Pet owners know compressed paper pellets make good cat litter, and alfalfa pellets are good rabbit food. Either could also be considered biomass, and used for home heating.
Pellet stoves burn small pellets of dry organic material, typically compressed sawdust or wood shavings. They are inspired by the old-fashioned wood stove, but improve on the idea in several ways.
- Pellet stoves are more eco-conscious. Instead of using new wood, most pellets are made from leftover sawdust, wheat hulls, and other waste and industrial byproducts.
- They are more efficient and clean, creating less pollution than traditional wood-burning stoves (though they are not quite as clean-burning as gas and electric heaters, so indoor air quality may be an issue for those with serious respiratory problems). They can be used on high-pollution advisory days, when wood burning is generally banned
- Modern pellet stoves are easier to maintain than wood-burning stoves. They have storage cavities that slowly feed the pellets to the stoves, and hold up to two days of burning capacity.
Pellet stoves are becoming so popular that demand for pellets outstripped supply in recent years. The pellet industry is quickly catching up to demand, particularly in the western United States, where beetles are destroying pine forests. Several companies are turning the dead trees into fuel pellets.
Basic standalone pellet stoves cost about $750, plus $250 for installation by a qualified professional. Homeowners can get a federal tax credit for 30 percent of purchase and installation costs if installed by December 2010.
The stoves provide a range of heating options, from small single-room heaters to larger units that can heat up to 2,000 square feet of space that is fairly open and well designed for simple heat transfer.
- Pellet stove fireplace inserts are designed to look like the original fireplace but they spread heat into the home instead of up the chimney. A traditional fireplace draws in more cold air through the open flue than it releases hot air from the burning wood. Pellet stove inserts are an attractive option that easily fits the current décor. Avalon sells an efficient wood pellet fireplace insert rated to produce 45,000 BTU per hour.
- Some free-standing stoves are designed to look like old-fashioned wood-burning stoves, but may have electronic ignition and a wall-mounted thermostat, like the Kozy Heat Woodland model.
- Modern stoves with modern features and accessories also are available. Lennox Hearth Products sells the Whitfield stove, which has a self-igniting mechanism and a storage hopper that will feed pellets to the stove for 41 hours.
- Finally, Harman and other companies sell pellet boilers, which can replace your current heating system without much adjustment to current plumbing.
If natural gas or other heat sources are expensive in your area, pellet stoves may be an economical alternative. They also are an efficient way to use scrap waste for home heating, with minimal pollution and less hassle than a wood stove.
Photo credit: Lennox Hearth Products