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What to like and what not to like about pellet stoves and pellet boilers.

Our Quadrafire pellet stove, which we can operate even during a power outage. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

We have a sort-of love-hate relationship with our pellet stove. My wife leans more toward the latter, while I see the benefits outweighing the negatives. In this column I’ll outline the primary advantages and disadvantages of pellet heating.

Advantages of wood pellet heating

Regional fuel. The fuel is—or can be—local or regional in origin. At a minimum it’s not fuel that’s coming from places where they don’t like us—like the Middle East. When I’m buying pellets, the source is a significant consideration. I’m willing to pay slightly more to have my pellets come from nearby plants in Jaffrey, New Hampshire or Rutland, Vermont.

Carbon-neutral. The life-cycle of wood pellet production and use can—and should—be close to carbon-neutral. With natural gas, propane, or heating oil we’re taking carbon that was sequestered underground millions of years ago and releasing that as a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere (where it contributes to global warming). When we burn wood pellets we’re still releasing about the same amount of stored carbon into the atmosphere, but that carbon was sequestered in the wood fiber over just a few decades, and if we’re managing our woodlands properly (replacing harvested trees with new ones) the entire life cycle results in almost no net carbon emissions.

Relatively clean-burning. Wood pellets are a lot cleaner-burning than cordwood. This is because pellet combustion is aided by a fan that supplies a steady stream of air to the burn pot. When I first start up my pellet stove—as the electric heating element heats up the pellets to start the combustion—there’s some smoke produced, but once the pellet stove is operating there is no visible smoke being generated. (This is a reason to set the temperature differential on the control relatively high—so that it won’t cycle on and off too frequently.)

Infrequent stoking. Pellet stoves have integral bins that can be filled every few days in cold weather, and most pellet boilers have stand-alone bins that hold several months’ worth of pellets. Regular stoking isn’t required—unlike with a wood stove. If a pellet stove is your only heating system in a space (as is the case with our apartment) how long you can go away depends on the energy efficiency of the building, expected outdoor temperatures, the volume of pellets your stove or bin holds, and the thermostat settings. With our pellet stove, we can go away for about three days in the coldest Vermont weather as long as I leave the thermostat set fairly low.

Convenient. With a pellet stove you don’t have to handle firewood. I’m sure I’ve cut, split, stacked, and burned a couple hundred cords of wood over the decades, and I know that it’s a lot of work. With pellet stoves you’re still handling the fuel—usually 40-pound bags of the rabbit-food-size pellets—but it’s more convenient than dealing with firewood.

Economical. Pellets are less expensive than heating oil, propane, or electric-resistance heat, so you can save money if you would otherwise use those fuels. You may save more money with a pellet stove by heating only a few rooms instead of the whole house—though there are often ways to do that with other heating system as well.

Disadvantages of wood pellet heating

Noisy. There’s no getting around the fact that pellet stoves are noisy. There are typically two fans: one to supply combustion air to the burn pot and another to circulate heated air into the room. I find the noise annoying; my wife hates it. It’s certainly a far cry from a silent wood stove in our living room. There’s a Wiseway Pellet Stove that supposedly operates passively, but haven’t seen one in operation yet. Pellet boilers are noisy too, but they’re typically in the basement or a separate building, so it’s not a problem.

Electricity dependent. When you lose power a pellet stove or pellet boiler can’t operate (unless you have one of those new Wiseway stoves). This is an important consideration not only in rural areas prone to power failures, but also more generally in an age of global climate change with more intense storms forecast. With our own Quadrafire Mt. Vernon AE pellet stove, I bought a kit that allow me to operate the DC fans using a 12-volt automotive-type battery during a power outage. It won’t auto-start using the DC power, so you have to start it by hand with kindling or starter paste, but at least it can be used to keep a space warm when the grid is down.

Comfort. Pellet stoves don’t deliver radiant heat. I love pulling up a chair in front of our wood stove on a cold winter night and sitting down with a good book. That radiant heat seems to warm you inside and out. Pellet stoves—at least the one we have—don’t heat up in the same way and radiate heat. Nearly all the heat is delivered by fan-forced convection. It’s just not as pleasant.

