Heating With a Water Stove: Better Than With a Wood Stove?

The other day I was sweeping up all of the wood chips and debris that have fallen on the living room floor near the wood stove that sits in our fireplace, and I thought to myself all of the reasons why an outdoor water stove would be so much nicer for heating our home.

We used to have one several years ago, something we’d picked up off Craigslist, but we couldn’t afford to have it installed so we ended up selling it.

There are definitely things that I love about having a wood stove in the house that I would surely miss if we had an outdoor water stove. Like the smell of wood burning. And cooking over the hot cast iron stove. But it would definitely be much cleaner to keep the wood burning mess out of the house.

If you’re considering how you’d like to invest in heating your on- or off-grid home, I’m providing a list of pros and cons for home owners to consider before making their decision…

What is a Water Stove, Exactly?

For those who are unfamiliar with them, water stoves are basically outdoor heating systems functioning as wood burning stoves, sometimes called an outdoor wood boilers or outdoor wood furnace. They are typically installed in a small, freestanding building that’s like a shed.

Like I mentioned above, that means you’ll have to trek outside in order to feed more firewood into the thing, but otherwise you can use them for heating your home, your domestic hot water supply, outdoor water supply, hot tubs, and even pools.

But the way that I water stove actually works is it basically contains a large water reservoir holding many gallons of water, called a water jacket a firebox that is much like your wood burning stove inside and a smokestack or flue pipe for exhaust gasses.

When you build and stoke the fire, it heats up the air in the firebox and then it routes that through tubes and pipes in the water jacket, heating up the water which is then pumped, beneath the ground, through your house in pipes of its own. This can heat up your house very much like a traditional radiator of old.

This might sound a little low tech, and technically it is, but modern water stoves are still manufactured and sold, and many of them come with high-tech equipment like electric thermostats to control water temperature, controllers to open or close the flue on the stove and other features.

In short, in a typical installation they combine the benefits of a wood stove or fireplace with a hot water heater and they do it all in a remote, exterior installation that will dramatically cut down on odor, dust and dirt that you’ll typically see accumulating from burning a fire indoors.

They tend to be especially popular in remote and rural areas.

Water Stove Pros

  • Hot air is circulated through air ducts into every room of the house, heating it evenly.
  • Water stoves heat the air in your home, but also heat the water that fills your hot water tank, which is convenient and saves money over heating with electricity.
  • Water stoves can heat other exterior buildings like sheds, greenhouses, garages and more.
  • Smoke, soot, wood chips and hitch-hiking bugs are kept outdoors.
  • The air in the house doesn’t get as dry as it would with a wood stove.
  • No need to make a place to stack wood in the house.
  • The fire is outside so there’s less chance of the home catching on fire (like a chimney fire).
  • Can burn larger pieces of wood effectively compared to wood stove or fireplace.

Water Stove Cons

  • They’re definitely more expensive to get installed than a wood stove.
  • You might have to hire professionals to help you get it installed.
  • Outdoor boiler means you have to go outside in all weather to feed them. Unless you have one installed in an attached building.
  • Some sort of electricity is required to run the pumps and electronics. This can be solar power or grid electricity.
  • Less efficiency than woodstove means more wood used for same net heat.
  • Smoke generated is denser, more polluting and closer to ground.

Wood Stove Pros

  • Wood stoves can be purchased fairly inexpensively, especially if you buy one used.
  • Easy to install yourself if you’re at all handy.
  • Can be highly efficient; use less wood for more heat compared to water stove.
  • Nothing beats the smell of wood burning in your home on a cold winter day.
  • Wet laundry (or wet shoes) dries quickly on a floor rack when placed near a warm fire.
  • It always feels good to warm your hands by the fire when you come inside from being out in the freezing cold.
  • You can feed the fire conveniently at any time of the day or night.
  • No electricity is needed to heat your home.
  • The top of a wood stove can be used for cooking or boiling water.

Wood Stove Cons

  • The stove gets hot to touch, which is dangerous with little ones around.
  • Soot settles on the fireplace mantle, the ceiling (especially popcorn ceiling!), and anything else within range. This makes it difficult to keep things clean during wood burning season.
  • Wood chips get tracked in the house with every load. Lots of sweeping up dirt and bark.
  • Bugs and spiders come in the house with the wood. We’ve had a problem with big black ants (carpenter ants?) hiding inside unsplit logs and coming out once they’re in the house.
  • Need somewhere to stack the wood in the house, to keep it convenient to the fireplace.
  • Greater chance of a house fire.
  • You might need several box fans to help circulate the warm air from the stove into other rooms, depending on the layout of your house.
  • Wood stoves pull humidity out of the air in your home and cause everything to get very dry. House plants need constant watering, and even skin and hair gets dried out if you aren’t careful to drink extra water throughout the day.
  • It’s not as easy to use the stove to heat water for your hot water tank as a water stove is.

