Pellet stoves are more complex than wood stoves, with convoluted inner tubing and built-in fans to help circulate the hot air they produce. However, because a pellet stove's exterior surfaces are cooler than those of wood stoves, which radiate heat right through their walls, they may be a safer choice than wood stoves if you have small children or pets in the house.
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'll 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 construction market. Pellets are a byproduct of the lumber industry, so when the demand for lumber falls, fewer pellets are available. Before you buy a pellet stove, consider not only current pellet pricing but probable future pricing in your area.
Of the pellet stoves we evaluated, the Harman P68 (Est. $4,100) offers the best combination of power, features and reliability. Its 76-pound hopper holds plenty of fuel for an all-day burn, even in cold temperatures. (The manufacturer claims up to a 30-hour burn time; most consumers say they get anywhere from eight to 20 hours, depending on stove settings and local conditions.) The Harman P68 puts out 71,200 British thermal units or BTUs of heat, enough to warm 1,500 to 3,900 square feet of living area.
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. $4,240 and up), whcih we discuss in greater detail in our section on the best multi-fuel stoves -- but it still comes with a nice array of features. Users love the way the P68's exhaust monitor automatically adjusts the flame to keep interior temperatures within 1 degree of the set point, and the way an air wash keeps the glass clean so you can watch the pellets burning. An optional battery backup keeps the stove running in case of power failure, and a push-button auto-start makes ignition easy.
Because pellet stoves are relatively complex and their performance is intimately tied to how well you maintain them, even the best stoves have a smattering of user complaints. The chief concerns we saw for the Harman P68 are that the auto-igniter goes out and the augers wear out too quickly.
While there's no doubt that your Harman P68 (or any stove) would benefit from daily cleanings, many owners say the P68 is less care-intensive, and more likely to keep chugging along through brief periods of neglect, than the competition. The Harman brand in general also has a good reputation with users for its ease of use and versatility in pellet choice; these stoves aren't as picky as other brands.
If you want all the high-tech 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, heating up to 2,900 square feet of living space, and has a hefty 80-pound hopper. Quadra-Fire and Harman are now owned by the same company, so this 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, have excellent safety records and intuitive controls, and are approved for use in mobile homes.
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.
By far, the best cheap pellet stove we found in our research is the Castle Serenity (Est. $1,000). The Castle Serenity draws lots of user praise for being reliable and well-made, and most users also say the company provides excellent customer service. That trifecta is rare for pellet stoves at any price range, but especially the sub-$2,000 department, you can sometimes even find this stove for less than $1,000.
The Castle Serenity puts out about 35,000 BTU and has a built-in heat probe (to monitor and adjust temperature) and a 150-cfm blower; it's rated to heat up to 2,800 square feet. Maintenance is very easy -- all you have to do is cool the stove, empty the ash pan, dust the inside panels and sweep out the exhaust pipe.
With that said, the Serenity stove does have some quirks that keep it from being the our top pick overall. The hopper only holds 40 pounds of pellets, so users say you have to wait for it to be almost empty before refilling. Owners also don't back up the manufacturer's optimistic claims of a 16- to 18-hour burn time, which is more than you'd usually get from a hopper twice that size. Users also say the ash pan design is clumsy enough that it's easier to clean this stove out with a vacuum, and they wish the stove didn't automatically time out for 30 minutes every time power is interrupted even briefly.
Still, being able to get a reliable pellet stove in this price range is remarkable, and good customer service is something that many of the companies producing bigger, more expensive stoves can't provide. So if you're happy with a heat-probe-controlled stove that works well but doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, this is your best buy.
For smaller spaces, the Summers Heat 55-SHP10L (Est. $1,300) 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 radiates ample heat. However, this stove also has a 40-pound hopper that may need to be refilled during the day when temperatures are low.
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 only adjust the stove's feed rate; it can't turn the stove on and off completely.
Finally, the Pleasant Hearth PH50CABPS (Est. $1,600), available through outlets like Home Depot and Amazon.com, draws a lot of praise from users who love that they can get a stove with a massive 120-pound hopper and built-in blower for less than $2,000. The PH50CABPS puts out up to 50,000 BTU and can heat up to 2,200 feet, with an efficiency rating of 78 percent and particulate emissions of 0.69 grams/hour.
The user experience with the Pleasant Hearth PH50CABPS corollates directly with how interested you are in scoring a bargain deal. It isn't perfect; the biggest complaints we see are that it's loud, the controls aren't intuitive, and the augers that feed pellets into the firepot tend to go out. You'll want to keep the decoding chart in the manual handy so you can understand the signals this stove flashes at you with its red/green/amber LED lights. Be ready to clean the firepot every day and vacuum ash from the firebox weekly (at least), then plan on thorough monthly cleanings that include the exhaust and convection blowers and exhaust path, including the drop tube and behind the baffles.
The more diligent you are about maintenance, the better any pellet stove will perform -- but that goes double for stoves in the sub-$3,000 price range.