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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I was just wondering how much electricity that the fan uses, with a pellet stove?
A simple solution to reducing or eliminating the cost of pellets is to make them yourself. My company offers one of the largest selections of pellet making machines in the country. Many of our residential customers order our smallest and least expensive pellet mill. Sometimes they split the cost of the machine with friends or family who burn pellets as well. Then they take their lawn waste materials like grass and oak leafs and make pellets with them. They empty the materials from the bagger of their lawnmower into the pellet mill, store the pellets, and enjoy the free heat when winter comes.
I installed one last year that we used as primary heat in our 1700 sq ft home (New Hampshire). In the cold of winter, the unit does pretty much run 24x7, with a weekly shut-down for cleaning. I bought a lower end unit. Better units probably need less attention. Based on the math above, I'd think that 134W is probably about right. You're using electricity for one or two feed augers, plus the fans. Keep in mind that these units don't use a draft exhaust like a wood stove, they use a blower to force out the exhaust, as well as circulate combustion air, and cirulate air around the heat exchangers and out into the room. It's not as cheap to operate as a wood stove, but it's MUCH easier, and heat convects around the room much better than most wood stoves, which primarily radiate.
We've had our pellet stove for about 7 years and really like it. We have a large downstairs family room, about 25 x 18, and it is great for keeping that room warm all winter. Our tri level house is open to the upper levels and the main floor will reach about 58-60 degrees if we crank the stove up to just about max-20,000but. We just close the doors to the third level bedrooms to keep the heat downstairs. The fan gets a little annoying at times but we just turn the volume up on the TV and its not a problem. We use about 1 ton of pellets from mid October to late March or mid April depending on the winter. Just paid $179 for a ton. It is labor intensive as it needs cleaned out every couple of days, though the pellet holder in the fire box needs cleaned daily if you expect it to start. Flue pipe is 4" stainless and needs cleaned about once a month. Get the air damper set just right and it is pretty efficient. My wife does have to do a major dusting in the Spring as there is a certain amount of dust that gets on the walls during the winter. All in all we would do it again to heat a "space" but would not recommend it for a whole house unless you like to wear a sweater or sweat shirt all day every day. With the cost of propane it's much less expensive and the payback was probably less than three years.
Yes, I generally agree with your idea.But you have some wood dust or straw dust for free, the conclusion is different.
Thanks -- a very helpful article. My sister has been thinking about a pellet stove for her house, but I think an investment in insulation and air sealing is probably far more cost effective.
100 kWh/month ~= 134W * 24hours * 31days 134W sounds like some *very* heavy duty fans. I'd assume that you wouldn't actually run this 24x7 ... so the fans would have to use even more power to get to 100kWh/month.
Tony, You're right. I just saw that value in an article I was reading and didnt think to fact check it. Can anyone with a pellet stove tell me how many Watts it consumes when plugged in? I'm assuming pellet stoves just use 120V? If so you can do this with a Kill-A-Watt or a TED. Once I know the Wattage we'll just use some estimates for how long the fans are on to figure out how much electricity these things use.
My mother's uses 175 watts and she uses it about 12 hours a day (whitfield) I use my THELIN 24 hours a day on low for 5 to 6 months and it uses 19 watts.
Great job with this blog! I agree that it is hard to compete with the convenience of natural gas and for now it seems to be an infinite resource.


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