If you like the idea of wood heat but aren’t keen on maintaining a wood pile or cleaning and loading wood into a stove, you may be a good candidate for a pellet stove. My friends live in a cold valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, and they’ve had a pellet stove for years. Whenever I visit in the winter, I find them comfortably lounging in front of it, enjoying the heat and the flames.
The ecologically minded will appreciate knowing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers pellet stoves the cleanest of all solid fuel residential heating appliances. The fuel is mostly derived from recycled wood, and it produces few air pollutants.
Other factors, like the ability to control their heat output, and the fact that a mid-size model can easily heat a decently-sized home make pellet stoves home-heating champs. One thing to note, though, is that you’ll need a lot of pellets to keep your home warm throughout the winter.
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What Is a Pellet Stove?
Pellet stoves aren’t the same as pellet grills used for cooking; these are specifically for heating.
As the name implies, a pellet stove produces heat by burning pellets, i.e. solid combustible tablets from 1/4- to 1-1/2-in. long. The most common pellets are made from compressed sawdust and other wood waste, but some are derived from biofuels like nutshells and corn kernels.
Not all models burn every kind of pellet. If you want to burn biofuels, you’ll need a model specifically for that.
Most pellet stoves are rectangular boxes with a centrally located combustion chamber and a fan that circulates hot air into the room. The housing includes a hopper for loading pellets and a vent to exhaust combustion gases. Most units are self-lighting and include a thermostat. All the user has to do is load the pellets, set the temperature, sit back and enjoy the heat.
Depending on its size, a pellet stove can produce 8,000 to 90,000 British thermal units (BTUs) of heat per hour. Roughly 40,000 and 60,000 BTUs per hour are needed to heat a 2,000-square-foot home. The stove doesn’t need to be plugged in, and the power to operate the fan and pellet feeder amounts to about 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per month. That costs about $9 at the current national rate for electricity, according to the EPA.
How Does a Pellet Stove Work?
Most pellet stoves feature a screw feed system. Pellets stored in the hopper travel to the combustion chamber via a large threaded shaft. The turning speed of the shaft determines the heat output, which can all be controlled by the thermostat. This system ensures the continuous feed of pellets into the combustion chamber to feed the flame.
Except for the pellet inlet, the combustion chamber is sealed and often comes with a glass cover that lets you see the flame. The sides of the chamber function like heat exchangers, transferring heat to the blower chamber, where it circulates through grilles in the front of the housing and into the room.
Burn efficiency ranges from 70 to 83 percent, so few combustion by-products remain.
Does a Pellet Stove Need a Chimney?
No. Pellet stoves can be direct-vented through a wall like a gas stove. If you’re installing a pellet stove in an existing fireplace, vent it through the chimney if that’s more convenient.
Pellet Stove Pros and Cons
A pellet stove costs from $900 to $6,000. That’s not exactly cheap, but there’s a model for most budgets. One ton of wood pellets (equivalent to fifty 40-pound bags) costs about $250 and lasts a little less than two months. That’s economical for a heating fuel.
- Controlled heat: The thermostat controls the speed of the feeder, which in turn controls the size of the flame and the heat output.
- Eco-friendly: A pellet stove burns environmentally-friendly fuel efficiently, releasing few pollutants. Pellets are made from recycled wood or abundant natural materials.
- Safe and easy to use: Once you add pellets and set the thermostat, a pellet stove operates autonomously. It needs no more attention until it runs out of pellets. Combustion is efficient, so creosote doesn’t build up and rarely (if ever) needs to be removed. And because the combustion chamber is sealed, there’s no danger from sparks or flames.
- Can be placed anywhere: You can install a pellet stove anywhere close to an exterior wall for the vent, even in an apartment.
Pellet stoves do have some significant drawbacks.
- Can be noisy: This is less likely to be a problem with a top-quality model than with a less expensive one.
- Pellets are heavy and need to be kept dry: A pellet stove typically goes through a 40-pound bag of pellets per day, and loading the pellets can be difficult for the elderly or disabled. You also need a cool, dry place to store the pellets, and pellet availability can sometimes be limited.
- Uses electricity: Add electric usage to the monthly operating cost.
- Plastic bags: If you don’t buy pellets in bulk, you’ll throw out approximately one plastic bag a day.
How to Install a Pellet Stove
Start by setting it on a fireproof hearth you can buy or make yourself, following the manufacturer’s recommendations and local fire codes. Then install the vent. This can be a short length of duct extending straight through a pre-cut hole in the wall, or an assembly that extends vertically to a more suitable exit location. The vent terminates with a cap attached to the siding.
After vent installation is complete, plug in the unit, load pellets and enjoy the heat.
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