When Bob Dylan went electric, the music world went into shock. There are similar puritan views held in the sauna world. Rock is the most important aspect of a quality sauna experience, however, the saying, ‘the rock doesn’t know what’s heating it’, is very true – It takes the same amount of time to heat sauna rocks, regardless of whether it’s being heated by flames or elements.
Originally, saunas were chimneyless, using wood fired stoves covered with huge amounts of rock that would fill the room with smoke. The smoke was vented through open windows and doors, covering the rooms in soot but heating the rooms pleasantly. Later, wood burning stoves with chimneys were invented, directing the smoke up and out of the roof. They gave a similar pleasant experience to smoke saunas because the rock was still being heated efficiently by flames.
There were different types of wood burning stoves, such as the more common continuously-burning stoves where the rocks are in a separate compartment to the furnace, and single-burn stoves where the rock is directly heated by the exhaust gases before exiting through the chimney. The single burn stoves would be lit for a couple of hours to heat the rock, then the lid was lifted to expose the glowing rocks inside. Water was then thrown on to the glowing rocks to create a very fine, soft steam. The rocks would remain hot for hours even though the stove was only lit once.
Subsequently, electric sauna heaters emerged. Originally electric heaters only held a handful of rock; at best, 30kg but most often only as little as 10kg. As a result, they simply could not hold the same amount of heat or create the same quality of steam as wood-burning stoves, which are capable of holding 50kg to 100kg+ of rock.
Then came Iki – one of the first manufacturers of electrical sauna heaters able to contain 100kg to 200kg of rock or more! Unlike previous electric heater designs, Iki chose to make a feature of the rock, attractively displaying them within a metal cage as the centrepiece. Ultimately, individual preference is the major driving factor as to which type of heating source people choose to install.
So, which type of heater is best for you and your sauna?
Wood burning stoves
In our opinion, wood burners are the ultimate stoves for creating the ‘true’ sauna experience. Every element of this style of sauna is ritualistic in practice, from the initial anticipation and excitement of creating and lighting the pyre, gently blowing on the sparks, to the first hit of steam is, for many sauna practitioners, a huge part of the overarching experience.
There’s a certain ancient beauty in using natural materials, whether it’s chopping the logs or pondering which logs to burn. Maybe you’ll prefer birch or alder for aroma, or beech or ash, each with slightly different burning properties — some logs burn harder and quicker producing more heat than others though our go-to sauna fuel for wood burning stoves will always be kiln dried birch.
Fire ritual is a global custom traditionally used to evoke the spiritual elements of our minds and in sauna practice this is no different. Traditional wood burners awaken our senses; from the gorgeous smelling woods to the crackle and hissing of the fire and the warming illuminating glow within a womb-like hub, wood fired stoves create an ambience unique to any other atmosphere. The heat also feels like a different type of heat to that produced by electric heaters. Wood burning sauna stoves seem to emit a better energy with a greater depth of heat, yet remains manageable with a less artificial warmth to that of some electric heaters.
Ok, so what about electrical heaters?
Convenience, convenience, convenience. Iki’s electrical heaters are truly amazing pieces of kit. They are one of the first electrical heater manufacturers to use tall elements with a rock cage tower design capable of holding immense amounts of steam producing rocks. Electric sauna stoves that came before Iki generally maxed out at 30-40kg of rock at the most, 10- 15kg being the norm and attached to the wall, unable to produce the amount and quality of steam required for a nourishing sauna bath.
Suitability and emission considerations
The big benefit for electric heaters? There’s no need for a chimney.
Not everyone can have a woodburning stove, many cities ban them if they are not DEFRA approved. It’s essential to check with your local council if the area you live in is a smoke-controlled zone. Stoves which are DEFRA compliant or only burn DEFRA approved smokeless fuels can be used in smoke-controlled zones. But — at the time of writing — there are no DEFRA approved wood burning sauna stoves in the UK and you don’t want to be burning smokeless fuels in a sauna stove because it is the wrong kind of fuel to use – smokeless fuels normally burn too hot and could damage your heater.
Real life use and time constraints
Due to the ease of use with electrical sauna heaters, people are more likely to use them regularly. Timers can be set so the sauna is hot and ready first thing in the morning, or as soon as you return from work. For those of us who don’t have a butler ready to fire up the wood burning stove in anticipation of our needs (I’m channelling Batman …), we can simply use an app on our smart phone to switch on the heater so it’s ready for us as soon as we arrive home. Who can argue the joy found in such simplicity?! There’s also less mess – which in certain saunas or circumstances is a real plus – electrical sauna heaters are the ultimate in low maintenance!
