Wood Pellet Stoves


Automatic wood heating

Wood pellet stoves are an alternative way to heat a home. The stoves use wood pellets, which look exactly like rabbit food, and are made out of dried recycled compressed sawdust from lumber mills that otherwise ends up in landfills. They were invented in the 1980s and were popular for a while then declined some in the late 90s but since 9/11 have made a big comeback. The industry for stove manufactures, pellet distribution and stove technology has greatly matured and is nationwide.

Wood pellet stoves have a number of advantages over normal wood stoves. Because the stoves are so efficient, there is almost no smoke or creosote produced, in fact the exhaust is barely even hot so the stove doesn’t need a masonry chimney and can be installed anywhere a tin metal liner can be put in, either directly into the roof, or sideways out a wall. They can be stand-alone stoves on legs in the corner of a room, or chimney inserts using an existing chimney. Unlike wood stoves, pellet stoves work well in urban environments because of little exhaust and no need for a chimney and can be installed in any room.

The pellets come in 40 pound plastic bags, about the size of a mulch bag, which makes transport and storage a snap compared to dealing with cord wood. A fully automated stove requires filling up with the pellets and turning on; the stove does the rest: it automatically lights, automatically feeds the pellets into the flame with an auger, automatically adjusts the rate to keep the room at a pre-set temperature with an electric thermostat. At the low setting I can go 76 hours on one load in my Harman stove, which is a fireplace inset so it is limited in hopper size. There are other stoves that have bigger hoppers. Indeed there are pellet furnaces that can hold weeks worths of pellets and heat an entire central heating system.

A 40 pound bag of pellet wood produces less than a cup of ash so it rarely needs to be emptied (keep the pellet hopper and ash tray size in mind when shopping for stoves). I need to vacuum the ash pan in my Harman stove after burning fifty 40lb bags –about every two months during heavy use.

A 40 pound pellet bag can cost from $2 to $4. Typically they are sold by the pallet, which is 50 bags or 1-ton, for $120 to $200. You will need storage space and some brawn. How much you use will depend on the stove, season, comfort level, space, etc., but the general recommendation is 1 bag of pellets a day. In my experience it can be much less than that based on your comfort level and weather and time at home. Wood pellets can be found at most hardware stores around the country including Home Depot, Ace, etc. Pellets come in 3 grades, depending on ash content (less ash the better), the higher grade pellets are hardwood while the lower grade is pine, most of the major hardware chains sell the middle grades. For buying pellets my experience is to call the local hardware stores, buy a single bag of different brands, try them out and when you find a good brand purchase a pallet for the season. The brands and availability seem to change with each season.

The stoves require electricity to run so if you lose power it won’t work, which is a notable drawback, although there are solutions such as a generator or battery back up. I personally have a long extension cord to an inverter in my car in the driveway in case of a heating emergency. The pellet stoves also make noise with the blower fan and turning augur, this has become less an issue with more recent stove technology which is significantly quieter.

Pellet stoves range in price from $1200 to $3000. Harman is way ahead of the game with computerized sensors and controls and is the brand I recommend. The stove I own is Harman’s Accentra Insert, and it was $2800 installed complete.

-- Stephen Balbach 10/28/04

(Are wood pellets cheaper than gas or oil? Probably not, although they may be in some areas, but there are environmental "costs" to consider as well. For a straight BTU comparison for heating fuels prices see this chart. — editors)