Wood Stove Buyer's Guide
Did you know there are wood stove models that do not use wood as fuel? Generally, when people think of a wood stove, they envision a free standing cast iron stove. Perhaps you are in the market for a traditional wood stove, or perhaps you like the look of a wood stove but are interested in alternative fuel options or convenient venting. Either way, this article will give you a better understanding of the options available today.
A cast iron, steel, or soapstone stove has a timeless look that brings amazing charm and warmth to any home. We'll cover the basics of wood stoves and discuss the unique features of the various types of stoves, including alternative fueling options so you can choose the perfect stove for you and your family.
Why You Should Consider A Wood Stove
Wood stoves offer more than just some cozy heat for your home. They are extremely versatile, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly. Plus, almost every wood stove can be converted to use as a wood cook stove with the simple addition of a purpose-built griddle.
Using an indoor wood burning stove for cooking gives you the freedom to make hot, home-cooked meals, even during a power outage! That's because wood stoves don't need electricity to operate like many other hearths. These efficient heating appliances are ideal for off-the-grid living and for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint. For suggestions on cooking with your wood stove, check out this article on how to use your stovetop to prepare meals.
Since wood is carbon neutral, unlike natural gas and propane, burning wood results in less air pollution. We recommend that you stockpile wood fuel during the offseason when the fuel prices are low so you can enjoy low-cost fuel for cooking and heating all winter long.
Regulations and Approval from Local Authorities
Not all wood heaters are suitable for every home and location. When choosing a wood stove, make sure that the models you consider meet applicable regulations and fire codes.
Since 1988, the EPA has issued a series of emissions guidelines that limit how much pollution newly manufactured stoves can produce. As of February 3, 2015, all newly manufactured wood stoves were required to meet a standard of no more than 4.5 grams of pollution per hour. A new standard, scheduled to go into effect May 1, 2020, will reduce the maximum pollution allowed to just 2.0 grams per hour. So, if you're searching for a contemporary wood stove, there is a higher chance it will comply with EPA standards.
For more detailed information about the history and current landscape of EPA restrictions and other governmental regulations, we recommend you read our articles titled, EPA Emissions and the Future of Wood Burning Stoves and California Title 24: Complete Guide to Net Zero Energy.
Thankfully, there are several models of a wood stove for sale that stay well within the 2.0 gram per hour limit. With new restrictions on the horizon, it seems that the future is in clean-burning stoves—something you should definitely consider when purchasing an appliance for your home.
EPA guidelines aren't the only rules to consider. Wood heater regulations (particularly with regard to emissions) vary based on where you live. Even if your stove meets the current EPA regulations, it still may fail to meet air quality laws for your state or municipality. Contact your local Department of Environmental Quality to confirm that your stove is compliant with your local regulations.
Homeowners Associations (HOAs) throw another layer of standards into the mix, adding additional restrictions as neighborhood requirements. The last thing you want to do is to fail a home inspection due to an outdated, inefficient wood cookstove. Check with your local code enforcement office and save yourself a lot of hassle down the road.
Choosing a Wood Stove
There are four main factors to consider when selecting a wood stove: venting, location, desired heat output, and efficiency rating. Although not an exhaustive list, these aspects will help you narrow your search for the perfect stove.
Venting and location go hand in hand, as venting involves how the stove pipes funnel exhaust out your house. Although it is possible to vent some stoves directly to the outside, others work best with a chimney. This allows most of the exhaust to travel through the interior vent pipes routed within the house, which provides the best conditions for the stove to draw air from outside. Of course, running a stove vent pipe through the house will affect the rooms directly above the stove. So, plan out the vent route and explore ways to make room for the vent system.
Decide where you want the stove in your home. If you are using the wood stove as a primary heat source, it is best to install it in a central location. You might even consider placing vents over your doors or fans to help move the hot air throughout the house. The location of your stove will also dictate the type of stove you should select for safety. Depending on the model, you will need to install the stove a certain distance from walls or flammable materials. If space is an issue, consider heat shields that allow you to install your stove closer to a wall, or look for stove models that do not need as much clearance.
Many people choose to install their stove in front of an existing masonry fireplace. This allows them to take advantage of the chimney and hearth and is a great way to use that space. However, it's not usually recommended to install a freestanding stove within the old fireplace. Doing this makes the unit less heat efficient.
Desired Heat Output
The heat your stove is capable of producing is measured in BTUs. To keep your home comfortably warm without overheating, look for the square footage ratings in the stove's specifications. You can also refer to this BTU calculator to get an idea of how many BTUs are needed to reach your optimal temperature in the space you are heating.
