Heating with Wood Pellets: Worth the effort?


In the past week I've seen two great articles about heating your home with Wood Pellets and a pellet stove.  The first was in October's issue of Consumer Reports, which has a great section on energy efficiency for the home and a section on pellet stoves.  They also have a good pellet and wood-burning stove buyer's guide on their website.  The second was on the Green Tech portion of CNET's blog covering, which is home delivering wood pellets (although it seems to a small geographic area - I'm guessing the North-East since the company is based in New Hampshire).


First, let's look at the basics of heating your home with wood pellets and a pellet stove.  For another overview, check out, which has a nice section on how a pellet stove works.  Pellets are usually made from compressed sawdust that look (and probably taste) a lot like gerbil food.  You put them into the pellet hopper built into the stove.  An electrically powered auger  transfers the pellets into a burner, which burns them to produce heat.  One fan moves air through the burner chamber to provide oxygen to the flames and exhaust the gases while another fan blows the heated air into your home.  Basically, it is a fireplace that uses really, really tiny logs.

The great news about pellet stoves is that they are eligible for the 30% Federal Tax credit on the installed cost as long as the thermal efficiency is greater than 75%.  If you need an overview of Tax Credits check out the blog here. While the stoves usually are under $3,000 it may cost another $1,000 to have it professionally installed.

Now to some of the bad news. Drawbacks are as follows:

  • constantly toting around the 40 lb. bags of wood pellets to feed the beast
  • emptying the ash pan on a regular basis
  • higher particulate matter than natural gas and oil
  • cleaning the glass if you want to see the flame
  • maintaining heat exchanger and exhaust vent
  • pellet stove is a space heater, not a whole home solution
  • may need a building permit to install
  • internal fans use up to 100 kWh of electricity a month!
  • sound of fans and pellets in stove may get annoying
  • wood pellets may not be easy to get in your area

Consumer Reports  says that burning pellets costs roughly 15% less than heating oil and 40% less than electricity, BUT 25% more than natural gas.  Of course all of these heating sources (including wood pellets) will fluctuate over time, so these price differences will always be in flux.

In regards to the pellet stove payback, there are some differing figures on this.  Again, it depends on the price of fuel and how much the installed cost is, but while Consumer Reports says the payback could be decades, (which may be biased :) ) says the payback is  a mere two to five years.  Obviously, it depends on your situation and what fuel you are currently using to heat your home.

To me, pellet stoves look like they have a very small niche.  If your heating costs are currently high (i.e. you are using heating oil) and you enjoy seeing  a flame, then it may be a worthwhile investment.  However, I wouldn't recommend them for that many people, especially if you currently heat your home with natural gas.  The biggest drawback I see is that the particulate emissions are higher than oil and natural gas.  Since many cities already have poor air quality, I certainly wouldnt want to install a heating system that makes it any worse.  Now, if I had a cabin I needed to heat, then a pellet stove would look like a great solution.  For my geographic location (Atlanta, GA) I have other energy efficient improvements that would produce a greater environmental benefit and a greater return on my investment, but that's just me.

What are your thoughts on the pellet stove?

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Sorry for raising this from the dead but... I have an England Stove summers heat, 1500 sq ft lowes special pellet stove Start up is 4.1 amps Normal OP is 1.4 - 2.3 Thats 451 Watts start up and 154 - 253 Watts under normal operation.
One important fact left out of this discussion concerns those that live alone or in a house larger than they can use. Even with gas heat, you wind up heating the entire house. A Pellet stove lets you shut down part of the house you don't need in the winter, and (for me at least), heat the areas used frequently (downstairs living room, kitchen, bath and bedroom. It really saves me alot of money, and I have forced hot air gas. Last year, I probably saved over $1100 in gas in trade for $300 in pellets.
Hi I agree with you about a pellet stove not being for everyone. They have some components that you would see on a gas or oil forced hot air system like a combustion blower motor, room air blower, pressure switches etc. But unlike a gas or oil system the consistency of the fuel and the rate of the delivery varies even within the same batch with the same auger settings ( you'll notice when the auger turns sometimes a couple of pellets drop and sometimes more) this makes it almost impossible to consistently balance the fuel to air ratio for proper combustion. Coupled with the higher particulate matter in the exhaust that tends to cling to fan blades, flue systems and heat exchangers leads to higher maintenance. And increased chance of component failure. If you are going to use pellets MAINTAIN YOUR SYSTEM. I have a magnum baby countryside, it is a workhorse. Power consumtion is about 360watts max if I remember correctly.
We have a Harman and we love it. With the city of Newark, CA recently adding a 3.5% tax on utilities, our pellet stove is even more clearly the preferred way of heating our house.
Good article about pellet stove. I was looking into what it costs electricty wise and I think it depends in part on what brand and make you have and of course how long you have it on. I am currently using a Harmon XXV in Vermont and didn't use a drop of oil last year to heat my house. One of the advantage of the pellet stove is local fuel source, my pellets are made in NH from local materials so that is a big advantage in my mind. I notice to that some people buy the cheapest pellets they can find with a huge ash count. I buy pellets which have a very low ash content which means they produce a lot less ash. I only clean my stove out every couple weeks. I think some people who have to clean it every couple days must be burning lower grade pellets or their stove has a tiny ash pan. Lately I have been firing the stove on high for a few hours then turning it off the rest of the day. I wonder if anyone has done some actual electricity usage via a monitor on some stoves?
ckmapawatt's picture
Good idea in monitoring the stove. I'm guessing you could use a basic <a href="" rel="nofollow">kill-a-watt</a> to measure the electricity consumption. It just plugs into a regular 120-V wall outlet right?
I used over a ton of Freedom Fuel Pellets this winter when I ran out. Bought 10 bags of Somerset <a href="" rel="nofollow">Pellets</a>. The Somerset pellets burn much hotter and leave less ash, and less smoke residue. They are the best!!!!!
I've had a pellet stove for about 10 years. I love it. I look at it as more of an aesthetic thing. I live in Atlanta. We use it in the evenings when watching TV in the den and want a fire. It is not used as a primary heat source. It heats the room for a few hours a night. As such we don't use many bags during the season. For us a bag will last three to four evenings. I agree that the glass will get a coating but we don't worry about it, we clean it a couple of times in the season. I compare it to a fire place. Pellets cost a lot less than logs unless you want to split the wood. The pellets are cleaner than logs (less ash for less cleaning and no bugs!). The bags take less space than logs. It's good for us. When it dies we will get another. The new stoves can use a variety of fuels (like corn) so you can maybe get some deals. we've never had a problem with dust. My biggest complaint is that when you clean it there is some disassembly required but mine is old and it may not be an issue with the newer models.
Id be concerned about the dust that seems to remain in the living area. as Rich was pointing out this stuff has to be vacuumed regularly. I wonder about what goes into your lungs. So with that in mind if anyone in the family has respiratory ailments Id think twice about using a pellet wood stove.
I have read with interest your comments on wood pellets as a viable alternative to fossil fuels and home heating oil. I have to agree with your observation that wood pellets being a niche market. One of the main issues with wood pellets that I have come across is the availability of wood pellets especially in large urban centers. That being said, for those who are determined to use wood pellets as a fuel source it is possible to make your own wood pellets from sawdust. This does involve additional investment in a pellet mill but I think that over the long term it would be a worthwhile investment.


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