Wood Heat vs Pellet Stove Comparison Guide

Learn the key differences

Fire burning in wood stove
Rolf Bruderer / Getty Images

If you've decided to heat your house using a wood fire to supplement your existing source of home heat and reduce your overall heating costs, you're not alone. Many consumers are going back to basics when it comes to home heating; however, there is now more choice when it comes to wood-burning stoves and the type of wood fuel you can burn to heat your home.

There are two types of fuel when it comes to wood-burning stoves—firewood and wood pellets—and each works in different types of stoves. There is, of course, the traditional wood-burning fireplace, but when it comes to wood fuel, this is just the beginning of the options.

Compared to the traditional wood heat stove or fireplace, the pellet stove is a different breed altogether. It's considered a convenient and clean way of heating your home. Although it can heat a home as well or even better than a wood heat stove, there are important comparisons to note before making your buying decision.

Wood Heat vs Pellet Stove: Major Differences

Both types of stoves will produce a comfortable dry radiant heat. A wood stove burn must be maintained to keep the heat constant. A pellet stove operates when the hopper is full of fuel, or pellets, and the stove can be thermostatically controlled.

When it comes to storing and carrying firewood and pellets to the stove, there are also major differences. Firewood is usually stored outside, covered or not, and can be carried inside in smaller batches if necessary to make the process easier. Pellets, usually made from recycled wood waste, must be kept in a dry place such as a shed, garage, or a room in the house. Pellets are sold in 40-pound bags which may create a challenge when carrying to the stove.

wood heat vs pellet stoves illustration
Illustration: The Spruce / Daniel Fishel

Key Features

Wood Heat

Modern wood heat stoves are safer and more efficient than past models thanks to new EPA-certified models. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) requires that wood stoves produce no more than 4.5 grams of smoke per hour. However, the newest stoves will produce no more than 2 grams of smoke per hour per EPA standards. Older stoves released up to 30 grams of smoke per hour.

Emission limits for wood heat stoves are controlled by the internal design of the appliance, which makes it a less complex non-catalytic (less internal combustion) or a more complex catalytic (more combustion to burn off more smoke before venting) stove, but both are safe.

Pellet Stove

A pellet stove does not have a non-catalytic or catalytic interior, but it does have a combustion chamber which receives the pellets from the hopper. It can also have an auto-ignition and programmable thermostat to keep the heat consistent and comfortable.

Appearance

Wood Heat

When it comes to choosing between wood or pellet, it may come down to the actual stove itself. Wood heat stoves are available in both insert and free-standing models—with or without doors—fireplaces, fireplace inserts, wood cookstoves, and box heat stoves.

Pellet Stove

The first pellet stoves introduced to the market were boxy and looked more like simple unattractive wood burners. However, their designs have been improved and, in many cases, the average consumer would have difficulty telling them apart from a wood-burning heat stove. Pellet stoves are available in both insert and freestanding models and with or without a viewing window.

Best for Appearance: Tie

As far as appearance, it's tough to tell these two types of stoves apart in design. If you are familiar with older industrial styles of pellet stoves, you may want to revisit this type of stove to help you decide.

Sizes

It's important to select a stove of either type that's properly sized to fit the space you're hoping to heat. If your wood heat or pellet stove is too large for the space, you'll end up running the appliance with a low smolder to avoid overheating the space. A stove that's too small won't make a dent in the chill.

A rule of thumb is that a stove rated at 42,000 Btu (British Thermal Units, which is a basic measurement of heat production) can heat a 1,300 square foot space. A stove rated with at 60,000 Btu heats a 2,000-square-foot home. You can find pellet stoves with a heating capacity of 8,000 up to 90,000 Btu per hour, making them ideal for smaller homes.

Repair and Maintenance

Wood Heat

When considering which type of stove to buy, it is important to assess the upkeep of each. A wood heat stove will need more maintenance than a pellet stove. For example, before heating season, a home with a wood heat stove should have a chimney sweep and inspection to make sure all components are in efficient and safe working order. Excess build up of soot in a wood heat stove means the appliance is not working effectively to heat the home.

