All it takes is one power outage during the winter to convince most people that they need a source of heat that doesn't require electricity. The obvious solution is a wood stove. It's the only method of heating I'm aware of that is reliable, doesn't depend on the weather (i.e. solar heating), and can be completely renewable by growing your own fuel (trees) on your property.
We have focused a lot of attention on wood-cook stoves, an excellent all-purpose tool on any homestead. However you may decide that you just want a regular wood heating stove. So I want to cover a few helpful things we have learned in the school of hard knocks.
Due to EPA regulations, wood stove makers have had to reduce emissions from their stoves. Interestingly enough, wood cook stoves are exempt from these regulations in many areas. The popular approach has been to install a catalytic combustor. It burns the particulate in the smoke a second time reducing emissions. It also increases the heat output from your fire. Although a few stove makers have gone to the trouble of making a stove that is efficient enough to comply without requiring a catalytic combustor, most of them use one. And while I have no personal experience with a non-catalytic stove, it sounds very interesting to me.
My family does have considerable experience using wood stoves with a catalytic combustor, so I'll be focusing on that. The catalytic combustor does make the stove more efficient--when it is working, but they also have their problems. I know of folks who have become so frustrated with their combustor that they actually removed it from the stove. Unfortunately, doing this with most stoves will cut your burn time down and you may find yourself getting up in the middle of the night to add wood.
If you want your combustor to last, there are some special precautions to take. In the end, you'll have to decide if the combustor is worth it to you. But in my opinion, you either need to purchase a stove that is made to run without a catalyst, or else you need to have a properly functioning one in the stove. It doesn't usually work very well otherwise.
TIP #1: Don't Burn Trash!
Burn only natural wood in your wood stove. Don't burn trash, garbage, artificial or paper logs, gift wrappings, coal, lighter fluids, chemical starters, treated or painted wood, plastics, or chemical cleaners. It's also a good idea to avoid glossy paper or paper with colored ink. These items contain chemicals that could deactivate the catalyst.
TIP#2: Open the Air Control
When adding new wood to the firebox, open the air control all the way. Leave the bypass or damper open for a little while to allow moisture in the wood to evaporate. Once there is a good bed of coals established and the temperature is well into the active range then close the bypass. It will force the smoke through the catalytic combustor.
The active temperature range is often located on stove thermometers. After closing the bypass, wait until the fire seems to be well established again. Then adjust the air control for your desired rate of burn. Following this procedure can help to clean the catalyst every time you add more wood and reduce the amount of maintenance you have to do.
TIP#3: Get That Fire Hot Enough Before Using the Combustor
This builds on Tip #2. It is extremely important that the catalytic combustor only be engaged when the fire is hot enough to activate it. If you engage the catalyst before the fire is hot enough, it will slow down your fire to the point of almost putting it out. I have also found that doing this seems to plug up my combustor. Then I have to burn a hot fire to unplug it where it is fully functional again.
TIP#4: Hit A Higher Temp in the Safe Zone
A nice hot fire can do an amazing job of cleaning out the catalyst (and the stove pipe too). Just don't get it too hot or you could damage the catalyst or stove. And if your stove pipe has a good bit of creosote build up, make sure you don't end up starting a chimney fire. Keep an eye on your stove thermometer (an essential piece of equipment). The best way to get a good hot fire is to build up a fantastic bed of coals. On my stove, that is best done by closing the stove's front door, opening the air control all the way, and leaving the catalytic combustor off by opening the bypass. This allows for good air flow through the firebox, but yet not so much that it burns up the coals.
Once the stove has been running toward the upper end of the "safe" temperature zone for a little while, you can engage the catalyst by closing the bypass. Leave the air control open and only close it down if your temperature is getting too high. Never let it get too high because it can not only damage the catalyst, but also the metal in the stove). Be sure to not wait until the last minute before turning down the air control, though, as turning down the air control can temporarily raise the temperature.
TIP#5: Clean Your Combuster Periodically
Realize that your catalytic combustor may need cleaning periodically (refer to instructions for the stove on how to do that). It will also wear out and need replacement in time. You might expect to get plus or minus 5 years out of it if properly cared for. One indication of a worn out catalyst is found by building a good hot fire and engaging the catalyst. If the temperature maintains in the "active" zone until the wood is almost all burned up, the catalyst is still functional. If the temperature falls prematurely, then it needs to be cleaned or even replaced.