Pellet Wood StovesFor as many as one million American homeowners, the pellet-burning stove represents the cutting edge in home heating technology. Environmentally friendly thanks to their recycled fuel source materials but still possessing most of the same modern controls and conveniences of traditional fireplaces, the pellet stove (or pellet wood stove) continues to draw new fans as home heating costs continue to rise.

The modern pellet stove uses specially-constructed “pellets” composed of recycled sawdust and other biomass material. Yet the pellet stove is actually not a recent innovation, and traces its roots back to one of the United States’ most pressing economic emergencies. At the same time, the modern pellet stove offers attractions and inducements that energy- and cost-conscious homeowners will find almost impossible to ignore.

The History of the Pellet Stove

Burning sawdust and scrap lumber in barrel stoves, braziers, and other simple stoves has been common practice for hundreds of years. However, in 1930, near the beginning of the Great Depression, the first wood pellet, the Presto-Log, was invented at a sawmill in Lewiston, Idaho. For much of the Depression, as scarcity and high prices continued to make heating oil expensive, the burning of wood and wood by-products continued to grow. Over time, the pellet stove continued to evolve, eventually gaining widespread public notice in Washington state during the 1980s.

Biomass stoves and ovens became the focus of widespread research and innovation during the 1973 OAPEC oil embargo of several Western nations. In more recent years, as demands for environmentally-conscious fuel sources and continuing high oil prices drive interest in alternative fuels, pellet stoves are entering something of a Renaissance. The nonprofit Pellet Fuels Institute estimates that more than 824,000 pellet stoves were made in the United States between 1998 and 2010. PFI believes approximately one million pellet stoves are operating throughout America each winter.

Pellet Fuel Construction

Pellet Wood StovesPellets are made from a variety of densified biomass material, including wood, cord wood, waste paper, wood chips, and dozens of agricultural byproducts including corn and cornstalks, and many forms of forestry and forest treatment byproducts. In short, biomass is organic material left behind after any of dozens of treatments and procedures.

Pellet manufacturers take these waste materials and refine them into pellets resembling pencil segments or corks; they average about the size of a small finger. Manufacturers remove most of the material’s moisture, in order to increase BTU capability and make the pellets easier to use in freezing conditions.

How Pellet Stoves Operate

Modern pellet stoves are a far cry from the straightforward “burn bins” of yesteryear. In fact, many of them share the same electronic components, remote controls, and other sophisticated features as contemporary gas stoves and fireplace inserts. The stoves receive pellet fuel from electronically controlled bins, allowing them to maintain a steady warmth output as long as their fuel bins contain pellets.

The Costs of Pellet Stove Fuel and Maintenance

Pellet Wood StovesPFI estimates that the average family will consume about three tons of pellet fuel per heating season, at an average cost of approximately $825. Of course, this number varies according to the size of the wood pellet stove and especially the frequency of use. In comparison, each ton of wood pellets has the fuel efficiency of about 2.8 barrels of #2 fuel oil.

One disadvantage pellet stoves face compared to natural gas and propane fireplaces and inserts rests in the refueling process. Pellet stoves require periodic replenishing of their hoppers, and some models’ exhaust may generate soot and debris more than others.

Pellet stoves also share one of the chief drawbacks of conventional wood-burning fireplaces. Because they tend to warm only their immediate areas, they can “fool” household thermostats into letting other parts of the house grow cold. As such, home heating experts recommend installing the stove away from home thermostats and other heat-measuring instruments. Remember to choose a spot that leaves ample and convenient room for any necessary stovepipe and venting.

Installing and Refueling A Pellet Stove

The installation and venting of a pellet stove, like a fireplace insert or direct vent fireplace, is a task best left to qualified, certified experts. In particular, consumer advocates recommend selecting an installation specialist certified by the National Fireplace Institute. They will be able to safely estimate the pellet stove’s best place in the home and to ascertain all venting and exhaust needs.

