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Pellet Stove Maintenance

Expert advice on the care and maintenance of your pellet stove, including annual cleanings

Because pellet stoves receive constant use during the heating season, regular and proper maintenance is necessary to keep them operating efficiently. Just how often a pellet stove will need cleaning will depend on the design of the stove and the grade of fuel burned.

A pellet stove cleaning kit includes a flexible 3-inch brush for the chimney and a short steel brush for the stove. Photo: Brushtech

Not all pellets are created equal; generally speaking, high-priced pellets burn more cleanly and hotter than low-cost pellets. Your stove supplier will likely recommend a certain brand, but do a bit of experimenting. Buy just a few bags of one brand and try it, and then try another brand until you find pellets that heat satisfactorily and don’t leave too much ash and clinker residue. In general, top-fed stoves require high-quality pellets while bottom-fed stoves can use pellets of lesser quality.

How often you must add pellets depends on the size of the hopper and how hot you run the stove. A pellet stove with a small hopper may need to be filled twice a day while stoves with large-capacity hoppers can run hot for four or five days before they need to be refilled.

Ash vacuum is designed for cleaning the fine soot and ash from pellet and wood stoves. Photo: US Stove

Ash vacuum is designed for cleaning the fine soot and ash from pellet and wood stoves. Photo: US Stove

Before each heating season, have a qualified pellet stove/chimney professional inspect and, if necessary, clean your pellet stove’s flue. If you are buying a new pellet stove, ask about a service contract.

In addition to annual servicing, pellet stoves need regular maintenance, which is mostly a matter of cleaning. This should take no more than about 15 minutes. A tool that makes this job relatively easy is a special ash vacuum (don’t use a conventional home vacuum cleaner—the soot and ash can ruin it).

Here are some tasks you should perform on a weekly basis during heating season:

• Empty the ash trap or drawer, usually situated behind the fire chamber.

• Look for “clinkers” that form when ash melts and hardens. Clinkers can impede air flow and upset the proper mixture of fuel and oxygen to the burn pot. Remove them with a special rake or ash tool made for this purpose.[GARD align=”left”]

• Look for a build-up of soot on the inside surfaces of the stove. (As little as 1/10 inch of soot can drop the heat transfer by 50 percent.) Clean the soot off with a wire brush, but do not use the brush on the glass doors.

• Clean the heat exchanger as advised by the owner’s manual.

• Clean the glass so you can tell whether the fuel is burning efficiently. Turn off the stove, wait for it to cool, about 20 minutes, and then use paper towels and a commercial glass cleaner made for heated glass to clean both the inside and outside surfaces.

• Check the flame—if it is orange or dark instead of bright yellow or white, it is time to call in a service professional.

• Allow the auger tube and fuel hopper to completely empty on occasion so that sawdust and pellet debris don’t build up and block the feed system.

• Empty unused pellets from the stove hopper and feed system at the end of the heating season, as they can collect moisture and cause rust that can damage the stove. Fresh pellets will also be easier to start at the beginning of the next heating season. Have a professional come out and clean the vent pipe.

Pellet Stove Cost & Savings

Prices for pellet stoves run from $1,700 to $3,000 for the stove and $150 to $400 for installation.

When comparing prices of pellet stoves with those of wood stoves, it’s important to note that pellet stoves offer a substantial savings in that they don’t require installation of a full-height conventional chimney or flue, the most costly part of most wood stove installations.

Contemporary pellet stove offers both style and substance. Photo: Bosca

Contemporary pellet stove offers both style and substance. Photo: Bosca

In fact, some are so incredibly efficient at extracting the heat from their emissions that they can be direct-vented out a wall. As a result, the complete installed cost of a pellet stove can be far less than the installed cost of a conventional wood-burning stove or fireplace.

How does the cost of pellets compare with the cost of wood? On face value, pellets are more expensive, at $130 to $200 per ton, compared with firewood, which runs $100 to $175 per cord. But comparing a ton to a cord is a bit like comparing a pound to an inch.[GARD align=”left”]

One ton of pellets consists of 50 bags weighing 40 pounds each. A cord of wood, which typically measures 4 by 4 by 8 feet (128 cubic feet) is purchased by volume, a measurement that includes the spaces between the logs when stacked and the moisture in wood that can’t be converted to heat (20 percent to 30 percent). As a rule, one ton of pellets is roughly equivalent to about 1 1/2 cords of wood.

