If you’re anything like me when it came time to buy a wood-burning fireplace I thought it would be a fairly simple buying decision. But it seems times (and technologies) have changed significantly – and for the better!

I quickly discovered how the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2020 standards for wood-burning appliances rocked the industry, making many wood stoves, wood inserts, and fireplaces obsolete!

How I chose our wood-burning fireplace
Today’s EPA Certified wood-burning fireplaces are super efficient, burning firewood longer while providing more heat, less ash, and fewer emissions

Read on to discover how today’s wood-burning appliances:

  • Have efficiency ratings of over 85%!
  • Burn far less wood
  • Produce minimal ash
  • Create almost no smoke – 98% fewer emissions than traditional fireplaces

Today’s wood stoves extract far more heat and produce far fewer emissions and smoke by re-burning the gases from firewood. This means you’ll burn fewer logs, enjoy warmer fires to get you through the night, and have less ashes to empty.

What will you learn from this article?

Today’s Cottage Living is all about saving you time (and perhaps money) by providing our insights and experience on products and services to assist our readers in making informed buying decisions.

This is especially true for high-ticket items like purchasing a new wood-burning appliance. We cut through the complexity of choices and wrap it up with our final choice, and the rationale behind the buying decision.

Why not put our hours of research to use so you can cozy up to your new fireplace that much sooner?

Why you can trust us

As the founder of Today’s Cottage Living – and a property owner with a passion for country living (!), I’ve covered a variety of topics and written several articles on everything from DIY construction projects to chainsaws. This guide combines my years of hands-on experience with fireplaces and wood stoves, together with extensive research from experts on the topic to help ensure a well-rounded perspective.

Let’s get into it!

How To Choose A Wood Burning Fireplace or Wood Stove

Lets start by defining the four common types of wood-burning products covered in this article.

  1. EPA Certified Wood-burning fireplaces
  2. EPA Exempt Wood-burning, open hearth fireplaces
  3. EPA Certified Wood-burning inserts
  4. EPA Certified Wood-burning Stoves

1. EPA Certified High-Efficiency Wood-Burning Fireplaces

Courtesy of Pacific Energy

2. EPA Exempt Open Hearth Wood-Burning Fireplaces

Courtesy of Regency Fireplace Products

3. EPA Certified High-Efficiency Wood-Burning Fireplace Inserts

Courtesy of Regency Fireplace Products

4. EPA Certified High-Efficiency Wood-Stoves

Courtesy of Regency Fireplace Products

STEP 1 – Research

Understanding Today’s Wood-Burning Technology

One of the first things I discovered on my buying journey was the importance of having a basic understanding of the technology that goes into today’s wood stoves and fireplaces to make them so energy-efficient, and EPA compliant.

So, let’s tackle the technical aspects and get that out of the way. Then we can move on to the fun part of comparing product types, styles, colors, and performance.

What is a catalytic wood stove?

The answer to this question may be the most technical aspect, but it’s also one of the most important. (I tried to keep this as jargon-free as possible)

For today’s wood stoves to meet the strict EPA Standards, manufacturers use one of the following methods:

  • Catalytic Wood Stoves – with a catalytic combustor
  • Non-Catalytic Wood Stoves – with a re-burn baffle for secondary burn
  • Hybrid Wood Stoves – with a combination catalytic combustor & baffle

Catalytic Wood Stoves & Fireplaces

Catalytic Combustion Chamber

Catalytic wood stoves use a catalytic combustor that re-burns combustion gasses and smoke particles released from burning firewood. As the gasses pass through the catalytic combustor’s precious metals in the honeycomb chambers, they combust and turn the smoke, gases, and particles, into heat.

Pros

  • Extended burn times
  • More even heat
  • Very efficient, uses less wood

Cons

  • Requires manual assistance
  • Increased maintenance
  • Higher operating cost

Non-Catalytic Wood Stoves & Fireplaces

Non-Catalytic Secondary Burn Baffle System

A non-catalytic design uses a baffle system to create a secondary burn above the firewood by pumping-in oxygen through the top of the baffle. The baffle eliminates the need for a catalytic combustor and therefore the need for a manual control to bypass the combustor during the startup phase of the fire.

Pacific Energy Baffle System

Catalytic combustors work at very high temperatures and should be bypassed until the firebox gets hot. This requires a manual control arm to allow the gasses to bypass the combustor until the firebox reaches the ideal temperature.

A quality baffle system eliminates the need for a combustor and manual bypass control arm, while still providing high-efficiency ratings and low emissions ratings within the 2020 EPA Standards.

