Join 3,494 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Burning Wood Instead of Gas?
November 5, 2012 12:39 PM   Subscribe

Should we use a wood burning stove for a 100 year old multiple story house?

The house: A 1907 Arts and Crafts home, American foursquare style. There are two main floors that are a total of 2100 square feet along with a finished attic and unfinished basement. The walls are not insulated (that was covered in a previous questions). The house is currently heated with radiant heat by an old (about 50 years old) furnace in the basement. The gas bills in winter run between $300-$400, up from $25 in the summer.

Considering that we haven't found a happy insulation solution yet, we were hoping to take a little edge off by getting our fireplace up and running. However it turns out our fireplace with it's 8" flue was never meant to burn wood.

The chimney guy mentioned heating the whole house with a wood burning stove insert. My wife grew up in a large wood heated house and is excited about this idea, but I'm doubtful. Unlike her old house, ours doesn't have any air ducts forcing air or even vents between floors. My fear is that even a good, strong wood burner would heat the bottom floor but leave the second floor freezing and even if it did get upstairs we'd have to leave the doors open to let the air flow in.

So would a wood burner be doable? If so, would we need to add ventilation to the upstairs and if so how much? (My wife freaks out whenever I mention the possibility of doing certain things to the house, like ripping out the walls to put in insulation.) We have access to a good supply of wood and what chimney there is is well suited to holding a wood burning insert.

Feel free to challenge my assumptions as per usual I don't know what the hell I'm doing or what I'm talking about.
posted by charred husk to Home & Garden (24 answers total)
 
You can get a wood insert, and it will blow heat. Heat rises, and if you have ceiling fans, you can flip the switch on them, and when they go in the other direction, they help move the heat up. (I know, I thought that was cool too!)

You should probably put a new metal insert into your chimney, just to insure that everything is solid and kosher.

I don't know that this is really a cheap solution though. The inserts can go a couple grand, etc. Plus you have to pay for wood (kiln dried if you can get it) 'cause you can't go all Lincoln in the back yard on wet trees.

I'd call a couple of insert folks and see what they have to say.

Can I mention that wood fires cause a lot of pollution. Because they so do!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:51 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


A couple things, starting with this:

(My wife freaks out whenever I mention the possibility of doing certain things to the house, like ripping out the walls to put in insulation.)

Why would your wife freak out about making changes to your house? I think you both need to get a little more educated about what is possible with your house. When you put insulation into walls that either have no insulation or have inadequate insulation, one method is to use a loose fill insulation which is either blown in through the interior or exterior through small holes. You need one hole for each cavity and they will need to be patched. There's no "ripping out the walls" unless you have some other project planned like re-siding. If you plan to re-side or even re-paint the exterior, that's a perfect time to insulate as you'll have access to the sheathing or whatever is under your siding (if anything) and then can patch it up more easily.

My friends who had a wood-burning stove had something like this little fan which sat on top and uses the heat of the stove to turn the blades and helped distribute some of the heat out into the room. It sounds like yours is a fireplace and not a stove, though, correct? So, setting up an electric fan would probably be best to get the heat out into the space.

Lastly, I'm kind of guessing that it'll be a wash on the gas expense vs wood-burning expense though you really need to just quickly spreadsheet out your up front costs and maintenance costs and fuel with the fact that you will most likely be running your gas heat some of the time.

How high are your ceilings? Some other friends had an old farmhouse with 11-foot ceilings and they tried to make do in the winter with only a wood-burning stove. They have kids and the upstairs never got warm. I don't remember if they had any vents other than the stairwell to distribute the warm air but during the damp of winter (Pacific Northwest) they had to run their electric baseboard heat quite a bit to make things tolerable.
posted by amanda at 12:54 PM on November 5, 2012


You'd likely do better with a pellet type stove if you're using it for the main heat source of the home. That's not to say that I'm an experienced source for comparing that [pellet stoves] to whatever other options you may have on the table.

Oh, and eponysterical.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:55 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


We live in the SF Bay area and get all our wood for free. Just keep an eye out on the sides of roads (there are regular spots where the tree crews ditch the random log collection) and on craigslist under the free section. Even 3 logs at a time (all that will fit easily in my back seat) is a lot of wood!

