For 23 years, Julie Gore has heated her Ada, Ohio, home with a wood-burning stove. When the old one wore out, she didn't hesitate to buy another for her family room.
"It's warm and toasty," said Gore, an administrative assistant at Ohio Northern University. "I wouldn't trade it. If you get a chill you can stand by it and warm up."
Stoves as secondary heating sources are growing in popularity, and come in two basic varieties: wood stoves and pellet stoves.
Some proponents say the stoves can be more environmentally friendly and help cut energy costs; other experts say that can vary from household to household.
Traditional wood-burning stoves like Gore's enjoy stronger sales, but pellet stoves, which burn compressed sawdust, may be gaining, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a manufacturers trade group. Wood stoves and wood fireplace inserts saw an 81 percent increase in shipments in 2008, the association said. Pellet stoves and pellet fireplace inserts increased 161 percent that year.
Both kinds of stoves are meant mostly to heat specific rooms or groups of rooms, not entire houses. They cost between $3,000 and $4,500 including installation.
The federal government is offering a 30 percent tax rebate in 2009 and 2010 for purchases of wood or pellet stoves that meet a 75 percent efficiency requirement.
Here's a look at some of the ways wood and pellet stoves compare.
Wood stoves must be fed with logs, while pellet stoves use 40-pound bags of pellets poured into a hopper.
Most pellet stove hoppers hold an entire bag of pellets, which will last about 24 hours before needing to be reloaded, said Leslie Wheeler, spokeswoman for the trade association.
With pellet stoves, look for a model with a large hopper opening to make it easier to load pellets, and check for an easily removable ash pan to make cleanup quick, suggested Bob Markovich, the home and yard editor at Consumer Reports magazine, which recently profiled heating stoves.
A safety precaution: Homeowners should place carbon monoxide and smoke detectors near the stoves, Markovich advised.
Pellet stoves produce very little smoke, giving them a reputation as more environmentally friendly, Wheeler said.
"There's very, very little moisture in that pellet," she said. "It burns very cleanly, very efficiently and leaves very little ash."
Ken Hellevang, an engineer with the extension service at North Dakota State University, noted of pellet stoves: "Even the most efficient burning units, there's still ash that needs to be discarded. There's some labor involved on a daily basis."
Pellet stoves also require electricity, since fans circulate the heat, so it's a good idea to purchase a backup battery, Wheeler said. Wood-burning stoves don't need electricity.
Markovich of Consumer Reports described all heating stoves as "a large version of an electric, $30 space heater."
"People have this sort of rising desire to be off the grid and control more of their own expenditures," he said. "People are looking for any way they can to save."
But if you're trying to lower home heating bills, Markovich said, you'll need to turn down the heat in the rest of the home when using a wood or pellet stove. "To really save money, you have to keep the rest of your house colder," he said.
Another tip: Make sure the square footage you want to heat matches the square footage the stove can warm, Markovich said.
About half of all households nationwide depend on natural gas for heating, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. The agency recently forecast that costs for heating fuels this winter - including natural gas, propane, oil and electric - should all be down.
Based on today's costs, Markovich said, burning pellets costs about 15 percent less than oil and 40 percent less than electric heat, but about 25 percent more than natural gas.
"If you're in fact burning natural gas now, buying a pellet stove is a mistake because it costs more," he said.
Wood stoves can be a bargain for some. "A lot of people are near rural areas where wood is cheap or free," Markovich said. "If that's you, that makes financial sense."