Which unit and brand should you buy?
There are many opinions on how to choose the right wood stove. However, it is important for shoppers not to forget the basics. Here are some distilled hints and tips to get you headed in the right direction.
For purposes of this article, we will discuss freestanding wood stoves and fireplace inserts(space heaters) which are tested to meet the current EPA clean burning standards. We will also consider the following as general stove size categories:
Note: numbers in () relate to a guess as to how many cords of wood might be used in the stove in a fairly cold climate.
less than 1.5 cubic feet - small (1-2)
1.5 to 2 cubic feet - medium small (1-4)
2 to 2.5 cubic feet - medium (2-4)
2.5 to 3.25 cubic feet - medium large (2-5)
over 3.25 cubic feet - large (3-6)
Manufacturers will usually state the firebox size on their literature. If they do not, you can measure it in your local stove shop or ask the dealer or manufacturer. Be sure to consider only the area where you can actually get wood into….don’t count those hidden corners.
There is no magic in pellet stoves, wood stoves or coal stoves - same true for corn, or gas. It takes a certain amount of heat (BTUs) to do a certain job!
1. Fuel availability - I have put this topic first because a fact that is often not considered strongly enough - THAT A STOVE DOES NOT HEAT AT ALL - it is the wood (fuel) that you place in it that provides the heat. Therefore, if you intend to burn wood some evenings and weekends, and have a relatively limited supply of wood (like most people), it is important NOT to just go ahead and size the stove to your house size.
Example: You have a 2,500 square foot farmhouse in New England, but intend to burn 1 1/2 cords a year. It might be best to get a medium or even a medium small stove and burn it very hot in the colder weather. This creates a more efficient burn.
Another point to keep in mind is that folks who live in the west often burn wood that takes up more space (less dense and softer wood). This is often offset by the somewhat temperate climate there, but be sure to keep it in mind…and choose a larger firebox if you need longer and overnight burns on a regular basis.
2. Use Patterns - This relates to #1 above. If you are a 24/7 wood burner and need easy overnight burns, you may want to choose a stove from the medium size range or larger.
3. Budget - This is a point that does not need much explanation. Be aware that in the world of stoves, money spent DOES NOT equal longevity nor extra efficiency (in most cases). It is more comparable to the world of automobiles, where a budget car can last as long or longer than a top of the line model. When you spend more in the stove market, you are usually doing so for style and extra features such as enamel, top loading, larger glass area, blowers, etc.
4. Stove material - As most shoppers will soon discover, there are three popular stove materials:
b. Cast Iron
Many stoves are a mixture of these materials. An article comparing the common materials is available here.
5. Style - They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it also may be in the wallet! However, style is a major consideration in most stove purchases. The stove is being installed in a living space, and so becomes a piece of furniture that is seen by you, your family and your guests. While some people (myself included) like to wear ripped jeans, others like a tailored suit or perfect LL Bean outfits. Same with stoves…....let your eyes guide you on this one (along with our other suggestions).
Woodstock Soapstone Stove
6. Availability - Stoves are often sold through local dealers, although there are other sources such as Direct from Manufacturers, Hardware and Home Centers and even mail-order (internet) catalogs. Installation, delivery and future supports are often issues which are important to the new stove owner, and this should be kept in mind when making a purchase.
7. Manufacturer and Stove reputation - I can say without question that most wood stoves available today are quite decent - and, in fact, most are even better than that! However, it is always a benefit to purchase from a manufacturer AND/OR dealer that has a stellar reputation. It may take some inquisition to sort this out, but I have faith in our dear readers and fellow shoppers. A word of warning is to take recommendations on our Forum and on our Ratings Section as only one part of your research. After all, the nature of the internet (and sales in general) should always be interpreted as “buyer beware”.
8. Features/Internals - Some people have certain features in mind when they look for a stove - larger glass area, blowers, close clearances to walls, etc. - in many cases, shoppers are constrained by room layout, chimney and other existing conditions.
If you are “on the Fence” in deciding about the firebox size, it may be better to get the larger size. There tend to be more complaints about a stove being too small rather than too large. This is especially the case when looking at burning 24/7 for heating, as opposed to occasional fires. A small firebox may produce sufficient heat while attended, but can be hard to get long burn times out of. Achieving reliable overnight burns takes at least a medium to medium-large firebox. Depending on the stove model, it may be possible to build a small fire in a large box, but you can’t put a large fire in a small box. Talk to your dealer and other users about how your particular choices work in the “shoulder” seasons, before and after the mid-winter.
Going a little further, here are some things that the author suggests you DO NOT weigh heavily in your stove purchasing decision:
1. What your neighbor or the guy at the bar tells you to buy - chances are that they still have that 30 year old Mama Bear or Vigilant. Don’t let this influence your buying decision as time has moved on since then!
2. Sales literature and brochures - for obvious reasons! A good marketing department can work wonders on your ability to judge. Don’t buy the stove with the best literature, but rather with the best fit to your needs.
3. EPA numbers and manufacturers claims - As to the EPA numbers, your stove should be selected on a pass/fail basis. These numbers are expressed in GPM (grams per hour) of particles extracted from the smoke - and, as a rule, stoves keep getting cleaner and cleaner (a good thing). However, using this as a method of comparison is not wise for a number of reasons.
a. The stoves are tested with special 2x4’s and 4x4’s - NOT with cordwood. Your results will therefore vary
b. The stoves are often tested BY THE MANUFACTURERS technicians and employees…who design the stove to pass the tests - and who also know best how to burn and load the stoves during the tests.
c. The manufacturer gets to choose the range of output under which to run the tests. A stove that is tested at lower output (10,000 to 28,000 BTU, for instance) would naturally burn cleaner than one tested at 10,000 to 50,000 BTU, because the higher the burn, the more wood that is used (and particles formed).
Efficiency numbers listed for many stoves are also “guessed” by the EPA. In fact, many of the tags on the stoves say “not tested for efficiency, the results below is for similar models….”
4. Manufacturer claims about “BTU outputs”, “Burn Times” or “Area Heated” - The heat output and burn time numbers are a function of the way the stove is operated, and there are way to many variables involved for the area heated number to be useful, especially since different manufacturers use different assumptions when calculating that number. The most useful single number is firebox size, which can be viewed in some ways as being like a “tank of heat” A given type of wood will have a certain number of BTU’s per volume, and how much wood you can fit into the stove will determine the size of your “tank”. You can then (within limits) burn the stove “hot” to get a lot of BTU’s out per hour, but have a short burn time, or burn more slowly and get fewer BTU’s / hour, but a longer burn time. Either way, if you multiply the burn time by the BTU’s per hour, you will get approximately the number of BTU’s in the volume of wood that you put in the fire box. Unfortunately there are NO “magic stoves” that get long, high BTU/hr burns out of a small firebox, no matter what the manufacturer’s brochure or stove shop salesman might say.
As to the other numbers commonly published on brochures such as maximum output, these are largely fabricated by the sales and marketing departments. You can get better information by using the firebox size and talking to users on our forum about the stove in question. Some stoves are “hot and fast” burners, even through they have small fireboxes, and others are relatively slow burners with large fireboxes. It might be said that each stove has a personality, and that is part of the fun of wood burning!
The above should get you started on your “Quest for Fire”.