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Wood heat vs. electric heat explained once, and probably not for all

Heat isn’t heat.

Have you ever cooked with a cast iron pan vs. a thin teflon pan?   All quality restaurants use thick heavy cast iron pans.  The food cooks evenly.  The heat is more controlled.   “The food tastes better.”   Those into food can tell the difference.

Thermal mass through radiant heat.

For those of us in cold climates, we know the difference in our homes.  Baseboard electric can heat a room, but it’s a different type of heat than, say, heat created by radiators.  Why?

Radiators radiate heat, baseboards heat air.  WTF does this mean?

Why is it that when your feet are cold as you get into a cold car in Minneapolis, your feet are still cold by the time you get to Duluth, but the inside car thermometer says 70 degrees the whole way?

Thermal mass.

For those of us fortunate enough to have radiant in floor heating in our homes, we understand that when we put our shoes on, our shoes are warm.  And we understand that we are benefiting from an “even heat.”  Everything is warm, not just the air.  We feel this kind of heat in our bones, not just on our skin.

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forced air (left) is an uneven heat, vs. radiant heat (right). Photo courtesy of Uponor.com

Uponor, inc. is probably the leading international provider of radiant heat products in the World.  Their North American headquarters is in Apple Valley, Minnesota.  Though they purchased the Swedish company Wirsbo, they smartly keep the name as Wirsbo as known as radiant heat much like Kleenex is known as bathroom tissue.  Uponor is traded on the Finnish stock exchange.  If their corporate headquarters has a sauna, i’ll bet their sauna stove is a wood burning sauna stove, and that senior executives sit on the bench with staff employees and discuss the advantages of radiant heat through thermal mass.

Installing radiant heat is a big deal, and costs more.  running PEX pipe and pouring over with concrete is the “A” job.  The cement slab becomes the radiator. (Thermal mass).  But those on a budget usually cross this option off and go with forced air.  Ductwork is cheap, after all.  But the homeowner will feel the compromise of their decision every day thereafter.

Same with sauna.  Installing a sauna stove,  an electric sauna stove heater can be pulled out from the box and carried into position with one hand.  An electric sauna stove heater can be hung on the wall with two screws.  A wood burning sauna stove, however, is a beast.  The Kuuma stove needs to be wheeled into position on a cart, and with two people.  A wood burning sauna stove needs to sit on patio block.  The Kuuma stove is a beast and this is before installing the 100 pounds of firebrick that come in a cardboard box that can easily rip apart (but Daryl Lamppa reinforces the cardboard box with duct tape).  And don’t forget the 100 pounds of sauna rocks collected along the way.  But those that “don’t want to mess with wood” usually cross this option out and go with an electric stove.  Flipping a switch is easy, after all.  But the sauna user will feel the compromise of their decision every day thereafter.

Employee Dave wheeling out another authentic sauna stove for a satisfied customer who isn't afraid to live.
Employee Dave wheeling out another authentic sauna stove for a satisfied customer who isn’t afraid to live.

“Don’t be a jerk, my sauna has an electric heater, and it works just fine.”

I know.  I know.  This is dangerous territory.  An electric sauna stove heats rocks.  Rocks create thermal mass.  Loyly (steam created from water being tossed on sauna rocks) is nice, you get a good sweat, so what’s the big deal?  Well, those that are WAY into sauna understand their bodies throughout the sauna process.  We feel the heat warm our bodies, not just our skin.  We understand that the time to leave the hot room is when the thought of a cold plunge or an ice cold shower is “about the best idea you’ve ever heard.” (copyright, Clint).   The positive effects of sauna are greater realized when the entire body is heated.  Evenly.  Throughout.  Thermal mass makes this happen.  Folks can publish studies on the positive effects of sauna, and this is wonderful, yet the positive effects of sauna are improved with a better hot room experience and better cool down.  The rubber band theory of sauna is realized through this process.

We all have done a great job of taking sledge hammers to infrared light bulb closets.   In places where wood burning sauna stoves are not practical, we understand.  There are decent electric sauna stoves.  Ones that do a good job of heating rocks, creating thermal mass.  That said, as you consider your own sauna build, think again about a wood fired sauna stove.

You build your sauna once.

Most people cook with teflon frying pans.  Most people heat their homes with forced air.  And most people want to flip a switch with an electric sauna stove.

Are you most people?

That’s ok.

 

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15 Comments on This Post

  1. A 200 degree room is a 200 degree room. In terms of health benefits, it makes no difference whatsoever whether that room was heated by a wood or electric sauna stove.

    Furthermore, wood burning stoves are simply out of the question for many people. Adding one to an existing structure while living in town (legally, of course) can be quite difficult. Used wood burning sauna stoves are almost non-existent, so you’re looking at spending over $1000 for a new one. After the chimney and labor you’d be looking at close to $2500 just to get the stove up and running. This is something that the average person absolutely cannot do without professional help.

