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Electric or wood fired: choosing the right type of sauna heater that best fits your lifestyle

For many, the decision whether to go wood fired sauna or electric heated sauna comes down to a simple preference:

Dials or draft?

Dials refer to the control panel mounted on the outside of our hot room, similar to a control panel for heating our house. Newer technology allows for wifi access, such that one can “fire up” their sauna remotely. Some take great satisfaction with their sauna heater “app:” being able to tell their sauna stove to heat up while driving home from work, or out at a bar. “Who wants to take a sauna?” and with a couple swipes, viola, sauna is heating. For an extremely well detailed review of electric sauna heaters available, click here.

Draft refers to the manual damper on a wood fired sauna stove, a simple manual lever that controls the amount of air entering the fire box which allows the user to control the burn rate of the fire in the firebox. The physical, tactile control of the burn offers many a joyous feeling (in an ever increasing tech driven world).

As sauna becomes more popular, it is interesting to see people’s preferences – dial or draft – as a representation of ones values and lifestyle.

Those into “apps” and gadget technology take comfort and pleasure with looking at a screen when it comes to thinking about their upcoming sauna session. Those more into axes and analog technology take comfort and pleasure with looking at their woodpile when it comes to thinking about their upcoming sauna session.

Iki Electric stove with the innovative sauna stone surround

In rural areas, like island cabins or rural hunting retreats, wood fired saunas are the essential choice. On the edges of the grid, wood is plentiful, electricity is still relatively novel and often is still unreliable, as it comes and goes with the wind. In urban areas, like apartment buildings and rooftop hotels, electric sauna heaters are preferred.

Serious sauna enthusiasts will “wrestle to the ground” rationale as to why wood heat as a better heat than electric heat. Regular listeners to the podcast Sauna Talk have heard this sentiment from the voices of sauna experts like Risto Elomaa, President of the International Sauna Association and Jarmo Lehtola, a lifelong sauna enthusiast. Those that have taken thousands of saunas in hundreds of different saunas develop a deeper understanding of how heat works as a function of raising body temperature to induce sweat. Good sweat not from toaster oven heat, but dense penetrating heat.

A wood fired Kuuma sauna stove radiating deep, penetrating heat

There are technological implications such as negative ions and fresh air ventilation that come into play via different heat sources to heat our sauna hot rooms. And we aren’t talking infrared light bulbs, we are talking about sauna: an external heat source that heats stones which allow for water to be tossed on these stones to create steam.

Some like the tactile, analog relationship with cutting, splitting, stacking wood. Others consider this drudgery and would rather flip a switch. Some can be blindfolded and let into a sauna hot room and can immediately feel the difference of wood heat vs. electric heat (thermal mass via radiant heat). Good heat is easily felt, but harder to understand because Lampömassa can be subtle yet very powerful.

Others may think this is gibberish.

Finally, there is a deal breaker for many who choose to go with a wood burning sauna heater for their sauna project. The traditional “old school” consideration is that sauna is both a noun (the place) as well as a verb (the experience). Sauna (the place) is often a separate structure, no electricity whatsoever. When we sauna (the experience), a simple candle illuminates the room, and we welcome the warm dancing flame across the wood lined walls and the crackling of fire from the sauna stove, which we created ourselves from firewood, the heat source harvested and created ourselves with our own two hands.

This contributes to the relaxing nature of sauna, a place to completely reset, restore and rejuvenate.

For many, the chopping of wood for fueling our sauna heaters and the carrying of water to our sauna for bathing and löyly (steam) is an indescribable benefit to enjoyment and fulfillment. The health benefits of sauna, from the experience of making heat as much as the practice of enjoying heat.

Enlightenment from a wood fired sauna experience.

photo: Jim Brandenburg, Ely, MN, USA

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6 thoughts on “Electric or wood fired: choosing the right type of sauna heater that best fits your lifestyle”

  1. Hey Glenn

    I live in S Minneapolis too. I’m building a Sauna in my backyard and was pretty much settled on electric, but still have second thoughts – seems like I am unsure about mist decisions until the moment I have to make them, I have downloaded and read your guide. It has been very helpful. Still toying with the idea of wood but as a single dad with two 8 year old boys I think the convenience of electric is the way to go. I’m still open to persuasion though!

    How to run a few other things by you some time,

    Nelson

  2. I’m interested in buying a Kuuma stove for a sauna I’m planning to build in the SW suburbs of Minneapolis. The hot room will be 8’x7′ – do you recommend a small or medium Kuuma? When I order one through the saunatimes shop, when would I be able to pick it up locally? Much thanks.

  3. Hi Jeremy:

    For an 8×7 hot room, well, you’re right on the edge. If you’re going with a well insulated structure (R38 in ceiling, R13 walls) and a changing room – critical in our climate – i’d suggest the small. You can search “8 12” and see some information about a great layout for a 6×8 hot room, which may get your right brain going.

  4. Nelson,

    So glad my ebook has been helpful. I wrote it for people just like you (and me), so that’s great that it’s helping you. Re: wood sauna stove: I could imagine you and your energetic boys growing into the wonderful practice of wood splitting, etc. but if I tried to convince you too much and it didn’t work out, you’d be swearing at me, and that’s not good! :). So, it’s your call. You can tell my feeling, based on this article above, where i took the poetic license to get all philosophical on you.

  5. Hi Glenn – ordered the book, was thinking it was in eBook format? I got a file with word, pdf, and photos. Am I missing something.
    Thanks much!
    Tim Pazier
    Snohomish, WA

  6. Hi Tim:

    No, you’re not missing anything. The sauna build ebook is in the format you describe. Word, pdf, and photos. It is roots and DIY. We keep the photos separate as many print off the words and content from the ebook (saving ink and paper).

    After reading through, you can use the search bar on saunatimes if you have any questions, and if that doesn’t help, please follow along with format to email me (listing/numbering your questions). I’m excited for your sauna build. So many kick ass authentic saunas going up around N. America these days, and we’re becoming a more connected, healthy, happy tribe.

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