It’s better to evaluate usage. Wood stove users burn from 3 to 4 cords of wood per year. An average pellet stove will use from 1 to 3 tons of pellets per year. Figuring in the costs cited above on a usage basis, pellets are less expensive than cord wood. Of course, with pellets you also save on the time and energy needed to stack and carry wood, and pellets can be stored in only one-third the space needed for cord wood.

Because freight is a big part of the cost of pellets, finding a source of pellets nearby can result in significant savings. Most of the pellet mills in the United States and Canada are located near lumber mills or furniture-manufacturing or millwork plants. Be sure to ask your pellet stove dealer about sources and prices. Also check large grocery and home improvement stores, discount chains, nurseries, and feed and garden supply stores.

Featured Resource: Get a Pre-Screened Local Pellet Stove Installation Pro

Pellet Stove Cost & Savings

Prices for pellet stoves run from $1,700 to $3,000 for the stove and $150 to $400 for installation.

When comparing prices of pellet stoves with those of wood stoves, it’s important to note that pellet stoves offer a substantial savings in that they don’t require installation of a full-height conventional chimney or flue, the most costly part of most wood stove installations.

Contemporary pellet stove offers both style and substance. Photo: Bosca

Contemporary pellet stove offers both style and substance. Photo: Bosca

In fact, some are so incredibly efficient at extracting the heat from their emissions that they can be direct-vented out a wall. As a result, the complete installed cost of a pellet stove can be far less than the installed cost of a conventional wood-burning stove or fireplace.

How does the cost of pellets compare with the cost of wood? On face value, pellets are more expensive, at $130 to $200 per ton, compared with firewood, which runs $100 to $175 per cord. But comparing a ton to a cord is a bit like comparing a pound to an inch.[GARD align=”left”]

One ton of pellets consists of 50 bags weighing 40 pounds each. A cord of wood, which typically measures 4 by 4 by 8 feet (128 cubic feet) is purchased by volume, a measurement that includes the spaces between the logs when stacked and the moisture in wood that can’t be converted to heat (20 percent to 30 percent). As a rule, one ton of pellets is roughly equivalent to about 1 1/2 cords of wood.

It’s better to evaluate usage. Wood stove users burn from 3 to 4 cords of wood per year. An average pellet stove will use from 1 to 3 tons of pellets per year. Figuring in the costs cited above on a usage basis, pellets are less expensive than cord wood. Of course, with pellets you also save on the time and energy needed to stack and carry wood, and pellets can be stored in only one-third the space needed for cord wood.

Because freight is a big part of the cost of pellets, finding a source of pellets nearby can result in significant savings. Most of the pellet mills in the United States and Canada are located near lumber mills or furniture-manufacturing or millwork plants. Be sure to ask your pellet stove dealer about sources and prices. Also check large grocery and home improvement stores, discount chains, nurseries, and feed and garden supply stores.

Featured Resource: Get a Pre-Screened Local Pellet Stove Installation Pro

Pellet Stoves Buying Guide

Contemporary pellet stove offers both style and substance.

[/media-credit] Contemporary pellet stove offers both style and substance.

An expert, unbiased report to help you choose the best pellet stove for your home and budget

With the cost of energy representing an ever larger chunk of the average American household’s budget, many homeowners are looking toward alternative fuel sources to heat their homes. Increasingly, they are turning to pellet stoves as a supplemental (or, in some cases, primary) heat source.

Pellets are made from various bio-mass wastes.

Pellet stoves look similar to wood stoves or fireplace inserts, but the similarity ends there. Instead of burning wood, they burn small pellets typically made from recycled wood shavings, sawdust, or corn. There are many advantages to burning pellets instead of wood (see The Advantages of Burning Pellets). Inside, they are quite sophisticated combustion appliances that offer low-cost heating.

Advantages of Burning Pellets

The pellet that a pellet stove burns are actually recycled sawdust, wood shavings, corn, walnut and peanut shells, and similar bio-mass wastes that are ground up, compressed, and extruded. The 3/8-to-1-inch-long pellets look like rabbit feed and are sold in 40-pound bags. Pellets turn wastes that would otherwise be dumped at landfills into energy, lessening our dependence on oil.[GARD align=”right”]

Both because of the fuel’s consistency and the stove’s combustion mechanics, pellets burn very hot. This means they burn more efficiently and more cleanly than wood.

