Wood-burning options for heating homes are many and varied

University of Illinois Extension Services

Current wood stoves use two methods to limit the amount of smoke produced.

Take your pick when it comes to heating your home with firewood.  There are several kinds of equipment for burning wood safely.


Wood Stoves

Today’s wood stoves are manufactured to limit the amount of smoke produced. Smoke reduction is accomplished through two methods:


Catalytic combustion system: Passes combustion gases and smoke through a ceramic apparatus that ignites the gases.

Non-catalytic system: Stoves use large baffles and pre heat the combustion air. These designs can reduce smoke by significant amounts compared to older stoves.

Pellet stoves make use of sawdust or other types of biomass that has been pelletized for use. These stoves provide a more even combustion process, which makes for lower emissions, comparable to modern, well-made wood stoves.


Fireplace designs can range from the traditional open fireplace to controlled combustion units, such as masonry heaters.

Traditional open fireplaces often have problems if placed in a newly built home, not because of the fireplace itself, but because of air flow. Large amounts of air, in the range of several hundred cubic feet per minute, are needed for proper combustion and exhaust flow. Most new home construction does not allow this much air flow into and out of the house. Air flow needs can be reduced by using glass doors. Fireplaces that are EPA certified, or designed to match the house, can also greatly reduce this potential problem.

Fireplace inserts are stoves that can be fitted into a masonry fireplace. These can also be designed to greatly reduce smoke. Typically, a chimney liner is required for proper operation.

Controlled combustion fireplaces

In a controlled combustion system, air flow needs are reduced substantially. One example of this type of system is a masonry heater. Common in Northern Europe, they are designed around a large masonry mass, which radiates heat. The flue system is designed to wind through the masonry, transferring heat to the mass.  Heating cycles burn wood quickly and at a very high temperature.  Since the heat radiates out through the masonry, burn cycles are only needed once or twice a day.  These units must be designed to fit specific building characteristics.

A masonry heater is a controlled combustion system. The flue system is designed to wind through the masonry, transferring heat to the mass. Heating cycles burn wood quickly and at a very high temperature.

Outdoor boilers

Outdoor boilers are insulated buildings where the firebox is located, surrounded by pipes containing water. As the water is heated, it is transferred to the house or other buildings. Excessive smoke may be an issue with older or less technologically advanced systems, particularly when there are long periods between heating cycles.

Heating efficiency

In terms of heating efficiency, traditional open fireplaces generally have greater efficiencies in the 10 percent range.

Advanced low emission models will increase this considerably, sometimes near new stove efficiencies.

  • Older wood stoves have efficiencies up to 30 percent.
  • New non-catalytic models in the 50 to 60 percent range.
  • Catalytic combustion stoves may reach 70 percent.
  • Pellet stoves and masonry heaters can reach 80 to 90 percent heating efficiency.
  • Newer outdoor boilers may reach 80 percent.

All of these efficiencies are based on optimum performance and will be reduced if the appliance is not operated or maintained properly.