WRITER | LYNNE KONSTANTIN
More and more, homeowners are turning to outdoor wood furnaces as a heat source. See if one might be a good option for you.
It’s getting chilly in Michigan – along with winter fun come winter heating bills.
The cost of heating your home in certain areas of the Mitten where severe weather is the norm is an integral part of budgeting, as the cost can be substantial.
Last year, Consumers Energy, the state’s largest utility, said that gas use was up 25 percent during January’s severe weather compared to that month the winter before. As natural gas and electricity prices are estimated to continue to soar during extreme cold, an outdoor wood furnace (OWF) could be a less-expensive option for heating your home. There are pros and cons to consider, including where you live, how much space you have, and, of course, cost-efficiency.
Outdoor wood furnaces have been heating homes for centuries, and influx technology is making them better for homeowners – and the environment.
An outdoor wood furnace burns wood in a firebox that is completely surrounded by a chamber of water, or “water jacket.” This heated water is pumped through insulated pipes into the ground and then to your home, up to 500 feet from the wood furnace itself. The system can work with virtually any heating system, from forced air to radiant in-floor heat, allowing you to keep your existing heating system.
If you live in a rural area, and especially if you have three or more heating applications serviced by one centrally located furnace, an OWF may be worth looking into. A single outdoor wood-burning unit can heat garages and outbuildings such as workshops and barns. They can be dual-purpose, too. By adding a brazed plate heat exchanger, wood furnaces can be used to heat water in your home, even your pool, as well as for snow-melt applications.
Though the investment can be costly, it can save you thousands of dollars each year on fuel as well as on home insurance due to the decrease in home-fire hazards. (OWF users should also look into applying for homestead insurance.) By choosing the right unit for your needs — a quality one can last 25 to 30 years, translating to free or inexpensive heating for years — you can see a return on your investment within just a few heating seasons.
In addition to saving money, other benefits of these outdoor systems include a minimized chance of carbon monoxide poisoning or of fire spreading to your home. It also means never having to clean up ashes, bark, dirt, or debris from hauling wood indoors.
Plus, of course, using an OWF can be environmentally friendly and easy. Wood is the most practical of all renewable energy sources, available during snow and sun, light and dark, hot and cold. Because it’s carbon-neutral, you can reduce your carbon footprint by using recommended Best Burn Practices. And unlike old-school outdoor wood furnaces, the new generation uses updated technology to help diminish smoke emission so as not to exceed limits set by the EPA.
That said, there are potential drawbacks to consider. Unlike oil and gas furnaces, which run on a steady supply of fuel regulated by the system itself, most wood-burning furnaces must be fed firewood by hand regularly, usually once or twice a day. These furnaces are not practical options for homeowners wanting an unattended heat source. You must also consider a source for and the cost of wood as well as an easily accessible place large enough to store the massive amounts required to heat throughout the entire cold season. Depending on the quality of the model you purchase, burning might cause an influx of woodsmoke through the chimney, which could bother close neighbors.
An outdoor wood furnace isn’t for everyone, but if it fits your lifestyle, the investment can save a good deal of money – and who wouldn’t like that?