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Warm Up: Wood Stoves and Other Supplemental Heat Sources

Jan 7 2021

This post is part of our ongoing series on home heating systems and costs.

How do you heat your home? If we had to guess, you probably have a furnace, a boiler, or a heat pump. These make up about 80% of all home heating systems in the United States.  

Wait … why do folks have supplemental heat sources? Because they’re cold! And they don’t want to spend more money on fuel, or add wear and tear, by cranking up the furnace. Supplemental heat also lets you warm up one area or room rather than your entire home. 

Interested in learning more about supplemental heat sources? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the most common types.   Here's the Tea

Traditional fireplace

When it comes to ambiance, nothing beats the warm glow of a fire. Fireplaces are one of the oldest forms of home heating. Wood is the most common fuel for a fireplace, though gas and electric fireplace inserts are available (see the gas heaters section below).  

Though they create a pretty atmosphere, they’re usually only about 10-15% efficient. Most of the heat created leaves through the chimney. Fireplaces without special inserts or covers also draw warm air from the rest of the house to feed the fire, which can actually lower the temperature.  

Quick definition: “Efficiency” is the amount of heat a system creates from the fuel it burns. 

Despite their lower efficiency, fireplaces are pretty darn reliable. Since they don’t require electricity, you can use them during a power outage, and they’re fairly simple to operate and maintain. 

Be aware of fire risks while burning inside your home, however. Burning wood creates creosote, a tarlike substance that sticks to the inside of your chimney and can cause chimney fires. Coals can also escape your fireplace. Always keep an eye on your fire and be sure to have your chimney cleaned and inspected once per year.   

Pros 

  • Affordable 
  • Easy to operate  
  • Useable during power outages

Cons  

  • Low efficiency 
  • Higher fire hazard
  • Medium maintenance 

Wood stove 

Another classic, wood stoves offer a safe, enclosed place to burn wood inside your home. They’re typically made of cast iron or steel. (Start making some strong friends if you plan to move and install one yourself.) You’ll need 3 feet of clearance on all sides of the wood stove and a chimney to vent smoke out of your home. 

Newer, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-certified wood stoves are typically 60-70% efficient. Wood is also fairly inexpensive to acquire, making them an affordable option. That said, you’ll need to store and move wood, which can require some physical labor.  

While they don’t require electricity and can be used during power outages, wood stoves can also be a bit more complicated than other supplemental heating sources. The right amount of air flow through the stove is crucial for the most efficient burn, so you’ll have to get familiar with the damper and air valve controls.  

Creosote (a tar-like residue created by burning wood) can also build up in your wood stove and chimney. This happens faster if your fires burn too low or if you burn damp wood. To be safe, experts recommend an annual professional chimney inspection and cleaning. Wood stoves also get quite hot, so keep children, furniture, and drapes at a safe distance.  

Pros  

  • Affordable
  • Efficient 
  • Usable during power outages 

Cons  

  • Storing and carrying wood  
  • Needs adequate space in your home  
  • Medium maintenance 

Pellet stove

A modern alternative to the wood stove, pellet stoves burn pellets made of compressed wood fibers. They have an auger (a large corkscrew) that automatically moves pellets from a storage bin in the stove to a burning chamber. All you have to do is fill the stove’s storage bin when it’s empty.  

Most pellet stoves plug into a regular 120-volt outlet and are 70-83% efficient. Though pellet stoves can cost a bit more up front than regular wood stoves, pellets burn hotter and slower than firewood, leading to long-term savings. Along with being more efficient, they also release less smoke (emissions), which is better for the environment. They also produce much less creosote than wood — but you’ll still want to get an annual chimney inspection and cleaning to be safe. 

Pellets are typically sold by the ton, which cost between $180-$250, roughly. Homes that heat with pellets as their primary heat source use two to three tons per year. If you’re using pellets as a supplemental heat source, plan for one ton. Keep in mind that a bag of pellets weighs about 40 pounds. 

Unlike wood stoves, pellet stoves don’t require 3 feet of clearance to operate safely, so they can be installed in smaller spaces. To run efficiently, they need the correct amount of air, pellets, and flame. You may need to make adjustments on your stove according to its instruction manual. Though they do require a bit of maintenance, they burn much cleaner than wood stoves or fireplaces.  

