Add a cozy hearth to your home (© Chris Clinton/Getty Images)

© Chris Clinton/Getty Images

The more we're surrounded by technology, the more we seem to crave the primitive warmth of a crackling fire. Adding a heating stove or fireplace insert gives your home a warm heart. If you do your research, it might help cut your winter fuel bills, even by a lot, and keep you warm if the power goes out.

Dependably rising heating-fuel prices and advances in technology and design are driving consumers' interest in stoves and fireplace inserts. Nearly a million wood, gas and pellet hearth appliances were shipped in 2010 — 65% of them gas-fueled, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association's 2011 State of the Hearth Report. Manufacturers also shipped nearly 1.5 million electric fireplaces and stoves.

Whether you'll reduce heating costs with a stove or insert depends on many things, including your home's construction, fuel availability and how you use your new burner. For best effect, use an insert or stove to heat just one or two rooms, not the entire home, says John Crouch, spokesman for the association and the Pellet Fuels Institute, both based in Arlington, Va.

Focus the heat where you spend most of your time, especially in a big house. "You've heard of task lighting? This is task heating," Crouch says.

He once owned a woodstove store. When customers asked, "Should we put it in the basement and heat the whole house?" he'd say, "No, put it where the TV is."

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In a newer, well-insulated home, adding an insert or stove may not make much difference in fuel bills. But, depending on the fuel, you'll probably see an impact in an older home.

It's a question to discuss with a knowledgeable salesperson and installer. Find accredited installers near you on the National Fireplace Institute website. The institute trains and certifies installers by fuel type. The best certification is MHP (master hearth professional). Most installers work for a shop that sells stoves and inserts. Ideally, the retailer you choose has installers certified in many fuel types.

The king of fuels
When you buy a stove or insert, you're guessing which fuel type will cost least not just now but in years to come. Prices are rising and vary around the U.S. For stoves and inserts, the options are wood, pellets, natural gas, propane and electricity.

Here's a comparison of the approximate cost to produce 1 million Btu of heat in your home, from the Energy Information Administration's Heating Fuel Comparison Calculator (.XLS file). A Btu (British thermal unit) is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water one degree. These costs are based on current fuel costs as of March 7.

  • Coal: $8
  • Cord wood: $9.09
  • Natural gas: $10.33
  • Pellets: $15.15
  • Oil: $24.30
  • Propane: $29.23
  • Electric furnaces, baseboards and space heaters: $33.41

For detailed fuel information and regional price comparisons, see the Agriculture Department's Forest Products Laboratory's fuel value calculator (.PDF file) and the Energy Information Administration's table of prices for October 2011 (look for Table WF01, midway down this .PDF document.)  

Gas, electric and pellet stoves try to emulate wood flames. Some come close, but there are still lots of reasons why wood, to many people, is the king of fuels.

Wood can be especially cheap if — a big if — you have land with windfall trees or trees you must occasionally thin.

Wood will keep you warm in a power outage. After two blackouts of more than a week each this fall, Superior Hearth, Spas & Leisure's three retail shops in central Connecticut are bustling with homeowners hoping to install wood heat, says Rick Theriault, general sales manager.

But Theriault dissuades many would-be wood-stove owners. "People think you can just cut it and burn it. Can't do it. Wood is a lot of maintenance and a lot of work. You have to cut it, stack it and season it one to three years. There's the insects, the dust."

Wood is dirty and you'll have to haul ashes and pay a professional to clean the chimney and flue regularly.

Fire safety is an issue, too. When properly installed and maintained, a wood stove is as safe as any appliance in the house, says Rick Vlahos, director for both the National Fireplace Institute and the Hearth Patio & Barbecue Education Foundation. But problems happen when homeowners cut corners in installation, particularly disregarding directions on proper clearance and venting. He urges owners to pay a professional installer, not least because stove dealers, for liability reasons, may refuse to service or repair appliances they have not installed, leaving the homeowner stuck with a problem stove.

Slide show:  10 new uses for old fireplaces

Most wood stoves in homes today were built before 1992. They aren't EPA-certified and they cause air-quality problems. Indoors, asthmatics suffer around old wood stoves. Outside, everyone else pays the price for air contaminated with carbon dioxide and soot particles. Local governments are toughening air-quality regulations, especially in the West. (EPA's AirNow updates local air-quality maps and forecasts daily and links to regulatory agencies.)

Newer, EPA-certified wood appliances, though, are so efficient that your neighbors may not realize your stove is lit, Crouch says. (Here's a list of EPA-certified stoves and inserts and the EPA's wood-stove requirements.)

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To be legal and safe and to help stop pollution, use an EPA-certified stove or insert and have it professionally installed, preferably by the company that sold it to you so you have recourse in case of problems.

In the off-season, the EPA sometimes sponsors Cash for Clunkers-type programs, with rebates for customers who junk an old stove when buying a new one. IRS tax credits for new stoves expired at the end of 2011, but check for incentives with your utility company and the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

An insert is a great way to rehabilitate a fireplace. Old-fashioned wood fireplaces are not only the least efficient source of heat, they're also the least effective: When you light a fireplace, you are sending most of your heat up the chimney and drawing frigid air into the home, making it colder than without the fire, Crouch says.

But don't buy an insert before assessing your fireplace: If it has a brick-and-mortar chimney, it'll probably accept an insert, Theriault says. But most factory-made "zero-clearance" fireboxes with steel insulated chimney pipes can't safely take the heat produced by an insert.