Not your father's woodstove

Though the perfect antidote for winter chill would seem to be a brick fireplace with crackling logs, the iconic home hearth likely is the least effective way to stay warm, with most fireplaces offering less than 10-percent efficiency rates.

In reality, electric and gas are the most convenient push-button options for heating the majority of homes.

The ailing economy, however, and improved technologies for wood- and pellet-burning stoves are fueling a trend toward increased self-reliance and, at the same time, a nod toward smaller carbon footprints that were unfathomable with early wood burners, say Danny Kahler of Smokey's Stoves and Larry Milligan of Orley's Stoves and Spas, both in Medford.

"For the last four or five years, wood has been the most popular," says Kahler. "It's at least 60 percent of what we do. A lot of people are trying to get away from electric bills, and more of their natural gas and other kinds of furnaces are starting to cost more and more. There's an overall feeling of wanting to be more independent and not tied to a utility."

Today's fireplace inserts and woodstoves provide 70- to 90-percent efficiency, making late-night trips to the woodbox a thing of the past.

"These are not your dad's old stove," adds Milligan. "They put out 10 times the heat of a regular fireplace and burn for much longer."

A variation on burning wood, offering similar ambiance and reduced heating costs, pellet stoves have become a popular way to heat homes. On the upside, pellets are less expensive than electric or gas but about 15 to 20 percent more costly than wood.

"With pellet (stoves), you're not refueling an appliance multiple times during the day," says Kahler. "You load them up, and they'll typically run for a day to a day and a half on pellets."

If there's a downside to pellets, it's self-sufficiency. Pellet stoves require a small amount of electricity to operate and require specific kinds of pellets.

"You can't exactly make your own pellets," says Kahler. "With a wood insert, if push comes to shove, you can always burn your kitchen table!"

Another option — ideal for urban dwellers with no desire to split logs, buy pellets or fuel their own fires — is the gas-fired insert. While he makes his living selling wood-fireplace inserts, Milligan lives in Medford and says wood isn't always practical for some homeowners.

"I work here all day, and my wife and I heat our 2,500-square-foot home with one Avalon gas unit that sits in the corner of one room," he says, noting that gas almost invariably is less expensive than electricity and doesn't kick off during power outages.

"We went to natural gas for the convenience of it," says Milligan. "We don't live in a rural area. Gas is a lifestyle thing for people who just don't want to think about keeping their heat going."

Lifestyle and budget are the main factors that will determine a family's ideal heat source, says Kahler. Gas is easy and clean with no fueling requirements. Pellets offer prolonged heating and a clean burn but have some hiccups to consider. Wood provides ambiance with some of the traditional demands of gathering it and building fires.

"It kind of comes down to personal preference for the most part," says Kahler. "And it's a matter of how much you want it to cost and how much hassle you want there to be."

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