Other considerations include how cold your climate gets in the winter and how well your home is insulated. For example, if you live in Wisconsin and have only moderate insulation, you may need to increase the number of BTUs that are typically recommended for the square footage of the area that you are heating. Conversely, if you live in southern Georgia and want the atmosphere of a wood stove without the extra heat, you should consider a wood heater with a low BTU output.
The final consideration is the efficiency rating. If you prioritize low emissions or are hoping to use your fuel supply as efficiently as possible, you will want to look for stoves with higher efficiency ratings. However, efficiency is measured differently for wood-burning and gas-burning wood stoves.
For wood burning stoves, you will find efficiency measured in three ways: high heating value (HHV), low heating value (LHV), and thermal efficiency. Due to recent changes to EPA standards, you may not see much variance between HHV and LHV efficiency ratings. That's because these ratings apply to temperatures obtained within the appliance during combustion. They do not directly correlate with the amount of heat you can expect to be radiated into your home. However, it's still good to know what each rating means.
HHV refers to efficiency testing completed using dried wood fuel. It measures the stove's combustion performance without calculating the loss of energy that may occur during the vaporization or drying of moisture in wood during combustion. As such, this number is expected to be higher than the LHV efficiency rating.
The LHV efficiency rating measures the efficiency of a wood stove, accounting for heat loss during the vaporization of moisture content found in unseasoned wood fuel during combustion. This rating is beneficial in that it demonstrates how using improperly dried wood can impact the amount of heat generated by the stove during combustion.
In terms of overall efficiency, this rating tells you how much of the heat remaining in the combustion chamber actually radiates into the room. Ultimately, this is the rating that matters the most. It lets you know how much heat you can expect your appliance to produce to heat a given area.
For gas wood stoves for sale, efficiency ratings are provided similarly to gas fireplaces. You will likely come across the AFUE rating and thermal efficiency rating. AFUE stands for Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency and is represented as a percentage. Similar to HHV and LHV ratings used for solid fuels, it measures how much heat remains in the firebox after the initial combustion. For this reason, AFUE is also a higher number than the actual thermal efficiency rating. In the case of gas wood stoves, the thermal efficiency rating is also the most important factor to consider when determining how well the stove can heat a given area of your home. While AFUE, HHV, and LHV ratings are informative, these percentages do not fully explain how well you can expect your appliance to work.
Wood Stove Installation: Finding an Installer
After deciding on the type of wood stove that you wish to purchase, you are ready to choose an installer. Since proper installation is crucial to the safety and function of your new stove, we recommend hiring an installer trained and certified by the National Fireplace Institute (NFI). You can find NFI installers by visiting their website and searching by your postal code. Since there are different certifications for wood and gas appliances, you'll want to confirm that your installer is certified to work with your particular stove type.
Wood Energy Technology Transfer, Inc. (WETT) is another organization with trained installation professionals. WETT technicians also offer inspections to ensure that your previously installed stove is safe. You can search for WETT technicians in your area by visiting the WETT Inc. website.
If it isn't feasible to hire an NFI certified professional in your area, another option is to hire a licensed general contractor. A competent general contractor should have all the skills necessary to safely install your appliance. Do your research to ensure that you hire someone reputable, and don't be shy about asking them to explain their experience in installing a modern wood stove.
Top Wood Stove Brands In The Industry
Osburn — Osburn stoves are part of the SBI family of brands. SBI is a Canadian manufacturer that prides itself on producing wood burning and pellet burning stoves of exceedingly high quality. Using extensive computerized manufacturing techniques, their stove models achieve very high unit-to-unit consistency and offer both modern and traditional designs.
Vermont Castings — Founded over 40 years ago, Vermont Castings is a well-known brand specializing in high quality cast iron wood and gas stoves. Featuring exquisite attention to detail, a wealth of color options, and an impressive array of accessories, Vermont Castings models have long set the benchmark for cast iron stoves.
Buck — The Buck brand of stoves has been a staple of the hearth appliance industry for decades. In fact, many older wood heaters are often referred to generically as a "buck stove", even if they may not have been manufactured by Buck. Having diversified into both wood and gas product offerings, Buck maintains a proud legacy of domestic manufacturing and commitment to quality.
Napoleon — Based out of Barrie, Ontario, Napoleon offers a broad range of wood, gas, and pellet burning stoves. From the budget-minded Timberwolf brand to the highly detailed cast iron series of wood stoves, their product offerings are truly able to fit any budget. Along with an impressive line of direct vent and vent-free gas stoves and pellet-burning models, Napoleon offers a high-quality appliance for every need.
