The majority of homes in the United States use natural gas as their primary fuel source for heat. Of the homes that don’t use natural gas, electricity and propane are the next-most-popular heating energy sources. While wood burning appliances are still around, they’re certainly not as ubiquitous as they once were.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t viable in the right circumstances.
You may have wondered at one point or another whether a wood burning forced-air furnace is right for you. There are a lot of variables, though: do you live in the right climate? Is there a potential for a return on your investment? Is your living space even fit for a furnace? It can be tough to decide whether or not a wood furnace is even worth your while.
As manufacturers of the Fire Chief FC1000E — one of the few EPA-approved residential wood burning furnaces around today — we want to help answer those questions. And we should be clear: our goal is not simply to sell a Fire Chief furnace to every home in the country. Our goal is to help you decide whether a wood burning furnace is even right for you to begin with, and from there, to help you find the right one — whether it’s a Fire Chief or not.
By the time you’re done here, you’ll know if you should stick to your electric or natural gas furnace, or if you’re the right kind of person to give wood heating a try. And, if you decide you may be interested in a wood burning furnace, we’ll help you start to narrow your focus on the right one to buy.
4 Signs That a Wood Burning Furnace is Right for You
1. You Live in a Cold Climate
Natural gas furnaces work a bit differently than wood burning furnaces. Imagine that a natural gas furnace is like a faucet. As you turn your thermostat up, gas is fed into the furnace. That gas catches fire, and the heat from that fire is distributed into the rest of your home. Once the thermostat’s temperature is met, the gas stops flowing, the fire goes out, and the furnace turns off.
Wood burning furnaces work similarly: they’re attached to a thermostat, and warm air from the burning wood is blown throughout the house. The difference, though, is that you can’t just shut off a wood fire. Even when the blower turns off and warm air stops flowing into the ducts, the furnace itself still radiates heat into the room in which it’s located (because the wood inside is still burning).
Because wood burning furnaces are continuous use devices, they’re best-suited to cold climates, usually areas that have an average temperature of about 50°F or lower. As that heat continues to radiate, it will fight the cold air seeping in from the outside, keeping your home warm.
2. You Have Limited Access to Natural Gas
Natural gas furnaces rely on a vast national infrastructure in order for their fuel to be delivered to the device. The gas follows a series of pipes from the local gas company to a home or business — and that’s not even mentioning the huge undertaking of finding, producing, and processing the gas from its natural source.
Unfortunately, some areas of the U.S. simply don’t have much (or any) infrastructure to deliver natural gas for heating, as is evident in the image above. These areas need to rely on other methods (like propane or coal) to heat their homes.
If you live in a cold climate and don’t have access to natural gas, a wood burning furnace is a great alternative, especially because good firewood is readily available virtually anywhere in the country.
3. You’ll Save Money (or at Least Break Even)
The price of natural gas varies from state to state, potentially resulting in huge discrepancies in heating costs. Depending on the price of natural gas in your area, the size of your home, and the temperature at which you keep your thermostat, you could wind up paying well over $1,000 on your annual heating bill.
Let’s run through a quick example. On average, our Fire Chief FC1000E furnace costs between $2,500 and $3,000 (let’s say $3,000 for this example). Let’s also assume that you pay $1,500 per year to heat your home with your gas furnace. Finally, let’s imagine you decide to install a Fire Chief furnace, and you end up paying $500 per year for firewood.
You would wind up saving $1,000 per year in heating costs ($1,500 for gas heating minus the $500 you spend on wood), and your $3,000 wood burning furnace would take 3 years to pay for itself.
This example is admittedly oversimplified; for example, it doesn’t take into account the electrical costs of running the furnace’s draft blower and distribution blower, and the cost estimates for firewood and natural gas can change depending on a number of factors.
Still, the opportunity to save money on heating with a wood burning furnace is definitely there. Be sure to plug in the numbers specific to your living situation to see how long it will take to start saving.
