Fireplace vs. Woodstove

Which is better?
By Arnie Katz
Fireplace vs. Woodstove

A well-designed and properly installed woodstove can be an effective way to heat your home or part of your home.

Q I have a wood fireplace that we use every now and then, and I'm thinking about getting a woodstove to reduce my heating bills. Does this make sense?

A That depends on a lot of different factors.

A traditional wood fireplace heats the people in front of it and, to some extent, the room it's in. In some homes it can heat much of the house, as long as bedroom doors are left open. That's the good news. Mostly, it creates a nice atmosphere — cozy and warm, comfortable crackling sounds — and is a very pleasant way to spend an evening.

The bad news is that burning wood in an open fireplace is very inefficient. In order to get the oxygen it needs to burn and carry byproducts (smoke, carbon monoxide, particulates) up the chimney and out of your house, your fireplace has to pull air from the room it's in. This air has to be replaced, which means you'll end up sucking outside air into your home. Depending on where that air comes in, you may feel a draft, which makes you colder. You'll also have to heat the cold air that's now in your home.

So in most homes, a fireplace is not a very sensible option for staying warm, unless you want to live in one room and are comfortable heating one side of your body at a time. A well-designed and properly installed woodstove, on the other hand, can be a very effective way to heat your home or part of your home. Here are some things to consider:

  • Do you have a dependable supply of firewood close by?
  • Are you living close to other houses? Wood smoke does bad things to people's lungs. If you are on a large lot or on a farm, it's unlikely the particulates coming out of your chimney will impact your neighbors. If you live in town or in a subdivision with homes close by, frequently burning wood might be annoying and even harmful to others.
  • Is your existing chimney in good shape, and can it be used for a stove? I would get a professional opinion on this.
  • Can you pipe the combustion air directly into the stove? Some stoves have outside air kits to do this, others don't. This can improve efficiency and reduce the chances of the stove back-drafting into the living space.

Consider not only the cost of the stove and the installation, but also the ongoing costs: firewood, tools, chimney cleaning, catalytic element replacement (if you get a stove that has one).

There are also other health considerations. If you cut and split and stack the wood yourself, it can take the place of a gym membership. Great aerobic exercise, particularly if you split the wood by hand. On the other hand, the emergency rooms are filled with weekend lumberjacks doing serious damage to themselves with chain saws and axes.

Does it make sense to replace your fireplace with a woodstove? It might, particularly if you live in the country, are comfortable around large tools, enjoy outdoor exercise and plan to use the stove as a substantial part of your home heating strategy. But if you plan to just use it a few times a year, the added efficiency won't ever pay for the stove

About the Author

Arnie Katz is the former building science consultant for Advanced Energy in Raleigh. advancedenergy.org

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