Intense compression squeezes the moisture out of the pellets, dropping their moisture content to below 8 percent, which is very dry compared with cord wood, which has from 20 percent to 30 percent moisture. The drier the fuel, the more heat it can produce. And the hotter the fire burns, the more fuel it can consume. Compared with EPA-certified wood stoves, which give off about 5 grams of particulates per hour, pellet stoves give off less than 1 gram per hour.

Combustion efficiency is a measure of how much of a fuel is converted to energy by an appliance. Pellet stoves offer 75 percent to 90 percent overall efficiency (be sure to look for “overall efficiency” ratings when comparing makes). In fact, so much heat is extracted that most pellet stoves may be vented horizontally out through a wall instead of through a conventional chimney (see How a Pellet Stove Works).

Pellets also create much less ash than cord wood and produce far less creosote, a common wood stove and fireplace hazard that blackens glass doors and collects in chimneys, potentially causing chimney fires.

Most pellet stoves produce a small fire that, concentrated in the center of the unit, burns very hot. If you like the look of a fire, try to find a unit with a good flame pattern and a large viewing glass. You can get ceramic logs that help disperse the flames and give the fire a more traditional look.

One drawback of pellet stoves is that they’re relatively complex. As shown in How a Pellet Stove Works, they have a variety of moving parts and motors that require maintenance, so it’s a good idea to select a model that gives you easy access to its parts. It’s also not a bad idea to get a service contract. (For more about pellet stove care, see Pellet Stove Repair & Care.)

Pellet stoves have an internal hopper for storing a day’s worth of pellets; depending upon the size of the stove, they may store from 35 to 130 pounds of pellets. Obviously, the larger the bin in stoves of similar output, the less often they require refilling. Inside, stoves are either bottom- or top-fed. When choosing between a bottom- or top-fed pellet stove, consider the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Pellet Stove Parts Diagram

Top-Fed Pellet Stove

A top-fed pellet stove has a lesser chance of fire burning back into the hopper because of its pellet delivery system. But the combustion chamber is more likely to become impeded with ash and clinkers (the deposits caused by reheating ash). As a result, many manufacturers of top-fed models recommend burning high-grade, low-ash pellets.

Bottom-fed models don’t require premium fuel because the ash and clinkers are pushed into the ash pan. But, with steady use, you will have to remove the ashes about once a week. An easy-to-use, large-capacity ash access drawer makes cleanup easier.

Electrical requirements. The motors of a pellet stove, of course, require electricity (some models have battery backup units), so the stove should be positioned near a 110-volt outlet. If you live where power outages are frequent, and the stove does not have battery backup, you may want to have a gas-powered generator on hand (see Buying an Emergency Portable Generator). This and related installation issues are discussed in the article How to Install a Pellet Stove.

Freestanding pellet stoves vs. inserts. A variety of styles are available in both freestanding stoves and fireplace inserts. Some manufacturers also make pellet-fueled furnaces and boilers that are designed to take the place of, or supplement, conventional forced-air heating systems.[GARD align=”left”]

Heat output range (heating capacity). Pellet stoves are measured in heat output range, also called heating capacity. Most have a rating of 8,000 to 90,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units) per hour. To choose the right-size pellet stove, it helps to work with a knowledgeable dealer who can take into account the many variables that will determine the best choice for you.

The cost of a pellet stove. Because pellet stoves are quite sophisticated, they’re not cheap…but when used for an extended period of time, they can earn back their cost in energy savings. For a complete discussion of this, please see Pellet Stoves: Costs & Savings.

How to Size a Pellet Stove

Though the physical size of a stove may be a consideration if you have limited space in which to put it, the primary issue is the heat output. If a pellet stove’s heat output is too little, it won’t warm a space sufficiently. If its output is too high, it can make a space uncomfortably warm. If it makes the area too warm, homeowners typically burn a smaller, smoldering fire, which is highly inefficient and causes undue pollution.

When comparing BTU output among various stoves, be sure you are clear about each unit’s overall efficiency—that is, how much heat it delivers to the room (not including the heat that goes out the chimney). But many other variables come into play. These include the stove’s location, how open your home’s rooms are to one another, whether a blower or other form of heated air distribution is available, how well your home is insulated, whether the stove will be providing primary or supplementary heat, and so forth. When meeting with a dealer, be prepared to discuss these issues.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a helpful rule-of-thumb is this: A stove rated at 60,000 BTUs can heat an open-plan, 2,000-square-foot home. A stove rated at 42,000 BTUs can heat an open-plan, 1,300-square-foot space.

