Electric vs. Wood-burning Sauna: Which is Better?

Electric and wood-burning saunas both offer an array of exceptionally therapeutic benefits. The choice between the two heating methods is strictly one of preference, but there are specific installation requirements to consider when deciding on the suitability for your dedicated space.

Let us explore the various points for consideration together. We will cover heater pricing, installation requirements, and the heating technology behind each sauna type.

Electric vs. Wood-burning Sauna

Sauna 101

A suitable definition of sauna is “a small room used as a hot-air or steam bath for cleaning and refreshing the body.” In addition, it is the only Finnish vocabulary word in the English dictionary.

Historically speaking, the Finn’s first started incorporating the sauna into their wellness culture approximately two thousand years ago. However, historians date heat therapy use in Africa to be much older.

Sauna Types

Usually, the sauna type is synonymous with the specific heater utilized to warm up the space. Despite its rather rudimentary beginnings, the sauna market offers various sizes, models, and configurations of saunas to meet residential and commercial demands.

Traditional heating methods include wood-burning, electric, or gas-heated. One more sauna exists and uses infrared technology, which delivers heat more efficiently than other heating types.

In this article, we will compare and contrast the similarities and differences between wood-burning and electric saunas.

How Does it Get So Hot?

To understand the concept of heat transfer, we must realize that heat is energy. The most significant source of energy here on Earth comes from our magnificent mother sun.

Humans absorb energy from the big ball of fire through a process known as radiation. Specialized lamp technology mimics radiation in an infrared sauna.

Rather than the heat directly penetrating our bodies, wood-burning and electric saunas utilize convection to heat the sauna space. So, our body temperature rises as the room temperature increases.

In sauna use, convection is the transfer of heat through the movement of air. Traditional steam saunas, including wood-burning and electric models, use specialized heaters to warm up the sauna enclosure.

Early Beginnings

As I mentioned earlier, heat therapy has been around for millennia; however, the Scandinavian country of Finland is most commonly known as the sauna capital.

The sauna tradition native to the Finnish begins at or very close to birth. As recent as 100 years ago, most Finnish women would deliver their babies inside of the sauna. Nowadays, even if a woman gives birth in a hospital, the infant will generally have their first sauna experience at just months old.

And from that point on, it never stops. It becomes so much part of one’s persona that if too much time passes without a trip to the sauna, one will undoubtedly begin to feel incomplete.

Before the industrialization of Europe, Scandinavian nomads collected firewood for steam bathing:

  1. A rudimentary hole, known as an earth pit, would be filled with heated rocks warmed on a nearby fire in the earliest times.
  2. The Scandinavian nomads would build a makeshift hut around the hot stone centerpiece.
  3. For the most optimal experience, bathers would sprinkle water atop the heated rocks.

The sauna space dramatically improved as time passed. Perhaps, the next significant advancement to the culture was the savusauna, or smoke sauna.

The Finnish countryside was once complete with small wooden cabins that penetrated deep within the forested nation. 74.2% of Finland’s land area is reportedly forest. Because it is Europe’s most heavily-forested nation, it bears the title of “forest giant.”

Typically, Smoke saunas purposely lack a chimney and lighting. As a result, the scent of the burned firewood in combination with the low-lit environment provides a serene appreciation for silence and relaxation.

As you can imagine, the Finnish smoke sauna is a truly unique experience that is only considered complete after running through the snow and plunging into a frozen lake.

FUN FACT: Approximately 3 out of the 5 million people populating Finland have a sauna “in homes, offices, factories, sports centers, hotels, ships and deep below the ground in mines.”

That said, traditional steam saunas are now a multi-billion dollar industry offered in both residential and commercial spaces worldwide.

What Is Wood-burning Sauna?

A wood-burning heater most closely holds on to the earliest culture of traditional steam sauna use. In addition, wood-burning heaters allow you to experience the natural ambiance of what was so surreal about the original sauna escapade.

From the crackling of the fire to the sweet aroma of burning softwood, wood will undoubtedly give you a complete experience, beginning from its collection and gathering.

It goes without saying that for some, the adventure and slow-paced art of gathering firewood associated with fueling a fire is an escape from life, the office, and other stressors.

Interestingly enough, science has shown that stress levels significantly decrease as you sweat the toxicity out from your pores. For any of you involved in a sport or other fitness routine, you have probably felt a similar release after a tough competition or strenuous workout.

How Does It Work?

As the name indicates, a wood-burning sauna operates by using firewood to warm the sauna rocks within the heater. We will discuss sauna rocks in a little more detail later on in this article.

Wood-burning heaters are traditionally floor-mounted but require a chimney to ventilate the smoke adequately. A professional installer will ensure that your sauna will receive proper oxygen levels to eliminate smoke inhalation dangers.

Since wood is of the essence here, it will be in your best interest to know a little about wood classification and its properties.

Tree specification begins with classifying the timber as either hardwood or softwood. Be aware that hardwoods burn longer and hotter than softwoods in general. It is equally as important to consider what is readily available and locally harvested in your area.

You can experiment with different kinds of wood until you find one that you prefer. Lastly, if you choose a wood-burning heater, make sure that you corner off an area that you can easily store your firewood.

What is Electric Sauna?

Electric Sauna

Because of the increased popularity and demand for saunas worldwide, the electric sauna came to life. Since its inception in the 1950s, this newest addition to the traditional sauna collection has become more widely accessible worldwide to steam lovers.

The electric alternative typically removes the need for a traditional sauna pail or steam ladle, which both have had their special place in Finnish sauna culture.

Typically speaking, we know that electricity and water do not mix, but electric sauna heaters seem to be an exception to the rule. So, if you choose, you can still add water to the rocks in an electric sauna for a more steamy experience.

How Does It Work?

