The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Choosing an efficient wood stove

Diagram of a catalytic wood stoveI've recently come to the conclusion that there are two ways of being green --- the Prius method and the penny-pinching method.  Followers of the Prius method spend a lot of money to buy the most expensive model, not realizing that the increased efficiency they're paying for could be obtained just as easily (and much more cheaply) by downsizing a bit.  For example, my 20+ year old Ford Festiva has gas mileage nearly compatible with the Prius for a fraction of the up-front cost (and a fraction of the construction cost since my Festiva has already been on the road for two decades.)

 Which is all a way of saying that there are two ways to buy a very energy efficient wood stove.  Followers of the Prius method will jump on a catalytic wood stove, an innovation that will lower their emissions and increase their burning efficiency.  On the negative side, catalytic wood stoves are extremely expensive, and the catalyst will have to be replaced in two to six years, which has environmental repurcussions and makes a deep dent in your pocketbook.

Diagram of an efficient, non-catalytic wood stoveMiddle of the road wood stove buyers will gravitate to Energy Star non-catalytic wood stoves.  The use of baffles, firebox insulation, and preheated combustion air combine to make these wood stoves nearly as efficient as the catalytic versions and at least 60% more efficient than old-fashioned wood stoves.  Like the catalyst in a catalytic wood stove, the baffle in a non-catalytic wood stove may need to be replaced from time to time, but my understanding is that this replacement is considerably less expensive.

Then there's the penny-pinching route, which I'm seriously considering.  Even the most efficient wood stoves only burn at peak efficiency if you keep your fire hot, and the smallest Energy Star wood stoves seem to clock in at about 60,000 BTU.  Although it's only a rough guide, many sources suggest planning on 50 to 55 BTU per square foot in the extreme north of the U.S., 30 to 35 BTU per square foot in the deep south, and around 40 to 45 BTU per square foot here in southwest Virginia.  Using those numbers, we should be in the market for a 20,000 to 22,500 BTU wood stove for our 500 square foot trailer, since we'd lose a lot of efficiency by damping down a larger wood stove.  Even if a tiny stove is much less efficient than a big Energy Star stove, we'd burn less wood and make less pollution with the penny-pinching method.  Plus, tiny wood stoves are considerably cheaper, as I'll explain tomorrow.

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This post is part of our Wood Stove lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Have a look at the J√łtul F 602 CB. According to cool tools it costs $700.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Nov 10 12:28:55 2010
That's actually top of our list at the moment, as you'll see tomorrow. I'd be curious whether your research turns up anything better or even equal.
Comment by anna Wed Nov 10 12:42:28 2010
The stove here is interesting, it's a Cabot Elite "wood space heater" from Jacuzzi Leisure Products of Canada. Baffled, and I think it preheats its air. You can hear the air hissing when it's running. A bit over 30 thousand BTU and 63% efficient, not stunning but I like it so far.
Comment by joey Wed Nov 10 15:19:04 2010

On cd3wd there is a technical paper on burning wood waste that gives an interesting overview of combustion in wood-burning stoves. You might like some of the other articles there as well; lots of stuff about agriculture and everything related to it.

Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Nov 10 15:58:46 2010

Joey --- that wood stove company sure doesn't have much of an internet presence. When I search for it, I end up right back here! :-)

Roland --- I think you might have sent me over there before? One of these days I'm going to have to poke around and look through the rest of their articles. Thanks!

Comment by anna Wed Nov 10 16:55:05 2010
Hey, I'm new to your site ,but my wife and I read it often. Your surely on the right track by avoiding catalytic stoves. Go for a steel stove. Won't over heat and need rebuilding in the future. We own a "New Englander" and are very happy with it . Its priced at $1200 retail. We found it for 700 at BEst to shop in summer at this site. MY neighbor found one at a local shop that was in the warehouse. Got it for 700.. FWIW,I hope it helps.
Comment by Arthur Teel Wed Nov 10 18:51:14 2010

You're so right about shopping in the summer for wood stoves! I wish we'd had our building done last spring so that we could light up a fire inside and see how our furnace was going to fail us. Unfortunately, now we're stuck with winter nearly here and a need for a workable solution!

If I'm looking at the right site, it looks like even the smallest Englander stove is too big for us, though. :-/

Comment by anna Wed Nov 10 19:37:43 2010

I believe you are incorrect in your comments about catalytic stoves being the most efficient.

Catalytic stoves are considered old technology and the catalytic parts of a stove have been eliminated by better design methods. Catalytic stoves need more maintenance and are more expensive to maintain. They take longer to heat up to maximum efficiency. I would not buy a cat stove unless I was getting a great deal on it.

Look at Pacific Energy stoves if you would like to see top of the line non-cat stoves that rival anything on the market.

Comment by Steve S. Thu Feb 10 15:25:48 2011
I'm glad to hear that, Steve! I certainly feel like the efficient, non-catalytic wood stove we got is amazingly efficient and I have a hard time imagining that catalytic stoves would be better.
Comment by anna Thu Feb 10 21:05:52 2011
I started to read this because I was curious about your wood stove insights, but became despondent when you reminded me how much I miss my '88 Festiva. It was the cheapest, most economical car I've ever owned. It was also the most fun to drive, like having a street-legal go-kart. My friends who initially made fun of my purchase now give a solemn bow to the memory of my long-lost love. May she rust in peace...
Comment by Jeff Alley Wed Nov 14 08:16:47 2012
Jeff --- I miss our Festiva too! On the other hand, I almost never drive, and Mark's so tall that he made the Festiva look like a clown car. So sending her to a shorter owner was a good decision, but still....
Comment by anna Wed Nov 14 08:33:32 2012
I've been highly considering getting a gasification wood boiler. I do have a lot of access to wood and it seems like it could be a good long term investment. I'm just looking into how much maintenance would go into it and how much effort I'd have to put in.
Comment by JustJoannie Wed Jun 26 14:15:56 2013

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