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How to choose alternative heating sources

August 29, 2008
Provided by Lake Placid Rental Supply
With the prices of fossil fuels at record highs, many homeowners are considering supplemental heat for next winter. There are many options, and which one you choose depends on your priorities.

Do you need lots of heat for your home, or do you just want to enjoy a beautiful, decorative fire? It is possible to have both in a modern, decorative hearth product, more commonly known as a stove or fireplace.

Consider both features and benefits of the various hearth products before making your choice, including how much you plan to use it, where you will place it within your home, maintenance requirements, design and style, along with which fuel is best for your situation. Local choices commonly include propane, wood, pellets, fuel oil and coal.


Gas stoves are generally considered to be the most convenient to use. They can be turned on or off manually or with a remote control or set to fire automatically with a thermostat. Use of gas stoves is independent of electricity so they can be used during a power outage. Propane companies can arrange auto-delivery of fuel, so there is little effort required to keep them burning. Styles often include glass sides and gas logs, simulating the beauty of burning wood.

Wood fuel

Wood is a natural, renewable resource, and modern wood stoves are highly efficient with relatively low smoke emissions. While most can be equipped with fans to circulate heat into the room, they are often independent of electricity and can keep your home warm during power outages. There is nothing that compares with the sights, sounds and aroma of a wood fire.

However, even if you don’t cut and split your own wood, it still needs to be stacked and stored out of the elements and carried into the home. Maintenance includes removal of ash from time to time and safe removal of embers. The low smoke emissions and new technology reduce the amount of creosote generated; still, chimney cleaning is required at least once a year.

Wood pellet fuel

Wood pellets are also a natural, renewable, environmentally friendly fuel. Made of recycled wood waste, which would otherwise go to a landfill, pellets are available in 40-pound bags, so they’re easy to use and convenient to store.

Wood pellet stoves are made with bins and automatic feeders, so they can be loaded only once or twice per day. Pellets burn cleanly and accumulate little ash, but maintenance with an ash vacuum is a must for these stoves. You will need to brush out the vent system to keep it free of loose ash which could hinder combustion.

If you choose a pellet stove, you should also be aware there are two grades of pellets. Standard grade produces more ash, while premium grade is more expensive.

Coal (Yes, Coal!)

Coal stoves are definitely making a comeback. Many Adirondackers already heat with coal furnaces, but today’s coal stoves offer clean burning and beauty in the same package. The anthracite coal used creates little creosote, longer burning per binload and steady, controllable heat. Washed, pea-size coal in 40-pound bags is readily available locally and as convenient to use as wood pellets.

Zone heating

While some hearth products have the capability of heating an entire house, most are designed to heat a room, or a cluster of rooms such as the living room, kitchen and family room — it’s all about focusing heat where people spend the most time. After all, there is no point to heating bedrooms, or even a laundry room to 68 degrees when not in use. Zone heating is how you can save money!


If saving money is your top priority, consider operating costs, the largest of which will be fuel. The space you want to heat plus the amount of insulation in your walls and ceilings should determine both the size and type of hearth product you purchase.

Generally, you will need 25 to 30 BTu’s (British Thermal Units) for every 200 square feet of space. You’ll also want to compare the costs of each type of fuel and the heat it produces.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Web site — — has posted a calculator that lets you enter current local prices for each type of fuel and compare the costs per amount of heat produced.

For example, comparing fuel oil at $4.35 per gallon, propane at $2.46 per gallon, wood at $225.00 per cord and wood pellets at $270.00 per ton, the calculator ranks wood least expensive at $10.23 per million BTu’s generated. Coal is the next least expensive at $12.04, followed by propane at $26.93. By comparison, fuel oil is $31.36 per million BTu’s generated using these recent local prices.

Another very important factor is the efficiency rating of the furnace, boiler or stove you’re considering buying. The calculator allows you to enter that rating and further refines the cost per million BTu’s. Using the approximate efficiencies provided by the EIA, the rankings change; coal beats wood, and fuel oil beats natural gas

Specialty retailers

Expert assistance when choosing a hearth product is invaluable. Planning and installing fireplaces, stoves and their venting systems require experience, technical knowledge and skill. Numerous decisions — from proper floor protection to appliance sizing and placement of the venting system — should all be made with the expertise of a specialist.

A specialty retailer demonstrates many models of fireplaces and other hearth products (some burning, and some not) in the showroom and has staff on hand to explain the benefits of each and answer any questions.

Be sure your hearth product retailer will be there when and if you need help with your purchase in the future or assist you if a warranty issue arises.


Professional installation by a qualified technician is essential to the proper performance and safety of a hearth product and its venting system. Unlike a malfunctioning refrigerator, a hearth product that doesn’t do its job properly can have serious consequences. Be sure to ask your specialty retailer who they recommend for installation and service, and note that many manufacturers will not honor warranties unless the product is properly installed by a certified technician.

Pay keen attention to your owner’s manual and follow all directions and maintenance instructions. This will ensure years and years of dependable and safe heat.



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