Wood Pellets: The Future of Fuel

The pro's and con's of using a pellet stove.

| October/November 1999

As the woodstove industry rides the last wave of Y2K hysteria into a land of record sales, manufacturers have already begun bracing themselves for the buying falloff that will inevitably come after we, and they, wake on January 1 to find the same world we left the evening before. While mindful of the fact that a burning fire will remain an irreplaceable source of comfort and aesthetic beauty to homeowners, manufacturers can't avoid the fact that millions of even clean-burning EPA woodstoves bought and used in the next century will stress cordwood availability and air quality to an extent that will, ultimately, make wood heat an economic anachronism.

More, and more, the answer seems to reside in the form of tiny wood pellets. MOTHER has featured pellet stoves since the first North American pellet plant opened in Brownsville, Oregon, nearly 30 years ago, but the newest generation of pellet appliances makes our first home-built models seem something less than quaint by comparison.

Made from sawdust and wood chips (waste materials from furniture making and other wood manufacturing processes), pellets are simply trees saved from the landfill. At an average price of $150 a ton, a $450 yearly investment in pellets will heat the average North American home. This places pellet heat, on a value per-dollar scale, just slightly behind black gold (given current oil prices), substantially ahead of electric heat and increasingly on par with natural gas. Moreover, pellet fuel has not ridden the wave of market fluctuation the way oil and natural gas have. In 1990, a 40-pound bag of pellets cost $3, and we found the same price today at retail stores. Typically, pellet costs have not even kept pace with inflation, which actually means that your $3 bag is a much better buy now than it was ten years ago.

Apart from the environmental advantage of fewer wasted trees, pellets have an ash content low enough to make them burn up to 12 times more cleanly than the most efficient EPA-certified cordwood stoves. Furthermore, pellet stoves emit fewer allergens into the home, are automated to burn for exceptionally long periods of time irk, then thermostatically controllable (unlike most cordwood stoves), and keep your clothes and floors clear of the dirt tracked in from a trip to the woodpile.

The price of all this convenience is, however, seen in your monthly electricity bill. Nearly all the 600,000 pellet stoves operating in North America require current to run the heat fans and pellet feeders. This would represent only a conditional annoyance were it not for the fact that just over 50% of pellet stove owners use the appliance as their primary source of heat. Throw in an ice storm of the kind that left huge portions of Vermont, New Hampshire and southeastern Canada without power last winter and you have invited a potentially home-abandoning situation. As a result, the pellet stove industry has not seen anything like the robust, Y2K-fear-driven conventional woodstove sales. "Eighty percent of the people who look at a pellet stove are worried about its grid dependency," reports Mark Drisdelle of Dell Point Technologies Inc., a pellet stove manufacturer out of Montreal, Canada. "They are more than a little hesitant to make a $2,000 investment in a primary source of heat if it isn't flexible enough to function without the grid if necessary."

This year marked the first industry-wide acknowledgement of that fact, resulting in seven new designs which we examined at the Hearth Products Expo in Phoenix (of all places!). Innovations in bum cleanliness and major strides toward grid-independence were shocking to those of us who were accustomed to a glacial pace in woodstove development. "We haven't seen this level of product roll-out in years," offered Averill Cook, president of the Pellet Fuels Institute. "We're thrilled that manufacturers are responding."

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