choosing and buying a pellet stove
Pellet stoves can be an efficient and economical way to heat all or part of your home. But before investing in one you need to look closely at a number of factors. See also pellet stove pros and cons.
Size of stove
Pellet stoves are rated first and foremost by their heating capacity, also known as heat output range, and their efficiency. Typically, pellet stoves have an output range of a few thousand to 40,000 BTU or more, and an overall efficiency of 75 to 90% (usually in the low-to-mid 80s). The actual figures obviously vary from one model to the next. But be aware that whatever figures are quoted by the manufacturer, you need to take into account other variables in deciding what type and capacity of stove you need. These extra factors include:
The best way to make a smart decision is to note down all these details and talk them over with a knowledgeable and trustworthy dealer.
Type of fuel
You need to research the cost and availability of different types of pellet fuel – wood pellets (premium and standard grade), corn pellets, etc – in your area because these factors will dramatically affect your choice of stove and the cost of running it. In some places, pellets are not cheap. In New York state, for example, a standard-size bag of pellets may cost anywhere from $4.50 to $8, depending on the supplier, and be consumed in only 10 hours even at low setting. Know where you can get pellets locally and at what cost before you take the plunge with a particular stove. If you think the annual expense may be too great for a wood pellet stove, consider alternatives such as a multi-fuel pellet stove or an ordinary wood stove.
Operation and maintenance
Pellet stoves aren't short of moving parts, motors, and electrical and electronic gadgetry, so inevitably they need regular maintenance and servicing. Look for a model that gives easy access to areas that need checking and maintaining. For example, on some models the heat exchanger can be cleaned simply by moving an external rod handle back and forth, while other designs demand a more elaborate cleaning procedure. Professional servicing at least once a year is a good idea, so consider taking out a service contract. Find out more about pellet stove maintenance.
Keep in mind that you have to take out the ashes about once a week with steady use. An easy-to-manage, large-capacity ash drawer makes cleanup easier. Hopper capacity, which can very from about 35 pounds to 130 pounds, is another important factor. How much capacity you need depends on your heating requirements, but you don't want to be filling the hopper more than about once a day during normal use. Learn more about how to operate a pellet stove.
Top or bottom feed?
Some pellet stoves feed pellets down a chute from the hopper, while others deliver the fuel from behind or to the side of the burn box. You need to consider the pros and cons of each type. A top-fed stove cuts the chances of fire burning back into the hopper but is more likely to have its burn area clogged with ash and clinkers. This is why many manufacturers of top-fed models recommend burning high-grade, low-ash pellets. Bottom-fed models don't have the same need for premium fuel because the ash and clinkers are pushed into the ash pan during fuel delivery; on the other hand, they may not be quite as efficient. Check individual model specs before deciding which way to go.
Appearance and style
Not surprisingly, there's a big choice available in external design of pellet stove from sleek modern to ornate, old-world. More significantly, there's a range of functionally different styles, including freestanding units, fireplace inserts, and pellet-fueled furnaces and boilers that can take the place of, or supplement, conventional forced-air heating systems.
Most pellet stoves produce a small, hot fire that's concentrated in the center of the unit and not visually impressive. If you want a fire that's pretty to look at, you need to single out stoves that have a good flame pattern and a large viewing glass. Some stoves allow the use of ceramic log-look-a-likes that help spread out the flames and give the fire a more traditional, heart-warming as well as hearth-warming appearance.
Other features to consider
How easy do want your pellet stove to be to clean and maintain? How much of the stove's operation do you want to be automatic? While some people enjoy a mostly hands-off approach, others get pleasure from tending their fire.
Stoves with manual controls may need occasional adjustment of air inlet dampers as the rate of fuel feed is changed. Models with more sophisticated (and expensive) controls can monitor burn conditions and make these adjustments automatically. Other features may include automatic ignition for simple, reliable startup (a bigger advantage in the case of stoves that are likely to be used intermittently rather than continuously) and an air wash system for keeping the glass clean by directing warm air over it during combustion.
With pellet stoves, as with so much in life, you often get what you pay for. You'll pay more for larger capacity and extra features. But, aside from the bells and whistles, give special consideration to stoves that are built well, with heavy-duty construction and components. Beware of inferior brands that use thin sheet metal, which may quickly burn out or rust. Properly cleaned and maintained, a pellet stove should last for many years with little repair.
Pellet stoves need electricity to run their motors, so you need to think about what happens if there's a power outage in your area (also, of course, the stove has to be located fairly near a power outlet). Some models have battery backup units. Alternatively, if outages are a real problem where you live, you may want to consider having a gas-powered generator on hand to take over when the mains supply fails.
Expect to pay anywhere from $1,700 to $3,300 for a pellet stove (more for a furnace) and from $350 to $550 for installation. When comparing the total cost of installing a pellet stove with that of an ordinary wood stove, bear in mind that pellet stoves need only a vent pipe to the outside not a costly conventional chimney or flue. However, also bear in mind that the relative cost and availability of different types of fuel in your area will determine the most economical way to go with your heating.
Dealing with pellet stove dealers
As well as everything mentioned above, you may want to ask before purchase what kind of instructional materials and services a dealer offers (in addition to the manuals and videos supplied by the manufacturer). Check what the cost of after-sale services will be, including warranty service, extended warranty plans, and regular (usually annual) service. Get a good feel for what the total cost of buying, installing, and running your pellet stove or furnace will be. How soon are you likely to recover the cost of initial outlay over running your existing system? One year, two years, ten years, never?