Heating accounts for the top energy use in your home, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. If you use electric heat, compare your January utility bill to your April bill, and this becomes clear. In off-grid living, heating with renewable resources is an efficient and economic bet.
Living in a small home in Kentucky, I heat solely with a woodstove, and I use about two cords of wood each winter, which costs about $300—or less, if I were to cut it myself. Compare this to when I lived in a slightly larger but more well-insulated home and had an electricity bill of $200 each month throughout winter.
Also consider that Kentucky has a gray and sometimes interminably long winter season. But it’s nothing compared to what folks farther north experience.
In 2020, I shopped for a new woodstove with efficiency in mind. I looked at dozens of models from big-box stores, specialty hearth retailers and manufacturers’ websites.
In this article, I’ll tell you about my experience. I’ll also offer advice from a few experts on purchasing the best woodstove for your hobby farm home-heating needs.
Heating by the Square Foot
When sorting through woodstove web pages and glossy brochures, look past the idyllic photos with perfectly clean floors and meticulously painted walls. Rather, pay attention to how well that stove is going to heat your actual setting.
Cal Wallis, who cofounded the Canada-based Wood Heat Organization in 1999, suggests some skepticism when reading manufacturers’ square-foot-heating claims. “What will heat 1,500 square feet in Kentucky would heat half or less square feet in Ontario—in U.S. terms, Wisconsin,” he says.
Likewise, the BTU output means little. It’s easy to create the conditions for maximum BTU output in a controlled factory setting. More difficult, however, is doing so in a home with varying wood sources and user ability.
Instead of judging a stove’s heating ability by the manufacturers’ square-foot claims or the BTU output, John Akerly, director of the Alliance for Green Heat, says the size of the firebox, which may range from 1 to 4 cubic feet, is a better indicator. He says a 2 1⁄2-cubic-foot firebox can reasonably heat at 1,000-square-foot space, give or take. And Wallis says no home woodstove will heat beyond 2,000 square feet of space.
Things to Consider
Considerations in addition to the firebox size include the following.
- Your home’s insulation. The more well-insulated it is, the more heat you’ll keep inside.
- Placement of the woodstove in your home. Heat is better distributed throughout your home by a stove in the center of the space—as opposed to a stove along an outside wall.
- Your area’s climate. Colder areas require more heat—pretty straightforward.
- Your skill and comfort level in operating a woodstove. The better you are at building and maintaining a fire, the more efficiently your stove will run.
- Whether your stove is your sole heat source or a supplemental heat source. Building fires in the evening because you enjoy them? You perhaps don’t need as large of a stove as if you’re heating your whole space.
- The wood available to you. The wood you burn is a large variable. Green wood—wood that has a high moisture content—and softwoods won’t burn as efficiently and will burn cooler than seasoned wood and hardwoods.
“An experienced installer can assist with stove size selection to ensure you receive the most heat and comfort,” says Mark Shmorhun, a technology manager in the Bioenergy Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy.
Needs vs. Wants
“[Environmental Protection Agency]-compliant stoves are available over a range of prices, low to high,” says Shmorhun, who’s been heating with wood for five years. “Beyond that, the cost of a stove will increase with specialty features, such as design, automated controls, addition of fans, material of construction (e.g., cast iron vs. steel) and finishes.”
Many features are cosmetic. A gloss finish usually costs more than a cast-iron finish. You may be able to choose from a woodstove model with legs (standard price) or with a base that extends to the floor (add-on pricing).
A glass door may be a different price than a solid-steel door.
One feature many off-the-grid folks want is the ability to cook on the woodstove. Models with specialty cooktops and warming shelves may be pricier than those without.
Other features impact how you interact with the woodstove. For example, I chose to add an ash drawer to mine, thinking this would make ash removal easier. It hasn’t, in my experience, though I’m told some models’ ash drawers are better designed.
The Wood Heat Organization doesn’t recommend woodstove fans. Akerly says a good quality fan can be a worthwhile accessory. I use a ceiling fan to move heat around my home.
In a larger home, I used box fans. They were, however, noisy and cumbersome to navigate around.
Read reviews and talk with others about their experience with the accessories before you make your choice. There are also accessories that come independent of the woodstove that may be useful, such as the following.
