A Practical Guide to Pellet Stoves
First things first: I really like my pellet stove. I wanted to get that out of the way, right off. During a harsh winter of record fuel prices in the Northeast, my new wood pellet stove helped keep our 2,000-square-foot house in Maine cozy for roughly half the cost of heating oil. It did the job by burning waste wood, harvested and processed in North America. And in terms of contributing to climate change, heating with wood pellets creates a very small carbon footprint.
But the path to heating Nirvana isn’t paved with pellets. After one season, I found my pellet stove to be an economical and satisfying way to heat. I also found that I had to match my expectations and attitude with the stove’s performance.
There’s a lot I learned in my first year with a wood pellet stove. For example: When the stove’s hopper runs out of pellets, the unit stops operating. Sounds obvious, but you have to get into the daily rhythm of hauling fuel and monitoring the hopper.
Also, pellet stoves have electric blowers, and it took me a while to get used to the sound. The stoves produce a fine ash, which needed to be emptied more frequently than I had anticipated. I also found pellet quality to vary among the manufacturers I sampled. That’s noteworthy, because pellet quality affects how a stove operates and how often it needs to be cleaned.
To keep my stove happy, I needed to scrape the burn pot every few days, empty the ash drawer every week or two and dismantle the heat exchanger and other components for an interim cleaning every two or three months. It also needed a major maintenance cleaning at the end of the heating season.
My stove has a very accurate thermostat, but pellet heat isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. I dump roughly 40 pounds of pellets into the hopper to keep the fire burning during any cold winter day. Hauling wood pellets isn’t as time consuming or as physically demanding as lugging cordwood, which I did for many years with a conventional wood stove. But as one dealer told me, when you burn wood pellets, you must be involved with your heat.
This is not a bad thing, but it is worth knowing — especially this year, when many homeowners are dreading another winter of extreme energy prices. That’s making pellet stoves one of today’s hottest trends in residential heating equipment, with more than 800,000 installed. It may turn out that burning pellets is a good fit for your house and lifestyle.
Space Heating Strategy
My home also has a very efficient Monitor kerosene heater, with a setback thermostat. The Monitor remained part of my space-heating strategy. If you leave home for more than a day in the winter, you will also want some form of automatic backup heat. In other words, don’t expect a pellet stove to do 100 percent of the job, 100 percent of the time.
The heating season in Maine begins in September and drags on until early May. In a typical season, I’d burn 500 gallons of kerosene in the Monitor. That would have cost $1,750 last year, with the price of kerosene in my area averaging $3.50 a gallon. Instead, I burned only 100 gallons or so, or $350 worth. So I saved $1,400 in kerosene.
I offset the oil-based heat with three tons of wood pellets, which cost $750. So my net savings last heating season was $650.
My house has a brick hearth with a lined flue — a good candidate for a fireplace insert. After some research, I chose a Harman Accentra Pellet Stove. It cost me roughly $3,500, installed. The Accentra is rated at 42,000 BTU per hour. It is a hefty (450-pound) heater with automatic ignition and temperature control, and a hopper that can swallow 57 pounds of pellets. It’s designed to heat 1,450 square feet in the Northeast, according to Harman. I’d suggest using figures like that as a rough guide. Consider your climate, how your home is insulated, how well air can circulate and what you consider to be a comfortable room temperature.
Living With a Pellet Stove
With energy prices rising, it’s tempting to focus only on the cost and efficiency of pellet heat. But you’ve got to live with the thing, after all. It’s going to have a strong presence in your house. Don’t downplay the importance of how it looks and sounds.
Pellet stoves make noise. Each one sounds different. Go to a stove shop or a friend’s house and listen to the one you want to buy. Imagine how it might sound where you want to install it. Our fireplace insert is in the living room. I would not be happy if it were near our television.
Pellet stoves come in various styles. Glass doors that let you see the flames are common. Yes, aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder, but don’t expect the lazy, flickering flames of a wood fireplace. The combustion blower that helps burn the pellets at high efficiency reminds me of a blowtorch. Looking at my unit is more like watching the innards of a furnace — an intense flame with sparks shooting out like fireworks. Not bad, just different.
Handling ash is another part of burning pellets. The ash is dust-like, much finer than what I was used to from my years with a wood stove. Harman says the Accentra’s ash pan can hold ashes from a ton of pellets, so it only needs emptying a few times a year. That’s not my experience. In mid-winter, the pan in my stove was full every two weeks.
On a positive note, the pan is very easy to pull out and dump. And pellet ash doesn’t typically contain a lot of hot embers, as do wood stove or fireplace ashes. That makes for safer handling and disposal.
Types of Pellets
One thing became very clear about ash, though: Some pellets produce more ash than others. I sampled a half-dozen brands of pellet fuel, made in the United States and Canada. Each bag was premium grade, and each carried the seal of the Pellet Fuels Institute, based in Arlington, Va. (www.pelletheat.org).
