Wood stove (© Chris Clinton/Getty Images)

Many Americans are looking for a cheaper alternative to natural gas or oil for heating their homes. And they're increasingly finding it with wood.

Shipments of wood stoves and wood-stove inserts, which fit into fireplaces, increased 54% in the first half of 2008, compared with the same period last year, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, a trade group. Shipments of pellet stoves, which use pellets of compressed sawdust, cardboard or other materials such as corn waste, have increased 137%.

It's worth noting that despite recent design improvements, burning wood causes significantly more pollution than burning natural gas or oil and could cause health issues in more populated areas. Even pellet stoves burn cleaner than wood stoves. (See the differences, here.) But wood is a renewable resource that, used in the right conditions, could save you money.

Several wood-burning options are available. Before the mercury plummets, we walk you through four of them — and some of the issues you should consider.

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1. The wood stove
What it is:
Though they come in all shapes and sizes, a wood stove at heart is a box stoked with firewood that radiates heat, with the gases and smoke carried up a flue. "A wood stove is by far the most popular category (of wood-burning heaters) — and that's because it's the least expensive and most flexible," says John Gulland,a wood-heating expert and consultant in Ontario and author of the nonprofit Web site, Wood Heat Organization.

This isn’t your grandfather's wood stove, however. About 20 years ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made wood stoves clean up their belching; once stoves might have emitted 25 or 40 or even 100 grams of smoke per hour. "Now the average wood stove is down around 3 grams an hour," says Gulland. Compared with the old stoves, "EPA-certified stoves will deliver about 90% less smoke and about 30% more efficiency."

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Advantages: The cost savings of heating a home with wood, versus oil, can be enormous. Gulland estimates that heating his home in cold Ontario with oil would cost $4,000; with a wood stove, it costs him several hours chopping wood for several cords of wood. (On the market, the price of a cord of wood – a stack 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet — has risen with recent demand, however, and now can range from $150 to $250 nationwide.)

One wood-heat convert is Bill Hurlburt, a software engineer in eastern North Dakota who works from his 1,200-square-foot home. Last year, Hurlburt decided to get a wood stove. He spent about $1,650 in all — $600 for a basic, medium-sized Drolet Austral stove, $650 for chimney segments and kits, and $400 for a carpenter to install it.

For fuel, he can cut nearly three cords of firewood with a $30 permit from the local national forest, and he bought another later in the winter. In contrast, it costs anywhere from $2,100 to $3,000 to heat his home with oil (assuming a cost range of $3 to $4.25 per gallon). In other words, the stove has more than paid for itself. "It's such a ridiculously good deal," Hurlburt says.

But how does it heat? The living room, where the stove sits, is about 76 degrees; the dining room is 72 degrees. Hurlburt says that in his office, which is “really away from the wood stove,” he sometimes uses a space heater — when it gets to be 30 degrees below zero or colder outside.

What's more, Hurlburt loves it. Even his wife, once a skeptic, has become a believer. "It's hard to convey how this thing kind of takes over the central focus of the house," he says happily. With the licking flames, "the whole ambience of the house changes. Even our family dog is sort of just drawn to the wood stove." 

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Disadvantages: Wood-burning stoves have their heating limits. "You can't heat a big house very effectively with a single wood stove," says consultant Gulland, "and anybody who's ever tried to operate two wood stoves at the same time" knows that it will drive you crazy, he says. Wood stoves also don't work well in homes with vaulted ceilings. The heat rises and stays there.

"Here's the formula: If you've got a house that is, say, 2,000 square feet or less, and you located a wood stove in the room where the family spends most of its time — the living room/dining room/kitchen area — you can do something like 90% of your total heating requirements with wood," Gulland says. Other rooms will be cooler, of course.

Other disadvantages:  "You've got to be there for it to work," Gulland notes.

"The problem with the wood stove is that it's not automatic," adds Dirk Thomas, a chimney sweep and author of "The Woodburner’s Companion." 

"It's so much more work that I think it's important to enjoy it,” he said, referring to the tasks of feeding the fire and getting the right air mixture into the flames. “If it's just heat for you, and nothing else, you're not going to stick with it. 

"And, generalizing, you're also more likely to make mistakes with it," Thomas adds.

Manufacturers include JotulQuadra-FireHearthstone Stoves.