Plastic bags. Unless you get pellets delivered in bulk you produce a lot of polyethylene plastic waste from the bags. The first two years we had our pellet stove I was able to buy bulk pellets that were delivered in reusable thousand-pound totes that sat on pallets. I had to carry the pellets upstairs in five-gallon pails, but at least I didn’t generate all that waste. Unfortunately, the company that had delivered those totes disappeared, and I had to switch to the more typical 40-pound plastic bags (which we reuse as trash bags). I believe that as pellet heating becomes more common, bulk delivery of pellets will become more available.

Complex. Unlike wood stoves, pellet stoves have moving parts that can wear out and that require maintenance. There are blowers, temperature sensors, an auger to deliver pellets, and other components. Most retailers recommend annual servicing, which can add significantly to the total operating cost of a pellet stove or pellet boiler.

Less control over the fuel. If you have a woodlot you can cut and split your own firewood. That’s not the case with pellets. Pellet factories use massive presses to extrude wood fibers through dies to create the pellets. Do-it-yourself pellets aren’t an option.

Not always cheaper. While pellets are less expensive than most other fuels, they may not be cheaper that natural gas or air-source mini-split heat pumps. Use our Heating Fuel Cost Calculator to compare costs per unit of delivered heat. In the Northeast, pellets typically track with heating oil—going up when heating oil prices spike, though generally remaining significantly lower. If you can order pellets in bulk rather than buying them in 40-pound bags, there may be some savings—but not all that much. And there have occasionally been shortages of pellets, driving prices up substantially.

Bottom line

Pellets are a mixed-bag, but they offer enough advantages in many situations to warrant consideration. They provide a user-friendly option for relying on a relatively local, renewable fuel source. If Europe is any indication, the use of pellet heat in the U.S. is likely to increase significantly in the years and decades ahead.

Check out the high-performing, low-emitting pellet stoves that we've found in our GreenSpec section.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. He also recently created the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

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Comments

1 I would agree with Damon and posted by ben graham on 10/25/2009 at 06:15 am

I would agree with Damon and others, including this fad idea, but perhaps its more of a phase shift where we have gotten so far from what we recognize as natural or "of the earth" (vs. some techno/abstract human idea) that we are swinging back. We see this in many elements of culture including politics and food and lifestyles. So why not building methods. In many ways its a reaction. Not everyone has the same reaction. Why back to natural? I think we always will occillate around natural forms because we have work in harmony with nature. We will come up with similar solutions based on nature's solutions and taking clues. When we don't, it lasts only so long before fading away and returning to forms more readily found in nature.

2 Rather than the term "Nature" posted by S. Petty on 10/25/2009 at 09:06 pm

Rather than the term "Nature" I would use "organic" in the art sense of "flowing form" as juxtaposed with rigid geometric forms. In balancing yin yang, a small amount of geometric form can outweigh large organic forms in claiming attention, and thus the proportion needs to refelct this for us to feel a balanced feng shui. We have become accustomed to being surrounded with 90 degree angles (count them on one room) which are jarriing to the eye. When we include softer rounded edges, our eyes (and spirits?), hungry for balance, can rest and feel nourished. The idea of a hand sculpted house rather than a cost effective mass produced structure appeals to the artisan in all of us, whether we would live in one or not.

3 I suppose people, being as th posted by Howard Switzer on 10/13/2009 at 02:26 pm

I suppose people, being as they are, might have various reasons including; it is a current fad, nature is threatened and thus of increasing value. Frank Lloyd Wright was mentioned but not that he inspired an organic architecture movement that continues today and likely embraces earthen architecture. I think there may be a deeper factor moving us in that direction based on our understanding of the universe and how everything works. Bauhaus design springs from a scientific materialist viewpoint and was about production and materials efficiency, which is why some might say it lacks soul. It comes from a view of the universe as machine. Today cutting edge science is moving us from the scientific materialist view to a holistic view of the universe as a living being, conscious, intelligent. This new paradigm will likely be expressed not only in design of material things but governance, economics, psychology, religion etc.