Wood pellet fuels are available from a variety of online and real-world retailers. The Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association provides a free locator service on their website.

Chimney AccessoriesYour fireplace is a crucial part of your home heating capability. But is your fireplace working the best it possibly can?

Many homeowners and fireplace users seldom realize that the fireplace and chimney that have served them well for years may now need maintenance or restoration – or even replacement. Luckily, modern fireplace construction and venting technology, along with innovations in fireplace maintenance and repair, have made keeping fireplaces in their peak condition both simple and affordable.

With winter coming, consider taking the following steps to maximize your fireplace and chimney’s heating potential.

Keep the Chimney Sealed, Not Just the Damper

Chimneys can “bleed” heat if cracks and fissures in their masonry or foundation are left unchecked. Warm air seeps out and cold air seeps inside, finding its way into the firebox and making it more difficult for a fire to heat the surrounding interior room. Moreover, cracks and fissures actually “feed” on themselves. As water seeps in and then expands as it turns to ice, the brick or masonry crumbles and the dilapidation spreads.

Experts recommend getting your chimney checked for cracks and holes at least once a year, either by yourself or by a chimney or foundation expert. The means of sealing your chimney will depend, of course, largely on the type of chimney your fireplace has. A variety of maintenance and repair accessories are available both in stores and online. For more serious repairs, hiring a bricklayer, carpenter, or other contractor will likely prove necessary.

To keep your home warm even when the fireplace is not in use, make sure the damper is closed whenever the fire is completely extinguished. Investing in a damper hook will make this task less time-consuming and physically awkward.

Improve Ventilation With a Chimney Cap

Chimney Pots

A copper chimney pot by European Copper

The tops of chimneys are favorite nesting spots for birds, but those same nests can block the chimney’s flue (the airway above the firebox), hampering ventilation and increasing the risk of fire and smoke inhalation for the house and its residents. At the same time, airborne debris from surrounding trees can blow into the chimney as well, presenting fire and ventilation hazards.

By installing a chiney pot or chimney cap atop your chimney, you’ll block birds and airborne debris without sacrificing ventilation. Many chimney caps also make beautiful additions to a home’s silhouette and exterior decorative plan. Chimney pots and caps range from simple to ornate in both appearance and decorative elements, so you have a wide range of appearance choices.

Watch Out For Creosote

Creosote is the gummy, toxic residue left behind when oils escaping from burning wood coalesce and gel alongside the chimney flue walls. Over time, creosote can literally choke off a chimney’s ventilating capability.

Clean out any creosote by hiring a professional chimney sweep or by carefully and thoroughly using any of the creosote-cleaning tools available at stores and online. As a guideline, The National Chimney Safety Institute of America advices cleaning whenever creosote buildup reaches 1/8 of an inch thick.

Check out our guide to keeping your chimney creosote free to learn more.

Install A Direct-Vent or Vent-Free Fireplace Insert

Fireplace Inserts

A fireplace insert

As their name somewhat suggests, fireplace inserts are self-contained fireplaces that fit inside the firebox (or bottom) of a fireplace. They offer great energy efficiency potential because their sealed construction allows them to lose much less heat than traditional wood burning fireplaces.

Fireplace inserts are available in wood-burning, gas (both natural gas and propane), electric, and pellet-burning configurations. They are usually either direct vent, meaning they shed exhaust by means of a stovepipe; or vent-free, meaning they are 100% efficient in burning their fuel.

Vent free fireplace inserts also carry the additional advantage of working inside fireplaces whose chimney was removed or whose flue has become significantly obstructed. The insert simply slides into the obstructed firebox.

For more information, please read our complete guide to fireplace inserts.

Convert To A Gas Log Fireplace

Natural gas and propane gas log sets offer a cleaner, lower-maintenance alternative to traditional wood burning fireplaces. Most gas logs are constructed from high-endurance ceramic, and should be installed either by a plumber or licensed gas technician.

