When the wintertime chill sets in, many households turn to a wood stove or fireplace to provide part of their home heating needs. There's something about the warmth and romance of a wood fire that radiators and heating vents just can't duplicate. But families who want to hunker down around the fireplace this winter should carefully consider two questions: Is it cost-effective? And is it safe?

Can I Reduce My Heating Bills?

When it comes to dollars and cents, there's a good chance you can save some money by firing up the woodstove and taking some of the burdens off your other heating appliances. Buying wood can be cheaper than paying for gas, oil, or electric heat, and if you live in a wooded area and can harvest fuel for free, all the better.

Wood is also a renewable resource, unlike fossil fuels, so it's a little easier on the environment, although burning logs do contribute to overall air pollution.

However, it's still prudent to ensure that you are getting the most for your money. The biggest factor when it comes to fuel efficiency is what kind of stove you own. If your wood stove was made before 1990, a newer, EPA certified model will be as much as 50 percent more efficient and use a third less wood for the same heat output. About 9 million of the 12 million wood stoves in use in the United States today are the older, less efficient versions, according to the EPA. If that describes your model, consider an upgrade.

What About Breathing All that Smoke?

Money isn't your only concern when it comes to wood stoves and fireplaces. The smoke that escapes indoors can irritate the respiratory system, especially for the very young, very old and people with asthma, heart or lung disease.

If you can smell smoke in your house, see noticeable dust buildup when you use your fireplace or experience an increase in runny noses and watery eyes, it's time to upgrade or at least get your unit serviced to improve its performance. Newer stoves will help with indoor air quality, reducing pollution by as much as 70 percent.

Maintenance is key. Be sure to have your chimney cleaned regularly to get rid of creosote that builds up, or you can risk a chimney fire. Also, inspect the chimney for cracks so smoke doesn't leak into the house.

Fuel Matters

Finally, what you put in your stove or fireplace impacts both efficiency and air quality. Use wood that has been stored for at least six months to dry it out. Two years is better. Seasoned wood wastes less energy via smoke, which makes it both more efficient and safer. You will also get more heat per pound from hardwoods like oak than from softwoods such as evergreens.

If you like the idea of a fire but don't want to deal with so much maintenance or gathering firewood, consider a gas fireplace instead. They're safe, efficient and hook right into your gas line while still giving that warm winter glow.

Contact your local One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning® technicians for other tips for stretching your heating budget. They can also tell you more about indoor air quality and help you take steps to maintain clean and healthy air in your home this winter.