Pellet stoves and woodstoves are gaining in popularity now that the cost of heating with oil, gas, propane or electricity is going up sharply. Savings depend on your local area and circumstances, but many owners say they can cut fuel costs in half by switching to wood pellets or firewood -- either for supplementing central heating or replacing it altogether. Since these renewable fuels are produced in the United States -- often locally -- this also reduces dependence on foreign oil.
Pellet stoves and wood stoves each have their advantages. Pellet stoves are better for the environment than wood stoves, since they use pellets made of wood waste products -- compressed sawdust -- and burn efficiently and cleanly. These stoves are also very convenient; most now can light themselves automatically, and some can be controlled with programmable or remote thermostats. Some pellet stoves are really multi-fuel stoves, burning shelled feed corn or other biomass fuels instead of, or in addition to, wood pellets. Wood stoves that burn firewood are popular too. The best wood stoves burn as cleanly as a pellet stove (by burning the gases produced when wood burns) and can hold a fire overnight, then be reloaded in the morning and still be burning when you come home from work.
We found the best reviews of both pellet and wood stoves in Fine Homebuilding, Consumer Reports and HearthandHome.com, an industry association that gives annual awards. Articles at The Wall Street Journal and Kiplinger's Personal Finance recommend the best brands based on the advice of industry experts, and several retailers are themselves industry experts -- notably Lehman's, known for long service to the Amish. We found the best owner-written reviews of pellet stoves and woodstoves at NorthernTool.com.
Experts warn that there are drawbacks to heating with logs, wood pellets, feed corn or other biomass fuels. Fuel availability is a prime concern, especially with prices for all these fuels going up. Prices rise partly as demand increases but also for less predictable reasons. The availability of wood pellets rises and falls with housing starts, since pellets are a by-product of making lumber. Pellets can incorporate bits of cardboard and paper, but production of these, too, rises and falls with the economy, and not all pellet stoves can handle these lower-grade pellets.
Pellet stoves burn so cleanly that they don't need EPA certification. Most environmental experts agree that burning pellets and firewood doesn't contribute to global warming, since dead trees and fallen limbs add the same amount of carbon to the atmosphere as they naturally decay, as they do if they're burned for fuel. Air pollution, however, is a prime concern. Since older wood stoves and even some current models burn wood inefficiently and emit smoke full of lung-damaging particles and air pollutants, you can expect greater restrictions in the future. Even now, some states and communities forbid the use of woodstoves that aren't EPA-certified, and a few communities reserve the right to ban all woodstove use during periods of high local air pollution.
Home layout is another crucial factor in how well a pellet stove or wood stove will work for you. Some homes are designed from the start to use a woodstove that's located in the main living area, with a chimney that shoots straight up to the optimal point on the roofline. Other homes have an open enough design that a wood or pellet stove can be added later, with minimal cost for chimney installation. Houses with a lot of small rooms with minimal air flow, however, may find that even with small fans mounted in a corner of each doorway, a solid-fuel stove only heats one room well. Many pellet and wood stoves come with optional blowers to help circulate the air, but experts say the less expensive doorway fans usually work better.
Chimney or vent placement is another concern; too many bends can hinder draw. Many new wood and pellet stoves are installed with an air intake, so the fire uses air from the outside rather than room air. This minimizes drafts and indoor air pollution, but makes placement on an outside wall best. It may be tempting to put a wood or pellet stove in the basement, with the idea that heat rises, but experts say this is the worst place.
Experts recommend taking a floor plan of your home to a local stove dealer, not only to find out if a wood or pellet stove will work well for you, but also to get advice on the best size and placement. Manufacturers' estimations are based on well-insulated spaces with 8-foot ceilings -- but you may need a bigger or smaller stove, depending on the climate where you live.
Too small a stove will require frequent reloading and burn so hot that it damages the firebox, yet still not provide enough heat in the coldest weather. A few experts recommend erring in the direction of a large stove, saying you can always build a small fire in it. Most experts, though, say that a stove that's too big for your house will burn inefficiently (and thus emit more pollution) or keep you way too hot. The ConsumerSearch Useful Links section includes information on how to estimate the BTU output you need.
Reviews recommend so many stove brands with good reputations that there's little consensus about the best brands and models. Experts recommend finding three established dealers close enough to deliver your stove at reasonable cost (and to provide service over the years) then choosing among the EPA-certified or pellet stoves they recommend.