What the best pellet or wood stove has

  • Fuel that's readily available in your area. Consider both present and future availability, regardless of the type of fuel your stove uses.
  • A large pellet hopper or firebox. Small pellet hoppers or fireboxes must be refilled more often; a small firebox can also force you to run the stove too hot to get enough heat, which can damage it over time or even void the warranty.
  • A long, efficient burn. The more efficient the pellet or wood stove you buy, the more money you'll save on future fuel purchases. The best wood and pellet stoves can keep a fire going all night or all day without having to be reloaded.
  • The right size. As a general rule, the larger the stove, the more heat it puts out and the larger the space it can heat. Some experts recommend buying a stove larger than you think you'll need, but others warn that a too-large wood stove can be a problem; if it's too big for your space, you may not be able to build the fire hot enough to meet optimal burn rates for low emissions.
  • An outside air kit. Venting your stove so it only uses outside air helps improve its efficiency, while also reducing drafts and pollution inside the house. Outside air kits are available for almost all stoves, sometimes as an optional purchase.
  • A big ash pan that's easy to empty. This makes one of the messiest chores associated with wood and pellet stoves much easier and something you have to do less frequently.
  • Self-cleaning glass. Most people enjoy watching a fire. Clean viewing glass makes that easier and also lets you check on your stove's performance and cleanliness inside the firebox.
  • For pellet stoves, a 12-volt fan and backup battery. The battery automatically kicks in if the electricity goes out, even if you're away. A 12-volt fan system (to keep the hot air circulating) is easy to hook up to a regular car or marine battery.
  • For pellet stoves, a thermostat and automatic ignition. These will keep the house at a set temperature, even while you're away. If you're home most of the time, you can save money by choosing a more basic model without these features.

Know before you go

You'll need to install a fire extinguisher, smoke detector and carbon monoxide monitor. Experts recommend these for every home anyway, but it's best to have an extra fire extinguisher next to the heating stove as well as at your home's exits.

Is air pollution a problem in your area? If so, wood and pellet stoves might not be the best idea; even the cleanest-burning wood or pellet stove still pollutes more than gas or propane. Sometimes local regulations prohibit certain types of heating stoves.

Do you have enough room for the stove you want? Budget space not only for the stove itself, but also for the required clearance space between it and any combustible walls or other combustible materials. You'll also need a hearth on which to set the stove, which may extend a sizable distance beyond the edges of the stove.

Blowers are optional. Some stoves come with a built-in blower to help circulate the heat; others offer the blower as an optional purchase. Experts say it's best to try a wood or pellet stove without a blower first, since heat often circulates well by natural convection. Ceiling fans and pass-through blowers in the house can help circulate heat, too.

How much noise can you tolerate? While some pellet stoves are louder than others, they're all louder than wood stoves. Some owners say their pellet stoves are too loud for them to watch television in the same room.

Can your home's other occupants handle hot surfaces? Small children and pets can be trained not to touch hot wood stoves, which radiate heat through the walls of the stove itself. However, if you have kids or pets in the house, you might be more comfortable with a pellet stove that distributes heat by convection, leaving it cooler to the touch.

Consider more than the maximum BTU rating. For wood stoves, heat output depends on the type of wood and how dry it is. Look for a manufacturer's stated average heat output over the whole burning cycle. Keep in mind that you may not always have the best firewood to burn. Note that manufacturers usually provide a figure for maximum BTUs per hour but, in practice, heat output is less than that for most of the burning cycle.

What kind of heat do you need? For quick radiant heat, look for a sheet steel stove, but be aware that the heat output will diminish as the fire burns down. For longer, steadier heat -- best if you burn wood all winter long -- look for a stove made of cast iron or, even better, soapstone or masonry. A cabinet-style wood stove works more by convection, which doesn't give as much radiant warmth but is safer around kids and pets or particularly flame-friendly locations, such as a woodworking shop.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Pellet and Wood Stoves | Best Pellet Stoves | Best Wood Stoves | Best Multi-Fuel Stoves | Our Sources

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