Wood Heat: Is It Right for You?

Thinking of using wood heat in your home? Here are a few options and factors to consider.
By John Gulland
October/November 2009
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A roaring fire behind safety glass is one of the potential aesthetic advantages of wood heat.
PHOTO: DAN TALSON/FOTOLIA
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Wood heat has many advantages. Wood is a renewable fuel, it's widely available in many parts of North America, and in some situations heating with wood can save you money. Wood heat isn't for everyone, but with a little research and planning, you may discover it's a great option for you. And any research you do upfront will be time well spent, because it can help you avoid costly mistakes. Here's a quick guide to what you need to consider before investing in wood heat.

Calculating Savings

In many cases, using wood heat will save you money, but this is not true for everyone. In general, if you live in a rural area or small town where you have access to fuel wood and can do some of the processing yourself, you can save some money—especially if you already have a truck or trailer and are handy with a chain saw and splitting maul. But if you have to buy split firewood and have it delivered to your suburban home, you probably won't save much.

To get a rough idea of the costs of wood heat compared with the costs of fossil fuels, you can try various online cost comparison calculators. However, no calculator can give you a completely accurate number for how much you could save. Most can't figure in supplementary wood heating, in which only a portion of the conventional fuel cost is displaced, nor can they take into account the time you devote to all the tasks involved in utilizing wood heat.

Consider what would happen if you paid yourself minimum wage for all the cutting, splitting, stacking, fire stoking, and ash removal. In most cases, the savings would quickly evaporate. So even if your main motivation is to save money, also think about whether the other benefits appeal to you—the ones that seem to sustain the most successful users of wood energy. If you enjoy physical work and a regular routine, and if you would like to be more self-reliant and less dependent on fossil fuels, then heating with wood may be right for you.

Heating System Choices

There are several different wood-heat technologies to choose from. The least expensive and most efficient is a woodstove located in the main living area of your home. Clean-burning stoves certified by the U.S. Environmental

Protection Agency (EPA) average about 70 percent fuel efficiency, and you save energy by putting your wood heater in the main living area because the warmth is concentrated where you spend most of your time. (The EPA maintains a long list of certified woodstoves and other wood heating appliances)

However, if you want to heat the whole house to an even temperature and keep fuel wood out of living areas, you could opt for a wood boiler or central furnace. Unfortunately, it can be hard to find efficient boilers and furnaces. The most efficient wood boilers are downdrafts, sometimes called gasifiers. If a forced-air furnace is more suitable for your house, look for an EPA-certified option. The only one we are currently aware of is the PSG Caddy. Although it may not be easy to find high-efficiency, clean-burning wood furnaces and boilers, the effort is worthwhile because there's a large difference in fuel consumption, convenience and maintenance costs between older conventional units and these advanced furnaces and boilers.

If you live in the city or suburbs, you may want to consider a pellet stove, furnace, or boiler. The 40-pound plastic bags of wood pellets are neat and easy to store, plus all the processing work is already done for you. If saving money is your goal, then yes, you can probably save some money by heating with pellets. But if your main motivation for choosing wood heat is greater energy independence, pellet stoves aren't your best choice because you can't make the fuel yourself. In fact, pellet supply is sometimes an issue—pellet stove owners need to be sure to purchase their winter heating supply early. Also, pellet stoves require electricity to run their fuel auger, fans, and controls, so they don't work as emergency heaters during power outages.

One Mistake Not to Make

Whichever type of wood-heat system you choose, you'll want to be sure it's well designed and safely installed. Keep in mind that a critical part of any wood heating system is the chimney, which needs to extend straight up from the stove for greatest efficiency. It's the chimney draft that draws in combustion air and sends the exhaust outdoors. Bad chimneys create wood-heat nightmares because their low draft means that a cloud of smoke rolls into the house every time you open the stove door to add wood. The biggest mistake you can make is to install the chimney out through a wall and up the outside of the house. There is nearly always a way to route the chimney straight up through the inside of the house, and it is well worth the effort.

Wood heat has many benefits, including beauty and coziness, the security of knowing you'll be comfortable if the electrical grid fails, and freedom from energy suppliers who care most about the big check you send them each month. Chosen wisely, a wood heating system can provide many years of comfort, pleasure, and savings.


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