosing a wood or pellet stove, there are many questions you need to ask yourself. These questions here are intended to start you down that path, but will not replace research and discussions with a hearth-installing professional. For additional information, Consumer Reports has also put together a short buyers guide for pellet and wood-buring stoves.
  1. If lowering my carbon footprint is my highest priority?
  2. If emitting the least amount of smoke and particulates is my highest priority?
  3. If I need a low-priced stove?
  4. If I don't care about price?
  5. If I have very little available space?
  6. If I don't have a chimney?
  7. If I don't want the noise of a fan?
  8. If I want really high heat output?
  9. If I live in a densely populated area – or have a neighbor with asthma or respiratory issues?
  10. If my stove is going to be important for emergency back up heat?
  11. If I also want to heat my water with the stove?
  12. If I love my fireplace and want the closest experience to a fireplace?
  13. If I live in a manufactured or mobile home?
  14. If I have very young kids in the house?
  15. If I want to heat my entire house?
  16. If I also want to cook and bake with my stove?
  17. If I want to burn corn kernels?
  18. If I want the convenience of a conventional fossil fuel furnace?
  19. If I want to buy a second hand stove?
1. Q. If lowering my carbon footprint is my highest priority?

A. Pellet stoves are easier to keep burning 24 hours a day, so most people are less likely to use their conventional furnace to heat up the house, when you get home from work or wake up in the morning, for example. There are lots of folks who manage to rely only on their wood stove all winter and maybe you are one of them. For most of us, a pellet stove is the best way to avoid using the furnace or boiler periodically through the winter. The production of pellets has a slightly higher carbon footprint than cordwood harvesting and splitting, especially if you split your wood by hand. But the carbon input for pellet production is not large at all, particularly compared to drilling, refining and transporting fossil heating fuels.

Pellet and corn stoves also need electricity to run their blower fans – about 100 kWh per month and that electricity is mainly generated from fossil fuels – coal and gas. Of course, installing a pellet or wood furnace to entirely replace your existing system is likely to reduce your carbon footprint the most, particularly in a larger house and in colder climates.

2. Q. If emitting the least amount of smoke and particulates is my highest priority?

A. Pellet stoves offer a consistently cleaner burn than wood stoves in real world settings. For cordwood, masonry stoves are by far the cleanest, and catalytic stoves are cleaner than non-catalytic stoves, assuming you are using your catalyst properly. The EPA list of certified stoves has the grams per hour of particulates for each stove. These numbers do not include the smoke during start-up, which is the smokiest period for a wood stove. If emitting the least amount of smoke is your highest priority, buy a pellet stove. With wood stoves, the most important thing you can do is to ensure that your wood is well seasoned and that you are operating the stove well. With wood stoves, the difference of a gram or two as tested in the lab for certification is not significant. With pellet stoves the difference of a gram or two is more likely to reflect howclean the stove burns in your home.

3. Q. If saving money is my highest priority?

A. Buying through a specialty retailer can give you lots of expert and valuable advice – along with sticker shock. If you have little to spend on a stove, we think buying a stove from a big box store and having it professionally installed can still get you a safe, good installation for around $2,000 to $2,500 – everything included. As an independent, non-profit that accepts no advertising or funding from any stove manufacturer, we almost always avoid recommending certain brands. But we have direct experience testing wood and pellet stoves made by England Stove Works and consider them to be very good value. With EPA certified wood stoves starting from $700, there is almost no reason to buy on the second hand market, as a new stove should outperform almost anything on the second hand market under $1,000. Their basic pellet stove is not much to look at, but we found it to be a solid performer for $1,200. It did not outperform the more expensive pellet stoves but is a good value and the install kit is only about $350. Other brands bought through big box stoves may be good value too. We high recommend professional installation not just for safety, but also for your insurance company and optimal stove performance.

Generally speaking, wood stoves are cheaper to buy, but pellet stoves are cheaper to install. Cordwood is often a more affordable fuel and arborists in more southern states are often willing to give homeowners green wood for free or very cheap - you will need to split and season the wood before it is usable. As a final consideration, pellet stoves can increase your electricity bills by $5 – $15 per month depending on how much you use the stove and your electricity rates.

