How to choose a pellet stove

Having an effective indoor heat source is important to surviving a Maine winter. When the bitter cold settles in and the negative temperatures arrive, all you want is the most efficient and warmest heating system possible. Many Mainers gravitate towards pellet stoves for this reason.

Somewhere between a wood burning fire and an electric heating system, pellet stoves use pelletized fuel in order to generate heat and distribute that heat throughout a space via force exhaust.

Devan Philbrick, owner at The Heating Lodge in Bangor, said that pellet stoves are cleaner than wood burning stoves because the fuel comes in the form of bagged pellets rather than wood that you have to cut and carry. Pellet stoves can also be controlled with a thermostat. Still, the heat from pellet stoves retains that same bone-deep quality of wood heat.

“The pellet heat compared to any type of gas heat or electric heat is night and day difference,” Philbrick said. “Electric and gas heat is going to kind of warm up the air. Pellet heat is going to warm up the walls, your ceilings, your bones. It’s just going to penetrate the house completely different.”

Is a pellet stove right for me?

To decide if a pellet stove is right for a homeowner, Philbrick usually asks first if the house loses power often and if there is a generator backup. Pellet stoves require electricity to run, so they will not be suited to off-grid properties or homes where access to steady electricity is an issue in the winter.

A number of factors will ultimately determine which pellet stove is right for you, including the size of the space you are heating, the insulation in your house and the location of the house relative to water or woods that will impact the amount of wind.

“I always tell customers I could put 10 of the same unit into 10 different homes and they’ll all run slightly different,” Philbrick said.

Researching the different brands of pellet stoves is important, but Philbrick said that it can be difficult to determine the kind that you need without considering your unique space and how air circulates through it. The best thing you can do is hire a professional to evaluate the space and help you choose a pellet stove.

“The biggest thing is to talk to a professional,” Philbrick said. “It doesn’t cost you [anything] to come in and ask questions to get good advice.”

Philbrick recommended hiring a professional to put in the pellet stove as well.

“Some companies will void the warranty if it’s not done professionally,” Philbrick said. “Unless the guy has been a carpenter for 20 years, we recommend you have it professionally installed.”

How much will a pellet stove cost?

Philbrick said that a quality pellet stove will cost between $2,500 and $4,500, plus the cost of pellets (the average home, in his experience, goes through between three and four tons of pellets a year, and pellets cost around $250 per ton).

Wood pellets are shown in this 2008 file photo. Credit: Bridget Brown / BDN

Philbrick warned against budget pellet stoves. Most stoves available at big box stores like Home Depot do not have built-in heat exchangers, so the amount of heat they are said to produce can be misleading. The unit itself can produce, say, 50,000 BTUs, but without a heat exchanger, not all of that will be distributed throughout the room.

“There is something to be said about quality,” Philbrick said. “Somebody might pay $1,100 or $1,200 for a stove at Home Depot, but you’ll spend $800 in parts within the year.”

Though many people use pellet stoves as a secondary heat source, some homeowners will rely on them as their primary heat source throughout the winter. In the long run, you can also save money switching to a pellet stove from gas, oil or electric heating, though Philbrick said that will depend on a few factors like oil, gas and energy prices, as well as the size of the pellet stove.

Maintaining a pellet stove

Once you have a pellet stove, it will require regular maintenance.

“Usually [we] recommend every few bags of pellets to do a thorough cleaning,” Philbrick said. “It also comes down to the type of pellets you burn, if they’re dirty or clean.”

If the unit doesn’t have a self cleaning system, all you need to clean a pellet stove is a paint brush to wipe down the walls of the stove and the heat exchanger, a chisel to scrape out any carbon build-up and an ash or shop vacuum to clean up the ashes. Pellet stoves also require professional servicing about once a year at the end of the season.

The care is worthwhile, though. A well-maintained pellet stove can keep you cozy all winter long for up to two decades without needing major repairs or replacement.

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