So what’s the alternative for people who like the ambiance of a fire, but perhaps more importantly want to heat their home? Short of foregoing the drama of the fire and relying only on your forced air furnace, experts point to these three solid, environmentally sound choices:

  • The pellet stove or high-efficiency wood stove
  • A fireplace outfitted with an insert to improve performance and emissions
  • A masonry heater, which is designed from the start to produce heat and gently radiate it around the house.

The DOE gives the masonry heaters — sometimes known as Finnish fireplaces — the highest marks because they produce “more heat and less pollution” than any other wood- or pellet-burning device. (So we’re saving them for last. If you can’t wait, check out our slide show of masonry heaters.)

A gas-log fireplace, which can be fitted with fans to circulate the heat, might have made the list, but the fuel is not renewable. It emits greenhouse gases and still loses much of its heat to the simple dynamics of the fire, which gulps room air to burn. While some heat may be forced back into the room, much of it still goes up in smoke. If you have a gas-burning, faux log system, add glass doors to cover the face and minimize heat loss.

Pellet stoves, on the other hand, win good reviews from government people studying and assessing heating systems. They are compact little animals that burn compressed pellets manufactured from sawdust or other natural products, even hemp grass for those who pellet-stove.jpgdon’t want to compromise on sustainability.

Pellet stoves are tightly closed systems so they can burn their fuel at high temperatures, thereby burning cleanly and emitting few, if any, greenhouse gases. In this way, they produce a lot of heat for the amount of fuel used. Newer models of pellet stoves can heat at 85 percent efficiency. And for people who may view a pellet stove as an imperfect addition to their home décor, they can be installed to use an existing fireplace chimney.