Water Stoves Might Have Serious Shortcomings Long Term

Water stoves might have some serious long-term shortcomings that you’ll need to be aware of, ones that are worth expanding on beyond my list of pros and cons above.

Water Stoves are Very Smoky

The biggest advantage in a water stove for most people also happens to be its biggest disadvantage. That sounds like a paradox, I know, but it’s true: I’m talking about the smoke generated from the burning wood. Yes, that smoke is now outside your home, but just because it is outside doesn’t mean it won’t get inside.

Water stoves typically burn at a lower temperature compared to an indoor wood stove or fireplace, and the little smokestack on it is nowhere near as tall as the one on an interior wood stove or the chimney on a fireplace.

This means that smoke is going to hang around a lot lower to the ground and will contain more particulates and contaminants compared to your usual indoor fire options.

Depending on the prevailing winds in your area, or just which way the wind is blowing currently, that smoke can still get into your home through cracks and leaks around windows and doors, and other places besides. Then you’ll probably find it is even worse than the smoke you usually deal with inside!

A potentially greater problem is that these smoke clouds can drift and affect your neighbors, assuming they are near enough.

Trust me, compared to the smoke coming out much higher through your chimney the smoke from your water stove is probably going to be a serious annoyance for them and this can lead to conflict.

Additionally, just like any other woods smoke the smoke from your water stove contains all the usual pollutants and health hazards you’re probably already aware of- carbon monoxide, solid particulates, sulfur dioxide and more. These compounds and chemicals are dangerous.

There is no two ways about it, water stoves are pretty serious pollutants, even worse than other wood burning options.

Water Stoves are Inefficient

And like I mentioned above, since water stoves don’t burn nearly as hot as your indoor wood stove or fireplace, they aren’t burning nearly as efficiently, and that means they burn incompletely.

Though they officially heat water, you’re still going to need even more fuel to produce the same amount of meaningful heat that you would experience from a wood stove or fireplace. That is going to cost you more money in the long run and potentially more labor, though your average wood stove can handle a larger piece of wood, so maybe that part balances out.

Water Stoves are Facing More Regulation

Another thing: wood stoves are being increasingly targeted for regulation or outright banning in various places, even in rural parts of states where they have traditionally been allowed and dependent on.

Because they create significant localized air pollution and conflict between neighbors, some health departments are banning or requiring yearly permitting for their use.

Even in recent years, zoning changes have seen entire areas suddenly lose the use of their water stoves because they might suddenly be too close to residential areas. Heck, the EPA is looking closely into water stoves as public health hazards, too closely if you catch my drift.

If you want to be truly self-sufficient, and think that a water stove is the right option for you in this regard, you might be right. But then again, there’s no telling how long you’ll be able to keep using it in the way you always have, particularly when you are closer to town than not.

My Thoughts on the Water Stove

Now, I know after reading all that it seems like quite the condemnation of water stoves, but I am not bashing them. Believe me, I am still a fan and I still want one!

If I could go back and do it all over again, I’d still strongly consider installing an outdoor water stove as our primary heat source over the wood stove in the fireplace.

The way our house is laid out (long ranch style) isn’t conducive to wood stove heating. However, if I had an opportunity to build a home from scratch, especially if it was to be 100% off grid, I’d likely stick with a wood stove.

I’d position the stove in the center of the home where it could heat the entire space, and the bedrooms would be open lofts above the living area making the best use of that rising heat. This would be the cheapest option, after all.

For now, I’ll be content with the free heat we get from our well-used wood stove. If you come to visit me this fall and winter, kindly overlook the fine layer of black dust on the white mantel and the trail of wood chips across the floor.

Perhaps the aroma of warm spices simmering in a pot of water on the stove will ease you back into a cozy chair and you’ll forget all about the mess.

I’m sure I’ll think of more pros and cons as the wood burning season progresses. Can you think of anything you’d add to this list? Which do you think you’d prefer?

14 thoughts on “Heating With a Water Stove: Better Than With a Wood Stove?”

