Free-standing solid-fuel heating stoves come in three basic types. Pellet
stoves burn pellets made of compressed sawdust. Wood stoves burn logs. And
multi-fuel stoves burn pellets and/or feed corn or other biomass fuels such
as cherry pits or corn cobs. Look for UL certification on pellet stoves,
since they use electrical wiring, and EPA certification on wood stoves. Some
wood stoves are labeled "EPA exempt," but experts say to avoid
these unless you're desperate for cheap heat, have lots of wood to burn and
they're legal in your area.
- Avoid using pellet and wood stoves in areas with
air-pollution problems. Even the best pellet and wood stoves -- rated
for the lowest emissions -- pollute the air more than gas or propane. Check
local regulations first. Your state or local community may prohibit certain
types of heating stoves, and not all models may be installed in mobile
homes. If you want to rely on your stove as your only source of heat, be
sure your area doesn't have rules that prohibit the use of wood or pellet
stoves during periods of high air pollution.
- Fuel availability is crucial in choosing
the best stove. Consider projections for the future as well as current
availability. If possible, hedge your bets by choosing a multi-fuel stove
or a wood stove (since in most places it's possible to find wood of some
kind). If you can buy a more efficient wood or pellet stove, you'll save
money in the long run by using less fuel over the years. The cheapest
stoves use much more fuel, and fuel prices are apt to go up as demand increases.
the venting costs. Your installation and venting may require a building
permit and inspection fees. A wood stove requires a chimney -- which
must be insulated after it passes through the first ceiling. A pellet stove
requires a smaller, less expensive 3-inch vent pipe. Both stove types perform
best when a pipe provides outside air for burning, and the through-the-wall
air kit costs extra too.
- Budget for extra accessories. Both types of stove need
a hearth or other floor protection. Since a pellet stove usually includes
a circuit board, it should be plugged into a good surge protector.
Wood stoves don't need electricity but require even more accessories: a
hearth pad, stovepipe thermometer, ash bucket, log holder, log carrier,
fire tools -- and quite possibly, some heat shielding. If you cut and split
your firewood yourself, you need even more equipment (and good accident
heat-circulating blowers get mixed reviews. Experts say it's best to
try a wood or pellet stove first without a blower, since heat often circulates
well by natural convection.
- Spring is usually the best time to buy. In past
years, pellet and wood stove prices have been lowest in the spring,
after peak demand. The same is true of firewood, wood pellets and other
solid fuels so you can stock up.
- A big ash pan that's easy to empty will ease regular
maintenance chores. Some models make it hard for a child to accidentally
open the ash pan -- a big plus. Some basic budget stoves lack ash pans
- For pellet stoves, look for 12-volt fans and a backup
battery. The backup battery automatically kicks in if the electricity goes out,
even if you're away. A 12-volt system is easy to hook to a regular car
or marine battery; otherwise you'll need a pellet stove that comes with
an optional adapter. On a 120-volt system, you can use a backup uninterrupted
power supply (UPS) but it won't last as long as a car battery. If you're
home most of the time, you can use a portable generator instead.
- For pellet stoves,
a thermostat and automatic ignition are convenient. If you're home
most of the time, you can save money by choosing a more basic model without
these features. However, a thermostat and automatic ignition can save money
in the long run by keeping the home at a set temperature even while you're
- Consider noise. If at all possible, listen to a demonstration model
to see how loud the fans are. All pellet stoves make noise from the
fans and from pellets dropping from the hopper, but owners say that some
stoves are much louder than others.
- Make sure the pellet hopper or firebox is
big enough. Small pellet hoppers mean more frequent refilling so a
large hopper is important if you work away from home. For a wood stove,
too small a firebox leads to building fires that stay too hot -- which
experts say can lessen the stove's durability.
- Wood stoves must be the right size. Though
some experts advise erring on the large size, most experts say that
a stove that's too large can also be a big problem. Wood stoves have optimal
loads and burn rates for low emissions and high efficiency, so consulting
an expert dealer is a wise step.
- Consider more than 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
wood stoves, the best type depends on your
usage. For quick radiant
heat, look for a sheet-steel stove -- but the heat output will diminish
as the fire burns down. For longer, steadier heat -- best if you burn wood
all winter long -- look for cast iron or even better, soapstone or masonry.
A cabinet-style wood stove works more by convection, not giving much radiant
warmth but safer around kids, pets and woodworking shop.
- Look for a long
burn time. The best wood stoves can keep a fire going overnight or
even better, while you're away all day at work. In consistently cold weather,
this means you only build a fire from scratch once; the rest of the season
you're just adding a load of wood about twice a day.
- Side loading is convenient. Owners report that it's easier to load logs through a side door than
from a door on the top or front. Some say that opening the front door tends
to spill out ashes and smoke.
- A self-cleaning glass window adds visual interest. Most people enjoy watching a fire, and the wood stove or pellet stove
can be the focal point of the room.
- Be sure 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 the exits.