Similar to wood-burning heaters, we already know that heat is transferred throughout the room by a process called convection. Absent firewood, a heating element must be heated to release the warmth to the rest of the space.

Electric heaters are also typically floor-mounted and reasonably easy to install. However, without needing a chimney, you have more freedom in choosing where to place the electric sauna in your space.

Electric heaters control preferred temperature settings efficiently while at the same time providing a modern touch of elegance to your sauna. Nonetheless, choosing the appropriate electric sauna heater can be a little tricky.

A heater that is too small will be unable to produce sufficient heating for your space. On the other hand, if it’s too large, you will have trouble regulating your saunas temperature and humidity levels. As you can see, the electric heater is very personal to your space.

The sauna industry uses kW, or kilowatt, as the unit of measurement of the power that an electric heater can produce. So for every cubic meter of space, you should plan on 1kW of heating power.

A Quick Note About Rocks

The stones placed inside a sauna heater are known as kiuaskivet. There is then the art of knowing how often to gently sprinkle water atop these rocks, which is known as loyly, pronounced /lowlee/, in Finland.

Provided that you use the proper type of sauna rocks, they can help maintain the operating temperature of your sauna while allowing you to save some green stamps on your energy bill.

Pricing

Harvia Sauna & Spa is a Finnish-owned and operated global leader in the sauna industry. Their comprehensive list of goodies includes a range of quality sauna rocks. For your consideration, you may choose between a rounded or split-face stone.

In addition, you have the option to choose between three different size stones: 5-10cm, 10cm, and 10-15cm in diameter. Each box of rocks holds twenty kilograms worth in weight. Please be aware that depending on the size of your heater, you may need more than one box.

A box of Harvia Sauna stones will run you just under $40.00 without shipping.

Installation

With either wood-burning or electrically-heated saunas, there is a wide variety of models available on the market. Typically, the enclosed space consists of a wooden interior that reaches between 110 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

The space itself can vary greatly, and the sauna industry offers plenty of accessories to make the experience even more luxurious. Whether you choose to contract out the build of your sauna space or prefer to do it yourself, the heater’s installation is one of the more critical aspects of the project.

Wood-burning Sauna

Wood-burning Sauna

The two most critical aspects of a wood-burning sauna build are the chimney and adequate ventilation. If you live in a remote area without access to sustained electric power, then this option may be a better choice for your selection.

As you select your desired area for installation, keep in mind that a wood-burning heater requires a brick chimney, ceramic chimney, or an air-cooled chimney.

For a traditional wood-burning sauna, expect to pay between the ballpark range of $2,800 and $7,700 for the materials and installation required for a standard size space that can accommodate up to four people comfortably.

If you would like top-quality imported materials, you can select from one of the following companies:

  1. Finnleo
  2. Heavenly Heat Saunas
  3. Finlandia Sauna

Electric Sauna

Typically, an electric sauna heater will not require much more than access to an electrical outlet. These sauna types use an elegant control panel to regulate temperature and humidity levels.

If electrical access is of no concern based on your location, then selecting an electrical sauna opens up various indoor and outdoor installation opportunities.

Electric saunas do not require plumbing work; however, an electrician may charge between $40 and $100 per hour of labor to install outlets or new circuitry to your home electrical system.

Again, the cost of a standard size sauna space will depend on the type and quality of materials used in a DIY build. Prefabricated enclosures are readily available on the market, and manufacturers offer these units in both a portable option or a custom room built into your space.

Your choice and preferences determine the price you will pay but expect to spend between $4,000 and $12,000 for the kit alone.

Heater Costs

With any investment, you should carefully weigh a multitude of factors. If space and location do not restrict your choices, the costs associated with these two sauna options may be the deciding factor on your residential or commercial purchase.

Beyond the cost of the space itself, you should factor in the cost of the heater that you will utilize.

Wood-burning Sauna Heater

A top-of-the-line Finnleo or Harvia wood-burning stove may start at $500 for in-home solutions and soar well above $7000 for a commercially-graded sauna.

Expect recurring costs associated with fueling and cleaning your wood-burning heater. This monthly cost will fluctuate depending on the type of wood you supply and how often the sauna operates.

Firewood collection is an excellent form of exercise and a fantastic way to gather your family for some much-needed outside time. If you plan on purchasing firewood, expect to pay between $4-$10 per bundle.

Electric Sauna

The electric sauna heater has significantly grown within the Finnish culture. It is now a market favorite in the land where it all began, and the Harvia company I referenced boasts years of customer trust and confidence.

For a standard size residential sauna space measuring 1.8m long by 1.8m wide by 2.1m high, your spaces’ area works out to be 6.8 cubic meters. With this area, your electric heater must be capable of producing 6.8 kW of heating power.

NOTE: For exterior sauna installations in cold weather, “it’s a good idea to allow for 1kW of extra power.”

If you consider this pro tip, your space requires an electric sauna heater capable of handling roughly 8kW of electric power. Therefore, I recommend that you go for the Harvia KIP-8kW to control the heat in your standard-size electric sauna.

You can purchase one of their units for as low as $750, but I suggest you shop around various retailers for the best pricing available.

In addition, you may want to play around with this fantastic online calculator that I found. Access it here to get an idea of how much your utility bill will increase based upon heater size and average monthly sauna use.

Conclusion

The sauna industry has adapted its portfolio to accommodate your specific situation and space requirements. I suggest that before deciding on which sauna to purchase, you experience both the wood-burning style and electrical-heating styles.

Routine sauna use as a component of a personal wellness program will surely deliver a wide range of therapeutic benefits. With either option, you will be sure to rest, relax, and feel rejuvenated after your session.

Please be sure to share your comments and questions about the differences between electric and wood-burning saunas below.

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Electric vs. Wood-burning Sauna