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In this report

Pellet stoves are a safe, effective heat source

Pellet stoves are more complex than wood stoves and tend to be louder because they heat using convection, which requires a couple of fans to get the hot air moving around. However, because a pellet stove's surfaces are cooler than those of wood stoves, which radiate heat right through their walls, they may be safer for kids and pets.

Pellet stoves are also less messy than wood-burning stoves, come closer to true automated performance than a wood stove, and may not need refilling on a daily basis depending on the hopper size and local weather. When equipped with an automatic start and thermostat, pellet stoves are the epitome of alternative-fuel convenience.

Pellet stoves cost more than wood stoves, and experts recommend professional installation. However, those costs may be offset by the fact that most pellet stoves require only a 3-inch vent pipe rather than the insulated chimney you'd need for a wood stove.

One main drawback to pellet stoves is that the pellets must be kept dry, so you shouldn't store them outdoors. This may attract insects and rodents to your storage shed. Also, pellet stoves require electricity to keep the fire going, so unless you choose a model with a battery backup, you'll need to buy an uninterrupted power supply or a portable generator as a backup.

Perhaps the most serious downside to pellet stoves is that the supply of pellets -- and thus the price -- depends on both demand and the housing market. Pellets are a byproduct of the lumber industry, so when the demand for lumber falls, fewer pellets are available. Consider not only current pellet pricing but probable future pricing in your area before you buy a pellet stove.

Which pellet stoves are best?

Of the pellet stoves we evaluated, the Harman P68 (Est. $3,900) offers the best combination of power, features and reliability. Its 76-pound hopper holds plenty of fuel to burn all day long without a refill, even in cold temperatures. The manufacturer claims up to a 30-hour burn time, with most consumers saying they get anywhere from eight to 20 hours, depending on stove settings and local conditions.

The P68 isn't the highest of the high-tech stoves in this report -- that honor goes to the runner-up Quadra-Fire Mt. Vernon AE (Est. $4,100) -- but it still comes with a nice array of features. An exhaust monitor automatically adjusts the flame to keep interior temperatures within 1 degree of the setpoint, an air wash does a good job of keeping the glass clean, an optional battery backup keeps the stove running in case of power failure, and a push-button auto-start makes ignition easy. The chief complaints we found are that the auto-igniter goes out and the augers wear out too quickly. The latter issue may be due to an extra hole in the firepot and replacing it is a simple fix.

Most pellet stoves require regular maintenance, including daily cleanings. While there's no doubt that your Harman P68 will benefit from the same, many owners say it's less care-intensive, and more likely to keep chugging along through brief periods of neglect, than the competition. This stove has a limited lifetime warranty for the firebox and heat exchanger, with lesser coverage for other parts.

If you want all the bells and whistles on a pellet stove, consider the Quadra-Fire Mt. Vernon AE, which we also name our best-reviewed multi-fuel stove. It produces up to 52,460 British thermal units, can heat up to 2,900 square feet and has a hefty 80-pound hopper. Quadra-Fire and Harman are now owned by the same company, so the stove has the same warranty and many of the same features you'll find on the Harman P68, plus an auto-clean cycle and a programmable wall thermostat instead of the P68's exhaust monitor. The Mt. Vernon AE is also compatible with zone heating, and you can run it from a 12-volt battery backup if the power goes out.

Both the Harman P68 and the Quadra-Fire Mt. Vernon AE are relatively quiet for pellet stoves, and both are approved for use in mobile homes.

If you need to heat a smaller area, the Napoleon NPS45 (Est. $3,100) produces up to 42,500 Btu and heats up to 2,000 square feet. It comes with a 55-pound hopper, a burn pot that automatically purges itself every hour, optional thermostatic control and a four-stage fail-safe. A 25-pound hopper extension is optional. Both the feed auger and the 120 cfm blower can be adjusted with digital controls.

The NPS45 is one stove that definitely gives better results when you burn with high-quality pellets. Most owners agree that as long as you keep up with the regular maintenance, it's easy to use and clean. The blowers can get a little loud, but some say that's solved by reducing the feed rate. The entire stove is covered by a limited lifetime warranty, but consumers have sharply divided opinions about both customer care and parts durability.

Finally, the Quadra-Fire Santa Fe (Est. $2,250) provides up to 34,400 Btu and can heat from 700 to 1,900 square feet. It's self-igniting and thermostat controlled, with an air wash to keep the glass clean. However, like many pellet stoves, the Santa Fe is on the noisy side. The auger feed also clogs easily, and the auto-start sometimes balks and has to be reset.

Pellet stoves for those on a budget

Experts recommend buying a pellet stove from an independent dealer who provides ongoing parts and service. But if you need alternative heating on a budget, you can find lower-cost pellet stoves at retailers such as Home Depot, Lowe's and Northern Tool. Trade-offs for the low price include more noise, lower efficiency and potential quality-control issues. Burning premium-grade pellets and studiously following the manufacturer's cleaning instructions become even more important with this type of stove, and if the electricity goes out you'll need a portable generator instead of a battery backup to power them.

The Summers Heat 55-SHP10L (Est. $1,700) is a simple, proven design that has gone largely unchanged for more than 20 years. Owners say it does a good job of heating the promised 1,500 square feet in temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and its heavy plate-steel construction provides ample heat. However, some say the 40-pound hopper doesn't really hold all that many pellets and may need a refill during very cold days.

The 55-SHP10L requires daily cleaning and twice-weekly deep cleanings, but owners say that as long as you keep up with those chores, it'll provide reliable heat for years. It has no ash pan, so most users vacuum ashes out of the stove. It has a one-touch ignition that's only somewhat finicky, a 140 cfm adjustable blower to move the heated air around and an outside air kit. It can be adapted to thermostatic control, but the thermostat can adjust only the stove's feed rate, not switch it on and off.

The US Stove 5500 pellet stove (Est. $1,700) is rated at 48,000 Btu for up to 1,200 square feet. It gets reasonably good ratings from owners for its enormous, 120-pound pellet hopper, nine heat settings and thermostat compatibility. The US Stove 5500 requires a few more inches of clearance from the walls than some of the more expensive pellet stoves, has no battery backup and sometimes has to be ignited manually. In general, however, it's a basic stove that owners say works well.

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