Are Wood Stoves Worth the Investment?
Old Fashioned Radiant Heat
Many people don’t think of adding wood burning stove until the energy prices rise precipitously or they have a prolonged power outage during cold weather, but a wood burner is not just useful for both those circumstances, it is comforting heat. There are caveats, and this lens is to address as many of those as my experience with wood stoves allows. You have probably thought of some of the pros and cons, but still wonder if wood heat is for you. I hope to give you pointers and tips, too (consulting with my husband who is a fire and safety specialist and our home’s woodstove installer and maintenance man).
Once you remember certain precautions such as clearance and regular maintenance chores such as creosote cleanup, wood heat is a viable alternative to comfort and going off the grid, if that is your aim.
I hope to expand on this introduction to wood heat and wood burning stoves. Stay tuned as the lens develops…
Warm, comfortable radiant heat…. ahhhhh. Sit around my stove and join me while I tell you more.
Stove vs. Fireplace
Why shouldn’t I just light a fire in the fireplace? Many homes have a fireplace in the living room. A fireplace with a mantle is a decorative feature that remained after the need for fireplaces for heat and cooking were long gone. In fact, the heat stove was a big improvement on the fireplace for those necessary activities.
Although we now largely use wood in heating stoves, coal was the fuel of choice prior to the advent of electricity and natural gas (the usual heat and cooking energy sources used today). There still are stoves fitted for coal rather than wood, as well as highly efficient stove heaters which use “pellets”, but in many areas of the USA, wood is a renewable resource that is readily available, features that are important in the choice of a stove, or even whether a wood stove is a practical purchase. Wood stove fans area also brilliant addition and they help make your stove more efficient.
The trouble with most of today’s fireplaces is the fact that they don’t work well, they don’t “draw” the smoke up the chimney or create the ideal combustible conditions. When we first made the decision to use supplemental heat so many years ago, we had contracted with a person who made “Rumford” design chimneys, and then attached the Vermont Castings stove to that.
Usually fireplaces are very inefficient ways to heat a room, and trying to cook with a fireplace is not something most modern people want to attempt. Even wood stoves must be of a certain make and design to be used for cooking, although that is available.
As much of an improvement as this style of fireplace was at the time, the stove, and later the “air tight” stove became great improvements in use of fuel and in reducing the level of emissions and particulate from many of the types of wood that gets burned in them.
Wood stoves are commonly made of several materials. Cast iron, enameled cast iron, soapstone, and steel are among the choices available. I have not had the privilege of owning a soapstone stone, but have had both steel and cast iron. I think the cast iron, especially the enameled ones, are highly preferable. We’ve owned Vermont Castings brand, but the Napoleon brand compares very well.
What are the pros and cons of each type?
Economy sums up the benefit for a steel stove, it is lighter in weight, and less expensive than other material choices, usually. It heats up quickly, but is dangerously hot to the touch ( if you should accidentally come in contact with the hot metal.) The finish is usually easy to care for.
Cast Iron Stoves
Solid, heavy, and retains heat well. Cast iron stoves will need some maintenance work to keep the finish looking good. Quality stoves range from $800 up depending on factors such as size and features.
Enameled Cast Iron Stoves
The beauty of the enameled finish is one obvious feature. The finish is easy to wipe clean and maintain, but my own experience is that it crazes and cracks with use over the years. Still, a beautiful choice and not every user is as hard on their stove as my family has been.
Soapstone Wood Burner Stoves
As one manufacturer says, “Unlike standard wood burning stoves, a soapstone masonry heater uses the soapstone mass to store the heat, and slowly radiates it over time. The heat released by the soapstone, very much feels like the heat from the sun when you sit in a sunroom.” Soapstone is not only quite beautiful, it is safer should you happen to make contact with it while hot. Quite heavy and expensive, as well. Expect to pay between $5,000 to $10,000 for your stove. Stone requires more time to heat up, but once it has, it holds heat much longer.
Lehman’s, a purveyor of many many homesteading items describes the Napoleon brand of wood stoves:
“Affordable, efficient heat with low emissions A trusted name in wood burning, Napoleon is North America’s largest hearth products manufacturer. Now your family can reap the benefits of the company’s years of research, strict quality testing and patented technology. Designed and built in Canada, these stoves consistently surpass EPA standards, providing you with an extremely clean, efficient wood burner. Stoves completely utilize the firebox chamber with a fully lined refractory system. This kiln-like atmosphere results in amazingly long day or overnight burns with very low emissions. Innovative engineering and design and outstanding craftsmanship make these stoves a great value and investment for any home. “
Living with a Wood Stove
For heat or cooking, or both. Wood stove heat is cozy, it is a steady and soothing radiant warmth on chill wintry days. It removes the sting of electric outages and gas price fluctuations. It is efficient if you purchase a well made, air tight and technologically up- to-date model. What is not to love?
I wouldn’t trade the good feeling of radiant heat for anything else in our cold winters, but there are some drawbacks to living with the wood stove.
- You have to feed it- hauling in wood daily. The wood supply is usually kept outside, and you have to get several logs into the fire several times a day.
- Even an air tight stove produces some fine ash. Ashes around the stove, and regular clean-out of the ashes is necessary. You might feel a little like Cinderella, cleaning it all up.
- Wood needs to be purchased each year, or obtained and split to size. It is usually up to the purchaser to stack it after delivery.
- Chimneys should be cleaned annually.
- There may be issues with your insurance company which need to be worked out.
Most cook stoves are made of cast iron, some are trimmed with nickel, some have an enamel coating. They are very heavy.
Cooking with wood heat is a little different. That is an understatement! The wood-burning cook stoves of today, such as the replica 1800’s stove made by the Elmira Stove Works company, are far more efficient than the predecessors they were styled upon, but they still operate in ways that make cooking and baking much more time consuming and inexact.
A few things to note about cooking with this type of stove:
- Temperature gauges tend to be inexact when it comes to baking. Use a standalone oven thermometer.
- Wood stove heat requires more attention, adjusting temperature through dampers and relative distance to heat source (the woodbox)
- You may need to rotate the pans during the baking process
- Size and type of wood makes a difference in resulting temperatures.
- Stovetop cooking temperatures are adjusted by moving the pans to different areas of the top surface
When investigating buying a new stove, I was impressed with the Waterford manufacturer. It is compact, and efficient, with a clean white enameled surface. That is the one I would buy. The one I had was an antique and I don’t advise this choice on several counts. It can be missing racks, and other types of parts, which aren’t easy to replace. If it is cast iron (mine was) it will need blacking. Not being airtight, a great deal of heat is lost.
Still, whatever wood heating cookstove you have, it will heat the room well during the cold season, and you can continue cooking regardless of electric power. Stews, soups, and other meals that are best slow cooked will be the perfect choices for this type of stove.
Finding the Right Stove for You
Research… that is the basic source of information gathering that you will do when purchasing your stove, but I also like to talk with those who have a particular wood stove and to visit showrooms. These aren’t located just anywhere, I realize. In Ohio the Lehman’s store, which is known nationwide, has a large showroom for wood cookstoves and heaters. There used to be more, but the economy means that not every store is displaying a number of wood stoves. Public tastes seem to have shifted towards gas and electric as energy prices eased, but wood energy is not dependent on whether you have electric working or not. That is one of the beauties of it.
Answering questions of sustainability, “Use of USA Forests for Home Heating“.