Considerations for both wood burning stoves and electric heaters
All saunas, whether using a wood burner or an electric heater require good ventilation, and this must be factored into any design. However, there are different considerations to be made depending on your heating source.
For example, wood burning stoves require the air inlet to be low down, near to where the stove is located. Internally fed stoves consume some of the oxygen from the room to fuel the combustion, so you need to make sure there is sufficient air intake coming into the sauna.
An externally fed wood burning stove will solve the issue of the stove eating your oxygen, but the air inlet will still need to be placed low down.
On the other hand, air inlets near the electrical heater do not want to be installed low down because the cool air will fool the heater’s sensors and affect their ability to correctly monitor the air temperature. A mechanical air inlet which brings the air in above the heater is required instead. This will also enrich the air that convects from the heater with oxygen and circulate around the room – an air inlet up high must be mechanical to force the air in, otherwise the pressure in the room will push the air out instead.
The vent outlets will need to be installed on the furthest wall opposite to the heater, with adjustable dump vents up high and permanently open exhaust vents lower down, somewhere below the top benches.
Set up price comparison
Wood burning stoves set up
Wood burning stoves are relatively cheap to set up because the stoves are reasonably priced, and only require a chimney flue kit and installation.
If you are considering having a sauna cabin built from scratch, then it’s fairly straightforward to run the flue pipe straight out of the ceiling or even on a 90 degree bend out of a wall into an external stack.
If you’re installing a wood burning stove into an existing building with roof tiles, then you will incur extra costs as you’ll need to hire a roofer or chimney specialist to install the chimney. But, as a general rule of thumb, wood burning stoves are a cheaper overall product when it comes to installation and initial outlay.
Electrical heaters set up
Electrical heaters are initially more complicated than a traditional wood burning stove. Obviously, you’ll need to purchase the heater, but you will then need to buy the controller, switchgear and have an electrician install and commission a suitable power outlet to connect to. A sauna builder is then required to set up and commission the heater. Generally, electrical sauna heaters will cost more for the initial purchase cost, followed by higher set up costs.
Running costs comparison
Up to time of writing — depending on tariffs and cost of kiln dried wood — wood burning stoves and electrical heaters have pretty comparable running costs.
Electrical heater running costs
Once the sauna has reached its set temperature, the thermostat will switch off and only click back on if the internal sauna temperature drops. It will take around an hour for a 9kW electrical heater to bring a correctly designed sauna up to temperature but will not be consuming electricity constantly for the entire sauna session; only when a quick occasional heat boost is required.
You can calculate how much your electrical sauna will cost if you know your tariff. Remember, you only need to calculate for the full hour it takes to heat, as it will then only pull a fraction of the power when the temperature drops and the thermostat turns the stove back on for a five minute heat boost, switching itself back off again when the temperature is restored.
Most saunas require 4.5 – 9kW of power for a domestic electrical heater; which works out at approximately 20-40A. On average, to run a sauna for around two hours it will cost about £3 – £6 depending on your tariff, how long you have the sauna running, how high you set the temperature, how well designed the sauna is with regards to ventilation and insulation and how efficient the heater is.
Wood burning stoves running costs
The trick with wood burning stoves is knowing where to buy reasonably priced logs – we recommend kiln dried birch logs. It is important to only buy logs with a moisture content below 20%, because logs with a moisture content above 20% are not allowed to be burnt in the UK. Also, damp or Air dried logs will not heat your sauna properly.
For a two to three-hour sauna, with quality kiln dried birch logs which (at time of writing) retail for around £4 for a bag, an efficient wood burner will use around one and a half bags of logs, and will cost approximately £6.
Realistically, (at time of writing) the running costs of using a wood burning stove or an electric heater work out to be similar, give or take a quid.
It all comes down to the experience you want to achieve
Ultimately, there is no right answer — whether people choose a wooden stove over an electrical model is personal preference — the only issue is making sure you install the very best heater available, and without any doubt; you will find that heater at The Cedar Sauna Company!
In an ideal sauna world, where money is not an issue, our dream home sauna set-up would be a small electric sauna in the house and a sauna cabin at the bottom of the garden with a wood burning stove. You’d use the electric sauna for your daily sauna fix because it’s quick and convenient, and the wood burning stove for when time is available to benefit from a more authentic, four-hour sauna experience at the weekend.
Want to talk stoves and heaters? Give us a call and we’ll help you discover what you need for your ultimate sauna experience