First, a confession: I love to use the wood stove at my cabin and we tend to use it often. I also have a wood stove at home, I have a fireplace in my office and one with a wood burning insert in the living room but I can't tell you how long it has been since I used any one of those. Like most of the people I know, we seldom use the wood burning fireplaces and stoves in our home.
On the other hand, gas burning fireplaces and stoves tend to be used a lot. In some cases they are an integral part of a home's heating system. So here are my thoughts about the gas vs. wood-heat debate.
Fireplaces may be romantic and produce that wonderful crackling sound. They are also: messy, time consuming and tend to be net heat losers. First you carry the wood to the fireplace, open the damper, make the fire, wait for the fire to produce some heat, keep the fire going and before you know it, the fire is out. But you must keep the damper open for at least 12 more hours in order to keep the dying fire and warm ashes from depleting the oxygen in your home.
In most cases, the amount of heat lost by going up the chimney after the fire is out is much greater than the heat produced while the fire is going. The shorter the fire the greater the net heat loss.
Glass fireplace doors can help reduce this problem. Such doors prevent indoor air from escaping into the fireplace and up the chimney. Some glass doors can also help control the fire by regulating the amount of indoor air that reaches the fire. They also tend to reduce fireplace cleaning chores. If you have a fireplace, such doors are just about the only practical method to make your fireplace somewhat more efficient.
Heat transfer grates can also help increase the amount of heat produced by a fireplace. These types of grates come in various forms. They are usually designed as a set of metal pipes that hold the burning logs. An exterior mounted fan drives indoor air through these pipes and returns heated air back out to the room.
Wood Stoves and fireplace inserts have the advantage of having a wood fire inside and enclosed space. They allow one to control the amount of air the feeds the fire and the rate and method that the air is allowed to go up the chimney. Wood stoves can produce a lot of heat, sometimes too much for the area around the stove. When we designed our cabin we placed the 'cold air return' above the area of the wood stove. That way we can use the furnace fan and duct system to distribute the heat from the wood stove to all parts of the structure.
Some wood stoves come with catalytic converters, that are designed to reduce the amount of smoke produced by wood stoves. My own experience with these system has not been good, I have found that the converter can only be used when the stove is very hot and stop working as soon as the fire dies down.
Gas logs are mostly cosmetic. They require a clip that keeps the damper partially open at all times. Without glass doors, they are almost guaranteed to be a net heat loser.
Gas fireplace inserts and gas stoves produce safe, clean and reliable heat! These units:
Gas fireplaces can and are being used as the primary heat source in many homes. For example, they are often used in the living rooms and 'great rooms' of town houses. In such applications, other types of zone heating can be used the rest of the home.
But what about pellet stoves? I have never understood their popularity in places where gas or propane is available. They are cleaner burning than other wood burning appliances but they don't resemble a wood fire any more than a gas unit. Pellet stoves require more service than gas units and I am not sure that the cost of pellets is any lower than the equivalent amount of natural gas or propane.
"Russian fireplaces" and Kacheloffen are some of the other wood (and coal) burning options. The photos on this page are two wonderful examples of kacheloffen in the home and office of my Viennese cousins. These are great works of art but they are hardly ever used.
Such enclosed combustion units do have several advantages:
So, if you like to play with fire and want to do so in a safe manner then a wood stove or a fireplace with glass doors etc. will do fine. But if you are looking for an appliance that actually produces heat, then gas is the way to go.
See also Q&A #12: Heating and Cooling, Q&A #15: Insulation and Energy, Q&A #8: Electrical Systems, Topics: Heating Your Home