Pallets are also completely burnable, and some of them are hardwood, especially those used by companies who get heavy shipments (like furniture). Bring a hammer, a prybar, and some gloves, take the pallets apart right there on the scene, and stick them in the back seat of your car.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:58 PM on November 5, 2012


Pellet stoves are neat, but you have to buy the damn pellets, and hope someone keep carrying the right size of pellets for your particular stove. Not that I'm an expert- I've never had one. They were popular in a couple of towns where I lived, though.

Yes, definitely put fans on your stove. I like the little copper ones because they're pretty.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:00 PM on November 5, 2012


amanda:
"When you put insulation into walls that either have no insulation or have inadequate insulation, one method is to use a loose fill insulation which is either blown in through the interior or exterior through small holes."
Check the previous question I mentioned. There are concerns about blowing insulation into old lathe plastered walls. A solution mentioned was ripping the walls out, insulating and re-plastering.

As for costs, we were estimating about $600 for enough wood to heat during the winter. While the gas would probably still get used some, I estimated that would still save us another $600 per month. Assuming the amount of wood is correct, though.
posted by charred husk at 1:01 PM on November 5, 2012


By radiant heat I assume you mean radiators, not in-floor radiant heat. Also, I assume the $300-$400 you mention is your monthly cost during winter, not your cost for the whole winter? Maybe from November-March, 5 months, you're spending about $2,000 for heat total?

If that's the case you certainly could save a chunk of change with a good fireplace insert. I would look at both regular wood and pellet burning models. Your upfront cost will be higher for pellet unit, but there's a convenience factor and you won't have to do a $200 chimney cleaning every single year.

Presumably with gas you've been keeping the thermostat low and wear a lot of sweaters. The nice thing about a wood or pellet stove is that you'll have a nice toasty living room and be a lot more comfortable all winter long. Heat rises, and you'll find that upstairs stays reasonably warm as well. Yes, you do have to keep doors open, but special ventilation shouldn't be needed. If your radiators can be zoned, you can have them do a little supplemental heating upstairs.

Depending where you live, wood should run around $250 a cord, and with that size house uninsulated, you'll probably go through around five cords. Plus a chimney cleaning. Or five tons of pellets at $275. So you won't save a ton of money. Tackling that insulation issue is the only way to save real money.
posted by beagle at 1:02 PM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


My family recently installed a wood-burning stove in what used to be a fireplace. It cost several thousand dollars ($4000, maybe?) When we have the stove burning but the fan off, there is hardly any heat coming out; the fan needs to be on medium or preferably on high before it heats. We don't have forced hot air or air ducts normally, either, and prefer not using our oil-heat because it's expensive.

My verdict would be that the stove definitely takes the edge off of the cold in the house, but it's by far warmest in the room with the stove, as one might imagine. In our house (which is a couple hundred square feet bigger than yours), we have to leave all the doors open in the house for the air to permeate, and even then, it's uncomfortably cold upstairs when the room with the stove is quite warm (think: sitting right in front of fire in a t-shirt, and several layers on upstairs in bed covered by a down comforter. If you insulated your house, it might significantly cut down on heating bills, depending on how cold you were willing to tolerate the upstairs (and possibly the downstairs, depending on how open your floorplan is). Also, you can sometimes get free wood on Craigslist if you cart it away yourself. We chop our own wood, which makes the wood-burning stove far cheaper for us than oil. So, in short, it might help but it probably won't be the perfect solution for you.
posted by UniversityNomad at 1:04 PM on November 5, 2012


Last comment before I give up. Some wood stoves burn cleaner than others. If you can afford the ones that burn every thing twice, they're more efficient and less polluting. You can even find add-ons for old fireplaces that do this, though I don't know much about them.

Often you can get old, pretty woodstoves for cheap or free on craigslist, though you'll need help to move them. They're HEAVY!

I strongly recommend getting one that has a window in it. Not only are they cozier, but you don't have to keep opening it up to see how the fire's doing. I also like the ones with the door in the front, instead of on top, because it's much more comfortable to reach into and poke things around.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:05 PM on November 5, 2012


beagle:
"Depending where you live, wood should run around $250 a cord, and with that size house uninsulated, you'll probably go through around five cords. Plus a chimney cleaning. Or five tons of pellets at $275. So you won't save a ton of money. Tackling that insulation issue is the only way to save real money."
That was one of the things I was wondering about. The chimney guy mentioned about three cords of wood at $200 for the winter, but I don't know if he accounted for our lack of insulation. I really wish we had a good solution for that.
posted by charred husk at 1:06 PM on November 5, 2012


Also, to clarify, ours isn't pellets, it's wood that we chop. I think another big consideration might be how much longer you plan to live in your house, how much you would save per year on energy costs, and whether or not the stove would increase your resale value. Unless you don't care about recouping the cost, of course.

