Heating your home to a comfortable level is an essential part of being a homeowner.
Two popular ways to do so are traditional wood stoves and modern pellet stoves.
Each offers a way to harness a renewable fuel source and can produce plenty of heat for almost any home size.
The question becomes which stove type is better.
Below I go through the most critical factors in picking out a stove for your home and show you when it’s a good idea to use one over the other.
Wood Stoves vs. Pellet Stoves: The Basics
Wood stoves are about as old-school a way to heat your home as it gets. They rely on natural chopped wood for a fuel source and are much more efficient at heating your home than a traditional fireplace.
Pellet stoves are a whole lot newer. Instead of burning pieces of wood, they use a combustion chamber to burn processed wood pellets.
They’ve got many similarities in appearance, shape, style, and even installation, but there are also some significant differences to keep in mind.
Points of Comparison
Wood stoves and pellet stoves are remarkably similar in how they produce heat: Burning wood for fuel.
They each use a fuel source that’s either natural chopped wood or derived from wood. Despite their similarities, they’re quite different in how they operate, their price and upkeep, and several other critical factors.
The first consideration is just how much you’ll have to pay for your stove. The base price of the stove, be it pellet or wood, isn’t all you should look at.
You need to consider the shipping costs (potentially substantial given the size and weight of stoves), additional required parts, and the installation cost if you have it professionally installed (usually a good idea).
Wood Stoves: $3,000 to $4,200 installed
Pellet Stoves: 3,500 to $4,000 installed
Winner: Tie. Both wood stoves and pellet stoves come in at roughly the same range of prices for similar heat output.
Convenience/Ease of Use
Using a wood stove requires a bit of know-how and the ability to judge the condition of a fire, how long it will burn, and how to manage the size to control the heat output. You also need to be able to build a fire itself and appropriately size wood to fit into your stove.
Here’s a video I found really helpful in explaining how to build and manage a fire in a modern wood stove by the good folks over at Country Living Experience:
By comparison, a pellet stove is nearly as easy to use as an electric heater. It uses an internal augur to push a predetermined amount of pellets into a combustion chamber with the flick of a switch.
Controlling the temperature is just as easy, with most pellet stoves having thermometers that let you set a level of heat output and walk away. All you have to worry about is keeping the hopper full of pellets.
Winner: Pellet stoves. Wood stoves aren’t difficult to manage if you know what you’re doing, but pellet stoves have a clear advantage in convenience and control.
Operating Cost and Fuel Availability
The purchase price is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to stoves. The day-to-day use of fuel is a much higher cost over the long-term.
Most homes between 1,000 and 2,000 square feet require between two and three tons of pellets for a winter. That’s a lot of wood pellets to store, and also a high cost. Given that pellet prices hover right around the $250 per ton mark, it’s even more expensive than a comparable amount of cordwood.
Hardwood for a wood stove is measured in cords, with most homes in the 1,000 to 2,000 square foot range requiring between two and three cords. Given the average price of firewood is between $150 and $200, you can see the savings right away.
That doesn’t even consider the ability of many living off-grid to make their own firewood for just the cost of chainsaw fuel.
Wood Stoves: $300 to $600 per winter season on average/Free other than labor potentially if access to timber
Pellet Stoves: $600 to $900 per winter season on average
Winner: Wood stoves.
According to the Pellet Fuel Institute of America (PFI), pellets are more expensive per million BTUs than hardwood used in equally efficient stoves.
Firewood is also available everywhere, is easy to process and store, and is inexpensive to buy in bulk. If you’re living off-grid, there’s a good chance you can cut and process your timber into a free source of firewood as well.
Heat Output, Efficiency, and Emissions
Heat output, efficiency, and emissions are closely linked for both wood and pellet stoves. Combustion efficiency is the number one factor in how much emissions a stove produces and has a significant impact on heat output.
Pellet stoves are generally more efficient than wood stoves.
The type of fuel they use and the method of combustion allow for extremely efficient heating. There are certainly high-efficiency wood stoves, but on average a pellet stove is more efficient. It’s important to weigh that efficiency against the cost of fuel and its availability.
As for heat output, you can find both pellet and wood stoves suitable for heating virtually any space.
Emissions are another subject.
Higher-efficiency stoves have lower emissions as more of the fuel is burned rather than emitted as smoke. The EPA regulates stove emissions and mandates that all stoves, pellet or wood, intended for home use must meet minimum standards.
Modern stoves utilize catalytic combustors and other advanced designs to both eliminate emissions and improve efficiency.
Winner: Pellet stoves.
You can certainly get high-efficiency wood stoves with excellent emission rates, but they’ll generally be slightly more expensive than a pellet stove of similar performance. The most efficient and low-emission stoves are pellet stoves.
For any product that involves fire and produces emissions, safety is the number one priority. When dealing with wood or pellet stoves, that means following basic everyday safety precautions and making sure they’re properly installed, have ample flue diameter for their emissions output, and are sited correctly to prevent combustion around them.
It’s also crucial that you have working smoke detectors and carbon monoxide sensors.
The good news is that any commercially available wood or pellet stoves offer nearly identical safety features and levels of protection for your family.
This goes without saying, and I hate to beat a dead horse here, but it’s important that you follow any installation instructions to the letter, or better yet, have a certified professional installer put in for you.
Both wood stoves and pellet stoves are incredibly safe heating choices when proper precautions are taken and regular maintenance is followed.
Reliability and Ease of Maintenance
Reliability ties closely to maintenance needs, and for both of them, wood and pellet stoves offer good choices. Wood stoves have been used for thousands of years and have minimal upkeep requirements beyond basic upkeep and chimney cleaning.
That makes sense when you consider that their designs are nearly unchanged, other than the addition of emissions controls, from the reliable stoves your great-great-great-grandparents would have used.
Pellet stoves are reliable and relatively easy to maintain, but they aren’t at the same level as a wood stove.
Pellet stoves have moving parts, multiple inner sections, and contained combustion chambers. That plus the basic cleaning and chimney inspection requirements of a wood stove.
Winner: Wood Stoves.
While pellet stoves are very reliable and generally require little maintenance, the presence of multiple moving parts and machinery makes it much more likely you’ll have a significant issue requiring repair during your ownership.
While pellet stoves are certainly great heating systems, they can’t quite compare to a wood stove’s lasting benefits.
The key takeaways to remember are that pellet stoves can be easier to use and are generally more efficient than wood stoves, but that fuel is more expensive overall plus harder to store and handle.
The need for constant electric power to operate pellet stoves makes them unusable for off-grid life as they’ve quickly become your number one power draw during the winter months.
When you add in the widespread availability of quality firewood and the ability to process your own if you’ve got any timber, it’s clear that wood stoves beat out pellet stoves, especially if you live off the grid.
Want to know more about wood stoves?
Check out our comprehensive wood stove review. It helps you understand how to size a wood stove for your living space and gives a good rundown on some of the best small to medium-sized wood stoves on the market, written by yours truly.