The location of the stove has a great deal to do with how effectively it will heat a space. In most cases, it’s located in the room that you want to heat. If you wish to heat an entire house, a central location or a fan system to circulate the heat is imperative. (For more about this, see How to Install a Pellet Stove.)

Featured Resource: Get a Pre-Screened Local Pellet Stove Installation Pro

How a Pellet Stove Works

Anatomy of a Pellet Stove

An illustrated explanation of how pellet stoves are fed and work

You pour the pellets into a holding bin or hopper, which is located either at the top or bottom of the unit. Hoppers typically hold from 35 to 130 pounds of pellets; the larger the hopper, the longer an unattended stove will burn. Depending upon the rate of burn and size of the hopper, most stoves will operate from one to two days on a single load of pellets.[GARD align=”left”]

Pellet Feeding Mechanisms

Most stoves have an auger that delivers pellets from the hopper to the combustion chamber. The auger’s movement is operated by a solid-state control that is set manually or, with some stoves, by an optional wall-mounted thermostat. A fire’s size depends on the rate of feed. Pellets delivered at 1 pound per hour will produce a gentle, glowing fire that will last a long time. At 5 pounds per hour, a pellet fire will be ablaze.

Combustion Chambers

The pellets are fed to a fire pot or burner ring in the combustion chamber. Combustion air is blown into the chamber to encourage a super-heated flame. You must light some pellet stoves; others are self-lighting. If they’re turned off, or if the power fails, they stop burning.

Pellet Stove Heat Exchangers

Room air is drawn in by a fan and blown across the heat exchanger, which is heated to about 250 degrees F., and the warmed air is returned to the room. Unlike wood stoves, pellet stoves rely on convective, not radiant, heat.

Type L 3-inch pellet stove venting kit expels combustion gasses. Photo: Selkirk Corp

Type L 3-inch pellet stove venting kit expels combustion gasses. Photo: Selkirk Corp

As a result, most pellet stoves don’t get too hot to touch—an important consideration for families with small children. This also means a stove may be placed closer to combustibles such as walls (most have a minimum clearance of 3 inches to side walls, 1 inch to back walls). They do, however, need to stand over a minimum 3/8-inch-thick non-combustible floor such as tile.

Pellet Stove Venting

Residual combustion gases are vented outside, normally through a 3-inch flue that exits out the unit’s back or top. Some have an interchangeable top/rear vent. Pellet stove venting kits can be purchased online or from pellet stove dealers.[GARD align=”right”]

Though most pellet stoves don’t require a conventional chimney, saving you from considerable expense and design inflexibility, most types draw better if the flue goes out through the wall and turns upward. For safety and soot control, it’s wise to extend the vertical section past the eaves.

Featured Resource: Get a Pre-Screened Local Pellet Stove Installation Pro

Pellet Stoves & Wood Stoves Overview

As the price of natural gas and other heating fuels continues to rise, heating our homes is becoming a major budget expense and a significant obstacle to comfort and safety. What can a homeowner do? In the quest for efficient heating, homeowners are turning to combustion stoves that burn wood or wood-like byproducts. These types of stoves are used to provide supplemental (or, in some cases, primary) heat—generally in open-plan homes or in large living spaces.

A pellet stove heats with efficiency and ease-of-use. Photo: Breckwell

Combustion wood- and pellet-burning stoves are available in two main types: circulating and radiant. Both are made of an outer cast-iron or steel shell, but circulating stoves have an inner pocket where air is heated and then moves out into the room, and a radiant stove simply absorbs the heat from the fire and radiates it out to the room. Both types are less efficient at delivering heat than furnaces and boilers.

A ceramic glass door presents an exceptional view of the fire in this cast-iron wood stove. Photo: Vogelzang

Pellet stoves are similar to wood stoves, but most are far more efficient and burn much more cleanly. They create heat by burning pellets made of recycled sawdust, wood shavings, or other bio-mass waste materials. In comparison to other popular heating fuels such as oil, electricity, and even natural gas, bio-mass pellets are a much more affordable option.

Pellet stoves look similar to wood stoves, but the similarities end there. Inside, they are very sophisticated combustion appliances with blowers and moving parts. To learn more about pellet stoves and their advantages and drawbacks, select the tabs above.

NEXT SEE:

Pellet Stoves Buying Guide
Wood Stoves Buying Guide

 

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