Can my fireplaces be used as primary heat source?

pontyrogofAugust 24, 2010


I just purchased a fieldstone two bedroom ranch house built in 1950 that has a chimney going up through the center of the house. It has a fireplace in the full basement and one on the main floor. Anecdotally, I've learned that this kind of central fireplace is more efficient. I believe I am lucky to have a hearth in my basement, too. Currently, my heater is a forced air gas furnace. It is old and will need to be replaced soon, if not this fall. My chimney/flues need some repair, spark arrestors/caps, some firebrick in the places remortared, and dampers installed. I'm moderately experienced in cutting firewood because I used to live in upstate NY and heat with a woodstove. I intend to replace the asphalt shingle roof with metal in the next year or two. Any thoughts, suggestions, caveats, etc from this forum's readership? Help me decide to either install a replacement furnace, or heat with wood. Of course I will discuss my situation with locals. (Ohio Valley)

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Fireplaces are the least efficient way to heat with wood. In fact, they will consume an enormous amount of wood and produce little usable heat. A fireplace insert would be better and a free standing wood stove would be better than an insert. Whether this will provide enough heat for the entire house depends on the insulation, air tightness, floor plan and a number of other factors.

Heating with wood vs. a furnace is for most people not an either/or decision. Your mortgage probably requires a working central heat system and you'll be glad you have one when you need to be away for more than a few hours. Heating primarily with wood is labor intensive. It works for many people, but you have to be willing to shoulder the burden it entails.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 6:26AM
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Mainegrower, thanks for your generous reply. To continue this discussion with our readership, here is a little more information about the house in question. I don't have a mortgage. The floor plan seems to be ideal, open square floor plan. I could cut holes in the floor of each room to receive heat from the basement heat source. Good ductwork is already in place. The insulation and airtightness can be addressed if necessary. The house's sun exposure is maximal. The fieldstone is limestone, a six inch thick veneer on insulated stickbuilt walls. I like the idea of a free-standing woodstove. I work at home part time and within quick walking distance of a huge food coop, so during the coldest months, I don't need to be away for more than an hour or two. My heart is not set on heating with wood primarily. Because I just acquired a house with lots of potential, I'm looking into all kinds of "service" options.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 8:35AM
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Lots of people do it, but I'm pretty much against wood stoves in the basement. The real key to safe wood burning is vigilance. A stove in the basement is just too out of the way for optimal safety, IMHO. A second reason is that heat just doesn't circulate very well from below. Using existing duct work often seems like a solution, but rarely (never?) functions as people envision.

You seem to have the perfect conditions for a large free standing stove on the first floor, so that's what I would be looking to do. I've heated in whole (63 gallons of oil burned last winter) or in part with wood for 35+ years and I would not want to be without some sort of back up heating system, even if it were a simple propane or kerosene wall heater. I love wood heat, but there are always unexpected emergencies that can take you away from home.

For a world of information on all aspects of wood heat, check out

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 5:58PM
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Mainegrower, thanks so much again for your generous reply and voice of reason. What are your thoughts on units that burn both coal and wood?

    Bookmark   August 26, 2010 at 9:53AM
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Stoves which burn both coal and wood are generally a compromise so are not optimal for either fuel. (Another purely personal opinion). Others might add a company or two, but I would say the best wood stoves currently being manufactured come from Pacific Energy, Jotul, Woodstock, Hearthstone and Quadrafire. None of them offer a wood/coal combination stove. This may have a bit to do with demand, but more likely design considerations. A highly efficient, clean burning wood stove is a pretty complex piece of equipment. Coal capability would just add to the complexity and make reaching EPA emissions standards much more difficult.

    Bookmark   August 27, 2010 at 6:11AM
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maingrower and readers,

The local certified chimney sweep inspected my fireplaces, flues, etc. He's been in business for 27 years and has seen lots of configurations for heating alternatives to HVAC. He told me my basement fireplace is unusable because the flue is too narrow, wrong angle, etc, said it would never draft properly, so it isn't even an option for an insert. He said that the chimney flue for the HVAC gas furnace is in good shape and would work for a woodstove. He said that because my basement is not finished, not too airtight, that it wasn't a bad environment for a woodstove. He said if I wanted to put a woodstove on the main floor, that my fireplace flue up there is totally inadequate too, and that I'd need to run a pipe through ceiling, roof, not use the existing flue. He didn't tell me I could run a pipe through an exterior wall and then out. He said as long as I didn't worry about holes in the floor affecting home resale, that a stove in the basement should work well enough. He'll come back to install a cap/spark arrestor on the good flue, and a plate to close off the basement fireplace flue. There's some kind of silly looking top-hat thing on top of the main floor fire place flue, which the sweep said was nonfunctional but at least kept animals out.

maingrower says wood stoves in basements are a bad idea, but I use the basement a lot and I work from home, so at least tending the stove adequately shouldn't be an issue for me.

So, now I'm thinking about an airtight stove in the basement and holes in my floor for the heat to rise through, the old-fashioned way. As I stated before, the house is square, open architecture, allowing for lots of natural air circulation. For example, in July/August I use an attic exhaust fan to pull air in from the main floor windows and even basement and need AC only on the hottest of hot days in KY.

My next task is to raise the insulation factor in the attic, but I want to be ready with a good source of heat when the really cold days hit.

Any thoughts, anyone?

    Bookmark   September 9, 2010 at 10:44AM
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If you have a central heating system it would be best to stick with that. The over all efficientcy will be better and the value of the home will be maintained. Thats not to say that you can't heat all of your home with wood. You will need to install a wood burning insert in the fireplace. You will also need to re-line the chimney with a stainless steel liner all the way up the existing chimney flu...

Here is a link that might be useful: northwest distribution

    Bookmark   September 15, 2010 at 11:32AM
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You could replace the furnace with a wood/gas furnace that will allow you to heat with wood or gas in the same unit. I am not sure of the gas efficiency but the wood efficiency is good. My parents have a straight wood version that has been in use for 20 years with a regular gas furnace. They are getting ready to replace the regular furnace with a wood/gas unit. Yukon makes the model that my family has. They have two fireplaces also with one in the basement having a insert and nothing matches the wood furnace.

Here is a link that might be useful: Yukon furnaces

    Bookmark   September 26, 2010 at 6:46PM
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