When to Choose Wood Heat

For some households, heating with wood is a smart, sustainable option. Learn about the benefits and costs of using a woodstove to heat your home.

wood heat is a clean, renewable and efficient energy source

In a world of touch-screen convenience, pocket-sized computers and climate-controlled environments, wood heating is, in every way, rough, basic and steadfastly hands-on. 

Photo By Jerry Pavia

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The significance of wood heat as an energy resource can be seen during a drive through small towns or down country lanes: The long lines of piled firewood in the yards prove that heating with wood remains a viable option.

Every winter, people who choose to heat with wood devote time to cutting up logs, and every spring they split the logs and stack them in rows to dry under the summer sun. In fall they move firewood to the house and stack it again, and in winter they burn it to warm their homes as they begin cutting again for the next year’s supply.

Why do so many households in forested areas choose to heat with wood — a bulky, messy and labor-intensive fuel source? Firewood is a homegrown energy resource that helps families stretch their household budgets, strengthen their local economies and continue a generations-long tradition.

Wood Heat: Understand the Pros and Cons

During tough economic times, more people turn to heating with wood. The U.S. Energy Information Administration data released in October 2012 projects that more than 2.6 million households will heat their homes with wood this year, which is a 3 percent increase over last year.

Yet the topic of fuelwood is all but missing from energy policy debates — few politicians discuss its merits or plan for its strategic use. (Industrial wood energy, however, is getting some attention. A recent report from Duke University points out that advanced wood-combustion technologies can be used to cleanly burn wood to generate electricity. The report shows that this renewable power source could be quickly developed to provide more power in the United States than we currently get from hydroelectric sources. To learn more about this report, read Cleaner Energy From Firewood.)

Wood heating mostly attracts attention when people discuss pollution. Wood smoke has caused real problems in small towns and large cities throughout North America, and an increasing number of activists clamor to have wood burning banned from their communities because of its associated air pollution. Some environmentalists warn that an increase in firewood use would damage forests. As a result, wood burning has become more often identified as a problem to be solved rather than an opportunity to be harvested. Fuelwood is a renewable energy resource that most governments — and even some renewable energy advocates — don’t seem comfortable with.

It is not my intention to trivialize the environmental impacts of wood heating or to deflect concerns by emphasizing the pollution from other energy sources. Wood-burning technology has greatly improved over the past 25 years, however, and I believe wood heating should remain a part of our energy discussions. For example, upgrading to an advanced woodstove can reduce a household’s smoke output from wood by as much as 90 percent!

Woodstove Efficiency

Emissions from older, conventional woodstoves average at least 25 grams of smoke particulates (almost an ounce) per hour of operation, and the emissions from older, wood-fired outdoor boilers range from 50 to more than 100 grams per hour. By contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits emissions of certified woodstoves to no more than 7.5 grams per hour. Since the regulation was established in 1988, the average emissions of certified stoves have declined steadily because of advances in technology and competition among manufacturers. Today, most new woodstove models emit only 2 to 4 grams per hour.

Just as noticeable as new stoves’ reduction in visible smoke is the increased efficiency that results from newer models burning — not wasting — the energy-rich smoke. Efficiency is expressed as the percent of potential energy in the fuel that’s delivered as useful heat to the house. Older woodstoves range in efficiency from about 35 percent for a cast-iron box stove or furnace to 55 percent for some 1980s-era airtight stoves. Most old outdoor boilers are less than 50 percent efficient. By contrast, EPA-certified woodstoves average about 70 percent efficiency, and none is less than 60 percent efficient. The newer generations of EPA-certified outdoor boilers are also much more efficient. (For more details on the advantages of EPA-certified stoves, see our Woodstove Buyer’s Guide.)

Wood as a Renewable Energy Resource

These days, there is plenty of debate over what to do about climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. But firewood literally grows on trees, and the ability of a woodlot to regenerate is the secret to its status as a renewable energy resource. Wood is about half carbon by weight, but its use as a fuel is almost carbon dioxide-neutral, because trees absorb CO2 as they grow. When trees fall in the forest, the same amount of CO2 is emitted when they decompose as is released when they are burned for heat.