Natural gas and propane gas logs each have distinct advantages and drawbacks. Propane gas logs burn almost three times hotter than natural gas logs. However, natural gas fireplaces can run off a home’s existing gas line, while propane tanks require both purchase and periodic refilling. For a complete explanation, please read our complete guide to gas logs.

Install A Wood Stove In a Second Location In Your Home

Wood StovesIt’s easy to think of wood stoves as smaller, self-contained fireplaces. Like fireplace inserts, they are available in either direct-vent or vent-free configurations. Depending on that exhaust method, they’re suitable for use in any room in the home, especially attics, basements, and upstairs bedrooms and bathrooms that are hard to heat through conventional HVAC systems.

Wood stoves come in many of the same fuel configurations as fireplace inserts: wood-burning, gas, electric, and pellet-burning. Like fireplace inserts, stoves also feature electronic controls, including electric thermostats and electronic displays, so they’re much more accurate in their heating than conventional fireplaces.

A second (or third, fourth, et cetera) heat source in your home helps your main fireplace by alleviating its heating tasks. The lessened wear and tear helps delay the need for maintenance. Read our guide to wood stoves, electric and gas, and pellet stoves elsewhere on this blog to learn more.

Invest In New Tools, Equipment, and Parts

Investing in new fireplace tools, a new fire grate, or safety accessories such as hearth pads and gates won’t increase your fireplace’s energy efficiency. However, they will make your fireplace easier to operate and more comfortable to enjoy. They’ll also help improve the fireplace’s safety, both to operate and enjoy.

 

Winter Energy EfficiencyIt seems that winter home heating costs increase a little more with each passing year. Yet many families, especially those living in older houses, don’t realize they’re literally surrounded by opportunities to trim winter home heating and utility bills.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that American families spend nearly $1,100 on home heating and cooling costs each year – nearly half their total energy expenditures. However, experts agree that taking steps now to “winterize” the home can result in steep savings – sometimes as much as 20 percent.

The following energy efficiency tips don’t just work for homeowners. Apartment tenants and mobile home residents can also put these ideas and strategies into action. Just make sure to check with proprietors or property managers first.

Seal Up Your Home, and Seal In The Savings

You wouldn’t set sail in a leaking boat, so why brave winter temperatures in a leaky house? Winterize your home by weather-stripping doorways and windows, sealing cracks and fissures in the window and doorframes and keeping holes in the walls and ceilings shut tight. Small cracks equal big expenses: experts say a one-eighth inch gap between a door and its frame costs as much as a six-inch wide hole in your wall.

Windows, especially single-pane glass windows, are poor retainers of heat. Plastic film storm windows, available at most hardware stores and easy to install, will also trim electricity costs by better insulating your widows and window frames.

Close the fireplace damper when the fireplace is not in use. Unplug outdoor appliances and electronics to keep them from passively absorbing electricity. Consider upgrading your traditional wood-burning fireplace to a more energy efficient fireplace insert.

Don’t waste money by heating areas of the house that don’t get a lot of activity. Shut the doors and vents to unused or seldom-used rooms (guest bedrooms, basements, et cetera). This will better convey heat to high-traffic areas. Open all the curtains and blinds of south-facing windows, to better allow sunlight to heat your home naturally.

Adding insulation to your home, especially your attic, also helps you save big. You can also add insulation to other unfinished space in your home such as basement walls, crawlspaces, ceilings, and utility closets.

Dial Down the Thermostat and Dial Back The Utility Costs

Fireplace InsertsSetting your thermostat to 68 degrees or lower in cold weather months can quickly add up to energy savings. The California Energy Commission reports that you’ll save up to five percent on home heating costs for every degree you lower your thermostat within the 60- to 70-degree range. At night, dial back the thermostat to 55 degrees, or turn it off, to save up to 20 percent on heating costs. (To prevent overuse of backup strip heating, dial heat pumps back no more than two degrees.)

Installing programmable thermostats takes the constant supervision out of monitoring your home’s temperature level. Make sure the thermostat is properly installed in a part of your home that’s heated, so it can accurately monitor home heating levels.

