By Fran Marengo
(As Published In House & Home News Magazine, September 2006)
If last year’s budget-busting winter heat bills have you dreading the approaching heating season, check into an up-and-coming money-saving alternative heat source that already has people talking in the Upper Cumberlands. Although unfamiliar to many in our area, pellet/corn stoves and fireplace inserts have long been a popular money-saving, clean and convenient heating choice in locations where reasonably priced firewood is hard to find or unavailable.
Just what are pellets? Think of pellets as firewood you can scoop up by the handful. This inexpensive and convenient fuel is recycled from waste sawdust that would otherwise be left to rot. Packaged in neat, clean 40 pound plastic bags, sawdust is compressed into pellets without any additives using a process similar to manufacturing horse or rabbit feed.
A good pellet stove or fireplace insert blows a steady stream of even heat through your home at the touch of a button. Pellet appliances can be attractive additions to a family or great room and most offer a large view of a blazing fire even though most stoves burn just a few tablespoons of pellets at a time.
In our climate, where we often experience wild temperature swings within a single day, it is critical to find out if the pellet appliance you are considering can automatically stop and start itself with a thermostat. To be avoided is a pellet stove that despite boasting a thermostat, can only slow down the speed that feeds the pellets and the blower speed, and actually requires the homeowner to press a button to stop or start the stove. This type of stove will still keep burning constantly even if the air conditioner turns on, and is simply not efficient. Some fully automatic pellet appliances can hold over 100 pounds of fuel and can burn unattended for as long as 68 hours on a low setting, which makes saving money by burning pellets far more convenient than using a wood stove.
Pellet appliances are available in three formats: By far the most popular is a freestanding stove, which runs cool on the back and can be placed within inches of an unprotected wall. If backed up to an outside wall, most can be vented right through the wall using a three to four inch special “pellet vent” kit, which looks much like a drier vent on the outside. For interior walls, special pellet venting can be installed up through the roof or into an existing wood stove flue.
Homeowners who have a pretty, but impractical wood-burning fireplace may want to consider a pellet fireplace insert that slides into the existing fireplace and vents up the chimney. For those building a new home, some manufacturers offer a “zero-clearance” version of their insert that can be built right into the framing and decorated to look just like a fireplace, complete with hearth and mantel. However, framing the unit directly into the wall would be a safety hazard unless the model you choose specifically offers this option.
Locally available in the Upper Cumberlands from several sources, pellets can be purchased either by the bag or most economically by the ton (50 bags on a pallet about four feet by four feet). When used as the only heat source during a relatively cold winter in our area, an average 2000 square foot home is estimated to use about two tons, currently running about $238 per ton.
Best yet, an entire season’s supply of pellets can (and should) be purchased in advance of the heating season, when prices are at their lowest and availability is highest. To avoid being caught short by a possible late winter pellet shortage (which occurred last winter), anyone seriously interested in the possibility of saving money by heating with pellets should make plans to buy all their fuel in advance of the season. Any left-over fuel will keep indefinitely without deteriorating as long as it does not get wet. Homeowners purchasing their pellets while the weather is still warm will have the advantage of knowing approximately what their heating costs will run in advance, without the unpredictable increases that have become commonplace with gas or electric heat.
Several new pellet manufacturers will be coming on line this season in Collinwood, TN, Tullahoma TN, Gamaliel, KY and Somerset, KY, which are likely to help bring pellet prices down further.
Other than farmers, most homeowners are likely to prefer pellets to corn. While some stoves can burn only pellets, and some can burn just corn, there are a few that can burn a mixture of both fuels. Corn is readily available from Farmer’s Co-ops or feed stores. Pound for pound, corn offers a slightly higher fuel value than pellets and may cost less. However, corn has one serious disadvantage compared to pellets… it attracts mice and insects and most non-farm homes are ill-equipped to store large quantities of corn.
In the Upper Cumberlands, the lowest cost heating alternative is still burning wood in one of today’s high-tech wood stoves which burn their own waste products -- smoke and creosote -- as fuel. However, the convenience, cleanliness and even heat of a pellet appliance may be more suitable for the majority of today’s homeowners who lead busy lives and have no place to store large piles of wood.
For those seriously interested in the possibility of a pellet/corn appliance, the industry is advising shoppers to begin their investigations early, preferably while it is still hot, while dealers still have a good selection in stock and prices are likely to be at their lowest point. Due to huge unprecedented demand in the both the US and Canada last season, by last October, most US manufacturers sold out all their production clear through the following late spring.
For your future satisfaction with your pellet appliance, look for a knowledgeable factory-trained dealer that has an established track record of installing and servicing these unique hearth products. Should you purchase over the internet, from a source that does not provide service, or from a dealer new to pellet appliances, you may be left “up the creek” should a warranty issue or the need for service arise.
For more information on pellet appliances and to see a working model, visit Custom Fireplaces & More in Cookeville at 1611 E. Spring St. They have been offering pellet/corn stoves for over a decade.