Heating a home is one of the most important considerations for those living in Canada. And while plenty of advances have been made in technology, there are still many of us using the old-fashioned method of wood stove to stay warm all season long. Now pellet stoves are here, and it looks like they’re here to stay. Which is better?
Most of Canada has an abundance forests, and this means that wood can be a sustainable, economical option for heating if we manage things right. The question is, Which kind of wood heat will you choose? There are two main options. For longer than Canada has been a country, burning firewood in a stove of some kind has been one way people kept from keeping from freezing to death. But these days, pellet stoves are also a mainstream alternative to wood heating. So which do you choose? I’ve lived for years with both a wood stove and a pellet stove, and there’s a big difference between the two.
Life with a wood stove You wake up and it’s chilly in the house as you stoke fresh blocks of hardwood onto the coals lingering from last night. In 15 minutes, the fire is blazing and the room is warming up. The flames dancing on the other side of the glass door offer cheery relief from the grey winter, and it sure is nice to know that those greedy baseboard heaters aren’t coming on anymore.
There’s nothing quite like having your heating bill skyrocket to make a wood stove look pretty good. Saving money is the main reason Canadians heat with wood stoves, followed closely by the cozy feeling a blazing stove gives off, even during a power failure. Advances in stove design have boosted the performance of the best units, so they now deliver as much as 70 percent of the energy stored in your wood pile to heat your home. But a stove is just part of the equation. You’ll also need a chimney and a wood supply, and you’ll need to keep that stove fed. Heating with a wood stove is something like milking cows: you need to be home at least twice a day.
Wood Stove Pros & Cons
• Hands-on production of heat from local forests without involving money
• Unaffected by power failures
• Silent operation
• Lots of heat output
• Modern units with catalytic converters are very clean burning
• Daily job of handling firewood and ash required
• Risk of chimney fire
• Need for an approved chimney
• Regular cleaning of chimney required
• Hot stoves pose risk to young children
Safety is the first consideration with any heating appliance, and you can be sure that your insurance company will have something to say about adding a wood stove to your home. All companies have installation requirements that must be met, but there’s something else that’s become common, too. Chances are that the old cast-iron pot-bellied stove in your neighbour’s yard sale won’t be allowed in your home at all, even if it is in good shape. Homemade barrel stoves, ancient cook stoves or anything without a safety approval nameplate is also on the no-no list.
Besides recognized approval, there’s another kind of wood stove certification you should be aware of, though not for insurance reasons. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been much more stringent in demanding clean, efficient wood stove performance than most government bodies in Canada. This means that, by default, the best new wood stoves available in this country are those carrying EPA certification. But since wood-burning efficiency isn’t a legal requirement in all parts of Canada, you can still buy a dirty stove here if you’re not careful. The best EPA-certified stoves emit just under one gram (0.04 ounces) of particulate matter per hour while burning, compared with 25 to 40 grams (0.88 to 1.41 ounces) per hour for old-style units.
Of all the chimney wood stove options, insulated steel stovepipe is the easiest to deal with. It doesn’t need a foundation, as with a masonry chimney, and is easier to waterproof where it passes through the roof. The double-walled, insulated design is also safe, able to withstand temperatures over 1093°C (2000ºF).
As you plan to install a chimney, you’ve got three things to consider: Where will it pass through the living quarters of your home? Where will it exit the roof? And how high above the roof should the chimney extend?
Depending on the floor plan of your house, the ideal chimney location could be easy or difficult. Naturally, you don’t want the thing coming right up through the middle of your living room floor. But on the other hand, the closer a chimney is to a roof peak, the more reliably waterproof it will be. Wherever it goes, the top of a chimney should be 0.60 metres (two feet) higher than any part of the roof within a three-metre (10 foot) radius of the cap. That minimizes the chances for wind-induced downdrafts and smoke wafting into your home. When you settle on a location for your stove and chimney, install a carbon monoxide detector nearby. Even the best installations can be a source of deadly gases under some conditions.
