The first time Brenda Flick fired up a pellet stove was on a cold winter's day in 2005. And her life hasn't been the same since. Within a year, she had quit her job, rented some retail space, and started selling them herself. "I knew it was the right time and the right product for the consumer, the country, and the environment," says Flick, in perfect true-believer fashion.
What convinced her was discovering that a pellet stove could heat her entire 3,000-square-foot ranch house for less than $120 a month. (She paid up to $200 with gas.) Skeptical at first, she set the thermostat for the furnace at 55 degrees, just in case the stove needed some extra help. The machinery never kicked on; it didn't have to.
Flick may be an extreme example, but a lot of homeowners share her enthusiasm. Perhaps it's because of the energy savings these whole house pellet furnaces provide, or the fact that they offer an eco-friendly heating option.
Fueled by pellets made from recycled, super-compressed sawdust, they not only conserve trees, they also burn hotter and cleaner than conventional woodstoves or fireplaces, producing minimal smoke and ash.
According to retailers, sales of pellet furnaces are, dare we say it, on fire. In 2019 the Washington, D.C. based Pellet Fuels Institute reports that 1 million households in the U.S. are currently using pellet stoves — not bad for a stove that was only invented in the 1980s.
How Does a Pellet Stove Work?
You start by pouring the pellets into the stove's hopper, which usually holds 40 to 55 pounds of them at a time. The pellets are then fed automatically into a burn chamber, where they're incinerated with the help of a fan that forces combustion air into the chamber. Another fan blows the hot air out into your house.
Some models require you light the fire yourself, others let you push a button on the stove (or a remote control!) to fire them up; fully automatic versions are attached to a thermostat and turn on or off depending on the selected heat level.
Because whole house pellet furnaces work on the principle of convection, not radiation, the surface stays relatively cool, which means you can install them as little as three inches away from the wall. The only requirement is a nearby electrical outlet to power the feed system and fans (and a battery back up in case the electricity goes out).
Freestanding models are vented through a 3- to 5-inch double-wall pipe, but pellet burners are also available as fireplace inserts, which vent through a stainless-steel lining that runs up your chimney.
Pellet Stove Costs
Depending on the size and type of stove you choose, you can expect to lay out between $1,500 and $3,500 for the initial investment. While most pellet enthusiasts insist that you'll recoup your money in just a few years through dramatically lower heating bills, you should do some math before taking the plunge.
The pellets themselves are typically sold in 40-pound bags. Flick sells them for about $5.25 a bag, or $240 a ton, though prices vary by region. You'll probably need about three tons and the space to store the bags—to get you through the winter.
The stoves might also need a little more maintenance than your current heating system. Just like the family pet, they require a regular feeding schedule. You'll need to load in pellets every four or five days, depending on the size of the hopper and how often you use the stove.
Since pellets burn with greater than 99 percent efficiency, they leave little ash behind (about one gram per hour), but you’ll still have to clean out what little remains every week or so.
Installation and Models
Finally, unlike that big, ugly furnace in the basement, most pellet stoves are installed in your living space, so you’ll need to consider aesthetics. There’s a wide range of choices, from boxy, industrial looking models to ones that resemble old-world wood burners.
Many have viewing windows, so you can gaze at the flames. You true romantics can even get fake logs that fit right inside the window — a constant reminder of what, exactly, these stoves are saving.
For info on where to find pellet supply in your area, go to pelletheat.org.