  1. Stack your wood neatly to avoid ticks and ants living inside of it. Sprinkle some food-grade diatomaceous earth on each log as you stack it to kill the bugs.

    Also, please get your wood stove professionally installed. That looks rigged. Soot is not supposed to appear all over your house when operating a wood stove.

  2. Your wood stove installation is very scary and violates quite a few safety codes, You are putting yourself at considerable risk installing a stove like that in that manner. A manufactured fireplace does not have the right type of chimney to vent a wood stove.

    When you build a new home, don’t go with an outdoor furnace. A masonry heater is far more comfortable and appealing than any furnace. If you are really into the homesteading, off grid movement you can even build them yourself. Look up Rocket Mass Heaters. And please, at least consult a Certified Chimney Sweep about how to vent it properly.

    Wood heat is the most environmentally responsible and the most comfortable way to heat a home. It is far less hazardous when the heating appliances are properly installed.

  3. Even Pink Floyd knows how good a wood stove is:

    When I come home
    cold and tired
    Its good to warm my bones
    Beside the fire

  4. The Sicilian Prince has an almost ‘no-cost’ remedy for ants:

    Under the stove might be a good place for the ant trap. Spiders are diabolical critters. Hard to kill, impossible to keep out. Maybe just sensationalism: A recent article claimed that at any given moment, thousands of spiders are staring at us in their predatory way.

  5. Bugs – that’s for sure. In Fairbanks, Alaska the sound of the bugs coming to life and munching away on the wood after it thawed and before it was thrown into my Vermont Casting Stove was always hilariously entertaining.

  6. You hit the nail on the head for the wood stove. Bugs and soot all over were a constant struggle.

    My water stove hook up is radiant heat water tubes sunk in the concrete floor. That reduces the dry air and prevents me from having to install duct work.

    The stove I had hoped to install only needs feeding once or twice a week, and it thrives best on green wood. It is thermostatically controlled, which is nice. Ashes only have to be emptied every two to three weeks, and it is partially open, meaning it doesn’t come in contact with outside air for rust, but it doesn’t have to be pressurized tightly. It also comes with solar panels for water storage, which assists the water heater. The flooring is a sealed system, so no water loss or running my well dry. Only the solar fed from the well. The price tag for that set up was $11,000, which is why I’m still using baseboard heat. 🙁 I’ve found baseboard to be just as drying as a wood stove, without the smoky smell, or the low power bill. But after a wood stove house fire, I’m taking the risk until the outdoor stove goes in.

    Heatmor CSS100 was my perfect model. Looks like it’s not even available anymore. 🙁

    I’d love to have a wood cook stove for my barn, so that I can do my canning outside in the summer. For now, I just freeze my produce and can in the winter to maximize the heat.

  7. Funny you should write about this….We have an outdoor water stove and I would LOVE a woodstove instead, lol 🙂 There are many reasons for this…1) we lose power at least a couple of times a winter and it gets COLD where we live. I have always been nervous about this issue. 2) It was very expensive to install and we didn’t really want the expense but were kind of forced into it (a whole other story) 3) as you mentioned having to go out in every type of weather to put wood into it. These are just a few of the reasons I want a woodstove. Maybe someday in our new house…..one can dream! 🙂

    • It’s nice to hear the perspective of somebody who has a water stove and can add some pros and cons to the list. Thanks, Jessica! If we ever build a new home I’d definitely position a door near the wood stove so I don’t have to track wood through the whole house. I’ve seen some homes built with an enclosed wood bin on the outside of the house that you can access from indoors. That seems like it would help reduce a lot of the mess.

  8. There is a third option as well. We have a wood furnace in the basement (in addition to the regular propane furnace). It has blowers of its own and runs into the ductwork. So essentially it functions like the propane furnace in that it blows hot air through the vents to the rest of the house. That does require electricity, but in a power outage we can still keep a fire in it that warms the house.

    It *is* inside, so the mess still applies. Ours is in the basement near an outside door which minimizes things a bit.

    Because of the design you cannot cook on it, though it does get hot to the touch on the outside, just not hot enough.

    We can’t see the fire in ours, and it doesn’t have that “homey” sit around the wood stove feel because it looks rather utilitarian. But it does the job. And it takes big chucks of wood too so there is less splitting.

    Ours is a 30(ish)-year-old Johnson, but there are newer versions too.

    Like this one:
    Englander Add-On Wood Furnace at Big Orange


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