Consumer Reports' Guide to Pellet and Wood Stoves
Improved efficiency and safety—plus a new tax credit—add to the allure of these home heaters
When bone-chilling temperatures and snowstorms hit, folks with wood and pellet stoves have an edge in warming their living spaces. Wood stoves in particular work even when the electricity goes out, because they don’t need a power source to operate.
There are many other reasons why a wood or pellet stove might appeal. They’re comfy, cozy, sustainable, and economical, owners say.
“The pellet stove is our gathering place,” says Brad Anderson, a father of four in Mt. Lebanon, Pa. “We sit around it and do board games, hang out.” He reckons he saves $50 to $75 a month in heating bills.
Make Sure It Will Work in Your Space
Before getting all warm and fuzzy with the idea of buying a stove, check with your municipality to see whether you’re allowed to install one. Regulations may limit or prohibit installations, particularly in newly constructed homes. And keep in mind that several states, including Arizona, Colorado, and Oregon, won’t let you use a wood stove on named, “high pollution” days; the EPA, individual states, and private organizations provide that info daily.
Check your indoor space. With a wood stove, federal safety standards require at least a 3-foot clearance from any wall or combustible material. But many pellet stoves need just 2 inches of clearance from a combustible surface behind and 6 inches from other sides. If you’ll be using a child safety gate, you’ll need a 3-foot radius around either stove type.
Consider Your Needs
As a rule of thumb, for every square foot of space, you’ll want about 20 Btu (British thermal units) of heat. If your stove will be your main heat source and you don’t want to tend it so often, you’ll want a large wood-stove firebox or pellet-stove hopper. The largest wood stoves can burn for 10 to 12 hours, says Sam Halsey, co-owner of Yankee Doodle, a stove dealer in Wilton, Conn. The largest pellet stoves can run for as long as 24 hours.
Get the Right Unit
A dealer can suggest models that will work with your space, but choose one certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for efficiency and clean burning. Also look for a label from Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Canadian ULC, which shows the stove has met safety standards.
Pellet stoves offer a more environmentally sustainable choice for homeowners; the units burn recycled sawdust that’s been compressed and dried. You fill a hopper with pellets, set the heat level, and the stove automatically ignites. An electrically powered auger continuously feeds the pellets into the stove’s firebox.
- Price: You can pay as little as $800, but good ones start at $2,000, says Adam Martin, at Martin Sales and Service in Butler, Pa. You can’t always get replacement parts for the lower-priced stoves, and they don’t have as good a warranty as higher-priced models, he says. And sustainability has an upcharge: Pellet-generated heat costs about $200 more per heating season than cordwood, according to Thumbtack, an online, local services marketplace for consumers.
- Convenience: There’s no need to split, season, or load wood. Depending on the heat you need and the stove’s design, you may need to refill the hopper just once daily. You can use a smartphone app or remote to control more advanced units. But the pellet-feeding augers won’t work during a power outage. And bags of pellets can be in short supply as winter wears on, Halsey says. “We have a lot of people calling for pellets now.”
- Efficiency: Pellets contain less moisture than cord wood, so pellet stoves burn more efficiently. They dominate the EPA’s list of efficient units.
- Safety and health: To add fuel, you don’t open a firebox, exposing you to flames, smoke, and gases. And there are thermostats and switches to help prevent over- or underheating.
- Needed space: You can buy 40-pound pellet sacks individually or by the pallet; a 1-ton skid of 50 pellet sacks—less than half a season’s worth of fuel for many—is about 4x3 ½x4 feet tall.
- Aesthetics: Fanned by a blower, pellet stoves’ flames aren’t so natural looking, Halsey maintains. “It’s a blowtorch look,” he says.
Traditional wood stoves can burn any type of log, though certain species—ash, locust, maple, oak, pinyon pine, and walnut, for instance—burn more efficiently.
- Types: New wood stoves come in two versions. Both are designed to reduce air pollution by combusting the gases and tars left after the wood has been burned. Catalytic stoves use a platinum grid for that second burn; these stoves are generally used for whole-house heating and require more maintenance. Noncatalytic stoves send exhaust into a chamber where it’s reignited and burned. These stoves are more popular and cost $500 to $700 less than catalytic stoves, Thumbtack estimates.
- Price: New stoves range from $100 to more than $2,500, according to Thumbtack. Cordwood costs about $200 less per heating season than pellets, the website estimates—and it’s free if it comes from your property.
- Convenience: A wood stove can burn even when the power goes out. You may not have to empty the ashes every day. You also don’t need to depend on store-bought fuel. But depending on the heat you need and firebox size, you may need to stoke several times, day and night. Factor in labor, too, if you split your own wood. And seasoning the wood yourself can take a year or more.
- Safety and health: Opening wood-stove doors regularly to add firewood can expose you to burn risk, smoke, and gases.
- Needed space: A cord of wood is 28 cubic feet. For a 4-foot-high, neatly packed stack, that’s about 4x8 feet on the ground. If you heat exclusively with wood, you could go through several cords per heating season.
Install With a Pro
Though it can be pricey, this is a chore best left to a professional. A pro should know local building codes and up-to-date and safe installation methods. Ideally, use an installer certified by the National Fireplace Institute (NFI). Installation typically costs from $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the unit and where you’re placing it. Notably, homeowners insurance companies can deny coverage if your stove hasn’t been installed professionally—and, yes, some insurers ask new applicants.
Build Your Safety Arsenal
In addition to a fire-safe hearth rug to place in front of your stove, you may want to purchase extras to keep your family safe and comfortable. An air purifier can help remove irritating particulates. A humidifier can offset the dry air that wood stoves create. If you need a safety gate, find one that’s rated for use around wood or pellet stoves. Welders’ gloves or oven mitts can protect you when emptying ash pans. A wood stove fan helps distribute the stove’s heat around the room if you can’t use the fan from a central air conditioning system. An ash vacuum—starting at about $100—uses a specialized filter to pick up fine pellet ash more effectively than a regular vac. And if you choose a pellet stove, you can ensure that it runs during a power outage if you have a battery backup or generator.
Use Your Resources
Read the stove’s manual. It may tell you the best way to load wood without too much smoke entering the room. It can also explain how to regulate temperature when it gets too toasty (that’s done automatically with most pellet stoves). You can also join an online forum to get help, advice, and troubleshooting. Hearth.com hosts several user forums, for example.
Inspect Yearly—and Clean More Often
Once a year, arrange for a certified inspector to check your unit, including venting and fittings. Spring is an ideal time of year to schedule an inspection because inspectors are less busy and it’s less likely that snow or ice will be in their way. Find an inspector through the NFI or a chimney sweep certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America. Depending on where you live, expect to pay from $200 to $500 for an inspection and cleaning. This is also a good time to replace your smoke- and CO2-alarm batteries; do it again in the fall.
Twice a year—including once during the heating season—clean your stove pipe or flue. That fresh start prevents creosote from building up inside like a clogged artery that can trap exhaust gas, which can then pressurize, heat up, and potentially cause a chimney fire. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says fires in chimneys, flues, and flue burners account for 87 percent of residential fires caused by home heating equipment.
You’ll need to clean out the ashes from the stove daily. You can put them in your compost pile or sprinkle them on your garden. The NFPA says fire and smoke alarms should be checked monthly.