4. Q. If I don’t care about price?

A. The majority of wood and pellet stoves cost between $2,000 and $3,500, but beyond that range there is an array of stoves, including many from Europe that are in the $5,000 - $8,000 range, some with lots of soapstone. Masonry stoves also start around $7,000 and can go up to $30,000. If you have the space and can afford it, masonry stoves are incredibly efficient and low-emission whole house heaters.

5. Q. If I have very little available space?

A. You have several options when it comes to space-saving designs. Many European and some North American brands can be installed in or on a wall and some feature quite small fireboxes. European-style stoves are designed to be taller and narrower than the models usually produced in the US, which allows them to fit more easily into a smaller home, but they too also have a smaller firebox that will not hold a fire overnight. You can also look for models that have been approved for use in mobile homes if you like a more traditional style. These stoves are specifically designed to have very short clearance requirements of only 1-6”, as opposed to the 8- 14" average. Pellet stoves usually have much less restrictive clearance requirements. If installing a small stove in an existing fireplace, you need very little clearance thanks to the fire-safe lining. If you line walls around the stove with non-combustible material, you can reduce clearances. With fireproofing, most certified wood stoves need 4-6 inches of clearance.

6. Q. If I don’t have a chimney?

A. An existing fireplace and chimney can reduce the cost of the installation. We recommend considering installing a freestanding wood or pellet stove in a fireplace, not an “insert.” Inserts can be difficult to remove and clean, and require electricity for optimum performance. If you don’t have a chimney, you must either vent the stove directly up through the roof, or out an exterior wall and then up above roofline. Professional installation is highly recommended. Pellet stoves, with fans and cooler exhaust, can generally be vented through an exterior wall like a dryer and are less expensive to install than wood stoves.

7. Q. If I don’t want the noise of a fan?

A. Inserts and pellet stoves have electric fans to distribute hot air. If you are noise sensitive, consider a wood stove. The noise from a pellet stove is often compared to a refrigerator and can be“white noise” that you get used to. Pellet stove manufacturers do not have a consistent way to report noise levels and most don’t try. The lowest priced pellet stoves usually have the noisier fans. The more expensive European models are known for lower fan noise. (There is now one pellet stove on the market that does not need electricity and has no fans.)

8. Q. If I want really high heat output?

A. Almost all wood and pellet stove companies exaggerate their Btu output and it’s not wise to rely on claims found on company websites and materials. For wood stoves, the highest heat output will be from the larger catalytic stoves at least three companies – Woodstock Soapstone, Blaze King and Travis – offer good, large catalytic or catalytic hybrid stoves. We think the firebox size of a stove is a more reliable indicator of heat output than published Btu/hour claims. The Btu/hour figures published on the EPA list of certified stoves are also often exaggerated but they are usually closer to reality than company websites and printed literature. For pellet stoves, firebox size is not an indicator of heat output. The most important indicator is the feed rate – the number of pounds that the auger can deliver to the firebox per hour – but manufacturers rarely disclose that information. Specialty retailers and sites like hearth.com are good sources of more reliable information about which pellet stoves put out the most heat. The Alliance also independently tested the heat output of 6 popular pellet stoves.

9. Q. If I live in a densely populated area – or have a neighbor with asthma or respiratory issues?

A. Pellet stoves are far more suitable for densely inhabited areas, and the demand of stoves in urban areas is usually very low. Many old homes have fireplaces that are far more polluting than a good wood or pellet stove, but often not used frequently. If you have a neighbor whose asthma is triggered by wood smoke, switching to a pellet stove may significantly reduce or eliminate the problem. There are far too many people who have wood stoves and don’t burn them very well and who need to do much more to reduce smoke that impacts neighbors. Your energy solution should not become another person’s problem. If your smoke is causing problems with neighbors, its your responsibility to reduce the problem by trading in an old stove for a new one, making sure your wood is very dry and you aren’t reducing the air supply too much – or switching to pellets or a gas stove. It may help to vent the stove out the opposite side of your home than their property line. If your neighbor is making too much smoke, some states have nuisance laws that may help.

