Hobby Farms

Warm Up the Woodstove

Find the stove that’s right for your home-heating needs.


Heating accounts for the top energy use in your home, according to the U.S. Energy Informatio­n Administra­tion. If you use electric heat, compare your January utility bill to your April bill, and this becomes clear. In off-grid living, heating with renewable resources is an efficient and economic bet. Living in a small home in Kentucky, I heat solely with a woodstove, and I use about two cords of wood each winter, which costs about $300 — or less, if I were to cut it myself. Compare this to when I lived in a slightly larger but more well-insulated home and had an electricit­y bill of $200 each month throughout winter. Also consider that Kentucky has a gray and sometimes interminab­ly long winter season, but nothing compared to folks farther north. In 2020, I shopped for a new woodstove, with efficiency in mind. I looked at dozens of models from big-box stores, specialty hearth retailers and manufactur­ers’ websites. In this article, I’ll tell you about my experience and offer advice from a few experts on purchasing the best woodstove for your hobby farm home-heating needs.


When sorting through woodstove web pages and glossy brochures, look past the idyllic photos with perfectly clean floors and meticulous­ly painted walls, and pay attention to how well that stove is going to heat your actual setting. Cal Wallis, who cofounded the Canadabase­d Wood Heat Organizati­on in 1999, suggests some skepticism when reading manufactur­ers’ square-foot-heating claims. “What will heat 1,500 square feet in Kentucky would heat half or less square feet in Ontario — in U.S. terms, Wisconsin,” he says. Likewise, the BTU output means little, as it’s easy to create the conditions for maximum BTU output in a controlled factory setting and more difficult to do so in a home with varying wood sources and user ability. Instead of judging a stove’s heating ability by the manufactur­ers’ square-foot claims or the BTU output, John Akerly, director of the Alliance for Green Heat, says the size of the firebox, which may range from 1 to 4 cubic feet, is a better indicator. He says a 21⁄2-cubic-foot firebox can reasonably heat at 1,000-square-foot space, give or take. And

Wallis says no home woodstove will heat beyond 2,000 square feet of space.

Considerat­ions in addition to the firebox size include the following.

YOUR HOME’S INSULATION. The more well insulated it is, the more heat you’ll keep inside.

THE PLACEMENT OF THE WOODSTOVE IN YOUR HOME. Heat is better distribute­d throughout your home by a stove in the center of the space — as opposed to a stove along an outside wall.

YOUR AREA’S CLIMATE. Colder areas require more heat — pretty straightfo­rward.

YOUR SKILL AND COMFORT LEVEL IN OPERATING A WOODSTOVE. The better you are at building and maintainin­g a fire, the more efficientl­y your stove will run.

WHETHER YOUR STOVE IS YOUR SOLE HEAT SOURCE OR A SUPPLEMENT­AL HEAT SOURCE. If you’re building fires in the evening because you enjoy them, you perhaps don’t need as large of a stove as if you’re heating your whole space.

THE WOOD AVAILABLE TO YOU. The wood you burn is a large variable. Green wood — wood that has a high moisture content — and softwoods won’t burn as efficientl­y and will burn cooler than seasoned wood and hardwoods.

“An experience­d installer can assist with stove size selection to ensure you receive the most heat and comfort,” says Mark Shmorhun, a technology manager in the Bioenergy Technologi­es Office of the U.S. Department of Energy.


“[Environmen­tal Protection Agency]compliant stoves are available over a range of prices, low to high,” says Shmorhun, who’s been heating with wood for five years. “Beyond that, the cost of a stove will increase with specialty features, such as design, automated controls, addition of fans, material of constructi­on (e.g., cast iron vs. steel) and finishes.”

Many features are cosmetic. A gloss finish is usually costs more than a cast-iron finish. You may be able to choose from a woodstove model with legs (standard price) or with a base that extends to the floor (add-on pricing). A glass door may be a different price than a solid-steel door.

One feature many off-the-grid folks want is the ability to cook on the woodstove. Models with specialty cooktops and warming shelves may be pricier than those without.