I'm not sure this is helpful, but for our house (2300 square feet ish maybe?), we'll usually put three chunks of wood in and that lasts probably 1-1.5 hours. Each chunk of wood is a quarter of a tree log. It takes at least half an hour for the stove to warm up in the morning once it's lit, and usually more like an hour. If we're not going to be home for several hours, we don't light it. That's probably something else to consider: if you both work during the day, it might not be worth starting it up in the evening, because by the time it starts warming the house properly, it may well be bedtime. We get by far the best results when keeping it on all day. Also, it doesn't tend to work as well on damp or rainy days - cold crisp and clear days work best.
posted by UniversityNomad at 1:09 PM on November 5, 2012


I'd go for it if you can be happy with keeping doors open to the second floor and/or cutting in a couple of floor vents. I heat from my basement with a wood stove. There's a 10" x 16" vent in the floor just above the stove and 3 - 4" x 14" vents across the room under a series of windows. The smaller vents are for cold air return. These all look like normal house fixtures, and heat my (smaller) house fairly evenly.
As for pollution, all new stoves must by law be fairly efficient. My chimney barely smokes.
posted by Hobgoblin at 1:10 PM on November 5, 2012


small_ruminant:
"I strongly recommend getting one that has a window in it. Not only are they cozier, but you don't have to keep opening it up to see how the fire's doing. I also like the ones with the door in the front, instead of on top, because it's much more comfortable to reach into and poke things around."
The one we're looking at looks just like a fireplace with a glass door in front of it. It's EPA approved (77% efficient) and has a built-in blower. I'm sure it would do wonders for the main floor. But if it won't heat the whole house I'm not putting the money into it.
posted by charred husk at 1:11 PM on November 5, 2012


Certainly lots of people heat multiple story houses with a single woodstove. It all depends on the configuration of your house and I don't think anyone here can provide a definitive answer because we haven't been inside your house. A few vents in the right places between floors can make a lot of difference if things need improving. In any case, I think you need to find someone local and knowledgeable who can help you out with this.
posted by ssg at 1:25 PM on November 5, 2012


ssg has a good point: Cutting floor vents can make sense in the right situation, which depends on how your house is laid out. We cut a vent right above our wood stove and the room it opens into is toasty; adjoining rooms are warmed with the judicious use of doorway corner fans (like this one) and leaving doors open. It's less of an issue at night when everybody's tucked under the blankets.

We also have a stovetop fan, as amanda mentions, and that helps too.

Thanks to the odd configuration of my house, I can use window and door coverings to semi-redirect/contain air flow. It works for me. But it may or may not work for you.

Please check your MeFi mail. I sent you a long piece of advice on wood heating as a project. It may give you something to think about.

In any case, make a friend of your chimney sweep! He'll be able to give you advice specific to your house.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:33 PM on November 5, 2012


Check the previous question I mentioned. There are concerns about blowing insulation into old lathe plastered walls. A solution mentioned was ripping the walls out, insulating and re-plastering.

FWIW I also own a 1920's vintage 4-square and had blown in cellulose done several years ago. It was a lot cheaper than I thought. It did no damage to the plaster and lathe ( It was installed by removing some shingles, drilling holes, filling, and replacing shingles.) I also added 12 inches of fiberglass batts in the attic. I heat my home with gas and I have a vent-free gas insert in the fireplace. The one I have does not even require a chimney, will heat up to 1100Sq ft., has a built in thermostat and 02 sensor, and did not break the bank. Most times It is all I use to heat the house,

Also Cutting floor vents may be against fire codes. A simple fan or ceiling fan is all you need to circulate.
posted by Gungho at 1:58 PM on November 5, 2012


Have you considered a gas fireplace insert? Here's one you can put together yourself. They aren't as dangerous as wood stoves, and you don't have to store wood. Your chimney might be ok as is for one of these.
posted by mareli at 4:01 PM on November 5, 2012


Three cords for the winter is plausible, but 3 cords of dry, split hardwood for $200 is not. He may have meant 3 *face* cords, which is only about 1 cord.

I just put in a nice insert, also 77% max efficiency with a built-in blower. I have had several fires as Sandy chilled our area, and would say that if your primary reason for considering it is to save money then it's probably not a good idea. If you like vigorous exercise, scavenging and playing with chain saws, and if you're around home enough to maintain a fire, and have the time to do all this, then it can be a fun lifestyle choice that also saves some cash. But if you just want to save money, then insulate.

