WINDHAM, NH. — I have three babies. Two of them are children. One of them is a pellet stove. I love them all.
And while I probably would not throw myself in front of a train to save my pellet stove, I do feed it, clean it, and tend to it as if it were my offspring. And in return, it fills me with a warm feeling, just like my actual offspring do.
Having a pellet stove is a labor of love, much like parenting. And the effort is oh-so worth it.
Here’s why: Until three years ago, we were spending scary amounts of money to heat our 1860s farmhouse. The oil-burning furnace would be running, but we were still having to bundle up. Fleece became a second skin. That’s because if we set the thermostat above 62 degrees, the 250-gallon oil tank would run dry in less than a month. Most years, it was costing us $850-$900 a month to be cold — not to mention broke. Our windows aren’t old and drafty, the house is. And after adding more insulation wherever we could, and doing all manner of boiler maintenance, we came to the realization that nothing was going to make this great old 2,800-square-foot house we love so much feel tight, at least not without a major renovation and an overhaul of our heating system. And those things just weren’t in the cards.
We knew we needed to do something. We couldn’t afford not to. So after doing some pretty extensive research, we decided to invest in a pellet stove. It was one of the wisest decisions we’ve made as homeowners. The benefits are great and many, and apparently, we aren’t the only ones who have figured that out.
Jessica Boothe, director of research at the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association , which tracks shipments of stoves, tells me that in part because of last year’s very long and cold winter, her agency is seeing a 9 percent increase in all hearth shipments in the United States over this time last year, including more than 45,000 pellet stoves. That’s a whopping 80 percent increase in pellet stove shipments over 2013. And many of them are headed to the Northeast.
It’s not hard to understand why. A 40-pound bag of pellets in our corner of southern New Hampshire sells for between $4.75 and $8, depending on whether we’re picking it up at a home improvement warehouse or at the cool grain-and-feed shop in the next town over. On the coldest days of winter, we go through one and a half to two bags of pellets, so we’re heating the house for about $10 per day. Compare that with the days we were paying $900 per month for oil. That’s $30 a day. We still use oil for our hot water and to heat a bedroom, bathroom, and hallway that are out of the stove’s reach, but we are now able to make a tank last two months in the coldest part of the winter. Running the stove has added about $20 to our electric bill, in part because it uses electricity and because we keep an overhead fan going to circulate the warm air.
The initial investment was significant. We paid about $2,800 for our stove, which we picked for many reasons. For one, its heating capacity is 2,500 square feet. That’s the largest we found. The reviews were favorable, and we were wooed by the look of its “sleek European design.” It has a big hopper — capable of holding 70 pounds of pellets — and the stove was available as an insert, meaning we could use it in our existing fireplace and not as a freestanding unit we’d have to vent outside. We also paid $750 to have it assembled and installed, but this is our third winter with our stove, and it is well on its way to paying for itself.
Another for the pro column: It’s green. Pellets are made of wood, a renewable source, and have high combustion and heating efficiencies, which means they produce very little air pollution. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency says they are the cleanest of any residential heating appliances that burn solid fuel. The pellets are generally made of sawdust from lumberyards and sawmills, or the unused tops of trees that are cut down for logging, so they’re a recycled and reclaimed product. Not only are we feeling toasty now, we can also toast our environmental do-goodism.
Speaking of toasty, pellet stoves give off “a nice heat” — a phrase I never understood or used, for that matter, until we installed our stove. It does feel nice. It’s comfortable, not dry like wood stove and fireplace heat can sometimes feel.
Here’s another plus: There’s little hassle. We have a woodstove in the living room — which we don’t use as much as the great room, where the pellet stove is — and, while we like to run it when we’re home on the weekends, it’s a lot of work. There’s the lugging in of wood, emptying out the ash pan, getting the fire going and keeping it going, restocking the wood, stacking the wood, and so on. With the pellet stove, there’s less maintenance. When it’s very cold out and we are running the stove at a level 4 out of 5, we empty one 40-pound bag of pellets into the hopper at night and another in the morning. Once or twice a week, we shut down the stove for a couple of hours to let it cool, vacuum out the ash, and start the stove up again. That’s it. We don’t even need a fancy ash vacuum. A wet/dry vac works just fine. And while the amount of creosote buildup in a pellet stove is minimal, it is still widely recommended that a professional inspect and, if necessary, clean your stove and flue (if you use one to vent your stove) annually.
Downsides? From where I stand, all warm and happy by the pellet stove, I can’t see that there are many disadvantages. But there are some obstacles.
Personally, I found it hard to get used to leaving the house with a fire going. As someone who gets panicky about whether the iron was left on, I had a hard time believing the installer who told me that if anything malfunctioned, the stove’s circuit board would automatically shut it off, and the fire would die out almost immediately. Set it at 2 or 3 when you are going out, he said, and everything will be fine when you get back. Turns out he was right.
Another con? Those 40 pound bags. They’re about the size of mulch bags, but they feel heavier. I’m used to lifting heavy objects (Remember my pellet stove’s siblings?), so hoisting and stacking the bags doesn’t bother me, but I might feel differently when I’m 80. Until one gets a system down, pouring the pellets into the hopper can be tricky and awkward.
There’s also the matter of finding a place to store pellets. They need to be kept in a dry place. We’re lucky enough to have room in our garage, but storage might be a problem for others.
Perhaps the most worrisome issue for pellet stove owners is supply. As last winter dragged on, and as more people installed pellet stoves in their homes, finding bags of pellets anywhere became difficult, if not impossible. The shortage was all over the news, and my husband was among hundreds of customers that stalked the big trucks hauling pellets from Canada.
David Nydam, CEO of woodpellets.com , based in Bedford, N.H., said the shortage was caused by a number of factors. “Typically, many suppliers stop carrying pellets come late winter, early spring,” but last year, the winter dragged on, and people who thought they had what they needed for pellets realized they needed more.
And on top of that, US suppliers are shipping more and more pellets overseas. Wood pellet exports from the United States nearly doubled last year, according to the US Energy Information Administration . More than 98 percent of the exports were sent to Europe, where pellet fuel is a popular choice.
Bob LaFlamme, who owns Crowley Fuel in North Brookfield, Mass., and who writes a blog called “Fuel for Thought ,” said supply remains an issue this year because “there’s concern there will be another long, cold winter.” People are stocking up.
LaFlamme’s business is heating oil and wood pellets, but he’s been selling pellets for only a few years. In that time, he’s seen pellet use rise steadily. “It used to be 5 percent pellets. Now 20 percent of our business is pellets. And it easily could have been 30 to 40 percent pellets last year” if he had the supply to sell.
The good news is oil costs are down so far this winter, so people might be feeling less pressure to scarf up all available pellets. And, according to Jennifer Hedrick, executive director of the Pellet Fuels Institute in Arlington, Va., efforts are underway to avoid a repeat of what LaFlamme dubbed “The Great Wood Pellet Shortage of 2014.”
“We have companies in the West that are helping in the effort to meet market demand in the Northeast,” Hedrick said.
Thank you, friends in the West. Your help means we will be able to continue to feed our big steel baby this winter, keep our other babies warm, and have some money left for Christmas presents — which will be opened in a warm house. Now that’s worth a toast.