Wood stoves that can burn firewood are the best do-it-yourself option because they're simpler -- easier to install and repair. Logs are nearly the only do-it-yourself fuel, too, though you'll need a chainsaw, safety equipment, manual or powered wood splitter, and a way to transport the logs. Unless you live far from any trees, wood logs are the easiest solid fuel to find, even in the city. Tree trimmers, landscapers, cabinet and furniture shops all make scraps as they work. The main drawbacks are the cost of installing an insulated chimney, then the need to reload and tend the fire at least twice a day. This always makes a mess indoors.
According to Alternative-Heating-Info.com, wood stoves are classified as EPA-certified or EPA-exempt. (EPA-exempt stoves cannot be sold in California or Washington.) EPA-certified wood stoves are further classified as catalytic or noncatalytic. Catalytic stoves use a palladium coated combustor to burn the gases produced inside the stove. Noncatalytic stoves also burn the gases produced inside the stove, but do it in part by producing a longer gas flow path.
Reviews recommend over 20 different wood stove brands, but a few brands are mentioned more than others. Vermont Castings, which made its reputation decades ago with its attractive cast-iron airtight stoves now gets more recommendations than any other brand. The company, calls its designs "Federal" and they have a classic, well-proportioned and somewhat ornate appearance. Most reviews simply recommend the brand rather than a specific stove, and all the Vermont Castings stoves are not only EPA-certified but meet the stricter environmental requirements for the state of Washington.
A few specific models get mentions. The Vermont Castings DutchWest, recommended in two reviews, comes in three sizes (small, large and extra large) and two versions: catalytic (*Est. $1,350 to $1,700) and noncatalytic (*Est. $1,300 to $1,650). The middle-size noncatalytic DutchWest 2478 (*Est. $1,550) is rated at 40,000 BTU maximum, for heating 800 to 1,600 square feet and can hold a fire up to 10 hours. (With wood stoves, this means that after 10 hours, you'll have enough live coals for a new load of logs to ignite easily.)
The Defiant (*Est. $2,480) is the largest Vermont Castings noncatalytic wood stove (rated at 55,000 BTU). The Vermont Castings Encore NC (*Est. $2,345) heads the Hearth & Home Certified Stoves Hall of Fame list for the least emissions from a noncatalytic wood stove.
Even though Vermont Castings wood stoves have accumulated many positive reviews, be sure you can get good parts and service from a local dealer. The parent company, Canadian-based CFM, recently went bankrupt and was bought in July 2008 by another manufacturer, Monessen Hearth Systems Co. (MHSC). CFM also made Majestic Fireplaces and Century Hearth brands. The new owner, MHSC, is based in Paris, Ken., and says its independent dealers, not the parent company, will provide warranty service. This means that if you buy from an online retailer, you may not be able to get local repair service under warranty. Vermont Castings stoves carry a three-year warranty on the cast iron, but various other parts (such as door gaskets) carry only one-year warranties.
The cast iron used in Vermont Castings wood stoves absorbs and stores some of the heat from the fire's peak, to radiate out as the fire dies down to coals. Hearthstone wood stoves -- another brand recommended in several reviews -- use soapstone on some models to store and radiate heat even longer. Experts say this is the ideal type of wood stove if you keep a fire going steadily all season long. Again, mostly it's the brand that's recommended. Reviews do mention two noncatalytic EPA-certified wood stoves: the Hearthstone Heritage (*Est. $2,825) and the Hearthstone Mansfield (*Est. $3,145). The Hearthstone Heritage is rated for 1,300 to 1,900 square feet, the Mansfield for 1,800 to 2,500 square feet. Both carry lifetime warranties and have a traditional design.
Quadra-Fire, another recommended brand, makes wood stoves with a more modern look. Several Quadra-Fire stoves made with sheet steel (with a brick-lined firebox) rank high on the Hearth & Home "Hall of Fame" list. Steel stoves radiate heat quickly -- nice for quick fires -- but don't maintain heat output as long as a soapstone or cast-iron stove. Some Quadra-Fire wood stoves are approved for mobile homes, and can heat a very large area. For example, the Quadra-Fire Millennium 4300 (*Est. $1,900 to $2,150) is rated for up to 2,400 square feet. The slightly smaller Quadra-Fire Millennium 3100 (*Est. $1,700 to $1,950) can heat up to 1,900 square feet and is mentioned by Kiplinger's Personal Finance as a model that would fit well in either a traditional or contemporary room. A smaller wood stove in the same series is also available.
For an even more modern look, reviews recommend sleek vertical woodstove such as those made by the Danish company, Rais. The new Rais Opus (*Est. $5,600) won the 2008 Vesta award as the best new wood stove for 2008. Its innovative design lets you add up to 20 optional soapstone blocks (*est. $600) for more efficient, long-lasting heat. Space-saving vertical designs seem to be more popular (and easier to find) in Europe than in the United States.