Considering an Alternative Heating Source

for Your Log Cabin

An alternative heating source for your cabin can be very cost effective and pleasurable if done right...or a huge headache if not thought out well!

Here is a list of the most common alternative heating fuels and methods. I recommend studying the ones that appeal to you thoroughly and choosing only after careful consideration.

A log cabin fireplace was what I originally intended to use as an alternative heat source in my Michigan cabin. Along the way, I explored other options. You can read below about how and why I ultimately chose a wood stove.

Believe it or not, traditional fireplace efficiency ranges from +10% to -10%. The negative efficiency results from the fire sucking heated air from inside the home to fuel combustion. This air is then vented up the chimney, which pulls cold outside air into the home through the small cracks around windows and doors. Fireplace inserts are a more efficient option.

Alternative Heating Methods

  • Traditional Fireplace
  • Wood Burning Cookstove
  • Other Wood Stoves (Parlor, Barrel, Box, etc.)
  • Corn and Pellet Stoves
  • Hydropower or Wind Power for Electric Heat
  • Hydronic (Floor) Heat
  • Masonry Heaters/Fireplace 
  • Solar Heat
  • Geothermal Heat
  • Radiant Heat
  • Space Heater
  • Soapstone Stove
  • Outdoor Wood Stove
  • Coal Stove
You can find out more about alternative heating fuels and systems at these sites: - This one has a handy fuel comparison chart. - Wood Burning Efficiency and Safety - A nonprofit, nongovernmental agency dedicated to the responsible use of wood as a home heating fuel.

There are probably other alternative heating systems I haven't even heard of yet. Please contact me if you have successfully used any of these or another and share what you know.

My Alternative Heating Source Choice

When you build your own log cabin the heat source is vital. With over hundred acres of woods surrounding my cabin, wood heat was the obvious option.

I really wanted to hand build a big cabin fireplace. I found all the stone and thought out several designs. After a full summer of building the cabin I began to move ahead mentally the task of the fireplace.

I realized I would have to cut out a big section of logs at the south wall where I had imagined the hearth. I talked with several stone masons to get advice and learned many things including the amount of time and materials required just for the base foundation. This would need to be a serious pad of cement and rebar.

The time factor began changing my mind as I realized it would take a novice like me all fall to build the fireplace.

Very close to the time of decision my family went to stay at a lake cottage for the weekend. It got unusually cold and damp. The cottage had a fireplace.

I thought, “Great! I will get this puppy burning and we will all be toasty.” Boy was I wrong. That place never did get comfortable. It was then I decided to start looking at woodstoves.

We have heated with woodstoves in the past and really enjoyed them. We had an old parlor stove that was not all that efficient. It could burn through a full load in 3 or 4 hours. That was a bummer to wake up to, but when it got going, the heat was good. If it got too hot we just opened the windows! A friend of mine has a new air tight stove that will burn for 10 hours. I always wished for that kind of performance with the looks of my old stove.

As I considered a wood stove, I had to decide what it would be used for. I really wanted to be able to cook for groups of friends as well as get heat for the cabin.

A good friend gave me a big old Kalamazoo cook stove. It’s black with nickel trim and these aren’t cheap. Everything was there and worked. I was thrilled until I realized how small the firebox was. This was meant for cooking, not heating a cabin!

I considered buying another parlor stove, having a weakness for these beauties. They have all that nickel plated scrolling and finials. Sadly, this style is wonderful for general heating but the small top is only good for one pan or pot.

In the end, my compromise was a box stove. These have a rectangular size with a two burner top. They hold a decent amount of wood and have a big cooking surface. Box stoves are not as desirable as the other old stoves so prices are quit a bit lower. I have even seen some efficient modern castings of old styles that are acceptable.

While I’m thinking of it, I’ll tell you about a neat accessory for wood stoves I ran across. This is a cast iron shelf that connects around the stove pipe and sets up over the stove. This gives a nice area for keeping things hot while cooking a third pot on the stove.

The most important thing to consider is safety (and local codes if they apply). Woodstoves have certain minimum clearances from combustible surfaces. You can find out a lot by talking to a firefighter, no matter what alternative heating source you choose. The fire codes are not for ignoring.

Decide what you will do if you have children or frequent young guests. We trained our little babies to stay away from the stoves. They were not even allowed to touch the hearth. We had to keep an eagle eye on any young friends, though. Some folks just put up a railing.

Be safe and do it right!