In colder climates, heating accounts for about one-third of a homeowner’s annual utility bill, which is why many are seeking thriftier ways to stay toasty.  Freestanding pellet stoves and inserts that fit inside an existing fireplace are an increasingly popular solution.  They look like traditional woodstoves but operate more like a modern furnace. All that is required is to fill the stove’s hopper with pellets made from compacted sawdust, set its thermostat, sit back, and get cozy.

A mechanical auger deposits the pellets into a burn pot, where they are incinerated at such a high temperature that they create no vent-clogging creosote and very little ash or emissions, which keeps both indoor and outdoor air cleaner.  Depending on your home’s size and layout, a pellet stove could supplement the current heating system or be used as the sole source.  Despite their workhorse reputation, pellet stoves come in a variety of designs to complement any interior style.

pellet stove

How They Work

Pellets are automatically fed from a storage hopper into a burn pot, creating a constant flame that needs no tending.

Heat-exchange tubes: Send air heated by fire into room.

Hopper: Stores pellets to be burned.

Convection fan: Circulates air through heat-exchange tubes and into room.

Burn pot: Holds pellets for combustion.

Auger: Feeds pellets from hopper to burn pot, where they are ignited.

Ashpan: Collects remains of unburned pellets.

Grille: Allows room air to be pulled in by convection fan.

Intake vent: Pulls outside air into burn pot.

Exhaust vent: Takes away combustion gases

Combustion fan: Pulls in outdoor air and exhausts gases.

pellet stove diagram

Can I install a wood pellet stove?

Unless you’re comfortable cutting holes in your house for the venting, leave the installation to the pros. Pipes can run horizontally out an exterior wall, vertically through the roof, or up the chimney if adding an insert. Expect to pay $250 to $1,000 for installation, depending on the complexity of the job.

Keep these tips in mind if you choose to install the stove yourself:

Safe clearances
Because of the heat they generate, pellet stoves should be at least 36 inches from furniture and draperies and placed out of the main foot-traffic areas, especially in households with small children.  It is recommended to follow the manufacturer’s combustion clearances for safe use.  The clearances can be found on the manufacturer’s data plate located commonly at the rear or side of the stove.  The manufacturer plate indicates combustible clearances required on all sides of the stove.

Venting
The exhaust pipe, which can go straight out an exterior wall or up through the roof or chimney, must be tightly sealed to prevent flue gases from entering the home.  A second intake line provides outside air for combustion.

Power supply
Almost all pellet stoves require a nearby outlet to run the fans, thermostat, and circuit board. If the stove is your sole heater, consider adding a battery backup (about $300) in case your electricity goes out.

Floor protection
Pellet stoves must rest on a noncombustible surface, such as stone or ceramic tile, to guard against errant embers.  Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on combustion clearances for the front of the unit.

pellet stove anatomy

How Pellet Stoves Compare to Woodstoves

The biggest difference between a pellet stove and its main competitor, a woodstove, is that, inside, the pellet stove is a high-tech device with a circuit board, a thermostat, and fans—all of which work together to heat your space efficiently. Here are the other key differences between the two.

Pellet Wood
Efficiency 60% – 80% of fuel is converted to heat for your home. 30% – 80% (high end is for certified stoves made after 1990).
Maintenance High-quality pellets limit ashpan cleaning to once a week or less.

Scrape the burn pot weekly to remove combustion residue and unburned pellets.

Clean and inspect vents at the outset of heating season.

Remove ash every one to three days.

Clean the chimney and inspect the stove and the door gasket at outset of heating season.

Venting Options Very little smoke; exhaust is drafted outside with a fan through a horizontal or vertical vent pipe. A passive system requiring a vertical chimney so that smoke can rise and flow outside.
Fuel Availability 40-pound bags of pellets are available at home centers and hardware stores in cold climates. Dealers will also deliver pellets by the tonne. You may be able to harvest your own hardwood but it must be properly seasoned. It’s also sold by the bundle at stores or by the cord from dealers.
Fuel Storage Bags of pellets should be kept indoors to guard against moisture infiltration. Wood can be stacked outside under cover and away from the house to prevent damage from termites.
Power Requires an outlet nearby No power required to operate

What size stove should I buy?

Performance is affected by your home’s layout, insulation, and regional climate, but generally 5,000 BTUs of fire power will heat 200 square feet.  Just keep in mind that the warmth from your stove will be concentrated in rooms closest to where it’s installed. If used for supplemental heat, one trick is to put the stove near a furnace return vent and run the furnace fan to circulate warmed air throughout your home. A ceiling fan with its blades turning in reverse can also help distribute warmed air.

Which stove is best?

There are several different pellet stove manufacturers in Canada and the United States.  Feel free to check them out here:  Canada Manufacturers and USA Manufacturers.

How much is a wood pellet stove?

About $2,000 to $5,000 for a pellet stove or an insert, depending on style, size, and heat output, plus another $300 or so for the vent pipe or chimney liner.

What is a Pellet?

It’s a small pill made of wood waste, mostly sawdust. Pellets have low moisture content, 5 to 10 percent, compared with 20 percent for seasoned firewood. In some regions, you may find pellets made of switchgrass or cornstalks.

Pellets can be purchased in 40 lb bags at your local home renovation store for a cost of $5-6 per bag.  For larger bulk purchases, contact your local pellet stove retailer for a list of locations that sell pellets in bulk.

pellets

Maintaining your Wood Pellet Stove 

  1. Burn Pot
    The burn pot is the area where the pellets are burned and the heat is produced. It is common for the air inlets to become clogged with ash during the burning process, so it is important that you check the inlets frequently to ensure that they are not blocked. You should also clean out the burn pot from time to time to keep your pellet stove working as cleanly and effectively as possible.
  1. Ash Drawer
    The ash drawer is where the ashes settle after the pellets have been burned. It is usually easy to remove the ash pan or drawer so that you can clean it out frequently. You should try to remember to empty the ash drawer before you start the stove. It is dangerous to try to clean out the drawer when the stove has just been on as the ashes will still be hot, so always give the ash time to cool down. With some of the newer pellet stoves, you won’t need to empty the ash drawer more than once a month.
pellet stove maintenance
  1. Heat Exchanger
    Right beside the burn chamber is the heat exchanger. This part transfers the heat from the burner and allows it to escape as clean hot air. A number of tubes are usually interconnected to enable this process so that the hot air can pass through, depositing any unwanted particles in the tubes. This process can lead to a build-up of ash in the tubes, so it’s important that you clean out the tubes regularly to ensure that the hot air that comes out of the stove is as clean as possible.
    How often you will need to clean the heat exchanger tubes will vary from stove to stove. It’s a good idea to check your instruction manual to find out how frequently it is recommended that you do this.
  1. Glass Viewing Screen
    Purchase a stove that comes with an air wash viewing screen. This will ensure that it is as easy to clean as possible. If you do have an air wash viewing screen, all you will need to do is use a simple glass cleaner. If you have a screen that is made from standard glass, then you should probably clean this more frequently as keeping the glass cleaner will be considerably harder in comparison.
  1. Hopper and Auger
    Check the hopper as frequently as you remember for any sawdust. This loose sawdust flakes off the pellets and collects at the bottom. You should allow the supply of pellets to the hopper and the auger to fully deplete from time to time as this will help to burn out any leftover pellet flakes from the auger itself.