Old Man Winter Is Hard On Old Furnaces and Heaters

If your home’s furnace or heating system is more than ten years old, the EPA recommends getting it a thorough inspection by a licensed heating expert or contractor. You should also check your heater’s air filter every month to make sure it stays clean, and replace it when needed.

Winterize Your Water Pipes and Hot Water Heaters

Save up to seven percent on your electricity bill by dialing your hot water heater’s thermostat down to 120 degrees. You can save even more by wrapping or insulating the pipes running from the hot water heating unit to the wall. Wrap the heating unit in an energy-saving heater blanket or jacket (available at most hardware stores). Consider buying a newer, more energy efficient heater: most water heaters have twelve-year life spans; older units will likely need servicing or replacement.

Drain a bucket of water from your hot water heater before the cold weather truly sets in. This will remove sediment and granular matter that accumulates inside the pipes and “prime” your heater for the months ahead, making ti run more effectively.

Save on laundry costs by washing your clothes in cold water, and running only full loads. Running cold-water laundry loads decreases the washer’s energy usage by 75 percent.

Take shorter and cooler showers; install low-flow showerheads to slash hot water expenses as much as 16 percent.

As with the window and door gaps, save money by caulking or sealing all cracks, fissures and openings.

Invest In A Wood-Burning Stove

Winter Energy EfficiencyDownsize your home heating utility bills altogether by investing in a vent-free or direct-vent stove. Usually powered by wood, propane, or natural gas, direct vent stoves use double-walled stovepipe to funnel exhaust away from the home’s interior, while remaining much more energy efficient than conventional (or B-vent) wood-burning fireplaces.

Vent-free fireplaces are self-contained (as the name implies, no venting is needed) and almost 100% efficient. Both direct-vent and vent-free stoves make excellent heating choices for bedrooms, family rooms, and basements. Electric space heaters may also offer opportunities for greater energy efficiency in parts of the home that are difficult to heat through conventional means.

Look for ENERGY STAR Products

Energy experts recommend investing in appliances, electronics, and heaters with the ENERGY STAR certification, which are certified by the EPA as using 20 – 30 percent less energy than comparable, non-certified products. Visit the official ENERGY STAR website for more information.

Wood StovesThe wood stove, or simply the stove, offers an enticing alternative to space heaters and traditional fireplaces. Probably their greatest advantage is their versatility. Many “vent-free” stove models require no chimney or venting through a home’s exterior. Others burn a wider variety of fuels than traditional wood-burning fireplaces.

Wood stove models, despite their name, also operate using gas, electricity, coal, or special fuel “pellets” that work similarly to charcoal briquettes.

Homeowners should consider their home heating needs as well as how much they’re willing to spend before investing in a wood stove. Though they are not generally expensive, the right choice of stove depends largely on personal needs and expectations.

Stove Operation Is Surprisingly Modern, Accessible

Shoppers are often surprised by the electronic features that are common among different stove classes. Electric thermostats, push-button controls and easy-to-read displays are all basic standard features. As a rule, the level of sophistication varies according to manufacturer and model.

Seniors and those with limited mobility often find wood stoves to be a better alternative to fireplaces for just those reasons. Those same groups may prefer a stove because it is easier to access than a firebox or fireplace insert, which is typically embedded in a hearth or chimney.

Choosing the Right Stove Fuel for Your Needs

Pellet FuelWood-burning stoves are really only a more compact form of fireplace. They require a direct vent, or stovepipe, to help them channel their exhaust away from their surrounding room.

Gas stoves run on natural or propane gas, supplied through a line from the surrounding building or from an external tank. They are usually either direct-vent or vent-free, depending on their construction. (See section on venting options below.)

Electric stoves run on basic household current. They offer a greater range of placement options, but some models may not feature high energy efficiency. However, their relatively light weight and ease of installation make them an attractive choice for areas where venting is not practical.

