The benefits of having and using a good quality wood burning stove are plentiful – the pleasing aesthetics and charm aside, the practical uses for a wood stove extend beyond simple heat for the house. We’ve enjoyed cooking on ours this year – there’s nothing like boiling beans all day long on a heat source that was going to be hot anyway. It’s a great way to save energy and reduce your dependence on electricity. Properly placed and depending on the size and layout of your house, a wood burning stove can heat your entire house, possibly to temperatures much higher than you would otherwise afford with gas or electrical heating.

The general belief surrounding wood is that it is significantly less expensive than heating your house with other means, although this may not be true. Carefully consider the specific reasons you want to heat or supplement your home with wood heat. Everything depends on your specific situation, but here are some factors to consider.

Do you have a woodstove? Your house might have one already, and if so you’re probably in good shape – otherwise, you’ll likely spend $400 to $800 on a used woodstove – upwards of $2,000 for a new one of good quality. Obviously you can find deals, but don’t forget installing it if your home isn’t ready – another $800 in materials and the labor if you can’t do it yourself. Consider how many years it will take to break even on the savings you’d experience from wood heat – some homes cost close to $400 or $500 a month to heat in the winter – it may well make sense, or it may be 10 years before you get your money back.
What is your wood source? Are you going to buy wood for $150 a cord? Do you have a woodlot you can pull from? A source of free wood that you can cut and haul yourself? I was fortunate enough to find an excellent source of wood from a tree service company – they did tree removal and would dump large tree chunks in an old vacant lot. I asked them for permission and they gave me unlimited access to the wood they would bring back. Much of it was green and needed to be aged, but once I had built up my wood pile and got it into rotation, it has worked very well.

How much work is it going to be? Do you have a hydraulic wood splitter? Are you in physical shape to split, move and stack your woodpile? What is your time worth? I can generally split a week worth of wood (depending on how cold it is outside) in two or three hours on a Saturday. If it would only cost me $50 that week to heat my house by other means, is it worth it to me to lose three hours of my weekend, effectively getting “paid” $12 or $14 an hour? In our current situation, I’m more than happy to save the money with a few hours of physical labor – but if you’re making a reasonable amount of money, it might not make sense to take the time.

Are you ready to feed the fire? Beyond just the time it takes to split the wood, you also must consider the chore of feeding your stove around the clock. Generally this isn’t too big of a deal, especially since we like the house a little cooler at night. I can load up the stove and crank the air way down and still have plenty of warm coals in the morning. Every few hours during the day I throw a few more logs on and make sure everything is burning well.

Is there other equipment you’ll need? How about the gas for your chainsaw and log splitter? General maintenance on those pieces of equipment as well as your maul, sledge and wedges? Cleaning the chimney out every year? Gas for the truck to haul the wood? Are you going to be nickel and dimed to death?

Eventually the question must be asked: why do you want to burn wood in your home? Periodically to add atmosphere and memories? As a supplement when the temperatures get really cold? Full time as a primary source of heat for your house? There have been several times in the last few years that we’ve been thankful for our woodstove – particularly during power outages in the winter. We’ve stayed warm in -10 degree nights with no electricity – not just warm, but comfortable. As an emergency backup, the woodstove is unbeatable – and this year, having maintained and seasoned wood for many years, we’ve been able to cash in on the investment we’ve been making for quite some time. With very tight cash flow as we work to get our business off the ground, we’re nothing but glad to have enough wood to last us the whole winter.

Your situation may be different – as with anything, you’ve got to start down the path with your eyes wide open. Installing or using a woodstove in an economic way will depend entirely on your application, use and location – not to mention the friends you have and people you know who may be able to help you find free firewood. Personally, I can’t imagine trying to live long term without a good woodstove. This year, we’re depending on it exclusively – but next year, it may only make sense to supplement. Our woodstove is a living member of our family and it’s responsible use depends on us.