(actually, you should insulate regardless.)
posted by jon1270 at 8:06 PM on November 5, 2012


I have a medium freestanding woodstove in a small single-story house, and I love it, I heat the whole house with it. An ex has a small insert in a two-story, 1904(?) craftsman house in Chicago with uninsulated walls, and...it made the living room warm.

I strongly recommend you start with this article:

http://www.hearth.com/econtent/index.php/articles/choosing_a_wood_stove

then go to the forums at Hearth.com. They're like the metafilter of wood and pellet stoves--the members have gone through this same process, every one of them. You can give all the info on the house you gave us, add in your location, and they will help you work out what you can and can't expect to do.

Usually the floor(s) above the stove are significantly colder. Usually an insert loses a lot of heat into the masonry of the fireplace, and you get better heat if the stove is freestanding (unless the fireplace is in an interior wall)

Also, regarding your walls and insulation: the fact that your plaster is intact and walls uninsulated indicates that your wiring is as old as your house. A house is a living, changing thing, and sometimes lovely plaster walls need to come down so you don't die in a fire. While you're going crazy with a sawzall to save you and your house, insulate the walls.

Good luck!
posted by Anwan at 11:12 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anwan:
"Also, regarding your walls and insulation: the fact that your plaster is intact and walls uninsulated indicates that your wiring is as old as your house."
Actually the wiring isn't original, or at least I don't think it is. The outlets are mostly three prong and it has handled our high-tech lifestyle just fine (I work IT and have a PC repair shop in the attic). I had wondered how the walls could have still been original if the house had been rewired but my wife insists that the plaster is original. Is there a way to tell without doing too much damage? And if it isn't original does that make blowing in insulation more feasible?
posted by charred husk at 5:49 AM on November 6, 2012


We have modern (1970s?) wiring in our 1912 house, which is lathe and plaster. If the walls are still lathe and plaster, they're probably the original walls. If someone knocked down a wall in the last 50 years, they won't have replaced it with more lathe and plaster- they'll have sheet rocked it. There are no advantages to lathe and plaster over sheet rock that I've ever heard, not that I'm a contractor or anything.

The lathe and plaster is the same as sheet rock, in that there is a nice gap in between the layers, so you can just drop down new wiring when you need it. We just tore out a couple of bathroom walls and you could see the generations of wire dangling there. No one got rid of the old, fabric covered stuff, just disconnected it and left it in there.

I don't understand why you can't blow insulation into lathe and plaster walls, but you've obviously done your research on it.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:07 AM on November 6, 2012


We have 2 fireplace inserts, Vermont castings and a jotul both with blowers and we heat our 2200 sq ft house very nicely with them. Not sure of the logistics of a 100+ yr old home but I can't see a problem. Our home is a 1970s colonial with a very odd addition. I second going to Hearth.com and joining their forums. Great advice there. We buy our wood about 3 -4 cords in the spring when its cheap in addition to wood from around our property. It does take work to start them from a cold start but once they get going its awesome. One thing with a wood stove insert as opposed to a traditional wood stove, the installation people run a liner through your existing chimney which helps a lot with the draw (ours was terrible) other then that there was no other modifications to our home. We clean it ourselves a couple times a year with brushes from our local wood stove shop. Also we did receive a tax break from one of our stoves for energy efficiency.
posted by lasamana at 8:32 AM on November 6, 2012


Good grief, don't burn pallets!

The crap they treat them with is nasty, both for you and the environment. Chemical treated pallets have "MB" stamped, and heat treated pallets are stamped with "HT", usually. But even non-chemically treated pallets can have crap deliberately applied or accidently spilled on them--insecticide is very common to keep bugs down in shipping.

I've used them outside in sheds and such, but I won't burn them.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:41 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually the wiring isn't original, or at least I don't think it is. The outlets are mostly three prong and it has handled our high-tech lifestyle just fine

While it is possible that new wires were pulled, and it should be easy to look either in the basement or attic, it is also possible that the previous owner either got tired of looking for 3-prong adapters or wanted it to appear that the wiring had been updated. Test each outlet for proper ground. A tester is a few bucks at the home center.
posted by Gungho at 1:58 PM on November 7, 2012


« Older I am a good friend, I meet loa...   |  Tokyo / Narita Filter: Is ther... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.