    Is a wood burning sauna a wonderful experience? Absolutely. Is it better than electric with all factors considered? Definitely not. I have a wood burning sauna at my cabin, and an electric one at my home in town. I wouldn’t install a wood burning one in town even if the stove and all labor were free. I can turn my sauna stove on with my phone. If we’re out to eat with friends and they want to hit the sauna, I just flip it on from my pocket. It’s ready to go when we arrive at my house. The experience is seamless.

    My setup is absolutely perfect for the city dweller. I wouldn’t change a thing.

  2. Glenn have you to read about negative versus positive ions and the health benefits? If not, check out the link: http://www.cyberbohemia.com/Pages/saunahealth.htm#Anchor#5, here Mikkel Alands writes about his research on the history of steam baths and research they have done in Finland. Wood saunas generate more negative ions which are beneficial to the body whereas electric stoves give off positive ions.
    regarding costs, 2 years ago I bought a new Harvia WB20 (wood burner) for about $700 from Sauna Pekka in Canada, they import from Finland. Electric sauna stoves generally cost more around $1,000, then you need the controls, wiring, panel upgrades, cost of electricity, maintenance costs, etc. To get the same output as wood you will need 3 phase power (the WB20 puts out 24.1 KW). If you live in rural northern parts of the country power outages are a come occurrence but a wood fired sauna will work without power. If you don’t want to have a masonry chimney you can get an insulated stainless steel chimney. Wood heated is more work than an electric but so is a home cooked meal versus a microwaved tv dinner; both will feed your appetite but which one would you prefer?
    Regarding the argument on wood versus electric and the costs for the average person versus professional help, if you building your sauna legally you will need to hire an electrician and have local officials perform inspections and receive the signoffs if you want your homeowners insurance coverage. Here in the States a wood fired sauna in a separate structure is easier to permit with the local officials versus one in an existing structure. If you are in a urban setting the electric may be a better choice as far as space and access to firewood. Electric and wood saunas have there pros and cons.

  3. No one seems to consider the obvious problem of Teflon coated heating elements. ALL electric sauna heating elements are coated with Teflon. Think your doing yourself a favor while sitting in a sauna with an electric heater? Think again.

    EXAMPLE:
    The TURKI (9KW, 240V) residential sauna heater is possibly one of the best heaters on the market. It’s a stainless steel wet and dry sauna that is built to last. It has high grade Teflon coated heating elements that can heat up a sauna room up to 450 cubic feet.

    Teflon has been found to release one or more of 15 different toxic gases when heated to certain temperatures. Which chemicals are released depends on the temperature. This out-gassing can be fatal to pet birds and can cause “polymer fume flu,” also known as “Teflon® flu,” in humans.

    Teflon® flu creates flu-like symptoms of chills, headache, fever and nausea. Usually, symptoms subside within a few days, and chances are many people who have experienced it mistook it for the flu. However, there are also more serious risks.

    Teflon heated to 400 – 500 degrees is when it starts to let off the toxic fumes. The heating elements of a sauna heater can reach a temperature of 1400° F.

    It is said that Teflon pans start to overheat at temperatures at 500 degrees Fahrenheit and above, as smaller chemical fragments are then beginning to be released, and DuPont, inventor and manufacturer of Teflon, Kurunthachalam Kannan, Ph.D., agrees that 500 degrees is the recommended maximum temp for cooking with these items. However, other findings show that the coating begins to break down and release toxins into the air at only 446 degrees. The next question is how fast will a nonstick pan reach 446 – 500 degrees Fahrenheit? What was found is that it only takes 2-5 minutes to hit these temps, and for non-stick cookware to emit at least six toxic gases.

    During some nonstick cookware lab tests, the results were surprising when showing how quickly some pans got too hot, and at very high temperatures. At 660 degrees Fahrenheit and above, these pans can significantly decompose, emitting fumes strong enough to cause “polymer-fume fever”, a temporary flu-like condition marked by chills, headache, and fever. These fumes won’t kill you, but they can kill pet birds, whose respiratory systems are more fragile. After about three to five minutes of heating, when the pans reach 680 degrees, they release at least six toxic gasses, including:

    Two carcinogens
    Two global pollutants
    MFA, a chemical deadly to humans at low doses

    The manufacturer of the leading non-stick cookware brand, claims that the coating does not cause a problem under “normal use.” with significant decomposition of the coating occurring only when temperatures exceed 660 degrees F, and say that these temperatures are well above the normal cooking range. However, results from a study conducted by a university food safety professor that found a generic non-stick frying pan reached 736°F in three minutes and 20 seconds when heated on a conventional, electric stove-top burner. And the temperatures continued to rise after the test was stopped. The leading non-stick cookware rose to 721°F in five minutes under the same conditions, and if you heat non-stick cookware to 1000°F, the coatings will break down into a chemical warfare agent known as PFIB, that is a chemical analog of the WWII nerve gas phosgene. So your best friend in the kitchen may actually be your family’s worst health enemy.

