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

light steam graphic

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

  1. At first, we were 100% convinced to go with a wood-burning stove, but we live in Colorado and find ourselves under fire restrictions a significant portion of the year. Many of the bans don’t allow anything that produces sparks, which would include a wood burning sauna. Since we are allowed to use propane BBQs during any fire ban, that got us wondering about propane saunas. The site that we want to put our sauna is impractical to run electricity to, so a propane sauna might be a better fit for us than electricity. Do you have any experience or thoughts about propane sauna stoves?

  2. Hi Rhonda:

    The only UL certified gas sauna stove is made by Scandia, in Idaho. I have used this sauna a fair bit. They are expensive, and in very cold can be a bit tricky (pilot light, etc.). but this is a good place for you to start your search. Hope this helps!

  3. As a kid my experience with sauna was at our mountain cabin in the Sierras. My Finnish grandfather had built a wood burning sauna. It is by far the best sauna I have had. We are rebuilding our fire destroyed home. The sauna will now be outside with a dressing room and outdoor shower in the pool house. I would love a wood fired sauna but in an area of devastating wildfires and strict air pollution control we just can’t do that. Any hints on improving the löyly with an electric kiuas? Also, can ash branches be used for a vihtaa? Had a savu sauna in Finland as a teen with my grandmother and great aunts and they had vihtaas. Such an amazing experience.

  4. Janet:

    Sorry to hear about your destroyed home! Regarding improving löyly with an electric kiuas: love the question. Electric kiuas has improved big time in our generation. I will be writing about this in more detail soon. (I have been to Finland 3 times in 3 years doing research).

    Here are a few thoughts for now:
    1. Not all electric sauna heaters are created equal.
    2. More rocks are great, but some may just look good on an Instagram photo (and provide no lämpömassa).
    3. Toaster oven heat may make a room hot, but it struggles to get to your body core.
    4. Electric heaters are best sized to hot room so as to cycle on 25-30% of the time, maximum.
    5. There is one electric heater brand that, in my experience, is like Secretariat was to horse racing (1st place every time, by a wide margin).

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