Jotul — A Norwegian based manufacturer, Jotul has a long history spanning over 160 years. Offering a wealth of uniquely designed wood and gas stoves, best selling models like the Jotul F 602 have sold over one million units since their inception. A testament to fine stove building, their stoves often become cherished heirlooms that are passed down generation to generation.
England's Stove Works — A result of the need to build a better wood stove in the face of ever-increasing energy standards, England's Stove Works was founded with efficiency and durability in mind. Their wood stoves continue to maintain a very high level of durability with a price that is difficult to beat. Simple yet handsome, their stoves are the perfect match for anyone wanting a "jack of all trades" wood stove.
Alternatives to Wood Fuel
Although most people associate freestanding stoves with wood fuel, there are other options available. Liquid propane, natural gas, and pellet stoves are also available as freestanding models. In addition, space heaters, wall furnaces, and wood/coal furnaces are often grouped into the stove category.
While there may be alternatives on the market, many prefer and choose traditional indoor wood burning stoves. In many areas, firewood is plentiful and easy to access, making it an economical fuel for stove owners. However, if there is not a good local supply of wood where you live, you might want to opt for an alternative fuel.
Gas Wood Stoves
Available in both liquid propane and natural gas models, gas wood stoves are an excellent choice for those who desire the appeal of a wood stove but not all of the wood chopping. Natural gas is available from municipal utility lines and is quite common. Since natural gas is lighter than air, it avoids the hazard of pooling like liquid propane.
Liquid propane is available by delivery or could come from a municipal line. Just monitor how much gas you have on hand so that you don't run out of fuel for heating your home. One thing to note is that liquid propane is heavier than air, and as such, it poses a risk of forming pools of gas, which could cause an explosion if ignited by a spark. Take care to understand the risks involved and how to safely maintain and operate your liquid propane system.
Pellets are made from organic byproducts, such as sawdust, cherry pits, or wood scraps. Although it may not be easy to source pellets in some areas of the country, they are compact and easy to store. Pellet stoves operate with a hopper that feeds pellets into the wood stove. Although this can allow for some automated control of the burn temperature, it also means that the stove requires electricity to operate. This makes them a poor choice for consumers who are planning to use their wood stove in the event of a power outage.
Space heaters are often found in the stove category, despite the fact that they typically lack some of the visual aesthetic that most people associate with classic wood stoves. However, if you are more interested in function than form, a space heater might be the perfect choice to heat areas of your home.
Space heaters are particularly good for zone heating and are perfect for the basement, garage, or any room that tends to be drafty or cold.
Wood and Coal Furnaces
Wood or coal-burning furnaces operate in a similar way to wood stoves and are intended to supplement heat that is generated by a traditional HVAC system. The furnaces can be attached to your central duct system to facilitate the passing of heat throughout your home. They can also come equipped with blowers to distribute heat across a large area. Our selection of furnaces include models rated to heat up to 3,600 square feet effectively.
Furnaces offer an aesthetically pleasing way to keep your home warm with less expensive fuel, and they come in a variety of sizes and styles. They even come in gas and electric models. But, keep in mind that they are not rated for use in mobile homes.
Get a Deeper Understanding of Wood Stoves!
Want more details about the different types of wood burning stoves? Here's a deeper look at the common model categories.
Wood Burning Stoves
A modern wood burning stove has more of a standard design than pre-EPA models. This simply means that newer wood stove models constructed from sheet metal steel and plate steel are built with similar aesthetic features. Their similar construction is due, in part, to the way wood stoves achieve new efficiency standards and the common materials used to manufacture them.
Materials — The most common materials offered for current EPA stoves include plate steel, cast iron, and soapstone.
Plate steel stoves are made from steel plates that are welded together. They are less expensive than cast iron or soapstone models and require relatively low maintenance since the welded joints do not require service. They are lighter than cast iron or soapstone and also allow heat to radiate to the room more quickly.
Wood stoves made from cast iron are often more expensive than plate steel, but they come in far more color and style options. The body of the stove also absorbs heat and continues to give off warmth hours after the fire has gone out. They are beautiful and durable; however, after several years, they may require maintenance for the cemented joints to keep the seams airtight.
Soapstone models are generally a hybrid construction with a plate steel or cast iron firebox covered in slabs of lovely, veined soapstone. The natural stone is pricier, but it gives a unique look and holds heat far longer than either cast iron or plate steel. Although the stone may take longer to heat up than other stove models, it gives off a steady warmth that is more comfortable to sit next to than the hot exterior of the metal models. The lower exterior temperature also allows for smaller clearances when installing the stove next to walls, but it is not able to heat as much area as other stove models. The stone is quite heavy and is more easily scratched than cast iron or steel, but the options for colors and patterns are unique and beautiful.
