A Guide to Buying Your First Wood Stove

Homestead Improvement — Heating

A Guide to Buying Your First Wood Stove

By Alexis Griffee 

Wood stoves are a great addition to any home. A home centered on a wood stove not only offers financial benefits and self-sufficiency, but adds a place for the family to make lasting winter memories.

The first step in determining what wood stove would be best for your situation is to define your plans on what you want from the stove. The main question that should be answered before purchasing a wood stove is, what are your exact heating requirements and goals? One thing that you will need to determine is how much reliance you will be placing on your wood stove. Some people only use their wood stoves occasionally on particularly cold nights. On the other hand, there are some wood stove owners that utilize wood stoves as their only source of heat.

Now that the main need of your wood stove has been determined, there are still other aspects of functionality that need to be explored. While heating is generally the primary intent of a wood stove, they are useful for other functions like cooking, especially in emergency situations. If cooking is an important aspect of your decision, there are also various products that you can add on that will make your stove even more versatile. Even if you do not want a full cook stove, you can still have the ability to cook, heat water, or even bake bread with some standard wood stoves. Aside from a full cook stove, some wood stoves are made with hot plates on top. These can be helpful for making small meals, or even just heating water. To take functionality a step further, several aftermarket products are available that provide you with even more cooking options. Some companies make baking boxes that can be added in a run of stove pipe. These boxes can be used to bake breads or other food.

If you have determined that you will only be using your wood stove as a method of supplemental heating, you may want to look for stoves that have more aesthetic value. Aside from choosing a stove that is more intricately made, if you are looking for ambiance from your wood stove, you can choose a stove with a glass window so that you can easily view the fire. Wood stoves with glass fronts are also beneficial because you can easily monitor the fire. However, adding in a breakable component with the glass can add more expense. While thick, the glass can break if hit. Most wood stove companies do sell replacement glass. Often times, replacement glass pieces cost anywhere from $150 to $300!

Wood stoves can be constructed from a couple of different materials. The two most common materials used for wood stoves are cast iron and steel. Each of these stove options have drawbacks as well as benefits. The material that you choose for your stove will greatly depend on your intent for the stove.

Most modern wood stoves are made from steel. Steel stoves are generally far cheaper and more readily available than cast iron.

Another benefit to steel wood stoves is how fast it can heat up. Steel stoves heat up about twice as fast as cast iron. If your stove is in constant use throughout the winter, this is not as big of a consideration. However, if your stove is only used occasionally on cold days, then a steel wood stove may be a better option for your situation.

A word of caution: some steel stoves are made with affordability instead of longevity in mind. It is always wise to look for any poorly welded parts that may fail with extended use. Additionally, it is recommended to verify what parts of the wood stove can be replaced if needed, through the manufacturer.

Cast iron stoves, while more expensive, are generally more aesthetically appealing than the straight, simple lines of a steel wood stove. The original wood burning stoves were made from cast iron and they are still as useful, and elegant as they were when first used. Due to the nature of cast iron, stoves made from this come with a variety of designs and refined corners. In more recent times, some manufacturers have also taken to coating the cast iron with a special porcelain enamel. This enamel coating, while very attractive, also has some practical benefits. The addition of the coating provides rust resistance, temperature resistance and prevents cracking due to the high temperatures and fluctuations that a wood stove experiences.

From a functionality standpoint, wood stoves made from cast iron are as functional as they are attractive. Despite taking a little bit longer than steel to initially heat up, cast iron has a great ability to retain heat for longer periods than steel wood stoves. Additionally, cast iron stoves generally have the ability to burn at higher temperatures with a better combustion rate than steel. A fire that burns at higher temperatures leads to less creosote buildup in your stove pipe and chimney.

When it comes to combustion technology in standard wood stoves, there are two main designs to choose from: catalytic stoves and non-catalytic stoves. Catalytic stoves are becoming more popular with manufacturers due to their steady and even-heating ability. Catalytic stoves function by using a catalyst bypass damper. This damper is opened for starting the fire and is engaged when the fire is at a hot, maintainable condition. Due to this, catalytic wood stoves do require more attention initially when being started.

Despite their design, catalytic stoves require maintenance and parts replacement. On average, a catalyst can last around six seasons if used properly. However, in the event that the stove owner “over fires” the stove, extra wear is placed on the catalyst and its useful life will be reduced to about two seasons.

Non-catalytic wood stoves are made to facilitate combustion within the firebox alone. These stoves do not use a catalyst to facilitate burn. Non-catalytic wood stoves utilize a baffle system that diverts the flow of gasses through small holes in the top of the firebox. A main charm to this stove design is the brilliant fires that they produce. Many wood stoves with glass fronts that are chosen for their viewing are non-catalytic to take advantage of this design benefit.

