Pellet Stoves Offer Economical, Environmentally Friendly Heat

Does the idea of heating your home - or at least supplementing your home's heat - with an economical, easy to use and climate friendly stove appeal to you? If you said yes, maybe you should look into getting a pellet stove.

What's a Pellet Stove?

A pellet stove is an appliance similar to a wood stove, but with some significant differences. First off, it burns pellets rather wood. Pellets are compressed sawdust formed into pellet shapes that actually look like rabbit food. Pellet stoves are convenient to use - the pellets come in bags, and you just pour them into a self-feeding hopper. They're also clean, since you don't have to store wood anywhere in the house or yard - just bags of pellets.

Pellet stoves also burn efficiently, are easy to take care of (ashes fall into a removable ashtray), don't require a conventional chimney, and the outside doesn't get hot, so if you bump into the stove you won't get burned. But best of all, pellet stoves burn so efficiently, they produce virtually no atmosphere impacting gases. What's not to like?

How Does It Work?

Even though they are similar to wood burning appliances, pellet stoves are truly sophisticated appliances. They use automated systems to regulate the burn and ensure maximum fuel efficiency, and also eliminate many of the ongoing jobs a typical wood stove requires. Filling a hopper with pellets usually once a day fuels the stove. The pellets are fed into the stove by an auger in regulated amounts determined by the owner's personal heat settings. The automated system monitors, regulates and provides the optimal air quantity so you end up with a steady, warm, clean burning fire.

Heat from the fire is captured in a heat exchanger and spread through your home by a fan blowing through the heat exchanger in the stove. The heat exchanger captures heat inside the stove before it can get away up the chimney as in a wood stove, so the heat produced by the pellet stove goes to heat your home, not the atmosphere.

Since pellet stoves burn so efficiently, they don't normally require a standard chimney - a real bonus if you're adding supplementary heat to your home. Typically they vent fumes through a small two-walled pipe, consisting of a stainless steel interior pipe and an exterior pipe made of aluminum or galvanized steel.

What Are These Pellets?

Pellets sold for residential use are commonly made from ground wood chips and sawdust - a by-product of lumber and furniture manufacture. A pellet mill compresses the sawdust into the round shape. The pellets are held together by natural wood resins already in the wood. So, pellets are totally natural and contain no extra binders or additives.

In some areas, nut hulls or unprocessed shelled corn or fruit pits can be made into pellets. However, no matter what they are made from, all pellets are biomass materials (i.e., products of common trees and plants).

According to the Pellet Fuel Institute, over 60 pellet mills in North America produce more than 610,000 tons of pellet fuel per year, and the quantity is growing rapidly. A lot of this fuel would have ended up in landfills if it hadn't become pellets. Pellets are widely available at building supply stores and stove stores, as well as nurseries and feed and garden suppliers. The pellets are typically packed in 20 or 40 pound bags for ease of handling.

What Does All This Cost?

The cost of a pellet stove will vary depending on a number of factors, such as: How large is it? What is its BTU output? Is it totally automated or does it leave some manual operations to the owner?

Having said that, pellet-burning stoves should cost in the range of $1,200 to $3,000. The pellet fuel itself costs around $4 to $5 for each bag or $200 to $250 per ton, and since it is automated, a pellet stove would use about 100 kWh of electricity per month.

There Must Be Some Disadvantages!

The major disadvantage with pellet stoves is their reliance on electricity. A pellet stove needs its electrically powered circuit boards and fans to operate and burn efficiently. Plus, if the power goes out, the auger driven fuel supply won't work and the stove won't be able to operate. Some manufacturers have addressed this problem by including a battery backup as an optional feature on their products.

In some areas of the country, pellet fuel itself may be in short supply or even not available. If you're considering a pellet stove, be sure to check that fuel is readily available. Don't just rely on your stove dealer saying he always has them - look in the phone book under fuel suppliers or pellet fuel.

Overall, pellet stoves provide major advantages over wood stoves. The pellets are clean, easy to handle and convenient to store while the stoves themselves provide constant, even heat. In addition, pellet stoves provide significant environmental benefits. They make use of a product that under different circumstances would simply be waste, and they help reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. Since they burn so cleanly, they don't impact the atmosphere.

As we said earlier, what's not to like about a pellet stove?

Murray Anderson is an experienced freelance writer with articles published in both the United States and Canada. He has written on a wide range of topics, but specializes in home maintenance and how to's.