I live in a little cabin up in the Rocky Mountains. While it has electric baseboard heat, it’s too expensive to run except while I’m away, so I use a wood stove for my primary heating source. I’ve used cord wood and I’ve used pellets. They each have their adherents, but before listening to your neighbor wax eloquent about his new stove and how you must get one just like it, you need to consider the pros and cons of both systems.
Wood burning stove
“They’re messy,” “they smoke,” “getting the wood is a pain.” It’s all true. A wood burning stove takes work. You need kindling to start it and a steady supply of dry, seasoned wood to feed it. A little smoke leaks out whenever you open the door. The ashes need to be removed at least weekly, and the chimney brushed out annually or you risk a chimney fire that burns your house down. Even though modern stoves burn very cleanly, pollution regulations prevent some localities from allowing you to have one.
So why get a wood burner? There’s something very pleasant about the yellow flames dancing in the window and the soft, radiant heat a wood stove puts out. The metal pings while the stove heats and cools, but otherwise it’s relatively quiet, which is a good thing if you’re trying to watch TV or sleep. And it doesn’t need electricity to run.
But what about pellet stoves? It’s much easier to feed a bag of pellets into the hopper and let it start itself than deal with that cranky old wood stove, and many people buy one for just this reason. The hopper will feed pellets into the firebox at a rate that typically lasts all night, unlike a wood burner which generally begins to peter out after 4-5 hours, even with the best wood.
Pellet stoves also come with a thermostat so you can set your desired heat level and leave it, unlike wood burners where you have to start opening windows if it gets too hot. And the blowing air of a pellet stove heats a room faster than the radiant heat from a hot stove.
The best part of a pellet stove is probably the cleaning, or lack thereof. The glass can be wiped with a damp cloth and the chimney collects nonflammable dust you suck out with a vacuum cleaner once a year. A pellet stove is lighter and uses a smaller chimney that can be routed directly out of the side of the house instead of up through the roof.
For my money though, it has two major disadvantages: the fan that blows the heat into the room is quite loud, and the stove won’t work without electricity. That makes it problematic up here in the mountains where a wind or snow storm can knock your power out for days. And aesthetically the firecan where ignition takes place is a poor substitute for a real fire.
Which is cheaper to install and operate? That depends, but in general they tend to even out. Wood burning stoves are a little cheaper than their equivalent pellet counterparts, but their chimney systems cost more. Unless you have access to wood you can cut yourself, you’ll spend roughly the same amount on cord wood versus pellets and they occupy about the same storage space. Wood, however, can be stacked out in the open, while pellets must be kept completely dry. The electricity a pellet stove uses is negligible, about the same a few light bulbs.
For wood burners, you’ll have to pay someone to deliver your wood unless you have your own truck. You’ll also have to pay someone to clean your chimney; you can do it yourself, but it’s messy and involves getting up on the roof.
So which stove do you prefer after reading all this? I’ve tried both and I have a wood burner. I hated the noise and unsatisfactory heat from the pellet stove. I never really felt warm even when the thermostat said the room was at the desired temperature, while I only have to fire up the wood burner to feel better, even before it really begins heating up.
It comes down to preference and reliability. Despite the many advantages of pellet stoves, I simply like a wood burning stove better.