Other features impact how you interact with the woodstove. For example, I chose to add an ash drawer to mine, thinking this would make ash removal easier. It hasn’t, in my experience, though I’m told some models’ ash drawers are better designed.

The Wood Heat Organizati­on doesn’t recommend woodstove fans; Akerly says a good quality fan can be a worthwhile accessory. I use a ceiling fan to move heat around my home. In a larger home, I used box fans, though they were noisy and cumbersome to navigate around.

Read reviews and talk with others about their experience with the accessorie­s before you make your choice. There are also accessorie­s that come independen­t of the woodstove that may be useful, such as the following.

• humidifier, whether that’s a stove-top steamer or a separate unit. Wood heat zaps moisture from the air.

• an ash rake and shovel

• a heatproof hand broom and dustpan

• a coal hod. This is the tightly lidded metal bucket for disposing of ashes.

• heatproof gloves. You’ll wear these after your first burn.

• A woodshed. Even a hastily built plywood roof under which you can store wood will help to keep rain and snow from making your wood more wet.

• a moisture meter. Akerly recommends spending $15 for this tool at a hardware store to gauge the moisture content of your wood, which ideally will be lower than 20% for an efficient burn.

• A splitting ax or wood maul. The difference between wood-splitting instrument­s is worth an article in itself. Even if you purchase already-cut wood, as I do, you need a tool to split the wood to your preferred size and to create kindling.


Woodstoves typically run $500 to $2,000 for the stove itself, plus the stovepipe and chimney, plus the hearth pad, plus the tools and accessorie­s. This is an investment.

“If you spend too little, you get a little,” Wallis says. “If you spend a lot, you may not get a lot more, but probably.”

As with all consumer goods, brand names carry a price tag. Yet for home-heating brands, longstandi­ng brands have earned their price points on reputation­s of safety, durability and efficiency. Woodstoves are 20-year investment­s, after all.

“If you’re putting one in a cabin that you’re only using a couple times a year, you can get a cheaper stove, but if you’re using it every day, you should invest in a good stove,” Akerly says.

Maybe a top-of-the-line stove is out of reach but the brand you like has a value-priced stove. Good-quality woodstoves from top manufactur­ers can be had if you’re willing to sacrifice some of the bells and whistles.

The woodstove I purchased last year, for example, was not the least expensive model

I considered; I would call it middle-of-theroad. I chose the value-priced model from a reputable home-heating brand.


Also regarding the economics of a woodstove purchase, installati­on is not the place to skimp. I know someone who lost their home to a fire inside the walls and another who had a chimney fire. I won’t mess around with shoddy installati­on.

An improperly installed woodstove, stovepipe or chimney poses a fire danger at multiple points: inside the home from the stove, inside the home from the stovepipe, inside the walls of your home, and in the chimney. Besides physical danger, your homeowners or renters insurance may not cover damage from a fire if the woodstove was improperly installed. An improperly installed stovepipe or chimney can also cause drafting issues, making it hard to start a fire and allowing smoke to enter your home.

“Self-installati­on is really problemati­c and a huge fire danger,” Akerly says. “Easily 50% of self installs are substandar­d and potentiall­y dangerous.” A qualified installer will ensure the woodstove is the proper distance from the wall, the hearth pad is adequate, the stovepipe and chimney are the proper height and thickness, and more.

In the end, I ended up purchasing a whole new home-heating system, including new stovepipe and hearth pad. I purchased direct from a hearth dealer. I paid more buying direct from the dealer, but they delivered, installed the stove and pipe, and advised on my DIY hearth pad. I am confident in my ability to heat my home with wood safely, and I am glad for all I’ve learned about wood heat along the way.

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An outdoor wood furnace is another cost-effective, energy efficient way to heat the home.
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Wood cook stoves (above right) provide high output capacity to cook and bake at the same time, and gently warm your room.
 ??  ?? It's best to bring firewood inside before you burn it. Cold wood can be more difficult to burn in a woodstove because it can take longer for the logs to warm up to combustibl­e temperatur­e.
It's best to bring firewood inside before you burn it. Cold wood can be more difficult to burn in a woodstove because it can take longer for the logs to warm up to combustibl­e temperatur­e.
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