Do You Need a Cabin Furnace?
Wondering if you should invest in a furnace for your getaway cabin or vacation home? Here are some key considerations to factor into your planning.
From a fishing or hunting lodge to a quiet retreat surrounded by nature, vacation homes provide a wonderful escape from the everyday hustle.
The pandemic year of 2020 spurred more people to make those homes away from home a reality. According to the National Association of Realtors, vacation home sales increased 16 percent during 2020, far outpacing the 5.6 percent rise of traditional home sales in that same period.
If you’re planning on building or renovating a vacation home or cabin, you’ve probably already realized the impact heating and cooling will have on your cabin experience. The decision to invest in a cabin furnace will ultimately be driven by cost, convenience and practical benefits. Here we’ll walk you through some essential factors to consider during this planning phase.
Should Your Cabin Have a Furnace?
The first step is determining whether your cabin will really benefit from a furnace. Honestly assess how often you’ll use the cabin during cold weather. And just how cold does it get while you’re there?
Is there anything in the cabin (think water lines) that must be kept warm during the winter? Will there be access to public utilities such as electricity or natural gas, and if so, what needs to happen to set these up?
Cabin Furnace Power Sources
Also, think about how the furnace might be powered. If your vacation home is already on the utility grid, installing a gas or electric furnace is no different from any other home. But if your cabin is more remote with no option for public utilities, you may consider solar power, a generator or propane as a power source.
A generator or propane will require bringing fuel to the cabin or having it delivered. This is why some cabin owners prefer simpler forms of fuel.
Many remote cabins use a wood pellet- or log-burning stove as a central heating source. This provides reliable warmth without worrying about energy usage. The disadvantage, of course, is the need to keep wood on hand and maintain the fire. For a great primer on the energy efficiency of wood- and pellet-burning furnaces, we recommend this overview from Energy.gov.
Benefits of a Cabin Furnace
The most obvious benefit of a furnace is year-round warmth. But there are additional perks.
- Possible cooling system. Heat pumps can function as a furnace in the winter and an air conditioner in the summer, making the whole year more enjoyable.
- Easier winterization. When you close your cabin for an extended period, leaving the furnace running just enough to keep the temperature above freezing can make winterization much easier. (Naturally, this only applies to furnaces that can safely run in your absence.)
- Resale value. If you think you’ll eventually sell your cabin or vacation home, adding a furnace will expand the potential pool of buyers dramatically.
Disadvantages of a Cabin Furnace
Of course, nothing is all upside. Installing a furnace carries some disadvantages as well.
- Expense. Installing a furnace, no matter how simple, requires an investment.
- Fuel logistics. No matter what kind of furnace you select, you’ll be committing to providing fuel for its operation. Whether that means chopping wood, hauling propane, maintaining a solar array or paying a utility bill, there will be ongoing expense. And any time spent securing fuel is time that won’t be spent enjoying the scenery.
- Risk of failure. A furnace allows for easier winterization and storing freezable items in the cabin. But no system is 100 percent foolproof. If your winterization plan relies on a furnace keeping the temperature above freezing, a mechanical failure can be a disaster.
Cabin Furnace Installation
Most cabin furnaces straddle the line between DIY and pro-level projects. You can DIY the installation, but you should be honest about your skill level.
If you have the expertise to install the furnace safely, great! But sometimes the lack of inspections and supervision over remote buildings can tempt DIYers to try a project they’re not completely comfortable with. If you find yourself doubting your ability, look into a professional installation.
Luckily, even the most remote cabin usually has a skilled handyperson or two who service the area. Just be sure that they do a good job and comply with all safety concerns. Another option is to pay more for a professional installer to come out from their nearest location.
The cost of the installation will vary with the complexity of the job. A wood-pellet stove for a one-room cabin close to town will cost a fraction of the price for a solar-powered unit big enough to heat a three-bedroom cabin.
In general, expect installation to run about 50 percent to 100 percent of the furnace cost. So if you’re looking at a $4,000 furnace, installation will likely cost $2,000 to $4,000. A DIY installation will save about that much, but you’ll need to cover the cost of any incidental installation materials, tools and permits.
Note: Carbon monoxide and fire are the biggest safety concerns with cabin furnaces. Always keep a small, battery powered carbon monoxide detector and a fire extinguisher where you can easily reach them.
Cabin Furnace Maintenance
Cabin furnaces require the same basic maintenance as a primary residential furnace, with a few additional considerations.
- Animal infiltration. Animals love to nest in the most inconvenient places. With a cabin furnace, be diligent about checking for nesting, gnawing or other signs of animal activity. Seal up the unit as much as possible, especially going into winter.
- Regular inspection. Because your primary home furnace is used consistently, you’d know immediately if there was a problem. But a vacation home furnace may go long periods without being fired up. Inspect it thoroughly when you open and close for the season. If you’ll depend on your furnace to keep water lines from freezing, arrange for an occasional inspection of your property to make sure the furnace is still functioning. Or consider a WiFi-connected model that will send you an alert if anything is out of the ordinary.
- Spare parts. When a home furnace fails, a repair company or parts supply store can typically get you back up and running quickly. Not so with a remote cabin removed from the conveniences of a larger metropolitan area. If the nearest parts supply store is more than an hour or two away, consider keeping a few spare parts on hand. The exact items will depend on the model and type of furnace. A little internet sleuthing will let you know if your furnace has a reputation for needing replacements, such as heat sensors or a thermostat.