Thinking About Installing a Wood Stove? | Pros + Cons, Cost, and More

By Steven Fox and Margaret Foley | Updated Dec 18, 2023 11:25 AM

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Thinking About Installing a Wood Stove? | Pros + Cons, Cost, and More

Recently, you were visiting friends, and as the night grew colder outside, you were snug indoors, mesmerized by the warmth and glow of your hosts’ wood stove. “Let’s get one!” you exclaimed to your family. As charmed as you were by the stove, your partner and children were even more so. A wood stove: What a good idea!

But is it really such a good idea? As with so many other things relating to the home, it depends. Before you go shopping for a new heating apparatus, learn whether wood stove heat will suit your home and family.

Wood stoves made of metal have been around for more than 400 years, and while they’ve become ever more efficient, the way they work hasn’t changed much: The homeowner places logs into the firebox—the fireproof central “belly” of the stove. Once ignited, the logs burn in this closed, controlled environment, with air from vents feeding the flames. The stove radiates its heat into the room, while smoke and other waste products vent through a pipe to the outdoors.

To do its job, a wood stove needs to get hot, typically between 500 and 800 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s important to maintain this middle ground. When temperatures are too low, the stove doesn’t generate enough heat, and the pipe doesn’t get hot enough to burn off creosote. If this byproduct of combustion is allowed to build up, it can lead to fires. At the other extreme, stove temperatures that are consistently too high can cause components to warp or crack.

There are good reasons that we moved beyond wood heat long ago. For those of us who enjoy our modern comforts, heating the house with a wood stove would be a monumental inconvenience. For others, however, a wood stove offers the chance to heat the home in a way that emphasizes self-reliance and independence. Which camp do you fall in? Weigh the pros and cons before you commit to warming your home with wood stove heat.

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A wood stove can be a beautiful way to both amp up your home’s ambience and lower your heating costs. In fact, according to Rich Steiner of The Fireplace Factory on Long Island in New York, homeowners who install a wood-burning stove can save between 400 and 1,000 gallons of heating oil per year. Consumers will find a range of models to choose from, including small-, medium-, and large-duty stoves. “There are even units certified for mobile homes,” Steiner says. But before you rush out to buy, here are a few additional considerations worth noting:

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The first step in figuring out how to use a wood-burning stove should always be to consult the manual for the stove you own. However, here is some general advice to introduce you to the basics of wood stove ownership.

When you’re using a wood stove, it’s crucial to burn only seasoned wood—in other words, wood that has been aged and dried. (If you’re not sure about the wood, use a moisture meter.) Hardwoods like oak, ash, and maple are best. Properly seasoned softwoods may also be an option, although they burn fast and might be best suited as kindling. If you own a multifuel stove, you can burn various mineral fuels like anthracite coal in addition to wood.

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To get a fire going in a wood stove, open up the damper, put crumpled newspaper at the bottom of the stove, add kindling, and place logs on top. Light the paper and give the kindling a chance to catch. Keep the door open, watching carefully for wayward sparks, until the logs are burning brightly. Once you have a good fire going, close the door and keep it closed unless you’re adding logs to the fire. Many stove owners, especially those with newer models, recommend building the fire in reverse, starting with logs and then placing kindling and newspaper above. Whichever process you use, never overload the firebox; to maintain a hot fire, air needs to be able to circulate.

You should maintain a bed of ashes at the base of the firebox, typically around ¾ of an inch (check the manufacturer’s instructions). Periodically shovel out excess ash, leaving the larger bits of unburnt wood. (Of course, put this task off until the ashes have cooled down.) If your wood stove is equipped with an ash pan, you just need to push the ash through the grate into the pan below. Always dispose of ashes in a metal container with a tightly fitting lid, and take it outside the house, safely away from any combustible material. After ashes have cooled for several days, they can be added to the trash or saved to use around the house.

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A wood stove-based heating system presents many challenges. One that continually frustrates even veteran wood-stove custodians is the art and science of dispersing the heat that the stove produces. Try one of these strategies for helping the heat from your stove reach the far corners of your space.

A wood stove fan sits on top of the stove and kicks into action when the stove reaches a minimum temperature. The heat of the stove drives a motor that causes the fan blades to turn, pushing that warmth outward into the room.

A plug-in blower is an electric-powered fan that installs on the wood stove (different models fit different stoves) and pushes heat away from it.

To get the warm air really flowing, many wood stove owners position stand-alone fans strategically throughout the house. Fans that are mounted high, such as ceiling fans and small doorway fans, can be effective at pushing heated air to cooler areas farther from the wood stove, while a box fan placed on the floor in a colder area can push cool air toward the stove.

When most of us hear the word “fireplace,” we picture an open hearth in the living room or a stone chimney billowing smoke into the evening. We cherish the charming vision of cozying up to a blazing fire, yet the aesthetic value of a fireplace vastly outweighs its heat production. In fact, fireplaces are notoriously inefficient. Just like an open window, the typical fireplace rapidly leaks heated air (air you’ve paid to heat) out of the house.

If you’re considering the relative merits of a wood stove vs. a fireplace, note that a wood stove has some distinct advantages. Like a romantic hearth, a wood stove offers something beautiful to gaze at, but unlike the typical fireplace, it’s a source of heat that doesn’t seriously compromise your home’s energy efficiency. If you’ve always wished that your home had a fireplace, or if you’re looking for an improvement over your existing fireplace, it might be time to look into the beauty and functionality of a wood stove. To get you started on the search, consider an EPA-certified wood stove from Ashley Hearth. The brand was among our top picks in our researched guide to the best wood stoves.

Keep in mind that while a wood stove can be a viable sole heating solution for homes in some parts of the country, it more commonly serves as a companion to an existing gas- or oil-fueled system. What you ultimately decide depends largely on what you want to get out of the wood stove, and what you’re willing to put into it.

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Thinking About Installing a Wood Stove? | Pros + Cons, Cost, and More

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