The Need for Backup Heat Sources
In the 1970’s and 80’s, the early generation of ductless heating units, or heat pumps as they are also called, were not that efficient. In fact, people in very cold climates often needed a backup heating source, and many people choose to combine a ductless system with a wood or pellet burning stove. Now, however, that is not the case.
The current generation of ductless heating and cooling systems come in a wide range of models with a variety of capacities. There are "all-climate" ductless units that work even when temperatures fall below -30 degrees Fahrenheit. With ductless systems, you can keep an entire home warm in cold climates, and if desired, you can even heat and cool a large multi-unit commercial space.
That's simply not possible with a wood or pellet-burning stove. Most people who have a wood or pellet-burning stove also have to invest in other heating options. They may need space heaters for areas where the stove doesn't reach, or they may need central heating for the days when they run out of pellets or can't tend to their wood burning stoves.
Because they move heat rather than generate it, heat pumps use far less electricity than most other heating options. In fact, heat pumps can create more energy than they consume in electricity. Pellet and wood-burning stoves can be efficient, but there are a lot of variables to take into consideration.
If the stove doesn't heat the whole home, you will need to waste energy on other heating sources. On the other hand, if your stove heats the whole home, it usually overheats the room that it is in, and you may find yourself opening windows and wasting energy that way. Additionally, if you don't live near a reliable source of wood, transporting the wood also takes energy.
Depending on the size of system you buy and how many ductless units you purchase, the costs can vary. When comparing the cost of a ductless unit with a wood-burning stove, it's important to take into account the purchase price, but don't let sticker shock deter you from looking closely at the operating costs.
According to Efficiency Maine, a non-profit organization focused on energy efficiency education and advocacy in Maine and the Northeast, the cost of using pellets to heat a 1,500 square foot home is about $2,000 per year, while running an EPA-certified wood-burning stove costs about $1,500 per year. However, if you have a ductless heater, the annual operating cost is well below $1,350. That amounts to a savings of $150 to $650 each year to heat your home. Note that if you have a used or inefficient pellet or wood-burning stove, these numbers may be higher, and if you have a larger home, the savings will be more dramatic.
You can put ductless systems in spaces such as home additions, garage apartments, sunrooms, or remodeled sheds that aren't connected to your ductwork, but you can also use pellet or wood-burning stoves in these spaces. That said, you can also use ductless units throughout your entire home.
Ductless systems come in a huge range of styles that work with any decor. In all cases, these units are small and discreet, and they don't have a large footprint. In contrast, stoves need a chunk of space in your home. With wood-burning stoves, you also have to account for accessories such as pokers and wood piles.
Both heating stoves and ductless heat pumps don't require ductwork. That makes installation simple in both situations. However, the hole you have to put in for a wood burner is considerably larger than the small hole you need for a ductless unit.
While pellet and wood-burning stoves only offer heating, ductless units can handle both heating and cooling. With a ductless unit, a heat pump uses refrigerant to move heat from one place to another. Then, during warm times of the year, the process is reversed — the heat pump moves heat from inside the home to the outside.
Other Eco Considerations
In addition to energy efficiency, you may want to think about how other elements of these two choices affect the environment. Unless you buy pellets in bulk, you are going to accumulate many, many plastic bags with a pellet-burning stove. With wood-burning stoves, you can find trees that are grown sustainably — that's where the trees are harvested at the same rate that they grow. However, depending on your location and the type of wood you want to burn, that's not always possible.
Additionally, you need to consider indoor air quality. Wood smoke contains hundreds of chemical compounds that contribute to adverse health. In fact, in many urban and rural areas, wood smoke is a major contributor to air pollution. For this reason, some towns and cities restrict wood burning when local air quality reaches dangerous levels. This doesn't even take into account the dust, bark, and wood chips.
You can find pellet-burning stoves that feed themselves automatically, but with a wood-burning stove, you need to tend the fire. That's not convenient. Additionally, you have to find space to store pellets and cords of cut wood. On top of that, you have to clean chimneys, lug around
heavy bags of pellets, cut down or buy firewood, and clean up messes around the wood stove.
With a ductless system, you can set it and forget it. Many systems (especially commercial units) also come with software that lets you set different controls for each individual unit of the system.
In many cases, ductless units installed in the 1970’s and 80’s are still going strong today, but as a general rule of thumb, most units are designed to last about 20 years. Pellet and wood-burning stoves can last longer, but if you hold onto them too long, you will likely miss important efficiency upgrades.
At NETR, we help commercial and residential clients install ductless systems. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, contact us today.