For 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
Pellets 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
PFI 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.