Could Installing a Pellet Stove Take the Edge Off Energy Bills?

By: Scott Gibson , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips

One reader writes: I’m thinking of buying a pellet stove to heat my small, three-bedroom ranch. If I put the stove in the basement, would I have to cut vents in the first floor to circulate heat through the house? I love the smell of wood stoves and don’t mind the work. But they’re dirty and dusty. Are pellet stoves that much cleaner, and are they any less expensive?

Who wouldn’t like lower heating bills? Both pellets and seasoned hardwood provide more heat per dollar than natural gas, propane, or heating oil, and they may look even better when prices for fossil fuels begin to climb again. Plus, compressed wood pellets burn cleanly and are more convenient than firewood.

As long as you’re willing to accept the work that goes with owning a stove you should be able to save money in the long run. But be prepared for a hefty initial investment. New stoves aren’t cheap.

Of the two, pellets are easier to handle, more convenient, and they produce less ash as they burn. Pellets are made from compressed scrap wood and other forms of wood fiber and are sold in two grades. You can buy them in 20 and 40 pound bags.

Pellet stoves have many automatic features, but you still have to keep the hopper full. Leaving the stove unattended for long stretches isn’t an option. Periodically, the firebox needs emptying, and you have to keep an eye on your chimney for occasional cleaning. Consider, too, where you are going to store a couple of tons of pellets, which is what you need to get through a heating season.

Unlike a wood stove, a pellet stove doesn’t work when the power goes out unless it’s connected to a battery backup or a standby generator. If you live in an area where power outages are common, that’s something to consider. Pellet stoves also have more moving parts than a wood stove, so there’s more to break.

A pellet stove installed in your basement does not circulate heat around your house as efficiently as a furnace with an electric fan and dedicated ducts. Cutting a few vents in the floor can certainly help. But you’re still relying on natural convection for heat distribution. Something else to consider is whether you have a dedicated flue to accommodate a pellet stove. Building codes don’t allow two heating appliances (a furnace and a pellet stove, for example) to be vented by the same flue.

If your house was built with supplemental heat in mind, there may already be two flues (with separate connections) in your basement. Otherwise, you have to provide a new one or install “PL” vent pipe designed for pellet stoves.

Stoves are rated by the amount of heat they produce, measured in British thermal units (BTUs) per hour. A reputable stove shop can recommend the right size based on the square footage of your house, how much insulation it has, and what kind of winter temperatures you can expect.
Whether you decide on a wood or pellet stove, do yourself a favor and have it professionally installed. And before you do, get your chimney inspected by your local fire department or a qualified technician to make sure it’s safe.