Answers to your questions about gardening, energy, homesteading and other sustainable living topics.
We are thinking about getting a wood pellet stove to heat our home. What are the advantages and disadvantages of wood pellet stoves?
“For someone committed to using a renewable energy source and who is away from home for many hours at a time, a pellet stove can be a good choice,” says John Gulland, MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributing editor and wood heat expert.
A wood pellet stove burns processed wood — the logs have been debarked, ground, dried and then compressed into small pellets. (Some stoves can also burn pellets made from other biofuels.) Pellets generally are more economical than heating oil, propane or electricity, and like traditional wood, they are renewable. Compared with a log-burning woodstove, a pellet stove is easier to tend, says Gary Richardson, owner of Open Hearth, a stove retailer in Kalispell, Mont. You fill the hopper in the morning and get heat for 16 hours or more before you need to reload the stove. The pellets burn cleanly and efficiently. They’re also more compact and thus easier to store than logs, requiring just 80 cubic feet per ton versus 128 cubic feet for a cord of firewood, which produces about the same amount of heat.
Because pellets are made from processed wood, however, they are usually more expensive than firewood — but pellet pricing can be competitive for people who live in or near large urban areas where natural firewood can be very expensive. Fluctuations of conventional energy prices can also have a big impact on pellet prices because pellets have higher energy input than natural firewood, Gulland says. According to Richardson, you can currently expect to pay about $200 to $250 for a ton of quality pellets, which provides roughly the same amount of heat as a $125 to $200 cord of wood. If you’re able to cut and split your own wood, the cost difference will be much greater, of course. When figuring the total cost of operation, investigate the cost and availability of the pellets sold in your area as well as the annual cost of electricity needed to operate the stove.
Pellets are sold in 40-pound bags, which can be difficult to manage. Another downside of wood pellet stoves is that they require electricity to feed pellets into the stove and to run fans to emit warm air, so if you get your energy from the grid, you won’t have heat if you lose power. Some models can be fitted with battery backups, says Richardson, but the batteries only run for about eight hours.
If you decide to go with a wood pellet stove, look for a specialist — a dealer who has been in business for a long time and who understands the product, not a mass merchandiser, Gulland says. “A new owner needs coaching — not just about the best stove to buy, but also about its care and feeding.” When shopping, consider how much heat you’ll need. A standard 40,000-Btu pellet stove can comfortably heat a well-insulated, 2,000-square-foot home, even in the coldest regions. Smaller homes or homes in warmer regions can be heated with stoves that produce fewer Btu. Ask how the unit should be cleaned and maintained. Depending on the stove model, quality of pellets, outside temperature and other factors, you can expect to have to empty ashes as often as once a week or as rarely as once every five weeks.
For more information on buying a woodstove, read How to Choose the Right Woodstove.
— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor
Above: Pellets burn cleanly and are easier to store than logs.
Illustration Courtesy of American Energy System
Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.