How to Buy a Pellet Stove
Published Sep. 19, 2013
By Chris Brooks
Pellet stoves provide heat for your home by burning small pellets formed from wood chips and other natural waste. Pellet stoves can offer high combustion and heating efficiency for the homeowner, with a combustion efficiency rate of 75 to 85 percent. However, potential buyers do need to consider the installation and operation costs, as well as the higher upfront costs as compared to wood-burning stoves, and the appropriate size pellet stove need to heat their home.
How Does a Pellet Stove Work?
Each pellet stove comes equipped with a hopper that holds the pellets to be burned. A feeder drops a few pellets into the combustion chamber at a time to be burned. The owner can use the controls to determine the feed rate of the pellets. Hoppers can contain anywhere between 35 to 130 pounds of pellets at any given time. Consumer Reports lists the cost of pellets as being higher than traditional wood and natural gas, but below the costs of oil and electric space heaters. Of course, oil and gas prices fluctuate greatly and are hard to predict. Before buying, be sure that you have a pellet supplier nearby.
Fans help to circulate the air from the pellet stove, and should be considered before buying, to make sure the fan doesn't prove too noisy. Some pellet stoves even have thermostats that the owner can use to control the heat. The downside of these controls is the replacement cost should they stop working.
Sizing and Power Considerations
Pellet stoves can be purchased to heat an entire home, but most owners use them as supplemental heat in common areas of a home. You will need 25 to 30 BTU of heat for every square foot of space that you want to heat. These stoves are available in sizes ranging from 8,000 to 90,000 BTU per hour.
Efficiency ratings are provided by some manufacturers: Lennox Hearth models are generally in the 80-percent range, and most Thelin models list efficiency ratings in the 70-percent range. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states: "Some pellet stove models are subject to the wood stove regulations, while others are exempt due to a high air to fuel ratio. Pellet stoves are assigned a default efficiency rate of 78 percent." In comparison, EPA rates wood-burning stoves with a default efficiency of 72 percent, for catalytic stoves, or 63 percent, for non-catalytic stoves.
Potential pellet stove owners must realize that most pellet stoves do require electricity for the controls, fans and pellet feeder. The electricity usage is not very high, but the stove will not provide heat if the power goes out. Owners may want to investigate options such as battery or generator back-up power for such occurrences.
Ease of Installation and Operation
Homeowners can choose from two types of pellet stoves: fireplace inserts and freestanding stoves. Although professional installation is recommended for either type, a pellet stove can prove easier to install than a traditional wood-burning stove because, unlike wood-burning stoves, many pellet stoves can be vented horizontally through the exterior wall. This is usually the least expensive installation option.
Other installation options for pellet stoves include horizontal venting with a vertical venting backup; vertical venting through the ceiling and roof; or venting into an existing chimney. The installer can price these various options for you when performing a site estimate. Some dealers charge a fee to examine your site and provide an estimate of the installation costs. At that time, be sure to ask for a parts and installation cost breakdown in writing. Installation costs can range from $500 on up, before including the costs of venting and additional parts.
Once installed, pellet stoves are easier to operate than traditional wood-burning stoves. Typically, the owner pours pellets in the hopper once a day, and then cleans out the ashes every few days. Pellets often can be purchased locally, and in large quantities, to save money. Popular Mechanics reports that most households use between two and three tons of pellets per winter, so buyers can use those figures to calculate costs.
Popular Brands of Pellet Stoves
The Alliance for Green Heat, a non-profit organization, suggests that wood-burning stoves are usually less expensive than pellet stoves, due to "their simpler and thus more affordable stove designs." Still, numerous options in BTU range, price and aesthetics are available from a variety of pellet stove manufacturer. Harman's freestanding pellet stoves are priced upwards of $3,500. Among them, the Advance model, featuring a bay window-style firebox, can heat 900 to 2,400 square feet, and is priced beginning at $3,826. Another popular brand is Quadra-Fire, which offers the Santa Fe model begins at $2,199. This model can heat 700 to 1,900 square feet, depending on the home and climate, and features a contemporary design. Thelin provides stoves with a range of vent trim and louver color options that can be customized to match the home, even as it provides 44,500 BTU output. Other brands include Lennox, Whitfield and Jamestown.
All of these manufacturers offer a variety of styles, including sleek modular designs and options featuring the classic cast-iron stove look. Most models will allow you a view of the fire, providing ambiance as well as warmth to your home.
Wood pellets burn more cleanly than regular wood, so creosote (the oily byproduct of wood that is often the cause of chimney fires) is less likely to build up in the stove and chimney. Owners should still have a professional check the stove and venting each year before use, and thoroughly clean the stove in accordance with the manufacturer's directions. The EPA recommends professional installation of pellet stoves, as proper venting is important to prevent house fires.
A pellet stove professional also can help you determine the proper size stove for your heating needs.
The EPA reports that, because of their low particle emissions, "pellet stoves are typically among the cleanest wood-burning heating appliances available today." The Alliance for Green Heat, a non-profit organization, states that any pellet stove that releases less than two grams of smoke and particulates per hour is operating very cleanly. All pellet stoves are required to have their emission rating posted clearly. EPA-certified stoves are the lowest emission pellet stoves on the market.