Despite fuelwood’s considerable advantages, not all households can solve the problems of rising home heating costs and global warming by heating with wood. Firewood is not a great home heating fuel in densely populated urban areas because its emissions tend to be higher than other options, and the air in urban areas is already burdened with pollution from factories and vehicles.

But large parts of North America are relatively thinly populated and have highly productive forests — these are the regions where wood heating makes sense. Forests need to be managed sustainably, but the methods to do so are now well-known: selective harvesting, thinning of dense stands, removal of poorer-quality trees, leaving seed trees of all present species and ages, and allowing some standing dead trees to provide wildlife habitat.

Benefits and Costs of Heating With Wood

Economists focus on the monetary cost of energy, but the net energy cost can provide better insight into environmental costs and the underlying reasons for the monetary cost.

“Net energy” is the usable amount of energy left after extracting, processing and transporting an energy commodity to market. Natural firewood has a very high net energy ratio compared with almost all other options because it needs little processing, much of which can be done with human labor. This bodes well for fuelwood’s price stability in the future. Price stability is not likely for fossil fuels, because the net energy goes way down and the retail price goes way up as easily accessible deposits are depleted. Declining net energy is the biggest reason oil prices are now so high. (Read How Much Energy Does It Take to Get Our Energy? for more information on net energy costs.)

Considering the rising cost of conventional fuels, households located outside major urban centers that have access to forests can save some money by heating with wood. A household that heats with wood trades its own labor for big savings in home operating expenses. Depending on climate zone and other available fuel options, a household that produces its own fuelwood supply can save $2,000 or more each year. Plus, consider the intangible, non-monetary benefits:

  • The beauty and ambience created by a fire burning behind clear glass doors
  • The special warmth given off by a woodstove located in a main living area
  • The satisfaction one feels in mastering self-sufficient home heating, largely through personal labor and ingenuity
  • The sense of security, both in terms of energy price stability and in the ability to remain fed and comfortable during electrical power interruptions

But those savings and benefits do come with some costs:

  • The investment in a new woodstove and, if necessary, a new chimney
  • The space needed to store a winter’s supply of firewood outside the house, and space indoors for a few days’ supply
  • The physical strength and stamina required to split, move and stack firewood, or the effort of finding and purchasing wood from other sources
  • The time spent gathering the fuel supply, tending the fire and dealing with regular maintenance, such as cleanup of wood chips, bark and wood ash

Buy Local Fuel

A woodlot owner who produces and sells firewood provides employment and income to the area. If the producer uses sustainable forestry methods, the quality and value of the woodlot increases as it is worked. If a household buys its winter fuel supply from a neighbor, the transaction has a multiplying effect by keeping the money circulating within the community, increasing local incomes and creating jobs.

Most people recognize that wood is humanity’s original heating fuel. Rarely acknowledged, however, is that its dominance was displaced relatively recently. Wood was the only practical heating fuel option in much of rural North America until the mid-20th century, when coal became more widely available.

Heating with wood today is dramatically better than it was in the past. The efficiency of the average woodstove has roughly doubled to about 70 percent, and these advanced stoves don’t produce dense plumes of blue-grey smoke. Chimney technology and safety have also improved — there are now clear (if complicated) safety rules and trained professionals to help homeowners comply with regulations.

In a world of touch-screen convenience, pocket-sized computers and climate-controlled environments, wood heating is, in every way, rough, basic and steadfastly hands-on. Responsible producers and consumers of fuelwood are engaged in an activity that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and uses a renewable energy resource, thereby taking pressure off of dwindling supplies of ever-pricier fossil fuels. Wood heating is also a gentle way to produce energy compared with mountaintop-removal coal mining or nuclear reactors.

Heating with wood is about much more than home heating. Fuelwood is the ultimate populist energy resource — and the most easily accessed and affordable of all renewable energies. People who purchase firewood create jobs close to home and strengthen their local community. Sometimes, the woodlot owner’s household earns part of its income by supplying fuel to neighbors. Those who heat with wood know more about the cause-and-effect relationships of energy production and consumption than those who simply pay utility bills. And families that use fuelwood responsibly will find that the act of heating with wood is its own reward.