Pros 

  • High efficiency  
  • Low emissions 
  • Easy to operate  
  • Can install in smaller rooms  
  • Low maintenance 

Cons 

  • Expensive to install 
  • Requires a vent to remove smoke 
  • Storing and moving pellets  
  • Doesn’t work during power outages 

Electric space heaters

Electric heaters come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Baseboard, wall-mounted, and space heaters are all common. They use a heating element to create heat, and some also have blower fans to help circulate it.  

Electric heat is nearly 100% efficient, meaning all the electricity directed into the heater is turned into heat and is delivered directly into the room. Despite the efficiency, electricity can get expensive. Space heaters can also get extremely hot and become fire hazards. They require a good amount of space for safe use.  

Pros 

  • High efficiency  
  • Easy to operate  
  • Don’t create smoke 
  • Affordable to install 
  • Low maintenance 

Cons 

  • Expense of electricity  
  • Higher fire hazard
  • Doesn’t work during power outages  

Gas space heaters 

Gas heaters are a diverse bunch. Fireplace inserts and wall-mounted heaters are just two examples. They typically burn natural gas or propane and are either ventless, direct vent, or natural vent. Ventless heaters safely release warm air back into the room. Direct-vent heaters are vented through an outside wall. Natural vent heaters vent through a chimney.    

In terms of maintenance, gas heaters draw from a fuel tank which must be periodically refilled, but they don’t have filters or creosote buildup. 

Newer gas heaters are usually more than 90% efficient. Though ventless heaters are the most efficient, they can create humidity, which can cause water staining, rot, and mold growth in your home. If your region is naturally humid, you may want to look into direct-vent heaters. With direct-vent heaters, however, note that the vents must remain open. Blocking them can result in carbon monoxide leaking into your home.   

Pros 

  • High efficiency   
  • Gas is a relatively affordable fuel  
  • Useable during power outages
  • Low maintenance 

Cons 

  • Expensive to install  
  • Carbon monoxide risks 
  • Humidity issues 

Active solar 

Active solar heating systems use solar panels to collect heat from the sun. Typically, they transfer heat through water or another liquid that’s stored in a tank for later use or sent into your home through baseboard, radiant floor, or wall heaters.   

Active solar heating systems are typically 60-70% efficient as some heat is lost when the liquid is stored or moved throughout your home. Because active solar systems include expensive and complex equipment, the maintenance and repair costs tend to be higher than other heating systems. Some cities and states also have specific zoning and code regulations for solar panels, so check with your local government for specifics.  

The average cost of an active solar heating system is between $3,000 and $13,000. For an investment in active solar to make financial sense, you typically need to use it for more than 40% of your total home’s heat. This percentage allows the savings to offset the upfront cost of the equipment and installation in less than a decade. In other words, it probably wouldn’t pay to purchase an active solar heating system if you only need to heat one room.  

 Regarding maintenance, there are different set ups for solar panels, but generally, your outdoor panels must to be cleaned and inspected periodically. They also use storage tanks that may need flushing or treatments, along with electrical and mechanical components that you’ll want to hire someone to inspect annually. 

Pros 

  • High efficiency  
  • Environmentally friendly 
  • Long term cost savings 

Cons 

  • Expensive up-front costs  
  • Potential code and zoning issues  
  • High maintenance 

Ductless mini-split systems

One of the fancier options, ductless mini-split systems use refrigerant, compressors, coils, and fans to heat or cool different parts of your home. They operate through small, wall-mounted units that blow air directly into the room.  

Though they require a bit more maintenance, the individual units allow for more control over your home’s climate. They’re more than 100% efficient, meaning they create more heat than the energy they burn. They accomplish this feat by moving already existing heat from outside your home to the inside, rather than burning energy to create heat. Yep! With the help of refrigerant and compressors, these systems are able to collect heat from even the coldest air and bring it inside your home.  

Ductless mini-split systems are a great option for homes that don’t already have ductwork. Because ductwork goes through walls and floors, it can be expensive to install, but with a ductless mini-split system, all you need is holes large enough for the refrigerant lines.  

Pros 

  • Provide both heating and cooling 
  • High efficiency  
  • Easy to install 

Cons 

  • Expensive up-front costs  
  • Medium maintenance  

Decisions, decisions …

Spend some time thinking about your home, budget, and tolerance for maintenance and physical labor before deciding on a supplemental heat source. But no matter what you choose, your primary heat source will likely appreciate the help! 

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