- Humidifier, whether that’s a stove-top steamer or a separate unit. Wood heat zaps moisture from the air.
- Ash rake and shovel
- Heatproof hand broom and dustpan
- Coal hod. This is the tightly lidded metal bucket for disposing of ashes.
- Heatproof gloves. You’ll wear these after your first burn.
- Woodshed. Even a hastily built plywood roof under which you can store wood will help to keep rain and snow from making your wood more wet.
- Moisture meter. Akerly recommends spending $15 for this tool at a hardware store to gauge the moisture content of your wood. Ideally, this will be lower than 20 percent for an efficient burn.
- Splitting ax or wood maul. The difference between wood-splitting instruments is worth an article in itself. Even if you purchase already-cut wood, as I do, you need a tool to split the wood to your preferred size and to create kindling.
What’s It Going to Cost?
Woodstoves typically run $500 to $2,000 for the stove itself. Additional costs include the stovepipe and chimney, hearth pad, tools and accessories. This is an investment.
“If you spend too little, you get a little,” Wallis says. “If you spend a lot, you may not get a lot more, but probably.”
As with all consumer goods, brand names carry a price tag. Yet for home-heating brands, longstanding brands have earned their price points on reputations of safety, durability and efficiency.
Woodstoves are 20-year investments, after all.
“If you’re putting one in a cabin that you’re only using a couple times a year, you can get a cheaper stove. But if you’re using it every day, you should invest in a good stove,” Akerly says.
Maybe a top-of-the-line stove is out of reach but the brand you like has a value-priced stove. Good-quality woodstoves from top manufacturers can be had if you’re willing to sacrifice some of the bells and whistles.
The woodstove I purchased last year, for example, was not the least expensive model I considered. I would call it middle-of-the-road. I chose the value-priced model from a reputable home-heating brand.
Bringing a Woodstove Home
Also regarding the economics of a woodstove purchase, installation is not the place to skimp. I know someone who lost their home to a fire inside the walls and another who had a chimney fire. Don’t mess around with shoddy installation.
An improperly installed woodstove, stovepipe or chimney poses a fire danger at multiple points:
- inside the home from the stove or the stovepipe
- inside the walls of your home
- in the chimney
Besides physical danger, your homeowners or renters insurance may not cover damage from a fire if the woodstove was improperly installed. An improperly installed stovepipe or chimney can also cause drafting issues. This makes it hard to start a fire and can allow smoke to enter your home.
“Self-installation is really problematic and a huge fire danger,” Akerly says. “Easily 50 precent of self installs are substandard and potentially dangerous.” A qualified installer will ensure the woodstove is the proper distance from the wall, the hearth pad is adequate, the stovepipe and chimney are the proper height and thickness, and more.
In the end, I ended up purchasing a whole new home-heating system, including new stovepipe and hearth pad. I purchased direct from a hearth dealer.
Buying direct from the dealer cost me more, but they delivered, installed the stove and pipe, and advised on my DIY hearth pad. I am confident in my ability to heat my home with wood safely, and I am glad for all I’ve learned about wood heat along the way.
Learn more about burning wood and operating a woodstove for the best wood-heating experience. These resources are a good place to start.
Information on tax credits and other incentives, plus woodstove purchasing resources.
Homeowner resources for chimney venting and installation.
The basics of wood and pellet heating.
Wood-burning resources and safety information.
Everything you ever wanted to know about wood heat safety, woodstoves and firewood. thickness, and more.
New To You
Used woodstoves are out there, and they’re sold for less than the cost of new woodstoves. However, they’re not necessarily a bargain.
A woodstove can last 20 years or more. New stoves must meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards, meaning they’ll burn wood more efficiently and may be easier to use. Saving money in the upfront purchase of a used woodstove can cost more money and effort in the wood you burn and in the general upkeep of the stove over time.
Another downside to a used woodstove is that your purchase will not qualify for the 2021 federal incentive program. That’s a 26 percent tax credit with the purchase of wood and pellet heaters with a 75 percent or higher EPA high heating value efficiency rating. Your state may also have an incentive program to encourage the use of efficient home-heating systems.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.