  4. Glenn, would you rather wait up to another year to use your home built sauna, or build with the idea of wood in mind but install a free, professional grade electric stove for use in the meantime until we can afford the quality wood stove?

  5. Audrey: Being a wood sauna stove evangelist, you’d think i’d encourage you to wait a year, until you’re ready to invest in your own wood sauna stove. That said, if you have a free electric sauna stove AND can easily run 240v to your sauna, I would go this route and start taking saunas sooner vs. wait-er. TIP: As you build your sauna, frame for and install your chimney and stove pipe into ceiling. Stuff cavity with some insulation. Once you’re wood stove is ready, you can muscle it into place and you’ll be off to the races. More here: http://www.saunatimes.com/building-a-sauna/stoves/converting-a-sauna-from-an-electric-stove-heater-to-a-wood-stove-heater/

  6. Hi Glenn, for me it’s “no sauna” vs “sauna with electric heater”. Which one would you choose? I choose electric. If I could use firewood one at the place where I live, I wouldn’t think twice.

  7. Hi Glen:

    I just donated to the sauna cause and am looking forward to receiving all your sauna knowledge in one place! I am building a 4 x 6 by 7 foot tall sauna in my house as part of a bathroom remodel. I am going to purchase the Harvia Virta model heater (maybe overkill but I want it hot!). I did have two quick questions

    — If I can’t afford cedar for the walls is there an alternative? Something easier to install and less costly (see pricey heater above)?

    — I have seen a few great looking saunas with glass doors. Is that practical?
    Thanks!
    Michelle — Santa Cruz, CA

  8. Hi Michelle:

    Cedar: Yes, cedar is expensive, yet we build our saunas only once. I am a big fan of #2 grade knotty tongue and groove (vs. clear). The look is natural and rustic and the feel is less pain to the wallet. Also, a guy (or girl) can get creative and use durarock and cultured stone generously around the sauna stove thereby cutting down on cedar square footage. Also, glass or transom windows look great and cut down on the cedar square footage needed in the hot room. Lastly, a guy (or girl) can get inventive with the type of wood that goes under and behind the sauna benches. Though there is a solid argument that using less expensive Pine, for example, will save a buck, it is less long lasting than cedar and more prone to decay, if one is vending their sauna well, the pine material will be fine.

    Saunas with glass doors: For sure! Especially as you are building a sauna within your house, a door with full glass is a very doable feature, though now you’re talking big money, vs. building your own sauna door as detailed in my ebook. Either way, it’s great you’re getting into the authentic sauna game here.

  9. Maybe a little late to the game on this one, but……I am planing my sauna build and going through the traditional stove vs electric debate.
    The most true statement is ‘the best sauna is the one you will use more’. So here is some food for thought, put both stoves in. Or at least allow space for both i.e. a central door with a stove either side. Put the electric on a smart switch, able to be controlled by a smart phone.
    Use the electric when I want a quick sauna or preheat the room. The wood burning when I want traditional with a higher heat.
    That is my plan. I know it will cost a pretty penny, but I am only going to build this thing once.

  10. Nick:

    In the parallel universe department, I am RIGHT NOW building a sauna on and island in Northern Minnesota whose owner is waffling with EXACTLY what you are conceptualizing – dual stoves. I applaud all your thinking and encourage you to advance. One caveat: document your sauna build. Email me 4-5 pics of your build so we can share with others here on saunatimes. I plan to do the same with my current build. In the mean time, send me an email with your plans (sketched on napkin is fine), and I will do the same. We are looking at 7’4″ x 6′ hot room. Benches along 7’4″ wall. 24″ upper and 12-16″ lower – slideable, on a track (as detailed in my ebook).

    PS: Regarding: ” I know it will cost a pretty penny, but I am only going to build this thing once.” I completely agree. And to add to that: what is money for if we can’t invest it in our health and wellbeing?

  11. Wood heat heat everything, central air heats air. Wood heat is constant , central air works intermediate. Wood heat radates, just turn you hair dryer on an hold it 6 inches from your hand. Next set your cooking stove to 140 (most hair dryer temps ) and hold your other hand 6 inches from that. The difference is undeniable. Rad heat is the way to go.

  12. Do the electric heater units in most older saunas (the box with the rocks) give off harmful electromagnetic waves/forces that I should be concerned about or is this just the infrared saunas that give off high emfs?

  13. Eric, sorry as I don’t know about infrared and EMFs. It’s an area I’m staying a few body lengths distance from, safely and intuitively.

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