Nothing spells cozy warmth quite like a crackling fire, but when that fire is wasting heat and releasing pollutants into the home and air, coziness is a poor trade-off. Today’s woodstoves allow you to have the fire without the negative health and environmental impacts by remaining air tight as they efficiently burn not only the wood or pellets you supply, but also burn and use the related gases. And with a wide range of design options and sizes, a new woodstove or fireplace insert can provide a lasting and renewable source of heat for any home needing some additional coziness.
Woodstoves come in many models, and because of their increasing popularity as a heating source, designs are always improving, both from an efficiency and an aesthetic standpoint. While you can still get the old-fashioned stovepipe look if you’ve got a rustic-looking home or cabin and want that authentic feel (without the smoke), you can also get a completely sleek, modern-looking unit that would accentuate the most cutting-edge environment. The layout and size of your home should certainly play as large a role in which woodstove you choose as the look you like. The material of the stove itself makes a difference. Steel stoves are fast and furious—they heat up quickly, and when the fire dies down, they cool down quickly, too. Soapstone stoves take the long, luxurious route: They’re slower to get going, but continue to radiate heat for hours after the fire’s gone, making them a dependable, more even heating source. Cast iron falls somewhere in between, holding heat longer than steel but not as long as soapstone.
Beyond the basics, you’ve got a world of options. The Environmental Protection Agency’s certified list of wood heaters is a whopping 113-page document listing manufacturers from A to Z. There are the classic-style stoves from Country Flame (www.countryflame.com) that can be bought either freestanding or as inserts to really modern-looking soapstone designs from the Finnish company Tulikivi (www.tulikivi.com).
Pellet stoves, which use ground-up wood or biomass pellets in place of logs, burn so efficiently that they don’t even require EPA certification. The look of the stoves is essentially the same, and they can even come equipped with ceramic logs for that fireplace feel. However, the mechanisms behind pellet stoves are quite different from that of woodstoves. Unlike more traditional woodstoves, pellet stoves run by motors and require electricity to operate, and thus need to be located near an outlet. Most pellet stoves need about 100 kWh of electricity per month, or about $9 per month. And that means a pellet stove is also out of commission if the power goes out, unless you have a backup battery or generator to keep the stove running.
The pellets themselves—which look and feel like rabbit food—are an improvement over regular wood as a clean-burning fuel. They are made from a range of materials—including sawdust, corn, and peanut and walnut shells—that burn very hot thanks to the pellet stove’s combustion capabilities. Most woods still contain a level of moisture that affects their ability to burn completely; they instead burn somewhere in the range of 20% to 30%. Pellets are significantly drier—containing less than 8% moisture—so you’re getting significantly more heat from less fuel, and using a recycled source of fuel to boot. Emissions for many of these stoves are less than 1%.
Having a fireplace increases the draftiness of your home, sending inside air into the fireplace and up and out the chimney—and up to 90% percent of the fire’s heat is lost up the chimney, too. As it burns, a fireplace is constantly sucking in air, requiring 10 times the air intake of a fossil fuel furnace. Fireplaces also do some serious damage to your indoor air quality, releasing toxic carbon monoxide as they turn those burning logs into charcoal. And the particle emissions from fireplaces are a source of air pollution, as high as 50 grams per hour.
In terms of home energy efficiency, fireplaces are outdated gas guzzlers. Fortunately, it’s possible to retrofit them so that you can still enjoy the fireplace look and feel without the associated heat loss and pollution.
A fireplace insert is essentially a woodstove designed to fit inside your existing fireplace. The firebox itself is housed in a steel shell, with narrow openings between the box and the shell where the air enters to be warmed. The doors on a fireplace insert are truly airtight, unlike the leaky glass doors of a standard fireplace, and the glass itself is specially designed to move heat into the room. Insulation surrounding the fireplace insert prevents unwanted heat loss through the walls (where much of a regular fireplace’s heat goes), and with the advanced combustion and low level of input air needed, you’re keeping your inside air free from unwanted pollutants and your chimney clean. A stainless-steel full chimney liner—as opposed to a "direct connect," which uses a shorter liner—is a permanent retrofit that simplifies cleaning and helps to maintain a proper draft.
BRITA BELLI is the editor of E and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Renewable Energy for Your Home, available on Amazon.