Pellet Stove

Although both the pellet stove and the wood heat stove require regular cleaning and removal of ash, the ash volume is less with a pellet stove, as are the emissions. It's recommended to remove unused pellets at the end of a season to prevent rusting of the appliance's interior. You'll also need to clean the flue vent to prevent soot build up in the pellet stove.

Best for Repair and Maintenance: Pellet Stove

Since only pellet fuel is used in pellet stoves, there is no bark or wood chip mess to clean. Operating a pellet stove is clean and almost smokeless. Noisy stoves, ash buildup, and motor or power problems are the usual repair issues.

Energy Use

Wood Heat

If firewood is readily available and economical—and you don't mind the splitting, stacking, and wood/bark mess that comes along with burning wood, a traditional wood heat stove may be cheaper to install and operate (even cheaper if you salvage free firewood). In addition, if your main concern is having a heating source during power interruptions a wood heat stove would be best.

Pellet Stove

As for heating performance, a pellet stove is more efficient than an airtight stove or fireplace insert. Check BTU ratings when choosing a stove—the higher rating is better. In the event of a power outage, a pellet stove—which requires electricity to operate—will shut down.

Best for Energy Use: Wood Heat

A traditional wood heat stove or fireplace will continue to provide heat during a power outage, while a pellet stove will require a generator to operate, and this may be an important consideration for your family. In addition, some wood stoves have cooking surfaces, which can be very useful during emergencies.

Installation

Wood Heat

Installation guidelines and codes are similar to either type of wood-burning appliance. However, there are differences in connections (and connection costs). Wood heat stoves usually require a full insulated chimney system that must extend above the roof peak.

Pellet Stove

Some pellet stoves need only a direct-vent or smaller chimney system which is cheaper and easier to install, thus reducing connection costs.

Best for Installation: Pellet Stove

Though pellet stoves are usually a little more expensive to buy than a wood heat stove, they are generally much easier, and less costly, to install. A pellet stove insert is the easiest style to install, but you will still need a suitable chimney.

Cost

Initial costs for a wood stove or pellet stove are quite similar, as far as the main unit is concerned. It's a matter of choice as to the style and design that appeals to you and choosing a size of stove adequate to heat your living area.

The costs can differ in terms of firewood and pellets, and what's available to you in your area. Unlike wood heating stoves that can burn firewood and wood scraps, a pellet stove can only burn pellets, such as wood pellets or special fuel composites.

As the cost and availability of firewood and pellet fuels will vary in different areas, you should compare the cost of a full cord of firewood and that of pellets and consider how long each volume will last in order to make a proper comparison. If a winter's supply of firewood is expected to cost you close to the value of about three tons of pellets (what you might typically use per season), your operating costs may be similar with either stove.

Lifespan

Wood Heat

A wood heat stove can last between 20 to 25 years. There are fewer components in this type of stove, and it does not run on electricity.

Pellet Stove

A pellet stove can last between 15 to 20 years. It lasts for less time than a wood heat stove because it has more working electrical parts, including motors, fans, switches, and more.

Best for Lifespan: Wood Heat

Depending on the quality of the metal of a wood heat stove, it can last longer than a pellet stove that has more working parts. Wood heat is one of the oldest types of heat in the world. In fact, you'll probably be able to find some antique cast-iron potbelly wood stoves from the 1800s that are still in good working order.

The Verdict

If you are looking for an all-around budget-conscious way of adding extra heat to your home and you have a source for plenty of firewood to burn, a wood heat stove may be perfect for your needs. As an important bonus, you'll be able to heat your home (and probably cook a little) if you have a wood heat stove, even if the electricity goes out in your area.

However, if you expect that your firewood and pellet costs will be similar, you can handle the heavy pellet bags and provide adequate storage, and you want a clean form of heating where you can set it and leave it for the day, a pellet stove would be a good choice. Always remember, though, a pellet stove relies on electricity.

Top Brands

  • Englander sells handsome wood heat stoves in both freestanding and insert models.
  • Vogelzang sells both wood heat and pellet stoves, including some of the largest wood heat appliances to adequately heat spacious homes.
  • Pleasant Hearth also offers some of the most modern designs in both wood heat and pellet stoves.