Though they sound like something an owl or hawk might use to heat their nest, pellet stoves are actually a clean-burning home heating option that has grown in popularity in recent years. Although pellet stoves have been around for decades, they have become increasingly popular in recent years as a result of soaring oil prices.
What exactly are these heating pellets made of? “Wood pellets are a compressed wood product,” explained Bill Overbaugh of Ehrhart Propane and Oil in Trumansburg. He said that the pellets are usually about three-eighths of an inch in diameter and vary in length from about half an inch to an inch. He added, “The companies we buy from make [the pellets] completely from waste products from the lumber industry, so they’re going to different saw mills and they’re taking the scraps.” The resulting pellets are a more eco-friendly heating option than traditional wood stoves.
Pellet stoves generally need a little less tending than many traditional wood stoves. Tim Reynolds, the operations manager at Ithaca Stoveworks, said, “Pellet stoves have a built-in hopper system where you just pour a 40-pound bag [of pellets] into the top of the stove so you only have to add a bag every 18 to 24 hours.” He estimated that a total of four to five tons of pellets would be sufficient for a winter. Each ton is approximately a four-foot cube, which can be stored outside, although it needs to be protected from moisture. A ton of wood pellets generally costs between $200 and $250.
Installing a pellet stove is surprisingly easy. “Installation usually can be done in about an hour,” Reynolds said. “If a homeowner is handy, they can certainly do it themselves.” Unlike a regular wood stove, a pellet stove doesn’t require a regular chimney; Overbaugh described it as a smaller chimney, while Reynolds described it as a vent.
Pellet stoves have to be installed near an electrical outlet because the stove’s igniter and the auger that feeds in the pellets both require electricity. “We have customers who are concerned that if the power goes out they will lose heat,” Overbaugh said, “and I often recommend a battery backup—it gets them through half a day or a day.”
Reynolds noted, though, that a pellet stove isn’t intended as a primary heating device: “Like a woodstove or any small heating device, pellet stoves are really not designed as a central heater. They’re still considered a space heater.” However, Overbaugh noted that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development quite recently began accepting pellet boilers as a sole source of heat.
Overbaugh described pellet boilers as being “pretty cool.” He said, “They’re a product that has been in Europe for about 20 years, and they’re just now breaking into the U.S. market.”
“They’re fully automated, self-cleaning, self-feeding, and self-igniting,” he went on. “Basically you just empty the ash pan twice a year.” He added that pellet boilers cost a couple thousand more than high-efficiency propone boilers, but said that the annual fuel costs are about half that of propane.
One of the major plusses of pellet stoves and boilers is that they are eco-friendly. Overbaugh said that, unlike traditional wood stoves, pellet stove emissions are as low as natural gas appliances. He also noted that they have a lower impact on the carbon cycle: “One of the benefits over propane or oil is that [wood] is a natural part of the carbon cycle so you’re not pulling out carbon that was buried underground [millions] of years ago.” Also, pellet stoves burn about 15 percent more efficiently than wood stoves, although that efficiency comes at a price as pellets are slightly more expensive than wood.
Another alternative heating option—and one that can be utilized by homeowners with traditional wood stoves—is the Eco Brick. Eco Bricks are made of compressed sawdust, which is denser—and thus burns longer—than traditional wood.
Overbaugh said, “[With Eco Bricks] you’re taking this wild fuel of wood and making it more consistent and more reliable.” However, Eco Bricks are more expensive than regular wood. Reynolds said that Eco Bricks are not as popular as pellets. •