Burn Type — Wood stoves are available in both non-catalytic and catalytic models. Both systems were born out of the need to meet ever-tightening efficiency and emissions standards imposed by the EPA, and both are capable of providing efficient, low-emission heat.
Catalytic models are generally the most heat efficient of the two and have come a long way since the technology first came out. They are designed to work best at low burning temperatures, which makes them ideal for customers who want a long-lasting, low burning fire. They are less useful in areas where a lot of heat is needed. They are also easier to start than non-catalytic models. The catalyst does require some maintenance every few years, but catalysts are easy to replace in newer stoves and relatively inexpensive. Keep in mind, you will find more non-catalytic stoves on the market, as the selection of catalytic stoves is fairly limited.
Non-catalytic wood stoves typically burn best at a higher temperature, making them more suitable to heat larger areas. They are slightly lower maintenance than catalytic models since there is no catalyst, but they are more complicated to start. However, once the fire is started, you'll only need to do air control adjustments to adjust the rate of burn and heat output levels. Note: You will want to learn your stove's settings, as every stove varies, but once you have this knowledge, it will become incredibly easy to maintain a good burn.
Gas Wood Stoves
A gas wood stove can use propane or natural gas for fuel, but it mainly comes in direct vent and vent-free models. Some direct-vent stoves can be configured as direct-vent or B-vent models. It really depends on where you intend to install the unit.
Materials — Common materials used to construct gas wood stoves include sheet metal steel, plate steel, or cast iron. Unlike wood-burning models, the materials used on gas-burning wood stoves have less to do with heat transfer and more to do with the desired appearance or the price point (steel is often less expensive than cast iron).
Sheet metal steel is lighter weight than plate steel and allows for greater heat transfer, which is useful for lower output gas stoves. It is a low-cost option, but the material is more easily dented and the styles are not as decorative as cast-iron models.
Plate steel is more expensive than sheet metal, but it is more durable and often has a more handsome appearance than the sheet metal models. The gas models closely resemble a wood burning plate steel stove.
Cast iron models are the most expensive but are more decorative and durable. Drawbacks include internal components that are more difficult to service than the steel models and the fact that there are fewer cast iron gas stove options on the market.
Vent Type — A freestanding gas stove has the same venting options as its gas fireplace counterpart, including vent-free and direct ven options.
Direct vent wood stoves feature a sealed combustion chamber and a double-wall venting system. This allows for easy installation. The sealed combustion chamber means there is no draft from the outside and no exhaust released into the room. But, direct vent models typically have less heat output than vent-free models, and their glass fronts can produce some glare or reflection.
Vent-free wood stoves offer the most flexibility when it comes to installation since there is no need to install vent pipes. However, vent-free stoves do produce a measurable amount of water vapor, and they do have a scent.
This scent can present problems for those with allergies or breathing issues, and in the case of asthma or COPD sufferers, it can be a critically negative point to consider a vent free system. Vent-free systems also require periodic cleaning of the pilot assembly and burner. With any vent-free system, you will want to check with your local code enforcement office before purchasing, as vent-free systems are not legal in some regions.
Pellet Burning Stoves
Material — Most models are manufactured from plate steel or sheet metal, although some cast-iron models do exist. Pellet stoves are divided into two primary styles. The first resembles a traditional wood stove with a pedestal or legs and is designed as a room heater. The second one functions more like a furnace and features larger hoppers with an option to force heated air to other parts of the home.
- Hopper — This is a holding chamber for the pellet fuel. Pellets are dumped from a bag into the hopper where they are later drawn into the stove for combustion. Most hoppers are contained within the stove body, but some models offer hopper extensions to increase fuel capacity.
- Auger — This is an electrically-powered mechanical device that draws pellet fuel from the bottom of the hopper and deposits it into the burn pot for combustion.
- Burn pot — It is a small container, usually constructed of stainless steel, that holds the pellets during combustion. A grid or mesh holds pellets in place while letting the ash fall through to the ashtray.
- Combustion fan — This is a blower that supplies air to the flames for combustion. The fan will vary in speed based on the amount of heat desired. The fan is also responsible for pressurizing the vent system and forcing exhaust to the outdoors.
- Convection fan — This is a blower that moves air through the heat exchanger tubes above the burn pot. The air is heated as it passes through the tubes and then ejected to the room.
