We live in the small town of Falcon, CO and found that our gas furnace would run almost continuously during a winter storm and struggled to keep the house warm. During cold nights when there was no wind, the furnace would still fire up about once every 20 minutes and even though it ran for a much shorter time, over the course of the month, our heating bills were averaging about $175.
The only other appliance we have in the house that uses gas is the water heater, which only costs us about $15 a month. So to heat our house, we were spending about $160 x 5 months, or about $800 a year on gas. This was after we installed brand new Champion Windows, replaced weather stripping, insulated the ducts, used a programmable thermostat, kept the house at 68F during “awake” times and sealed all the air infiltration points within the house.
The heating bill seemed high and we wanted to cut our heating expense. We looked at purchasing a new higher efficiency furnace, but it was going to cost us about $1200 (not counting installation) and would only be about 10% more efficient than what we have now, so there wasn’t much savings in that plan. We looked at wood stoves, but you can’t leave them unattended, aren’t nearly as efficient, and they need constant attention. So we instead decided upon a pellet stove.
Even though the pellet stove runs a lot more often than the furnace, the pellets are far cheaper than natural gas (as of this writing). We bought 1.5 tons of premium pellets at a cost of $357, which will last us the entire year. This is less than half the cost of our natural gas for the year. So we are saving about $800 – $357 = $443 a year, or about $70 a month (only need to heat the house about 6 months of the year).
We usually run our stove with a feed rate at 3 (on a scale to 6) and turn it up to 4.5 when the wind kicks in. We also have it automatically start up when the room temperature gets below 70F. We have found that this is plenty warm and we can always crank it up if we need to. When we first bought the stove, I had the feed rate at 5 and our house was over 82! The upstairs was even warmer! This was much too warm and we would burn through our fuel twice as fast so that’s when I started lowering the feed rate. But it’s nice to know when can make it really warm if we need too. The warm air finds it way upstairs into the kids room with no problem. We just have to leave their doors halfway open. All rooms on the same level are also kept warm.
The only room that remains somewhat cold is our garden level downstairs room (half underground), but this isn’t a big deal because the TV, computer and amplifier tend to heat the room anyway. However, if you have a house that has lots of rooms and hallways, you may find that a pellet stove won’t work that well heating all the rooms. They work best with houses that have open floor plans.
- Very efficient. I think they rate our Harman XXV stove around 85%, which is about the same as a middle-of-the-road gas furnace. The one thing people overlook is a pellet stove heats the air and circulates it within the house. A furnace heats the air and distributes it through ducts. Sometimes these ducts run through exterior walls, crawlspaces and attics where a lot of heat is lost to conduction heating nonliving spaces. So the pellet stove really is more efficient than a furnace once you take this into consideration.
- Pellets are a lot cheaper than natural gas. Pellets are usually made from wood byproducts, like sawdust that is usually thrown away. Some pellets also contain corn husks which are also normally just thrown away. Point being, pellets are made from “trash” products which means they are cheap. A 40 lbs bag costs about $4.10 (as of 2008). You can get them cheaper if you buy them by the pallet.
- Self-starting, auto feeding and completely safe to leave unattended. This is different than a wood burning stove.
- Very cheap to install. Ours only cost $150 and we had to vent it horizontally out a wall.
- You don’t need a chimney. You can vent it vertically or horizontally and no ash is produced. This is not true of wood stoves which require vertical venting and produce lots of ash.
- Built-in thermostat automatically turns on and shuts off the pellet stove once the desired temperature is reached.
- Initial cost. We paid $3400 to buy and have the Harman XXV installed. Somewhat noisy combustion and blower fans. Not a big deal if the pellet stove is not in a room you sleep in. It’s not so noisy that you cannot have a conversation. For example, it’s about as loud as a small room fan set on low speed. After awhile, it’s like a refrigerator … you don’t pay attention or notice when it’s running.
- Needs an electric plug. A pellet stove uses electricity for the mechanical hopper, auger and the combustion fans. However, these three things are what make the pellet stove burn it’s fuel with high efficiency. If you lose power, the stove will not work. However, there are battery backup options you can purchase. We picked up a small computer UPS battery backup and tuck it behind the stove. Because the stove only pulls about 100 watts, it will last for hours.
- Need a dry place to store the pellets (garage, basement).
- You need to be able to lift a 40 lbs bag about once every 2 or 3 days
- Like a wood fireplace, you will need to occasionally clean the pellet stove to remove ash. This only takes about 5 minutes once a month because there is very little ash produced. If you get high grade premium pellets, you may not have to clean the stove until 1 ton of pellets have been burned.
So far we love the stove. Our furnace hasn’t kicked on once and our gas bill was only $29.92 last month (water heater plus normal service fees). If the pellets last us the entire winter (which they should) and we save $90 a month on our gas bill, the stove will pay itself off in 6 years. It will pay itself off sooner if we turn the stove down at night or when we leave the house. Right now, we just leave it at 70F all day and night. Also, pellet stoves are quickly gaining in popularity because of the cost savings. As pellet demand increases, more “trash” items will be used in making the pellets which could further reduce their manufacturing cost.
UPDATE: It looks like we are going to end up a bit short on pellets this year. It doesn’t look like 1.5 tons is going to be enough, so we’ll end up buying 2 tons next year. I think I’m also going to get the hardwood pellets to see if there’s a difference. Still no problems with the stove. The glass seems to get this yellow soot on it that’s kind of difficult to clean off, but I found using a razor blade takes it off fairly easily. I’m not using the best pellets so maybe that’s what’s causing it. It’s not that big a deal, though.
UPDATE: We ran into our first problem with the pellet stove. The igniter started failing and the pellets wouldn’t catch on fire. Since the stove was under warranty, they replaced the igniter free of charge with no hassles.
UPDATE: We’ve gone two years since having the igniter replaced. The stove is running just fine. I performed my first maintenance by removing the back panel and vacuuming out the dust. Didn’t make a noticeable difference in operation.
UPDATE: We’re now 5 years into owning our pellet stove and have had no other issues. We’re burning 2 tons of pellets a year.
UPDATE: After 7 years, it died! Won’t power on anymore. Called a technician to take a look. Hope it’s not too costly (turns out it was a fuse that needed to be replaced: $6.00 from Radio Shack). It’s running again.