4 I would support the notion th posted by John Swearingen on 10/13/2009 at 11:49 am

I would support the notion that people are drawn to "design inspired by nature". We have to consider what "inspired by nature" means. The notion that chrome furniture is somehow "unnatural", common among us natural builder types, in my view is diminution of nature, which manifests in amazing splendor. Look for instance, at these unaltered photographs of water: http://www.naturebeingart.org/galleries/water/

"Natural" design can take many different forms and be accomplished with a broad spectrum of materials and styles. Although "fashion" comes and goes, nature inspired designs have been with us for millennia, in all cultures. Natural design will always transcend the social implications of design, such as modernity, economics and class.

In the modern world people's experience is often dominated, and limited, by graphic, two-dimensional media. People in other societies experience the world quite differently, with a keen sense of space, strong principles of order and symmetry, an appreciation of imperfection and ambiguity, logarithmic progressions and fractal scaling, repetition, texture and imperfection.

When people sit and spend time with designs that express these qualities, they will gravitate to them. If they spend their time flipping through magazines, and have no time to sit and let inspiration come from nature, then they may choose flash over substance, at least for a little while. Good design will incorporate principles found in nature, and will stay around; flash is, well, a flash in the pan.

5 The answer to #2 is wool long posted by Michael on 10/14/2009 at 11:35 am

The answer to #2 is wool long underwear. I know it's a natural resource, but the design is inspired by nature. The necessities of life are food, water, shelter, cheese, and wool long underwear, right?

And for anybody interested in these topics that is not familiar with these websites, I highly recommend them:http://asknature.org/http://www.bioneers.org

And of course this article by Alex Wilson:http://www.buildinggreen.com/auth/article.cfm/2006/7/9/Biophilia-in-Prac...

6 I think this to be so because posted by Damon on 10/14/2009 at 12:36 pm

I think this to be so because people supposedly have lived on Earth for 3 Million years, and most of that time was probably spent in temporary shelters such as caves, dugouts, homes which borrowed techniques from beavers, birds and dirt daubers, and so on. Look at a conventional house... doesn't it seem unnatural? It doesn't "fit" huh? What's easier, to make a shelter from sticks and stones and mud gathered locally (something you can do yourself) or buy chain saw, cut your trees, have them hauled to the mill, haul them back, then nail everything up with store bought nails, insulate with store bought fiberglass, and everything else in your home will be store bought too? It is no mystery why natives use native materials. But why we are drawn to it? Because we are familiar with it.

7 First of all, we should estab posted by Stronzo di Nord on 10/14/2009 at 07:18 am

First of all, we should establish the point that curves are not a short form for "Nature" , just as linear and geometric configurations are not necessarily (Wo)Man's signature on design.

As such, curvy-shapes (aka "gooey" architecture) does not automatically bestow a design with "Design inspired by Nature" status. Far too often, it's just lazy, muddled-headed workthat ignores basic good building practise.

And quite frankly, I think that Occidentals are just very confused when it comes to design.

They attempt to impose order on Nature by making their gardens neat,tidy, clustered monocultures whereas Nature is in reality, chaotic (or seemingly so to we simple humans) .

Then they try to take Man-made constructions "natural" by making them chaotic whereas the reality is that the act of human creation is by nature, a process of order and organisation.

I don't think that it is "design inspired by nature" to which people are drawn (whatever that may be since it can easily be argued that all design is inspired by Nature ie :There is nothing new under the sun.") but rather, they are drawn to designs in which a worthy investment of human effort is evident , whether it be in terms of intellectual rigour and or artistic craft.

Okay, so is that what you wanted me to say, Duck Foo'd , in an effort to stir up the BGL pot ?

8 Nature is chaotic? Funny, I posted by John Swearingen on 10/14/2009 at 07:34 am

Nature is chaotic? Funny, I hadn't noticed! Human creation is "a process or order and organization?" Ordered and organized like a machine, yes. Would you want your beloved building designed by an engineer? Oh...maybe you would!


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