2/26/2016 2:30:34 PM

Prescott, Yavapai County, AZ

2/26/2016 2:27:27 PM

In a poured concrete home, wood which I purchase, provides my only heat. The a/c-heat pump is worthless & costs too much to use. This year Eucalyptus & Juniper have proved to heat best. The birds are back so Spring started early Feb. in 2016.

2/26/2016 9:41:17 AM

Around here huisache, a fast-growing, nasty thorned tree is a real nuisance, having to be cleared from pastures almost yearly. It has a branching root system from which new trees erupt unless you can pull up all the root system when you cut it down (impossible). There is an expensive chemical which will kill them, but I don't want to use it as I want my cows to be all natural if not certifiably organic. Does anyone have any knowledge or experience with using huisache as indoor fuel in a wood stove?

1/13/2014 2:34:53 PM

When deciding if heating with wood is right for your household, don't forget to factor in an increase in your home insurance costs. Most insurance companies charge an additional premium for solid fuel heating appliances, usually around 25%, and some may even decline coverage. Other factors include distance to a firehall and whether a home is built from frame or log construction.

12/8/2013 12:45:40 AM

Rebecca.....no my dear, it's NOT 'politics' that are killing America, it's radicals from the Left and Right, both of whom live in their Lands of Theories, that are killing our nation!..........Empiricism used to be the Rule of the Day as to how rules for business were made: SCIENCE used to be the baseline for EPA rules/regs, now, for the last 10-15 years (and especially during the last 5.5 years), science at the EPA has taken a back seat to IDEOLOGY!.............Propaganda from the Left has killed common sense (if it ever existed) at the EPA.......1/3 of ALL small coal fired electrical generating plants have been shut DOWN by the EPA, with several coal mines in the Eastern US having been shut down........but DEMAND for electricity has done anything but go down.....good for you on your woodstove and your move to be more energy independent from the Grid!....keep positive and keep trying new methods to save money and fuel.....Cheers from Wyoming.

12/8/2013 12:37:35 AM

Bill Lewin, I'll worry about particulates from wood burning seriously affecting my health, my neighbors health, and the health of the urbanites and suburbanites, from those nasty, nasty, wood stoves, just as soon as you and your fellow anti-woodstove advocates get rid of the 100 million cars and trucks driving in big cities, spewing acid out their tailpipes from those wonderful catalytic converters you environmentalists forced the auto industry to put in, and as soon as you stop the jet aircraft from taking off at every airport in America........if you haven't ever looked, take a gander at how much 'pollution' a single 737 puts out and then Bing search how many of those short range hoppers are in use DAILY across the USA......then of course we have the other commercial aircraft pumping out toxins........you people are never happy with anything that doesn't fit your world view: back in the 60's and 70's, it was "Get RID of the paper bags we're cutting down trees to make them...SWITCH to PLASTIC BAGS!"......yeah, now it's the plastic bags that are 'evil'. Then it was get rid of glass bottles, because it of the energy cost in producing them....PLASTIC BOTTLES were much cheaper, lighter, and hence, big trucks wouldn't work so hard chugging out all those diesel fumes carrying the big heavy bottles around.....now, PLASTIC BOTTLES are 'toxic'.......then it was calls for a paradigm shift to SOLAR and WIND POWER.....now you folks are screaming about Solar and Wind farms snuffing out some toads/tortises/birds and environmental groups are filing suit to kill those Solar and Wind Farms and also stopping the Transmission Lines to get that 'clean energy' to people's homes.........YOU'RE NEVER HAPPY!

12/8/2013 12:26:44 AM

Michael Kaufman, Man oh man, I was really shocked by your post. Granted, I live in the middle of Nowhere,WY, and so we view 'dangers/dangerous' aspects of life a lot differently that Big City folks, and certainly from you Easterners, but man, reading your post just reminded me of how far down the education slope we've slipped!.......I'm NOT trying to be mean here, I'm just saying that EVERYTHING you mention is just 'common sense' to us! Everything we do in life is 'dangerous' by the standard you've presented. Saying that the process of procuring firewood is 'dangerous' is just like saying 'getting up in the morning' is 'dangerous', to me! I live in Open Range area of an Oil Patch. When I hitchhike into town (my 20th month so doing), I've got trucks from 1/2 ton to 30 tons passing by me on the hardpack, some of which are carrying highly combustible items (it's the Oil Patch), and then I have to dodge black angus cattle which were placed here for the Winter Feeding, plus I have to dodge rattlers, badgers, etc. during the Summer.....it was -30F this morning and when I go into town on Monday, it's supposed to be a balmy 16F for a HIGH around 13:00-14:00.........minus temps or zero when I start out in the morning........so please take the fact that LIFE is dangerous into your considerations when posting......thanks.