- Heat exchanger — This consists of a series of tubes that are positioned directly above the burn pot. Flames from the burn pot heat the exterior of the tubes, in turn, heating the air that is forced through the tubes by the convection fan. This clean, heated air is then expelled into the room.
Venting — There are a variety of venting options depending on your needs, but keep in mind that pellet stoves will burn easier if there is a simple vent route. Sharp turns or lengthy vents may make exhaust and intake more difficult.
There are three basic categories for space heaters: vent-free infrared wall heaters, vent-free blue flame heaters, and wall furnaces. The models we sell run on liquid propane or natural gas, providing an option for heat even during a power outage. The vent-free models accommodate rooms like basements, where it would be difficult to install a venting system.
Vent free infrared wall heaters — These self-contained wall-mounted heaters use a sheet metal body to encompass a ceramic heating grid. It uses natural or propane gas to generate a low but brilliant flame that generates infrared heat. Infrared heat is radiant heat, meaning that instead of heating the air in the room, it heats the objects in the room. The heated objects, in turn, give off warmth to the air. Many customers prefer this type of heat because it is perceived as less harsh and keeps the air from becoming stuffy.
Vent free blue flame heaters — Like infrared heaters, these systems contain a burner system within a sheet metal chassis. The system generates an intense and clean-burning blue flame. The flame heats the air in the room, allowing for the room to feel warmer faster than with an infrared wall heater. However, it produces more moisture and tends to heat unevenly, which can make the air uncomfortably hot if not circulated.
Wall furnaces — Wall furnaces are a type of heater that is very similar to a conventional gas HVAC furnace. Except, they are not connected to a ducting system in the home. Instead, the gas burner generates flame, heating the air in the combustion chamber, which is then dispersed into the room. Most models utilize a convection fan to assist in the process.
Overall, the variety of options make space heaters a very convenient and flexible heating solution for your home or garage.
Wood and Coal Furnaces
Wood and coal furnaces are unique appliances that are similar to a wood stove in the way that they operate. They are designed to supplement a traditional HVAC system. The furnace is essentially a large wood or coal-fired stove encased within a sheet metal cabinet. The furnace is loaded in much the same way a wood stove is, with air controls allowing various burn types. The heated air generated by the internal stove is collected within the surrounding cabinet, and a large convection fan pushes the air from the cabinet into the supply ducts.
The supply ducts are then piped into the furnace plenum, which is the air chamber that collects heated air to distribute to various registers throughout your home. These systems are utilitarian and designed for function over form. They are best positioned immediately adjacent to the HVAC furnace for maximum efficiency.
Wood Stove Installation: Clearances and Venting
Two of the most important safety considerations when installing your wood stove include the proper clearance allowances and the correct venting.
Venting solutions vary depending on the type of stove you are installing. You can refer to the summaries above for some general information about the type of venting required for different stove types, but always make sure that you verify the venting route before you purchase the stove. You can also visit the stove pipe page on our website to view available venting options, or you can consult with one of our NFI Certified Technicians.
Clearance allowances also vary depending on how hot the external portions of your stove get during a burn. In general, stoves should be installed at least 36 inches away from all combustible materials, including walls, furniture, and combustible floors. This 36-inch clearance can be trimmed down to as short as 12 inches if the appropriate heat shielding and stovepipes are installed. If you are unsure about the exact make and model of your stove, it is wise to stick to the 36-inch clearance rule to avoid any hazards.
Never install a stove directly above a combustible floor. You can use non-combustible material like tile to construct a hearth, or you can purchase hearth board or hearth pads to protect the floor. Check out our selection of heat shielding stove boards to get an idea of the variety of heat shields available.
Also, double-check that your stove meets all of the requirements for your local codes and HOA regulations. This is particularly important if you are interested in installing a vent-free model, as you will need to confirm that they are allowed in your location.
Lifespan of a Wood Stove
Wood stoves possess the longest possible lifespan of any hearth appliance. With proper care and maintenance, they can last up to half a century. However, if the stove is misused or abused from overfiring or a lack of regular maintenance, a wood stove could suffer a reduced lifespan, lasting only about 4 to 5 years. Overfiring can be caused by overloading the stove with fuel and leaving the primary controls open. This can cause the stove to burn far hotter than intended—making the metal glow red and warp. Once a stove's metal warps, the stove's useful life is over.
Read the user manuals so that you thoroughly understand how to operate and maintain your stove and ensure that your stove is installed according to professional standards so that you and your family can enjoy a functioning stove for years to come.
Wood stoves are far more than a narrow selection of wood-burning appliances. With a variety of fuel options, styles, venting options, and heating capabilities, you have the luxury of choosing a freestanding stove that suits your needs perfectly.