Pros

  • Hotter fire, easy to start
  • Less maintenance and no manual controls to adjust
  • Very efficient by using less wood

Cons

  • Heat is less even vs. catalytic combustor systems
  • Slightly higher emissions

Hybrid Wood Stoves

Hybrid Method

A hybrid design combines a baffle system for the secondary burn, with a catalytic combustor for a 3rd stage burn. The catalytic combustor is located above the baffle to capture gases before they exit the chimney stack.

Pros

  • Maximum burn times
  • More even heat
  • Lowest emissions

Cons

  • Requires manual bypass control
  • Increased maintenance
  • Higher operating cost

My Technology Choice & Rationale

Baffle System – After carefully considering the purpose of our fireplace, who will be using it on a regular basis, and how much maintenance we are prepared to do, the following is my rationale for choosing a baffle system over a catalytic combustor, or hybrid.

  • Our fireplace is a secondary source of heat that will be used to take the chill out of the room and provide a nice, cozy, ambiance. If it was to be used as a primary source of heat where overnight burn times where important, I may have opted for a catalytic hybrid fireplace.
  • Because our fireplace is in a more remote area (cottage) I didn’t want to worry about sourcing replacement catalytic combustors.
  • Our fireplace will be used by several people in our family, and perhaps renters from time-to-time, so I didn’t want novice burners having to deal with opening and closing the catalytic combustor bypass control system during the warm-up phase of starting fires.
  • When I looked at the data comparing the fireplace efficiency and emissions between a baffle wood burning fireplace (HHV = 74%), and a catalytic fireplace (HHV = 81%), this difference would be very negligible for our part-time usage.

To learn more about Catalytic vs. Non-Catalytic Wood Stoves, check out this helpful video


My Top 6 Features & Benefits Available In Today’s Wood Stoves

As I dug deeper into researching wood stoves I found some interesting features and innovations many manufacturers have incorporated into their wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

Whether you’re an experienced wood stove burner, or just getting started, the features below are worth knowing.

1. Knife-Edge Door Seal

What is a “knife-edge door seal” and why this may be the best way to seal the door?

This is one of my favorite features. I assumed all wood stove doors still used fiberglass rope to to prevent air leakage around doors. Over time, these ropes need to be replaced to maintain the stoves efficiency.

A knife-edge door seal replaces fiberglass rope seals found on most wood stove doors, and is 100% maintenance-free.

The formed and welded knife edge opening creates a superior air tight seal to the door gasket while strengthening the stoves face.

Great idea!

Pacific Energy Knife Edge Door

2. Air Wash Glass Cleaning

What is “Air wash“, and why this is a nice feature to have?

Pacific Energy Air Wash

This is another feature I wasn’t aware of, but I can could certainly appreciate, having cleaned my fair share of glass doors on our old wood stove.

An air wash system offers an effective way to keep the glass clean using a manifold system that flows pre-heated air to the glass surface to keep it clean.

Another great idea!

3. Floating Firebox

What is a “Floating firebox”?

The wood stoves firebox is subjected to extreme temperatures that cause expansion and contraction, which can lead to premature fatigue, and even failure, of metal components.

A floating firebox system allows key parts to freely expand and contract, which reduces metal fatigue and adds years of life to the entire stove.

Image Courtesy of Pacific Energy

4. Heat Distribution

What is a “heat distribution system” and how your stove can heat other rooms/spaces?

Image Courtesy of Pacific Energy

Many wood-burning inserts and EPA high-efficiency fireplaces offer the optional ability to extract heat from the wood stove that can be channeled to other cold spots with your home.

This feature can be a great way to warm-up cold areas or, for large spaces, channel heat to other areas of the room to balance the heat.

5. Ash Dump Door

How a “self-sealing ash dump” can save you time and mess

Most wood stoves provide a removable ash cover plate over their ash removal opening inside the firebox, which is great, but can be messy.

Having a spring-loaded, self-sealing, ash door that empties into the ash drawer is a nice touch to quickly empty the firebox without handling the wood stoves cover plate.

Courtesy of Pacific Energy

Recommended Ash Accessory

Ash Bucket Kit

While we’re on the topic of ashes, I came across this great little ash kit on Amazon I wanted to mention.

I like the way the shovel and broom nest onto the side of the bucket so everything stays in one place. Too often I find the whisk and shovel wonder off to get used elsewhere.

This solution has proven itself by keeping everything together when and where it is needed!


5. Fire Igniter

Lopi Stoves Fire Igniter by Travis Industries

Here’s another great idea form a well-know US wood stove manufacturer based out of Mukilteo, WA. This is a rather ingenious way to start a fire without paper, matches, or other starting tricks.

