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Pellets or wood -- which fuel is best for you?

With the cost of heating by conventional fuels such as oil, gas, propane and electricity constantly on the rise, pellet stoves and wood-burning stoves are more attractive than ever. Many stove owners say they've cut their heating costs at least in half -- and often more -- by switching to wood pellets or firewood, either for supplementing central heating or replacing it altogether.

Each type of fuel has its advantages. Pellet stoves use pellets made of wood waste products like compressed sawdust. Some models come with features such as auto-ignition and thermostatic control, bringing them as close as you'll get to the feel of a conventional furnace with any type of wood fuel. Some, but not all, pellet stoves are really multi-fuel stoves, capable of burning other biomass products such as shelled feed corn, cherry pits and sunflower seeds.

The price of wood pellets and other biomass fuels can vary drastically. Prices are dependent upon season, supply and demand, so pellet stoves are best if you either live near an inexpensive, consistent source of pellets -- think construction and other lumber-related industries -- or have the space to store 1 to 2 tons of pellets, typically in 40-pound bags, when you find them at a good price. Pellet quality also varies widely; be prepared to try several different brands to find the one that works best with your stove.

Modern wood stoves are a far cry from the smoke- and carbon-belching appliances of years past. Modern stoves use either secondary combustion, which ignites the gases coming off burning wood, or a catalytic converter for a clean, efficient burn. In many cases, new wood stoves burn even cleaner than pellet stoves.

Wood is likely to be the best fuel for you if you live near a sustainable source of firewood, and are prepared to either pay for it or invest your own time and effort into cutting and splitting it. You must also store it for at least six months to a year or more, depending on the type of wood, to allow it to dry, or "season," to below 20 percent moisture content. Seasoned wood burns hotter and cleaner than green wood. Most people using wood heat say they need about four cords to get through a typical winter in the U.S. or Canada, although your needs will vary according to house size, insulation and climate.

Wood stoves still work while the power is out, whereas pellet stoves require electricity to run. Some pellet stoves can be run off a battery backup in the case of power failure.

Although all stoves require regular cleaning and maintenance, quite a few owners are surprised to discover that pellet stoves require the most upkeep. That often means daily cleanings, and in some cases deep cleanings as often as twice a week.

No doubt many of the complaints we found about parts breaking and stoves failing are due to inadequate maintenance. Scott Williamson, an independent pellet stove repairman and consultant for Alliance for Green Heat, shares data from his service calls on what he deems the most reliable pellet stoves. Between 60 and 70 percent of the time, a simple cleaning was all it took to get a non-functional pellet stove back up and running.

Pellet and wood stoves typically cost between $800 and $4,000, with more complex pellet stoves usually being a little more expensive than their wood-burning counterparts. You'll also need to pay for fuel, the cost of which varies enormously according to season and location.

It may be worth paying for professional installation. This is for both your safety and the sake of the stove, since improper installation accounts for a number of malfunctions. If you don't choose professional installation, make sure you follow the required clearances, hearth sizes and venting requirements fastidiously. All of the above will be in the stove's manual, which can almost always be downloaded from the manufacturer's website. Last but not least, you'll usually have to pay for your own installation supplies, from vent piping or chimney installation to the hearth and heat shields. Again, costs vary depending on your needs.

ConsumerSearch.com has analyzed hundreds of reviews for wood and pellet stoves, narrowing down dozens of stoves to the top-rated models on the market based on safety, performance, features and ease of use. The results are our picks for the best wood and pellet stoves available.

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