The Pellet Fuels Institute is a great resource, but I didn’t find the Institute’s seal to be very meaningful. Some bags contained a lot of sawdust, or fines. One brand that I bought at a big-box home improvement store must have retained plenty of moisture — I opened a bag one sub-zero night and found some of the pellets frozen together, in fist-size clumps.
Pellet prices vary, by the bag and the ton. So shop around. And before you buy a ton of the least expensive wood pellets, try a bag or two in your stove and see how they burn. By the way, many pellet stoves also are designed to burn corn, which may be an attractive option if you live in the farm belt.
Either way, one thing you will want for your pellets is handy, dry storage. A ton of bagged wood pellets is 50 bags, each weighing 40 pounds. Some suppliers deliver the bags on a pallet. I stack my pellets in an attached garage and carry them to the stove in a grain bucket. I find that to be an easy way to keep the hopper filled.
As pellet heat becomes more popular, it’s worth saying something about supply and demand. A few years ago, people who burned wood pellets had trouble finding them in the middle of the winter. Several new pellet mills have since come on-line, and more are planned. This production has helped make the fuel more available. In my area, I noticed bags of pellets being advertised at hardware stores, stove shops, big-box retailers and even supermarkets. A great website for comparing prices and learning more about availability and market trends is www.pelletsales.com.
Pellets are a commodity, so it’s smart to keep an eye on the changing marketplace in your neck of the woods. Some of the new supply is earmarked for Europe, where pellet heat is widely accepted. If every other house on your street starts burning pellets, maybe there will be a problem again with availability.
One way to hedge your bets is to order early. In the spring, I noticed a stove dealer advertising pellets at the current year’s price. The implication, of course, is that pellet prices will rise this coming winter, a reflection of the overall rising costs of energy and transportation.
So I bought a ton. When I glanced into my garage over the summer, it gave me a sense of security to see those bags of renewable heat stacked in the back. And with kerosene and fuel oil likely to be way more expensive this winter than last, I expect to save even more money burning wood pellets, even if they do go up in price.
Wood pellets. Maybe not heating Nirvana, but close enough.
Tux Turkel writes frequently about business and energy issues. He’s based in Portland, Maine.
Pellet Stoves Facts and Figures
• Pellet heat is generated by burning wood pellets in either a pellet stove or pellet fireplace insert.
• Pellets are made of 100-percent wood sawdust with no additives. The sawdust in pellets is a manufacturing by-product.
• A 40-pound bag of pellet fuel can provide heat for up to 24 hours.
• A winter’s supply of wood pellets is about 100 to 150 bags (two to three tons), depending on climatic and lifestyle variations.
• Wood pellets produce virtually no creosote, a major cause of chimney fires.
• Particulate emissions from a pellet stove are approximately 1.2 grams per hour. EPA regulations allow no more than 7.5 grams per hour.
• There are approximately 1 million pellet stoves and fireplace inserts used in homes throughout the United States and Canada.
• There are in excess of 80 mills in North America that manufacture wood pellets and more than 23 manufacturers of pellet appliances, including stoves,
fireplace inserts and pellet baskets. For a list of manufacturers, visit www.woodpellet stoves.net/pellet-stove-manufacturers.html.
Pellet-fired Central Heat
Pellet stoves sound interesting, except for the fuel hauling and ash cleaning. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could buy a pellet-fired central heating system that mates the renewable attributes of wood or corn with the convenience of oil or gas?
Not such a tall order. Pellet-fired central heat is already common in Europe, where the infrastructure is well developed to deliver and store pellets in bulk. In Austria, for instance, pellet boilers and furnaces are the leading heat source in new homes.
Now rising energy costs are leading to expanded development of an American industry. Compared to Europe, the pellet industry here is really in its infancy. But domestic companies such as Harman Stove Co. (www.harmanstoves.com) and Tarm USA (www.pelletboiler.com) make central heating systems, and Traeger
pellet/corn furnaces are carried by such dealers as Evergreen Heat (www.evergreenheat.com) and Obadiah’s Woodstoves (www.woodstoves.net). These multi-fuel boilers, which can burn both wood pellets and corn, are priced from around $4,000 and up, not including installation.
A Maine-based company, Maine Energy Systems (www.maineenergysystems.com) was recently launched to sell, install and service German-made Bosch/MESys pellet boilers in New England. The company also plans to make bulk deliveries to homes. This vertically integrated business model is designed to resemble an oil dealership, except with a renewable fuel.
State-of-the-art pellet boilers can offer the convenience of oil or gas. They’re automatic, thermostatically controlled and very efficient. Ash disposal and routine maintenance is limited to once a season. But to take full advantage of these units, you will need adequate storage space for bulk delivery and room to set up an automatic feed system. To see a representation of how bulk delivery works, visit www.pelletsales.com and click the Bulk tab.