Pellet stoves use a special wood-based pellet as a fuel source. They are energy efficient compared to wood-burning fireplaces and offer more convenience than gas models. The pellet stove has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, thanks to their fuel’s composition. Pellet fuel is often made from compacted sawdust or other waste products created from saw milling. Because the pellets are essentially recycled waste, they’ve become popular among shoppers who value environmental sustainability.

Finally, some stoves use common coal to effectively heat even larger-space rooms. They require very specific venting, and are not recommended for use inside mobile or modular homes.

Making the Right Venting Choice

A stove’s venting describes its method of funneling exhaust, or smoke, away from its surroundings. There are three basic types of venting.

Natural venting, or B-vents, uses air from inside the home or other surroundings. The hot air creates buoyancy that channels the exhaust through a venting system (for example, a stovepipe.) They are typically easier to install and cheaper than direct vents, but are not always as energy efficient.

Direct vents, also called pipe vents, use a specially constructed, double-walled pipe to channel exhaust outside. They don’t rely on a chimney or flue, and this allows them greater placement options in the home including bedrooms, sitting rooms, and converted garages and basements.

Vent-free stoves produce no exhaust and are self-contained and sealed. They make an ideal choice for limited or smaller spaces such as bedrooms, bathrooms, and basements. They are also more efficient than natural and direct vents because they retain all the heat they produce, rather than allowing some to escape through the chimney or stove pipe.

Space Heaters Also Represent A Valuable Choice

Wood Stoves

An electric space heater

Space heaters are typically gas- or propane-fueled, and work best in areas where space is limited or a stove would prove impractical. Some are wall-mounted, while others are easily portable throughout the home or building. Like stoves, many space heaters feature modern electronic controls for easy operation.

Stove Accessories Offer Convenience, Performance

There are literally hundreds of stove accessories available for all models and fuel types. These include enhanced electronics, home cooking and brewing implements, maintenance and repair tools, remote and wall-mounted controls, and a full range of decorative elements. Before making a final decision, it’s helpful to browse what accessories are available for the stove you want to purchase. This will help you anticipate upgrade, cleaning, and repair resources for use at a later date.

Gas FireplacesMarch 20 marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring, meaning the days and nights of enjoying your gas-burning fireplaces are nearing a close for another year. Your spring cleaning plans should definitely include your gas fireplace, as keeping it clean and in top running condition helps add years to its life while helping make sure you, your family and pets are at their safest in your home.

Clean All Vents and Check All Valves

A licensed gas technician should inspect your fireplaces’s vents at least once a year, ideally at the beginning and end of each cold weather season. The technician will check for any stoppages, cracks or other malfunctions that can lead to the fireplace not working properly.

The fireplace’s valves should also be checked and inspected, Some fireplace owners may wish to turn the gas line off with the coming of warm weather, extinguishing the pilot light; in more humid summer climates, keeping the pilot light burning low will help to keep humidity from accumulating inside the firebox.

Cleaning Out The Firebox

Although the gas-burning logs, coals, or stones can be removed from the gas fireplace, they should never be rearranged from their factory-set conditions. Altering their configuration can cause malfunction and – in some cases – a possible gas leak. If this happens, consult a gas technician for help in resetting them.

Gas logs, stones, and coals can all be cleaned by scrubbing them outside with a soft-bristled brush. Vacuum the firebox, making sure to use nozzle attachments to thoroughly clean any nooks or crannies in which trash or dust has accumulated. As the spring and summer seasons stretch on, additional vacuuming will likely become necessary to remove dust, pet hair, and other contaminants that can pose a danger when the gas fireplace is re-ignited come winter.

Gas Fireplaces

A gas key with a Victorian motif

Pet- and Child-Proof The Firebox

Gas fireplaces sitting idle for weeks or months can sometimes become a source of curiosity to small children and pets. Make sure the firebox is closed off using a screen or cover, as pets and small children can shake lose or damage pipes and valves by climbing inside the firebox.