Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Pellet Stove Update (and Tips)

Back in September, I wrote a couple of posts (here, here and, here) about the wood pellet stove we had purchased to heat our home.  The posts generated quite a bit of interest and chatter.  In particular, the DIY Hearth Pad post is one of the most popular pages on my blog.  Seems it appears near the top of a lot of searches on Google--who'd have thought?!?

Anyway, we've been using the stove non-stop since the beginning of the heating season (2 tons of pellets and counting) and I thought you'd like an update on how it's working out.

In general, we love the stove and I can't recommend it enough as an alternative heat source.  If we had the money, I'd probably invest in a pellet-burning boiler that'd hook-up to our existing baseboard heat, effectively replacing our expensive oil-burning system (oil is over $4/gallon in Rhode Island right now--Ouch!).  Alas, we don't have the $10k or so that it'd cost to install one.  So, we'll have to make do with what we have for the time being.

Some thoughts and tips if you're thinking about buying a pellet stove:
  • Think about the area you want to heat.  If you think the stove you're looking at is on the line for being able to cover that area, go with the bigger one.  You can always run it on low but you can't make a smaller stove output more heat.  We kind of wish we'd gone bigger.
  • Think about air circulation.  Ceiling fans in tall rooms help push the heated air back down and circulate it into adjoining rooms.  Doors and decorative curtains can help confine the heat in one room or area of the house or close-off rooms that you're not using during that time of day (or for the season) so the other room stays toaster.  Pole fans, door fans, and through-the-wall fans can help move heated air from the room with the stove into other rooms or down hallways.  Depending on the style of your home, transom windows over doors or between rooms (an old-fashioned technique) might be useful.
  • Spend the extra money on a full exterior stove pipe instead of a direct-vent system.  Also insist on an outside air kit, which draws air to burn from outside instead of from your living space.  You'll be happy you did the first time you lose power and smoke is not billowing into the room with nothing you can do to stop it.  Also, full stove pipes are less likely to contribute to a "campfire odor" in your home than a direct vent because there's a constant draw of air going outbound.
  • If you have the money, buy a better stove than the cheapest one.  The engineering and thought behind the design of the machine is usually just plain better and you'll have better performance, heat transfer, and better quality parts.  If I have one complaint about our bargain model, it's that the thing just isn't designed for easy care and maintenance.
  • Look for a model that has separate controls for the blower and the auger speed.  Sometimes, you want to push the heated air further but you don't want a bigger flame (or to waste pellets).  Our unit does not have this and I wish it did.
  • Make sure your stove can be connected to a standard low-voltage thermostat and buy a decent digital one from Home Depot or Lowes instead of the chintzy one the manufacturer sells.  This will let you treat the stove as a "zone" of heat and it'll work more accurately.
  • Ask the sales person to show you how the stove is maintained (cleaning, vacuuming)  and what has to be taken apart in order to clean it well.  If he or she can't actually show you, ask to speak to their service or installation person.  Download the user manual from the manufacturer's website if you can and read through the maintenance section.  One of my pet peeves about ours is that it has metal plates (baffles) on the back of the burn box and the exhaust blower vent is behind the baffles.  In order to reduce sooty start-ups, you have to remove these baffles every time you clean the unit.  No matter how carefully I do it or cover myself up, I always end-up looking like I'm ready to perform Chim-Chim-Cheeree in the musical Mary Poppins and the surrounding furniture gets a fine layer of soot.  Weekly cleanings should not be that dirty and there are plenty of stoves out there that are easy to just vacuum out and move on.
  • If you have the choice, pick a stove with a ceramic or stone back panel instead of painted metal.  Two weeks into ownership, the baffles on mine were devoid of the factory black paint and the center one is starting to rust-out from contact with soot.  Now, I know why the stove shipped with a can of spray paint.  :-(
  • Skip the decorative logs and other things that go inside the fire box.  They may seem cool but they just make the burn more uneven and the maintenance more of a pain.  Plus, they're expensive.
  • Buy a good ash vacuum.  Don't try to rely on your shop vac with a HEPA filter.  If you're running the stove full-time, expect to vacuum more than once a week, regardless of what the manual says.
  • Inquire about the warranty and available service plans.  If they offer service and you can afford it, it's not a bad idea to have someone come out and do the annual cleaning and maintenance, which involves going through the innards of the unit and brushing out the stove pipe.
  • If you're storing your pellets in a garage, buy at least 2 tons at a time (delivery is cheaper that way) and have the delivery person (who's usually driving a forklift) to tuck them right into the garage for you.  They can't usually get through the door but they have ways of sliding them in.  You may want to invest in an inexpensive pallet jack so you can move them into a convenient corner without repacking the pallets.
  • Figure out your expected heating season on a calendar and count on about a bag a day for most stoves.  Budget to buy all your pellets in late summer to get the best deal and shop-around.  Prices are fairly consistent but there are deals to be had like free delivery.  Also, the best quality (and least ashy) brands of pellets tend to go faster and some home centers get a single truckload per year--once they're gone, they're gone.

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