Simply load your wood into the firebox, push the GreenStart™ button, and you’ll have a smoke-free roaring fire within minutes! Because your fireplace door stays closed during startups, no smoke can escape into the room.

The GreenStart™ Igniter can also be used for refreshing your fire after an overnight burn. To learn more about the GreenStart™ igniter option, Travis Industries has a short video you can watch.

Travis Industries produces over 2,000 wood stoves per week, using 30 million pounds of steel, and 5 million pounds of cast iron, annually. To learn more about Travis Industries and how this 40-year old company is able to produce so many wood stoves of all types, they offer a great video called Take The Factory Tour.

6. Air Control

Why a good “Air control” system and blower is important

All wood stoves, inserts, and fireplaces include an air control method to adjust the air intake into the stove, which in-turn regulates the burn rate and stove temperature.

A blower can dramatically improve efficiency by circulating warm air into the living space, as well as saving energy.

Image Courtesy of My Fireplace Blower

Quick Recap…

Okay, after making it through the technical hurdles it was time to compare the four types of wood-burning appliances and decide which one best fits to our needs.

And the winner is…

STEP 2 – Selection

Wood-burning fireplace inserts were the first type of stoves to be eliminated because we didn’t have an existing fireplace for an insert.

But for anyone with an older fireplace insert, you may want to compare the energy-savings, firewood savings, and emission savings to see if the differences are compelling enough to upgrade. The ROI may make sense.

Next up…

At first I thought an open-hearth wood burning fireplace with doors would be ideal. The ascetics from the large glass viewing panel is tough to beat.

For example, the glass viewing area for this fireplace measures 700 sq. inches, compared to about 135 to 235 sq. in. for high-efficiency fireplaces, inserts, and wood stoves.

Photo courtesy of Regency Fireplace Products

Once I researched the energy efficiency ratings (HHV) and emissions data, we quickly realized this type of fireplace would not provide the supplementary heat we were after. We had set our minimum heat requirement target at 65,000 BTUs.

Open-hearth fireplaces are ideally suited to warmer environments where the warm glow of an open fire trumps heat output. Or in rooms that don’t need the BTU’s available from high-efficiency fireplaces.

These fireplaces are considered to be a decorative wood burning fireplace, and therefore not EPA Certified – they are EPA Exempt.

Next up…

Next it was time to finalize our choice and choose between a high-efficiency fireplace, or wood stove. And to do that, I wanted to get a good understanding of how the two products compare in terms of BTUs and emissions.

I collected data from manufacturers websites, together with statistical data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to verify the data.

High Efficiency Fireplaces vs. Wood Stoves

Unlike traditional open-hearth fireplaces with poor efficiency ratings in the 25 to 30% range, today’s EPA Certified high-efficiency fireplaces are essentially as efficient as today’s EPA Certified wood stoves. You can find these fireplaces and wood stoves with (HHV) efficiency ratings exceeding 80%.

Armed with this discovery, it was time to see just how similar the efficiency ratings are between fireplaces and wood stoves.

I compared two leading manufacturers product lines to see the actual data. See below for the results.

The first two tables below show the heat output (BTUs) and energy-efficiency rating (HHV) for Manufacturer “A”.

Manufacturer “A” – Fireplace vs. Wood Stove Comparison

Fireplace SizeHeating CapacityBTUHHVEmission
Small – 1.6 cu. ft.less than 500 sq. ft.70,00068%1.4 gm/hr.
Medium – 2.1 cu. ft.500 – 1,000 sq. ft.85,00072%1.4 gm/hr.
Large – 3.0 cu. ft.1,000 – 2,200 sq. ft.99,00076.8%1.7 gm/hr.
Wood Stove SizeHeating CapacityBTU*HHVEmission
Small – 1.6 cu. ft.less than 500 sq. ft.56,00072%1.9 gm/hr.
Medium – 2.1 cu. ft.500 – 1,000 sq. ft.72,00071.3%1.8 gm/hr.
Large – 3.0 cu. ft.1,000 – 2,200 sq. ft.99,00074%1.8 gm/hr.

The next two tables below show the heat output (BTUs) and energy-efficiency rating (HHV) for Manufacturer “B”.

