Ask the Expert

Freestanding stoves

Q: We like the idea of adding a small freestanding stove, instead of running the whole house heater. We are looking for the most cost-effective and energy-efficient option, so which is better: a wood stove, gas stove or pellet stove?

When deciding what fuel to burn in a freestanding stove, the most important question to consider is what the primary purpose for the stove is. The three most common purposes are providing backup heat when the power goes out, reducing heating costs, and aesthetics. Of course, it is never that simple. It will always be a combination, but if we assign value to each of the purposes, it will help us make the choice that we will be most happy with.

If backup for a power outage or furnace breakdown is the primary purpose, a wood stove will generally always work, except if nobody is home to build the fire. Most gas stoves can run without power and are switched on by a thermostat when the temperature drops. A pellet stove won’t help in a power outage since almost all require electricity to operate.

Calculating heating cost savings is more complicated because it depends on current prices for both your primary fuel and the fuel for your new stove. Where gas is cheap, like Southcentral Alaska or areas of the North Slope, there would be some savings by using a gas stove as a zone heater in the part of the house being used and leaving the temperature lower in the rest of the house. When the cost of heating oil was around $4 per gallon, it was easy to save money by burning wood, but as the price of oil drops, burning wood becomes more subject to the “hassle factor.”

If you enjoy cutting, hauling and splitting firewood, wood heat is very economical. If processing firewood is a chore that you hate, consider a gas or pellet stove. Pellet stoves have less hassle factor than wood, but maintenance is very important, so make sure you understand the requirements for proper operation. A rough comparison of heat value is one cord of firewood is equivalent to 100 gallons of fuel oil. Check online for even more comparison charts, but know that as prices change either way, the savings changes also.

Aesthetics are always subject to personal preference, so try to see what each stove looks like when it is burning. Besides the flame, “picture” noise from blowers can be an issue. Some people will like the convenience of the push button startup of a gas or pellet stove, while others enjoy the process of building a wood fire.

The best decisions are made when the right questions are asked, so think hard about what features are most important to you and see how each stove meets those expectations.

Kent Severns started The Woodway in Fairbanks in 1977 and has been in the hearth industry ever since. Visit thewoodway.com.