Wood-burning stoves are still more popular by far, but sales of newer pellet stoves and fireplace inserts have surged as consumers look for ways to slice their energy bills.
How pellet stoves and inserts work
Instead of logs, they burn thin rods made mostly from compressed sawdust or wood shavings. Pellets produce less smoke and ash than firewood, and they're easier to load into the stove. Manufacturers promote this energy-dense fuel as an economical and eco-friendly alternative to such fossil fuels as natural gas, oil, and coal.
The pellet models work simply enough. You pour the pellets into a hopper, where an electrically powered auger pushes them into the firebox to be burned. A fan moves air through the chamber to feed the flames, and another blows heated air into the house. Exhaust gases vent through a pipe, and a pan collects the ashes.
Are they worth buying?
There's nothing like a flickering flame to make a home feel warm and cozy on a chilly winter night. And if a part of your house lacks sufficient heat, a pellet or wood stove can make that area more comfortable. You can also use a stove or insert in a country cabin that lacks other heat. But if you're looking for a quick remedy for high utility bills, think twice. A wood- or pellet-burning stove or insert may take decades to pay for itself, even with an electric heating system.
Initial cost is the main drawback. You can easily spend $4,000 to $8,000 to buy and install a pellet-burning stove or insert. You'll also have to pay for the regular maintenance these units require. Offsetting those expenses somewhat are state, county, and utility credits and rebates in some regions.
Note that any supplemental heating device can reduce your fuel bills only if you lower temperatures in other parts of the house. Most homes don't have a thermostat in every room, so the heat from an insert or stove might fool a nearby thermostat into thinking the temperature throughout its zone is higher than it actually is. As a result, rooms adjacent to the heated space could become colder, and you might then be tempted to boost the thermostat when you're in those rooms.
Unlike boilers and furnaces, freestanding stoves are made to be seen. They're available in a variety of styles and finishes, from classic cast-iron potbellies to contemporary stainless-steel models. Manufacturers' websites can give you a sense of the options.
Calculate the capacity
Stoves and inserts typically heat 1,500 to 2,500 square feet. Choose one according to the size of the area you're heating.
The heat that these appliances generate is measured in British thermal units per hour. Figure about 25 to 30 Btu/h per square foot, or at least 5,000 Btu/h for a 200-square-foot space. Other considerations include the climate in your region, effectiveness of insulation in the ceiling and exterior walls, height of the ceiling, number and size of windows, and whether the space above and below the room is heated.
Wood-burning appliances are literally "off the grid," so you have to load, light, and stoke them by hand. Pellet-burning devices use an electrically powered auger and fans, and their operation can be automated, but you'll still need to fill the hopper. Other required chores include maintaining the heat exchanger and other components and cleaning the glass periodically if you want to see the flames clearly. You'll also have to get used to the whir of the fans and the sound of pellets dropping into the firebox. With wood and pellets, you have to clear the ashes by hand.
You can have cordwood delivered in most parts of the United States. Some suppliers will deliver pellets by the pallet; that's much more convenient than lugging 40- or 50-pound bags of pellets home from a supermarket, home center, or other retailer. Whether you use pellets or firewood, you'll need a large, dry, area to store the fuel. That's a tall order, given the 150 bags of pellets or two cords of firewood these stoves can easily gobble up in the Northeast in a year's use. You can store firewood outdoors, covered with a plastic tarp to keep it dry. Bags of pellets should be stored indoors.
Play it safe
The contractor who installs and services your unit should be certified by the National Fireplace Institute. Be sure the contractor follows the manufacturer's installation instructions. The surfaces of a stove can reach several hundred degrees, so maintaining minimum distances from furnishings and other combustible items is critical.
As pellets and firewood burn, they produce creosote, a highly flammable deposit. If it ignites, it can cause a blazing chimney fire. Have creosote accumulations removed from the chimney, flue, and vent connector every year. And install smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and test them regularly to reduce the risk of fire or carbon-monoxide poisoning.
The type of pellet stove or wood stove you consider depends on whether your home has a fireplace. Here are the two types to consider.
The efficiency of a traditional open fireplace is generally only about 25 percent. But you can boost efficiency with a fireplace insert. Essentially a self-contained firebox, the insert heats and circulates the air around it. The unit connects to the chimney to vent smoke and combustion by-products.
You can place a stove nearly anywhere in your home. But venting it requires punching through the building envelope and installing an appropriate chimney or using an aftermarket power vent.
After deciding on the type of stove and fuel, check out the details. Here are the pellet and wood stove features to consider.
The bigger the pan, the less often you have to empty the ashes.
This feature, controlled by a thermostat, allows for hands-free electric start-up of pellet-burning models, eliminating the need for matches and starter gel. Pellet stoves typically have automatic ignition.
Backup battery system
Expect to pay several hundred dollars for this option, which keeps the appliance going during a power failure. A gasoline-powered generator can serve the same purpose.
Some pellet models can regulate the flow of fuel into the burner pot to maintain a desired room temperature. Others can connect to any low-voltage thermostat.
The larger the hopper, the less often you have to refill it. And the larger its opening, the easier it is to load.
Wood pellets come in two popular grades: standard, which contain more ash, and premium, which burn a bit cleaner but are also more expensive. Some stoves and inserts require premium pellets, while others can burn either grade. ("Multi-fuel" models can burn shelled corn -- a cheaper alternative in the Corn Belt -- wheat, and other biofuels.)
A wide bay window gives a better view of the flickering flames. Besides being an aesthetic feature, it lets you know whether the stove is operating.
Short supplies of firewood can provide an opportunity for shifty suppliers. Follow these tips and you won't get burned:
Be home when the wood is delivered
A full cord measures 128 cubic feet, or a stack about 4 feet high by 8 feet long by 4 feet deep. A face cord is 4 feet high by 8 feet long and as deep as the individual logs, typically 16, 20, or 24 inches, determined by the dimensions of your stove or fireplace. Be on the lookout for loose stacking, a trick crooked vendors use to short-change customers.
Have the vendor stack the logs
You'll pay extra for this service, but you'll be able to verify how much wood was delivered before the delivery truck pulls away. If you've ordered a face cord, check that the logs are cut to the specified length. Stack firewood away from your house, preferably in a sunny, exposed spot, to prevent termites and other insects from invading your home. Use a plastic tarp to keep the top layer dry.
Know what you're getting
Buy whatever hardwood is plentiful in your area. Hardwoods such as maple, oak, and cherry not only burn longer than softwoods like pine, aspen, and poplar; they produce less creosote, a fire hazard in the chimney, vent connector, and flue ways. Wood species can be difficult to identify. But hardwoods tend to be denser than softwoods, so a simple heft test can provide a helpful clue. Also, many softwoods have a telltale piney scent. Freshly cut, "green" wood contains too much moisture. Seasoned wood is grayish on the end, with radial cracks.
Get a receipt
A reputable vendor shouldn't object to this request. The bill of sale should include the vendor's contact information, purchase price, sale date, and quantity and type of wood.