10. Q. If my stove is going to be important for emergency back up heat?

A. If you only plan to use a wood stove in an emergency, like a black out, keeping on an older, uncertified stove can make sense. But be sure to keep a dry, covered wood supply. And, make sure that the flue has been cleaned and works, and is not plugged with birds’ nests. If you have a pellet stove, rather than trying to hook up a battery, it is now usually more economical to simply buy a generator that can provide electricity for the stove and some lights. Good generators are available in the $500 - $1,000 price range.

11. Q. If I also want to heat my water with the stove?

A. Many European wood and pellet stoves also heat water for space heating, and some also for domestic hot water. In the US, some more expensive wood or pellet boilers may offer that. There are also some aftermarket kits, but they may void the warranty on the stove. Please let us know if you know of a good option.

12. Q. If I love my fireplace and want the closest experience to a fireplace?

A. Many people buy wood or pellet inserts that have a similar look to a fireplace. Running a stove with the doors open is not recommended as it can overheat and damage the stove, and it greatly diminishes the efficiency of the stove. There are some EPA qualified fireplaces on the market that provide substantial heat and also reduce the smoke from fireplaces.

14. Q. If I have very young kids in the house?

A. Get a good fence or screen- wood stoves heat a room by radiating heat from their surfaces, so they are not safe to touch when lit.Always teach your children about the danger of burns from the surface of the stove. The sides of many pellet stoves are not hot to the touch, but the glass is always hot and can cause severe burns.

15. Q. If I want to heat my entire house?

A. Many homes with less than 2,000 square feet of living space can be comfortably heated by a single wood or pellet stove as long as you have a relatively open floor plan. The stove can be centrally located in living quarters, although rooms further will be a bit colder. Otherwise, your options include installing two stoves (a combination of one wood and one pellet stove is often useful) or a wood or pellet furnace or boiler that can be ducted just like a traditional fossil fuel furnace throughout the home. There are some larger stoves that have heat exchangers and ducts that can warm nearby rooms.

16. Q. If I also want to cook and bake with my stove?

A. Quite a few factory and site built masonry stove designs have ovens. And many wood stoves have flat tops that can be used to cook, in an emergency or if you have no better option. In Europe, there are scores of new, certified cook stoves and a few are on the market in the US. In the US, they are one of the few types of wood stoves that are still exempt from EPA certification and they may not be very clean or efficient.

17. Q. If I want to burn corn kernels?

A. Heating with corn kernels can be a very efficient use of the crop for energy, especially compared to liquid biofuels. Most pellet stoves cannot burn corn, but some are listed as “multi-fuel” and can handle corn. Make sure that you use exhaust piping designed for corn, because normal pellet stove vent is not suitable for corn. Also, you will need to make sure you can store the corn so animals don’t get it. Click here for more on corn heating.

18. Q. If I want the convenience of a conventional fossil fuel furnace?

A. There are wood and pellet-burning furnaces and boilers on the market, which offer nearly the same convenience as a conventional furnace system. Pellet furnaces, hidden away in your basement, can work with same sort of thermostat that any furnace uses. Pellet fuel can be blown into a large storage bin and automatically fed into your furnace, while a wood furnace will need to be fed once or twice a day. Make sure you are buying an EPA certified boiler, which will be required throughout the US as of Jan. 1, 2016.

19. Q. If I want to buy a second hand stove?

A. There are now many second hand EPA certified wood stoves on the market. We do NOT recommend buying any stove that is not EPA certified, as it’s likely to be very, very old, and be very inefficient and dirty. If you want to save money, we highly recommend buying a new, value stove at a big stove store (see Q & A. #3.) If you really want a second hand stove, you can find some good buying tips here. Second hand pellet stoves are not that common and can be more problematic. At the very least, make sure to run the stove and make sure it works, and that parts are still available for that model.

 
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