Non-catalytic stoves do have their drawbacks. One drawback is that since the firebox facilitates the combustion, internal parts like the baffle will degrade faster. While this may not be a large concern to many, it is wise to ensure that you have these extra parts on hand. Another noted issue of non-catalytic wood stoves is the fact that they have major peaks in their heating. Due to the design, these stoves do not have the even steady heat of the catalytic stoves. While this is not a huge concern to the recreational stove user, this can be a major point of dissuasion for those that are relying on their stove for financial savings and sole heating needs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) imposed restrictions on wood stove emissions back in the 1980s. Recently, they have added even more regulations on the wood stove manufacturers regarding emissions. The EPA regulations are 4.1 grams of smoke per hour for catalytic stoves, and 7.5 g/h for non-catalytic stoves. Within the United States, all wood stoves have to meet these regulations to be sold legally.

Even if you do not consider the emissions reduction as an environmental benefit, the EPA regulations also translate into savings for your pocket book as well. Recent data shows that these new emission regulations actually increase the efficiency of the stove. Efficiency translates into savings all the way around, be it through money spent on wood or energy expended to work cut, stack and store your heating wood.

However, some companies have found a loophole to still produce stoves that do not meet these regulations. By using a law designed for fireplaces, some companies will produce stoves that leak so that they fall into the regulations of a fireplace not a wood stove. This loophole allows for stoves that burn at least 11 pounds of wood an hour with minimal air control to be exempt from all testing. To keep the stoves under these regulations, these companies often do not ensure proper seals on their products. If emissions are important to your decision, it is vital to ensure that whatever stove you choose is certified by the EPA.

Pellet Stoves
Pellet stoves are more popular for people who do not have access to a good supply of wood, but who do have access to electricity.

Wood stove sizes are broken down into three categories: small, medium and large. Small stoves are often used for heating individual rooms or small cabins. These stoves have a firebox size of less than 2 cubic feet. The second size category for wood stoves is medium. Medium stoves are the size that most people utilize for their own alternative heating needs. Medium stoves have a firebox size of 2 to 3 feet. These stoves are capable of heating a small to medium sized home. The third and final stove size is the large. Large stoves are best suited for those that have a large home to heat or live in a home with a very open floor plan that may be too much of a challenge to heat with a smaller stove.

Log length is another consideration when choosing a wood stove to fit your heating requirements. The firebox is the area where the wood is placed and the fire is contained. Generally, the larger the stove, the bigger the firebox and thus, the larger pieces of wood it can hold. On average, most fireboxes are built to hold logs that are 16 inches in length. For proper air flow and combustion, it is recommended that your logs be three inches smaller than the firebox to allow for a more even and consistent burn.

While bigger may seem better when it comes to the size log that can be used, sometimes this can be a drawback as well. Larger logs are heavier and harder to handle. On the other hand, smaller fireboxes that require very small logs can also be a challenge. Smaller pieces of wood will not only burn faster, but they can be harder to procure. Smaller pieces of wood will require more work to cut and split the logs down to the appropriate size.

Similar to wood stoves, a pellet stove is another option that should be considered before you make your investment into alternative heating methods. Pellet stoves are often attractive to those who want the benefit, cost savings and feel of alternate heat, yet are unable to procure their own wood supply for fueling their stove. By design, pellet stoves require less maintenance for heating. Pellet stoves have an auger and hopper system to automatically feed the pellet fuel to the stove as needed per the settings that you have determined. Due to this, pellet stoves require less attention and are able to keep a more even and consistent heat in your home.

However, a drawback to a pellet stove for your heating needs is that they still need electricity to function. Internally, there is a hopper that controls the flow of the pellets into the stove. This hopper requires power to operate. While the power use is minimal and generally pales in comparison to the power used to heat your home, this will not be a viable option for those in emergency heating situations. Yet another downfall of the pellet stove is the availability and cost of the fuel pellets. When the cost is broken down, pellets generally cost far more than wood. Additionally, instead of being dependent on yourself or locals for gathering your fuel wood, those that use pellets for heating are at the mercy of stores, usually big box stores. Due to this, you are dependent on the supply chain and ordering discretion of the stores. This can leave you in a major bind in the event of a long, cold winter when supplies can run out.

Regardless of your needs, wood heating is a great alternative to a majority of your energy dependence in the winter. Modern wood stoves come with a wide variety of options that are sure to fulfill everyone’s individual requirements.

One thought on “A Guide to Buying Your First Wood Stove”
  1. I love your tip about how pellet stoves require less maintenance. My house is always freezing, but I don’t want to shell out a lot of money on a new furnace. I’ll have to consider buying a pellet furnace to save some money.

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