Wood-burning stove vs central heating ‒ which is cheapest?

Demand for wood-burning stoves has surged as households try to reduce their heating costs this winter. But how does a wood burner compare with central heating? We put them to the test to find out which is cheapest.

Sales of wood-burning stoves have risen sharply this year, as households try to find ways to reduce their heating costs amid the cost of living crisis and the rising energy costs. If you are thinking about a wood burner, then you may be considering the costs of running one compared to central heating.

Keeping costs in mind, we've compared various ways to heat your home - for example fan heaters versus oil heaters or the cost difference between electric heaters and radiators. And if you're looking to improve energy efficiency, then you may also be interested in our article on solar panel vs heat pumps. But are wood burners a cost-effective option? 

Energy bills are expected to go up in April by around 20% for the average typical household under the less generous Energy Price Guarantee announced by chancellor Jeremy Hunt in the autumn Budget.

According to data from the price comparison site PriceRunner sales of wood-burning stoves rocketed 700% in September 2022, compared to a year earlier. As temperatures start to drop, sales are expected to remain high as customers rush to beat the cold snap and lower their heating bills this winter. 

Despite the government pledging to help households with their energy costs, average annual bills are still much higher than a year ago.  

The government’s energy price guarantee means a typical  annual bill is around £2,500 until April 2023 - although your actual bill depends on how much energy you use. Last winter, the price cap was £1,277. Next April, the cap will surge to £3,000. 

As households explore different ways to cut their energy costs, wood-burning stoves have soared in popularity - but this has also pushed up prices.  

PriceRunner says the average price tag for a wood stove is now 190% higher compared to a year ago. 

So how do wood-burning stoves compare to central heating? We put them to the test to find out. 

Wood-burning stove: pros and cons 

According to the Energy Saving Trust, a wood-burning stove can cut a home’s heating bill by 10%. 

The National Grid has warned that households could lose power for up to three hours at a time this winter if gas supplies run low, so in the event of a blackout, a log-burning fire could prove very handy. 

Some people also like the aesthetics and smell of a wood-burner, so that’s arguably another pro. 

But, there are some drawbacks.  

The initial expense of a wood-burning stove and the installation can range from £500 to more than £5,000 for fancier designs. 

Some modern homes aren’t designed to accommodate a wood-burning stove, even if you can afford to install one. 

Meanwhile there are concerns of a “UK stove shortage”, with manufacturers reporting delays due to soaring demand. Some installers say they are now fully booked until next year. 

Wood is also not that cheap. TikTokker Mark Kidd, an eco-energy expert, calculates that a 7kg bag of wood priced at £7.50 at Tesco produces the equivalent of 25p per kilowatt hour (kWh) which is more expensive than gas (capped by the energy price guarantee at 10.3p per kWh), although it is cheaper than electricity (currently capped at 34p per kWh). 

Meanwhile, a wood-burning stove won’t heat your property in the same way as central heating. It will heat up the room where the wood burner is located, and the residual heat may spread to other rooms, but it won’t consistently heat every room in the home like radiators would. 

Beware of the safety risks that come with open fires. Customers must ensure their chimneys are clean (this may involve the added expense of a chimney sweep, which costs between £50 and £80 in most parts of the UK, rising to £90 in London). 

Consider the health impact of wood burners too. They produce more fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, than all road traffic in the UK. The pollution can seriously damage people’s health and cause early deaths. Even wood-burning stoves that meet new eco-design standards still emit a huge amount of harmful particles. 

Central heating: pros and cons 

The biggest advantage of central heating is that it will heat your entire home evenly and let you make full use of every room.  

This all-round warmth provides immense comfort, and is not possible from other forms of heating. 

Other benefits include the convenience factor: you can normally “set and forget” an automated heating system or enjoy flexibility with app-based control systems. 

You can also install new components and heat sources like underfloor pipes as required. 

Central heating is generally very safe; gas appliances are tested and strictly legislated to ensure they conform to safety standards. 

While energy consumption rises in the winter for those using central heating, if you pay by direct debit you won’t notice the higher usage. This is because energy suppliers usually spread your estimated annual cost across the year. Households having to buy wood for their burner face a hike in their expenses during cold weather; whereas many central heating customers won’t have to pay a higher winter bill as they have been paying consistently throughout the year. 

The drawbacks of central heating are of course the higher running cost, and the fact you’ll be without heating if we experience any blackouts this winter.  

Radiators also don’t tend to be as visually pleasing as wood-burning stoves, which can provide a cosy-looking focal point and enhance a property’s interior design. 

If you have a small home, or spend most of your time in one room (for example, because you work from home), the running cost of a log burner could be much cheaper than central heating. If you’re able to get cheap or free wood, this will lower your costs further.

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