Free-standing solid-fuel heating stoves come in three basic types: pellet stoves that burn pellets made of compressed sawdust, woodstoves that burn logs, and multi-fuel stoves that burn pellets and/or feed corn or other biomass fuels such as cherry pits or corn cobs. (A few stoves burn only corn.) Each type has advantages and drawbacks.
Pellet stoves are the noisiest type of heating stove because they require two fans -- but they're more convenient than other types of stoves, less messy, and -- depending on the hopper size -- may not need refilling on a daily basis. When equipped with automatic start plus a thermostat, they're very convenient. Even wall thermostats and remote-control thermostats are available. Pellet stoves work by convection so they lack the radiant heat that's comforting in most wood stoves but are safer to kids and pets and can be placed just a few inches from a wall.
Pellet stoves cost more than woodstoves, and experts recommend professional installation. However, these costs may be offset by the fact that pellet stoves require only a 3-inch vent pipe rather than an insulated chimney. Pellets come in 40-pound bags.
One main drawback to pellet stoves is that the pellets must be kept dry, so you shouldn't store them outdoors. (One ton of bags -- 50 bags -- stacks on one pallet.) 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 (UPS) or a portable generator as a backup. Perhaps the most serious drawback, however, is that the supply of pellets (and thus the price) depends on both demand and on the housing market. Pellets are a byproduct of the lumber industry, so when the demand for lumber falls -- as in the current housing market -- fewer pellets are available. As more people buy pellet stoves, this situation is apt to get worse.
More than 20 different pellet-stove brands earn at least one recommendation in reviews, and each brand makes several different pellet stoves. Two brands get more mention than any others, however: Quadra-Fire and Harman. Both brands make a full range of stoves: some that burn only wood pellets, some that burn only corn, plus multi-fuel stoves that burn any of several biomass fuels.
The Quadra-Fire Santa Fe (*Est. $2,300) provides up to 34,400 BTU per hour (rated for up to 1,500 square feet), can be used in a mobile home and is fully automatic. That is, it's self-igniting and equipped with a thermostat to keep the temperature at one of three heat settings. Heat is adjusted by the rate at which the internal auger feeds pellets from the 40-pound hopper. A programmable wall thermostat is available as an extra option -- letting you set different heat settings for various periods up to seven days in advance. A remote-control thermostat is also available, as is an optional log kit to make the fire more attractive through the glass window -- which is "air washed" to keep the view clear.
You can also buy a kit so the stove burns only outside air -- an option experts highly recommend. The few owners who review the Quadra-Fire Santa Fe at GardenWeb.com are pleased overall, but note some drawbacks. Like most pellet stoves, it's noisy -- you hear every pellet drop plus the noise from the fans. The auger feed can be clogged and the automatic startup sometimes balks and has to be reset. The lifetime warranty, however, is a big plus. The overall design is modern.
For a larger space, the top Harman pellet stove is the 50,000 BTU Harman XXV (*Est. $3,000), rated for about 1,700 square feet. Harman says this is their quietest pellet stove. It has a more classic, traditional design than the Quadra-Fire Santa Fe, has a bigger 65-pound hopper and will burn pellets of any grade. This is the pellet stove recommended in a brief review at Kiplinger's Personal Finance, as well as at This Old House.
Other pellet-stove brands that earn recommendations from more than one reviewer include Lennox Hearth Whitfield, Thelin and Jamestown. The Jamestown J2000 (*est. $3,250) is rated for up to 45,000 BTU but has only a 58-pound hopper. An optional hopper extension provides more time between refueling. A battery backup isn't included, but the fans use no more than 3.5 amps so it's easy to power with a portable generator if the electricity goes out.
The Lennox Hearth Whitfield Profile 30 FS-2 (*est. $3,040) comes with a programmable thermostat plus an extra-large ash pan, which the manufacturer says needs emptying only two or three times a year. This sounds like a minor point, but we did find quite a few complaints from owners of budget pellet stoves about ash trays that are too small to be practical. The Profile 30 is rated for up to 38,000 BTU and comes with a 55-pound hopper. The warranty is for 20 years.
For heating one room (about 750 square feet), the Thelin Little Gnome (*est. $2,700) is shaped a lot like an old-fashioned pot-bellied stove with fancy trim. Its battery backup keeps it running up to 15 hours if the electricity goes out, and the 26-pound hopper lasts as long as 20 hours between refueling. The five-year warranty doesn't cover electrical and moving parts, which carry only a one-year warranty.