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Introduction to Pellet Stoves – Part 2

wood scraps

Pellets are made from compressed wood scraps and saw dust leftover at wood mills.

Pellet stoves are efficient, eco-friendly heating systems.  They’ve been available in their current form only since about the 1980s, and many people aren’t familiar with them.  This is Part 2 in our continuing series about these unique appliances. You can also check out the first part on pellet stove basics.

The Pellets

Pellet stoves don’t burn logs, as fireplaces and wood burning stoves do.  Instead, they are designed to burn wood pellets, also called biomass pellets, which are fed into the stove through a hopper.

The pellets are the essence of why pellet stoves are the most eco-friendly form of heating system available.  Pellets are made from sawdust and other forms of wood waste.  In other words, these biomass pellets are made from products which are normally thrown out; and they, therefore, do not contribute to deforestation.

pellet stove pellets

The pellets are small in size in order to fit through the hopper and fuel the fire without complications.

Pellets are highly compressed.  They range in size somewhat, but they are less than 1.5 inches long.  Optimally, pellets are less than 1 inch in length, since the smaller size helps to prevent any clogging in the hopper as it feeds the pellets into the combustion chamber.

There are different grades of pellets.  An organization called The Pellet Fuel Institute has set standards and grades of pellets, which helps consumers in deciding what to buy.  The premium grade variety contains less than 1% ash, when burned.  High ash content is usually caused by an excess amount of tree bark.  Both hard woods and soft woods are used in premium grade pellets.  The type available from a manufacturer is usually determined by the kinds of local trees used in lumber mills.

It’s a good idea to try different brands of pellets before buying in large amounts, because inexpensive pellets are sometimes found to burn as efficiently as others.  But some brands/grades produce fly ash, which can restrict air flow and make cleanup more complicated.  For a cold winter, it usually requires 3 tons of pellets to keep the home warm throughout the season.  They are sold in 40-pound bags that are widely available.

pellet stove pellets

Check to make sure that pellet stove pellets are made in your area.

It’s important to note that pellets are not manufactured in all areas of the country.  You may want to consider the fuel costs involved with having 3 tons of pellets shipped to you for a winter season, if going green is the primary reason you’re interested in these appliances.

Storage space for pellets is minimal, since they can be nicely stacked. Typically a new bag will need to be opened every 1 or 2 days in the cold of winter. It’s essential that the storage location is nice and dry.  Damp pellets will swell in size and then can’t feed properly from the hopper into the burn pot.

How does the cost of wood pellets stack up against other heat sources?  When you consider the average price of fuel, the heating value of the fuel, and the heating appliance’s efficiency, the Energy Information Administration’s Heating Fuel Comparison Calculator indicates that producing 1 million Btu costs:

• $9.06 using coal;
• $9.09 using solid wood;
• $12.61 using natural gas;
• $15.15 using wood pellets;
• $18.53 using oil;
• $ 24.66 using propane;
• $33.25 using space heaters and electric furnaces.

Learn about the environmental impact of using wood pellets in Part 3 of our series.

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