Manufacturer “B” – Fireplace vs. Wood Stove Comparison

Fireplace SizeHeating CapacityBTUHHVEmission
Small – 1.6 cu. ft.less than 500 sq. ft.57,50071%1.6 gm/hr.
Medium – 2.1 cu. ft.500 – 1,000 sq. ft.75,00072%1.4 gm/hr.
Large – 3.0 cu. ft.1,000 – 2,200 sq. ft.78,00079.3%1.7 gm/hr.
Wood Stove SizeHeating CapacityBTU*HHVEmission
Small – 1.5 cu. ft.less than 500 sq. ft.59,00072.5%2.0 gm/hr.
Medium – 2.2 cu. ft.500 – 1,000 sq. ft.71,00083%1.5 gm/hr.
Large – 3.6 cu. ft.1,000 – 2,200 sq. ft.82,00081%1.8 gm/hr.
All BTU data is based on burning Cord Wood

* HHV = Higher Heating Value Efficiency. Represents the overall energy output from firewood. Click here for more details.

If you would like to search the EPA for test results on any wood-burning appliances you’re considering, click this government link and select the brand. EPA-Certified Wood Stove Database

Comparison Conclusions

There is very little difference between each manufacturers high-efficiency fireplaces and wood stoves when it comes to BTUs and energy-efficiency (HHV). Both wood burning fireplaces and wood burning stoves must meet the 2020 EPA standards so it makes sense that the performance data is fairly consistent.


Final Step…

Now it was time to make the final choice. Do we go with a wood stove, or a wood burning fireplace? And what would the price difference look like between the two?

Is a wood burning stove cheaper than a fireplace?

Image by Pacific Energy
Image by Pacific Energy
Image by Pacific Energy

A wood burning stove costs less than a fireplace because it is a fully finished, stand-alone appliance that can be placed in most spaces. As long as the stove is positioned in accordance to the manufacturers setback specifications, and a certified chimney stack is used, the stove is ready for operation.

Although an energy-efficient wood burning fireplace can cost the same as many wood stoves, it’s the cost of finishing the fireplace build-out that adds up.

The cost for materials and labour to build surrounding stone work, hearth, and a mantle, can quickly add-up to as much money, or more, than the actual fireplace.

Image by Bedrck from Pixabay

To learn more about chimney regulations see: National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) standards

Our Final Choice…

In the end we chose a high-efficiency fireplace. We wanted the fireplace to be a focal point in the room that created a cozy atmosphere and tied into the overall décor of the room.

This type of fireplace is called a zero-clearance fireplace, which basically means the surrounding building materials such as 2’x4’s, drywall, lumber, or stones, do not need any clearance beyond the manufacturers frame that surrounds the firebox.

When I first started looking at fireplaces I wasn’t aware of this type of fireplace. I thought all fireplaces were open-hearth fireplaces with a screen, or optional glass doors.

And it can be hard to tell the difference between a high-efficiency fireplace and a fireplace insert. They appear to share the same firebox and facial designs.

But for new construction, these high-efficiency fireplaces are tough to beat.

photo of a zero-clearance fireplace showing setback frame surrounding the wood burning fireplace
Our 99,000 BTU, zero-clearance fireplace

Fireplace Stones

A great way to keep the material and labor costs down for the fireplace surround is to use a stone veneer.

Stone Veneer can be a DIY project!

The stone veneer we used does not require any mortar, metal lath, plaster, or scratch coat.

After framing the fireplace with 2’x4’s and plywood, each row of stone veneer is attached to the face of the plywood using special (included) steel brackets that sit in a groove on the top edge of the stone and screw into the plywood.

There are corner sections and linear lengths to quickly create the look and feel of a real stone fireplace.

If you’re fairly handy, this can be a DIY project!

For the hearth, our contractor made a simple wood frame for forming a concrete hearth that extends across the entire wall so we can stack wood on both sides of the fireplace. You can see (above) how we included stone veneer under the hearth.

Below is an example of how to create a corner fireplace with an L-shaped hearth for firewood and kindling storage.

Kindling wood crates on hearth
Stacked wood on hearth

Dry Stacked Stone

Another great option for creating a wood burning fireplace surround is to use dry stack stones. This method requires the skills of a stone mason to create a nice tight fit between each and adhere them to the scratch coat.

But the finished result is dramatic. And the cost for dry stack stone is considerably less than natural stones such as granite.

Dry Stack Stone Under Construction
Dry Stacked Stone Fireplace

Other Inspiring Designs

There’s no limit to what you can do to create your dream fireplace.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest
Photo courtesy of Pinterest

Summary

When it comes to selecting the perfect wood burning fireplace, one of the first considerations should be whether the purpose of the fireplace is primarily aesthetics, or as a primary or secondary heat source.

If a large open style fireplace is the ambiance you’re after, and the heat (BTUs) from the fireplace is secondary, there are great firebox options to choose from. Consider adding optional glass doors to minimize heat loss, smoke, and sparks escaping.