4. You Have a Pre-Existing Chimney and/or Ductwork
Like a natural gas furnace, a wood burning furnace can’t function without two vital components:
- Air ducts to distribute the heat
- A chimney to vent out smoke and other gas
The process of installing a wood burning furnace is a battle in and of itself, but it’s made much easier if your home already has ductwork, a chimney, or both. If you’re replacing a gas or electric furnace, your new wood furnace can simply hook up to the existing ducts and chimney system, saving on time and cost.
DIYers will likely be able to take on this project on their own. But if you don’t feel confident in installing your furnace yourself, have a certified installer do the work. You’ll incur hundreds of dollars more in upfront costs, but you’ll save yourself some huge headaches down the road (e.g., warm air not distributing evenly or correctly, or a home full of smoke from an improper chimney connection).
3 Signs That a Wood Burning Furnace Isn’t Right for You
1. You Live in a Warm Climate
Remember: the fire in a natural gas furnace can turn on or off with the simple adjustment of a thermostat. The fire in a wood burning furnace, on the other hand, continues to burn even when the draft blower and distribution blower turn off. For this reason, heat continues to radiate from the furnace even when it’s idling.
This is advantageous in cooler climates — environments where, especially in the winter, a continuous supply of warm air and heat is the goal. In a state like Texas or Florida, though, a wood furnace — even in moderate temperatures — can quickly cause a room (if not an entire house) to overheat.
For this reason, a wood burning furnace may not be the right heating appliance for you if you live in an area where temperatures don’t often fall below 50°F.
2. You Live in an Apartment or a Mobile Home
Wood burning furnaces are, on the whole, designed to go into a house. While they can be used for supplemental heating (in parallel with a natural gas forced air furnace), apartment complexes don’t typically allow tenants any control over which central heating unit is used in their living space. Plus, a wood furnace installation requires a bit of electrical work and ductwork, and you likely can’t (or aren’t allowed to) access the components you’d need to install a wood burning furnace in an apartment.
Mobile or modular homes aren’t a good fit for wood furnaces for a similar reason: in most cases, they lack the robust HVAC system a wood burning furnace requires. The space requirement can be limiting in a mobile home, too.
3. You don’t have the Space for a Wood Burning Furnace
Wood burning furnaces tend to be big and heavy. While their dimensions may be similar (if not a bit shorter in height) than a natural gas furnace — our Fire Chief FC1000E measures 26” x 45.5” x 42”, for example — they’re quite a bit heavier. Most natural gas furnaces weigh around 100 pounds, while the FC1000E weighs 435 pounds.
You need a big enough space to put the furnace in, and the foundation of your domicile needs to be able to support the weight of the furnace over time. For this reason, apartments, mobile homes, modular homes, or houses with a lack of floor support aren’t a good fit for a wood furnace.
It’s also vital to adhere to a wood burning furnace’s clearance-to-combustibles ranges. These are the distances from which the front, back, and sides of a furnace must be kept away from flammable materials like wood, cardboard, or drywall (after all, there’s essentially a live campfire right inside the firebox).
Again, using our Fire Chief furnace as an example, its clearance-to-combustibles are 48” from the front of the furnace, 12” from the rear, and 6” from the sides. If you don’t have a roomy basement or utility closet for a wood furnace, your home may not be right (or even safe enough) for one.
What if You’re the Right Fit for a Wood Burning Furnace?
In all likelihood, you came to this article wondering whether or not your living space is right for a wood burning furnace. You should have a good sense of the answer to that question by now based on the climate in which you live, the prices you’ll pay both for gas heating and wood heating, and your existing ductwork and electrical work.
If it sounds like a wood furnace won’t work for you, that’s ok — natural gas, propane, or electrical furnaces are completely viable options. They’re easy to use, and they tend to require less maintenance and attention than a wood burning furnace.
But if you fit the criteria and you’re starting to think about getting a wood burning furnace of your own, a great next step is to start comparing popular wood burning furnace models. This will give you a good sense of what to look for in a wood furnace, the extra features available, what you’re looking at in terms of cost, and so much more.
And, whether you buy one of ours or a different model, we hope you eventually decide to jump into the world of wood burning forced air furnaces if you can. We’re passionate about wood burning products. We build furnaces right here in the USA every day, and we want anyone who’s interested, willing, and able to have a wood furnace that will keep them warm and satisfied for years to come.