So you’ve decided to go with an outdoor sauna, you may have even chosen between a cabin/shed type sauna, a barrel sauna, and a mobile sauna. Congratulations! You are well on your way to finding the perfect outdoor retreat.
The next decision you have is a big one, and it will impact the flow, aesthetics, sound, and smell of every home sauna you take. But don’t fret it. While there are many considerations, by the time you you answer these questions you will know which is the right choice for you. Here are some things to think about:
Convenience Vs. Love of Outdoors
Question 1: Do I enjoy chopping wood and starting fires?
Advantage: Depends on answer…
Electric Saunas are pretty darned easy. They can even be remote started like a fancy car, and will increasingly be controllable from smartphones. That means while you’re out in the cold, you can start your sauna in advance so its ready for you. When your sauna sessions are over, just turn it off.
Now, does that excite you, or make you wish for a simpler time? If it makes you want to throw away anything with a modem, you should absolutely get a wood-burning sauna.
Cost to Build
Question 2: Are you more worried about fire or electrical work?
Advantage: usually electric
The convenience factor of electric sauna heaters extends to the build process, although there are some tradeoffs here. The biggest factor with wood burning outdoor saunas are fire clearances and avoiding fire risk. Another important consideration is the chimney, which needs to be double walled through the chimney or wall. Also, since there’s no combustion, there’s less need for ventilation.
All these factors also influence your thermal envelope, which can be much tighter with electric heat.
However, depending on where your electricity needs to run, if you need to hire an electrician, pull a permit, etc, this one could easily go the other way. The advantage also shifts towards wood burning heaters for very large saunas, which require 3-phase electricity and very large cables to power.
Cost to Operate
Question 3: Do I get more bang for the buck buying electricity or wood?
Advantage: It depends
What you pay for electricity and what you pay for wood? If you’re blessed with an endless supply of firewood on your property, your choice is probably obvious. But if you value your time spent cutting the wood, maybe not so much.
Electric saunas are pretty inexpensive to run. A standard 6,000 watt (6kW) heater will run you 60 cents an hour at 10c/kWh electric rates. If you’re rates are much higher, you might want to look into firewood options.
The rule of thumb is this: if you’re buying firewood from a gas station, Amazon, or Home Depot, it would probably be cheaper to operate with an electric stove.
Question 4: How much do you value the aesthetics of a wood burning stove?
Advantage: Wood Stove
This one is not even controversial: there’s nothing like being in a wood burning sauna. It is an experience for all senses, and the only traditional Finnish way to go. Some electric stoves are coming close to recreating the feel and warmth of the fire, the Kuuma electric stove is as good as it gets, but nothing fills an outdoor sauna on cold night like a good fire stove.
Question 5: How important is it to not have a low carbon sauna that doesn’t contribute to global warming or local pollution?
Advantage: It depends
It’s a dirty secret in the off-grid and prepper communities that burning wood emits potent greenhouse gasses. In the case of nitrogen dioxide, the gas is 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon and will stick around in the atmosphere for 120 years. How’s that for an inconvenient truth?
The good news is, you can learn to burn more efficiently and if you get an EPA-rated, highly efficient sauna stove you will keep your emissions to a minimum, especially if you aren’t using the sauna every day.
You also need to consider the source of the electricity. Are you somewhere with very high levels of renewable energy? If you’re near a coal plant, you may be better off burning wood.
Question 6: Am I a prepper?
This is rarely considered, but a wood-fired sauna is a cozy place to wait out any power outages or gas shortages on cold winter snaps. The power grid is more likely to go down during ice storms, and natural gas is most likely to experience supply disruptions on cold snaps, like the polar vortex’s we’ve been experiencing.
In January of this year (2019), Xcel Energy customers in Minnesota were left without natural gas on some of the coldest days in over a decade. Thousands more were asked to turn their thermostats down to avoid further disruptions. The previous day, thousands of Xcel Energy customers were left without electricity.
If you needed another reason for a backyard sauna, how about the safety of your family? It’s not so bad being a prepper after all.
Question 7: Will my neighbors call the police if there’s smoke coming from my sauna?
If you live in the city, your neighbors would probably prefer you have an electric stove. Wood smoke really can create problems for sensitive people, and is technically a pollutant. It’s best to keep your neighbors happy, and invite them to sauna.
Question 8: What will my insurance company and local building department say?
Advantage: Electric, usually. Many insurance companies will not cover or raise the premiums if you instal a wood burning stove, especially in the home. Building codes also have a lot to say about what can and can’t be done with any interior combustion.
Additional Advantages of Wood Burning Saunas
- The combustion creates a natural flow of fresh air through the sauna. Well sealed electric sauna rooms may need mechanical ventilation.
Additional Advantages of an Electric Sauna Heater
- Sauna stays cleaner, no ash
- Potential for smart sauna controls with iPhone, etc
- In general, the heater can be placed closer to wood
What do you think, was this helpful? Did we miss any important considerations? Are you more confused than ever? Did we go too far off topic with the greenhouse gas stuff? Leave a comment below!
If you’re ready to take a deeper dive into electric heater options, check out our electric heater review page.