So, what kind of person heats with a wood stove? You need to be physically fit, at home long enough to manage the fire during the day, willing to obtain and season firewood, and give the stove and stovepipe a good cleaning each week. Having nearby access to a forest is a big part of getting the most financial benefit from your stove.
Life with a pellet stove
Pellet stoves are a practical way to heat your home for less money than purchased fossil fuel options in regions beyond the reach of ultra-cheap natural gas. Pellet stoves automate as much of the process of burning wood as possible, and all machines operate on the same basic principle. A supply of what looks like pelletized rabbit food is augered from a hopper into the burn pot, a small combustion area in the stove. The 0.6 cm (1/4 inch) diameter cylindrical pellets are actually made of factory-compressed hardwood or softwood sawdust and offer different combustion characteristics depending on how they’re made. Leading-edge pellet stove designs may include thermostatically controlled pellet feed, large glass doors, a backup power source and automatic electric igniters. Although all pellet stoves can be vented with a vertical chimney-style pipe, some models are rated for horizontal venting through a 10 cm (four inch) diameter insulated pipe that exits through a wall.
Pellet Stoves Pros & Cons
• Easier handling of pellets than cordwood
• Little or no risk of chimney fire because of clean combustion
• No conventional chimney required
• Allows wood heating where firewood is difficult to obtain
• Frequent cleaning required
• Constant fan noise during operation
• Small amount of electricity needed to run
• Buying pellets required
• More technically complicated than a wood stove
Before you decide if pellet heat makes sense for you, think about stove location. Potential spots need horizontal or vertical access to the outdoors for exhaust gas venting, a place to pipe combustion air back into the stove from outside, enough room to allow minimum clearances around the stove, and a ready supply of electricity from a properly wired outlet. It’s even better if there’s enough room nearby for pellet storage, too.
Vent pipe installation is unique to pellet-style appliances, starting with the type of pipe used. Unlike ordinary wood stoves, power-vented pellet burners operate with positive pressure in the vent pipe. These push the gases out, unlike a regular wood stove chimney that draws smoke and combustion gases up and out because of negative internal pressure inside (called the draft). And though positive pressure is a good thing because it moves smoke outside with more assurance than delivered by some wood stoves, it also means you may need to create sealed joints in the vent system, depending on the design. Whatever you do, forget about using regular, single-wall stovepipe for venting your pellet system; not even vent pipe rated for use with gas appliances is appropriate. You’re looking for pipe rated as type L by the Underwriters Laboratories of Canada (ULC). It needs to have double walls, and the best pipe includes an internal layer made of stainless steel. High-temperature silicone caulking is the sealant of choice for use with pellet stove vent pipe.
Living with pellet heating fits somewhere between the chore of tending a wood stove and the ease of adjusting the thermostat on an electric baseboard heater or gas furnace. Pellet systems do involve some work, but not nearly as much as burning cordwood. Pellets are typically packed in 18 kg (40 pound) bags, with 50 bags on a one-ton skid. Most homes will burn a bag or two a day, with cost varying between $5 and $8 per day. You’ll need to fill the pellet storage hopper every one to three days, with ash removed from the burn pot and flue system regularly, depending on the quality of fuel you’re burning. When I heated with a pellet stove at our place, the first hour each Saturday morning was spent emptying ash and cleaning the glass door.
So why would anyone opt for work, even the little bit of work involved in pellet heating? Cost is the main reason. All else being equal, pellet stoves save you 30 to 50 percent compared with the kind of fossil fuels or electric heat available in most rural areas. Pellet supply is also a completely domestic industry that uses low-grade forest products as feedstock.
Regardless of what you choose, there’s something magic about heating with wood—pellets or logs. For ages, people have been enjoying the warm glow of a wood fire when the weather is cold, and we’re not likely to forget our attraction to that comfort any time soon.
Steve Maxwell and his wife Mary live on a 90-acre modern homestead on Manitoulin Island, Ontario in a stone house they built with local materials beginning in 1985. Steve is Canada’s longest-running home improvement and how-to columnist and editor of Home and Property. He divides his time working on the land, building things large and small, and creating articles and how-to videos that teach sustainable, self-reliant, hands-on living skills.