Which type of stove is right for you?
With the cost of heating by conventional fuels like oil, gas, propane or electricity constantly on the rise, pellet stoves and wood-burning stoves are more attractive than ever. Many stove owners say they've cut their heating costs at least in half -- and often more -- by switching to these renewable biomass fuels, either for supplementing central heating or replacing it altogether.
Pellet stoves use pellets made of wood waste products like compressed sawdust. Many models come with features you'll almost never find on a wood stove, such as auto-ignition and thermostatic control. This brings them as close as you can get to the feel of a conventional furnace while still burning biomass fuel, but also means that pellet stoves need electricity to operate, although some stoves can be hooked up to a battery backup in case the power goes out.
Wood stoves, on the other hand, are simpler and more intuitive to operate, with fewer moving or electronic parts that can break down. They don't require electricity, and less processing goes into preparing the fuel; all you have to do is cut and/or split wood, then let it sit until it's dry enough to burn cleanly. Wood stoves are also subject to new EPA performance standards that were introduced in early 2015 and slated to take effect at the beginning of 2016. The new standards aim to improve one of the little-known downsides of wood stoves -- air pollution -- although today's stoves burn much more cleanly than those of decades past.
Choosing the right fuel
Pellet stoves are best if you either live near an inexpensive, consistent source of pellets -- think construction and other lumber-related industries -- or have the space to stockpile 1 to 2 tons of pellets, typically in 40-pound bags, when you find them at a good price. Pellet quality also varies widely, so be prepared to try several different brands to find the one that works best with your stove.
Some (but not all) pellet stoves are really multi-fuel stoves, capable of burning a variety of fuels including corn cobs or shelled feed corn, cherry pits and sunflower seeds. The price of wood pellets and other biomass fuels can vary drastically according to season, supply and demand, so having a multi-fuel stove gives you more options when it comes to selecting the cheapest or most readily available fuel in your area.
Wood is likely to be the best fuel for you if you live near a sustainable source of firewood, and are prepared to either pay for it or invest your own time and effort into cutting and splitting it. You must also store the wood for at least six months to a year or more before burning it. The exact storage time will vary depending upon wood type and local conditions.
This storage time lets the wood dry or "season" to less than 20 percent moisture content, which in turn means it'll burn hotter and cleaner than green wood. Most people using wood heat say they need about four cords of wood to get through a typical winter in the U.S. or Canada, although your needs will vary according to house size, insulation and climate.
If you have bad memories of wood stoves as a child, take heart: Modern wood stoves are a far cry from the smoke- and carbon-belching appliances of years past. Modern stoves use either a catalytic converter or secondary combustion, which ignites the gases coming off burning wood, for a clean, efficient burn. In many cases, new wood stoves burn even more cleanly than pellet stoves.
Stove maintenance matters -- a lot
Although all stoves require regular cleaning and maintenance, many owners are surprised to discover that pellet stoves require the most upkeep, thanks to their extra moving parts and more convoluted internal construction. That often means daily cleanings, and in some cases you may have to do deep cleanings as often as twice a week.
When you invest in a higher-end pellet stove, part of what you're paying for is a (hopefully) easier maintenance schedule. Maintaining your stove does make a huge difference, because many of the complaints we found about parts breaking and stoves failing are, no doubt, due to inadequate maintenance. Scott Williamson, an independent pellet stove repairman and consultant for Alliance for Green Heat, shares data from his service calls on what he deems the most reliable pellet stoves. Between 60 and 70 percent of the time, a simple cleaning was all it took to get a non-functional pellet stove back up and running.
Pellet and wood stoves typically cost between $1,000 and $4,200, with more complex pellet stoves usually being a little more expensive than a comparable wood-burning stove. Don't forget to factor the cost of fuel into your buying equation too, and remember that it might vary enormously between seasons. A good wood or pellet stove will last for decades, so also factor in the long-term view when you consider fuel cost and availability.
Most homeowners should seriously consider the option of professional installation. This is for both your safety and the sake of the stove, since improper installation accounts for a number of malfunctions. If you don't choose professional installation, make sure you follow the required clearances, hearth sizes and venting requirements fastidiously. All of the above will be in the stove's manual, which can almost always be downloaded from the manufacturer's website. Last but not least, you'll usually have to pay for your own installation supplies, from vent piping or chimney installation to the hearth and heat shields. Again, costs vary depending on your needs.
Ultimately, no matter which type of pellet or wood stove you purchase, it should provide clean, efficient and reliable heat; be easy to run and maintain; and, of course, have a good safety record. Happily, the latter was a given for each of the top models we evaluate in this report.
User reviews are, as always, the best gauge of how well a pellet or wood stove performs under real-world conditions; sites like WiseHeat.com, which is dedicated specifically to user reviews of alternative home heating systems, were especially helpful in our research. When it comes to comparing one stove to another, industry awards such as the Vesta Awards and the Wood Stove Decathlon run by the Alliance for Green Heat were often just as informative as professional reviews.
Elsewhere in this report:
Best Pellet Stoves | Best Wood Stoves | Best Multi-Fuel Stoves | Buying Guide | Our Sources