bill lewin
12/7/2013 6:11:24 PM

Thanks to Michael Kaufman in his comment [at Mother Earth News] for at least considering the risks of burning wood. Now if one disregards the risks to the wood burner one might be free to simply consider the toxic effects to which all innocent bystanders are subjected. In order for the wood burner to save a few dollars everybody else in the area is being poisoned with nasty gases and killing fine particulate matter which lodges deep within their lungs and enters their bloodstream. Heart attack, anybody? How about stroke? Educate yourself about the health effects from wood burning! Unwanted and unjust health risks presented to all the neighbors make heating with wood totally selfish, disgusting and unacceptable - MOST PARTICULARLY IN URBAN AND SUBURBAN NEIGHBORHOODS WHERE THE MYTH OF THE SELF-SUSTAINING RUGGED INDIVIDUALIST RUNS RAMPANT AND MORE AND MORE RETAILERS ARE HAWKING FIREWOOD ON EVERY CORNER!

12/6/2013 3:09:17 PM

I just put in a Jotul too. Thanks to Bruce McElurray, a contributor to this magazine for his suggestion to me. It's was GREAT. I love it but it does take work to maintain. I have it installed and vented up thru my existing fireplace. I have a heatpump back up. The problem now is that politicians are changing the EPA regulations so that it will be more difficult for honest people to try and save money with burning wood. My Jotul is brand new and meets all the newer EPA standards but when will the NEW standards be changed. Politics are killing America. Rebecca

12/6/2013 1:49:07 PM

We heat with fuel and my other reading corroborates what you say. However, there is another big downside you don't mention: logging, cutting to length, and splitting wood, are all highly dangerous -- even for those with much experience and even for those using personal protective gear. Trees don't always fall where you plan and can take down neighboring branches or trees. Helmets with mesh facemasks and modern chain-snagging chaps can reduce some of the danger of chainsaws. Earplugs or earmuffs can reduce the likelihood of hearing damage. Heavy gloves can reduce the likelihood of developing crippling carpal tunnel nerve damage and other repetitive strain injuries. But none of these eliminate the risks. Splitters can shoot massive chunks at bone and skull crushing high velocity. Axes and wedges have their own risks. Even pulling out downed logs from the woods can be risky if they get hung up or to one's own musculoskeletal system. Fossil-fuel using tools for cutting, transporting, and splitting wood have their own hazardous emissions and also contribute to global warming. Breathing the smoke and ash can cause or exacerbate lung and circulatory problems. So yes, wood as fuel can be near carbon neutral, economical, and aesthetically pleasing, but it can also be hazardous to oneself and others. On balance we take the risks, but we shouldn't romanticize its use and ignore its many hazards. --Michael Kaufman Bovina, NY

12/6/2013 9:48:52 AM

Great piece. Here's a funny blog post on buying a chainsaw - http://brianjfoley.net/2011/02/03/on-splitting-firewood-axes-and-chainsaws-manhood-part-1/

vicki newby
1/18/2013 5:41:41 PM

I have a Jotul wood stove with central heat as backup. I also use a service available through the electric co-op where they email our electric usage in kilowatt hours for the previous day, from midnight to midnight. Due to other matters I didn't get the wood stove fired up as soon in the season as I usually do, so now I have a solid comparison between all electric heat and wood stove heat. For an example of how effective our little wood stove is, in this last bit of cold, one twenty four hour period on central heat used 192 KWH. I got the little wood stove fired up and the house warmed up and the KWh went down to 29. 29! from 192! Huge difference! A nice thing for me is I live on an acreage with lots of trees on it so I think I could stay warm for several years just cleaning up the deadfall.