If heat is important and you still want the look and feel of a built-in fireplace with a decorative surround, today’s high-efficiency fireplaces are awesome. We are thrilled with our new fireplace. When we do a high burn with the blower pushing the heat out, and the ceiling fan on medium speed, our 500 sq. ft. three season porch is toasty in no time!

With a wood burning fireplace estimated to increase the value of your home by $15,000 – or more, depending on the finishing, investing in a well designed fireplace can have a positive return on the investment. See FAQs below for more details.

If you have an existing open style, traditional wood burning fireplace and you want to triple the heat output from the unit, you’ll be very happy with today’s EPA Certified fireplace inserts. Just be sure it’s 2020 EPA certified. And make sure to buy a certified chimney flue that meets your local building codes.

And if you’re simply looking for the most economical wood-burning appliance, you can’t beat the wood stoves available today. Just be sure to purchase a 2020 EPA Certified wood stove with a certified chimney.

FAQ’s

Will a fireplace add value to my home?

A certified and approved fireplace is a desirable selling point for 48% of home buyers in a 2019 survey, and is estimated to increase the value of the home by as much as $12,000 according to The National Association of Realtors.

According to the 2019 edition NAHB’s What Home Buyers Really Want, 55% and 48% of home buyers rate gas and wood burning fireplaces, respectively, as at least desirable.

National Association of Home Builders

What is the best firewood to burn?

The best firewood comes from hardwoods such as maple, oak, ash, birch, and most fruit trees, which will provide a hotter and longer burn time. These woods have the least pitch and sap and are usually easier to handle.

For more insights on selecting the best firewood to burn, and the BTUs (heat) from the various types, see our article on this topic.

Can you cook on a wood stove?

One of the great features of a wood stove is the stoves top surface can be used as a cooktop surface. So, not only will your wood stove heat your home – even during power outages, but it also gives you a wonderful cooking surface to prepare food.

To learn more and see stove-top gadgets and cooking ideas, check out this link.

What is the best way to clean the glass in my wood stove door?

Soot is a black or dark-colored deposit of carbon that can build up on the glass doors of wood-burning stoves. While soot does not pose a health hazard, it can be unsightly and difficult to remove.

One cost-free method is to use a damp paper towel dipped in ash from the stove’s firebox. The ash serves as a mild cleaner. A second alternative is to use a solution of equal parts water and vinegar.

For stubborn stains, use a commercial wood stove glass cleaner. Follow the instructions on the cleaner to avoid damaging the glass.

Finally, buff the glass dry with a soft cloth. With regular cleaning, you can keep your wood stove door looking clean and clear.

Do not use oven cleaner or abrasives as they will etch and permanently mark the glass.

When did the EPA Certification Standards change?

Before 1990199020152020
100 grams/hour7.5 grams/hour4.5 grams/hour2 grams/hour
Today’s EPA certified wood stoves & fireplaces burn clean

What is the best way to prevent soot buildup on the glass of my wood stove door?

There are a few things you can do to help prevent soot from building up on your wood stove glass door:

  • Burn only dry, seasoned wood. Wet wood or green wood will produce more smoke and cause more soot to build up. Read our Best Firewood To Burn Guide.
  • Make sure the wood stove is burning hot enough. A hot fire will produce less smoke and soot.
  • Clean the wood stove regularly. A clean wood stove will burn more efficiently and produce less soot.

If you follow these tips, you can help prevent soot from building up on your wood stove glass door.

Related Post – 10 Tips On How To Stack Firewood For Seasoning

What does a wood stoves HHV value mean? – research title

Overall Efficiency – HHV (%): the percentage of heat that is transferred to the space to be heated when a load of fuel (e.g., firewood, pellets) is burned. Efficiency percentages listed in the table are based on an EPA-specified test method (CSA B 415-10 stack loss method). Actual efficiency will vary depending on factors such as wood moisture, appliance operation and installation (e.g., outside piping, chimney height). HHV is High Heating Value.

U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY

What is a zero-clearance wood stove?

Is it okay to buy a wood stove that is too big? – research title

There are a few problems to be aware of if you buy a wood stove that is to big. When stoves overheat the room and are turned down to operate at a lower temperature they burn less efficiently and produce more emissions.

Burning at higher temperatures:

  • Creates less pollution
  • Gives more value for your wood
  • Keeps the chimney cleaner by reducing creosote buildup.

What is a high-efficiency wood stove?

A high-efficiency wood stove means it is manufactured to maximize the heat output generated from the combustion of firewood and minimize the amount of smoke and emissions from the fire. EPA Certified high-efficiency wood stoves must meet strict requirements of no more than 2.0 grams/hour of particles and emissions.


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Greg Jones

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