10 Things You Need to Know About Wood Pellet Fireplaces

Fireplace pellets are a flexible fuel choice, because they can be made from a variety of materials. Wood byproducts are the most common.
Fireplace pellets are a flexible fuel choice, because they can be made from a variety of materials. Wood byproducts are the most common.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

When economic times are tight, we start looking at what costs we can control, and one cost that can get out of control, with fluctuating fossil fuel prices, is heating our homes. To cut costs, more people are considering alternative heat sources, and wood pellet fireplaces are one possible solution to this high-price problem.

Around 64 percent of Americans report that they're considering a new technology, such as a fireplace, wood stove or pellet stove, to be more energy efficient [source: Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association]. In fact, pellet fireplaces are not only efficient, but they also have relatively less impact on the environment than other heating mechanisms. As of 2009, about 800,000 American homeowners were using wood pellet stoves [source: Consumer Reports].

Wood pellet fireplaces are capable of burning a variety of materials -- often the byproducts of sawmills -- that are formed into small, dense pellets, which burn very efficiently.

Are you considering heating your home with a wood pellet fireplace? Read on to learn about 10 things you might want to know before you make your purchase.

10
Fuel Flexibility

Wood pellet fireplaces are highly popular heating devices in Europe, and they're growing in popularity in the U.S., as well. As of 2011, there are more than 80 pellet mills in North America, producing more than 1 million tons of pellets a year [source: Biomass-Events.com].

One advantage of these fireplaces is that they can burn a variety of materials. While some models burn only pellets made of sawdust, wood, bark and other wood byproducts, other models allow you to burn a wide variety of biofuels, including corn kernels, soybeans, nutshells, barley, dried cherry pits, beet pulp, wheat and sunflowers.

This flexibility allows you to find the most affordable, highest-quality fuel available from local resources -- just one eco-friendly advantage of these heaters.

9
Environmentally Friendly
Believe it or not, these tiny pellets are an eco-friendly fuel choice.
Believe it or not, these tiny pellets are an eco-friendly fuel choice.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Some consumers are installing wood pellet fireplaces because they just want to save money on home heating. Others may appreciate the cost savings but are even more excited about the eco-friendly nature of pellet fuel. Pellets and other biofuels are renewable resources, so they offer a much greener solution than burning nonrenewable fuels like oil, coal or gas.

Burning biofuels is also carbon-neutral, so using wood pellet fireplaces means you won't be adding to greenhouse gas effects as you would with fossil fuels. Some experts believe that use of wood pellet fireplaces results in the elimination of 75 percent of carbon emissions that would be caused by fossil fuel heating [source: Fireplaces.com].

Therefore, you can not only save money with wood pellet fireplaces, but do your part for the environment, as well.

8
Recycling Resources

Many of us recycle our paper, cans and plastics. But did you know that by using a wood pellet fireplace, you're also supporting recycling?

Fuel pellets are often made of factory byproducts. Wood pellets, for example, are manufactured using a combination of sawdust, wood chips, bark, agricultural crop waste, waste paper and a variety of other materials -- a number of which are impractical for other purposes. So using pellets means you're reusing materials that normally would contribute to landfills.

Another benefit: When you buy pellets from your local merchant, you're likely supporting local businesses that supply the raw materials, and therefore, you're contributing to your local economy.

7
Lower Energy Bills
Heating your most-used rooms with a fireplace can help you lower your energy bill.
Heating your most-used rooms with a fireplace can help you lower your energy bill.
Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Thinkstock

If you're using gas, propane or oil to heat your home, the utility bills can be staggering. Even worse, they fluctuate, and they can skyrocket unpredictably. The cost of wood pellets, though, has remained fairly stable over the last 10 years [source: Fireplaces.com].

The way most people save money using wood pellet fireplaces is by installing them in rooms where they spend the most time, like the living room or den. The fireplace keeps that room warm and toasty, so if you're still using central heating for the rest of the home, you can lower the thermostat.

There are also whole-house pellet heating systems. Some work as standalone systems, while others are actually integrated into the central heating system.

6
Easy to Operate

Wood pellet fireplaces usually run on electricity and have automated mechanisms that make them simple to use. Once you load the pellets into the fireplace's hopper, an auger automatically feed pellets into the combustion chamber, where they burn slowly and efficiently.

While you will need to buy and store bags of pellets, you won't have to store large stacks of chopped wood, so your storage requirements aren't as demanding as with wood fireplaces -- and there's no chopping involved! Just remember to store the pellets in a dry place, and keep plenty on hand so you don't run out on a chilly night.

5
Adjustable Heat
Want to turn up the heat? Many wood pellet stoves have adjustable thermostats.
Want to turn up the heat? Many wood pellet stoves have adjustable thermostats.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Wood pellet fireplaces are becoming more popular, and as in any hot market, that means manufacturers must be competitive with new features to increase market share and gain more sales. Such competition breeds improvement, so these fireplaces have become quite sophisticated. For example, some models offer control panels or wall-mounted thermostats that allow you to turn the temperature up or down.

These controls work just like those of central heating systems, gauging the temperature and then adjusting the fireplace accordingly. The higher you set the control, the more pellets the fireplace will feed into the combustion chamber and burn. Lower the control, and the feeding process slows.

4
More Maintenance

Central heating as we know it is certainly easy: Set the thermostat up or down and change a filter now and then. Wood pellet fireplaces aren't quite that labor-free. You'll need to keep the feeder full, which probably means loading pellets once a day.

That also means you'll have to buy pellets on a regular basis. You can find them at large hardware retailers and at some farms and garden merchants. Finding pellets may not be a problem in cities, but those who live in more sparsely populated areas may have a challenge. You'll probably want to talk to your local stores before you invest in a wood pellet fireplace to be sure you'll have a steady source of pellets as needed.

Wood pellet fireplaces also need frequent cleaning for safety and efficiency. Some companies recommend light cleaning daily and more thorough cleaning twice a month.

3
Know What Can Be Burned
Before you buy a pellet fireplace, check to make sure there's a convenient place to buy pellets in your area.
Before you buy a pellet fireplace, check to make sure there's a convenient place to buy pellets in your area.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Before you select a wood pellet fireplace, be sure you understand the type of fuel the fireplace can burn. You may want one that only burns wood pellets because you live in an area where those are the only types of pellets available. Or you may want one that can burn a wide variety of biofuels, as mentioned earlier in this article. You'll want to select the wood pellet fireplace that can burn the type of fuel you prefer and that you can obtain easily.

You may also want to study up on the different grades of wood pellets. A standard grade consists of more ash than does a premium grade, so while standard-grade pellets will be less expensive, they'll also burn less cleanly than the more expensive premium grade. Lower-quality pellets will also result in higher maintenance because of higher ash production, so you'll be cleaning the unit more often.

2
Tax Credits

For the last several years, tax credits have been offered to those who make home improvements that are considered green, contributing to the preservation of the environment. The 2011 tax laws state that U.S. homeowners who purchase a 75 percent-efficient biomass (wood or pellet) burning stove, fireplace or insert during 2011 can receive a U.S. federal tax credit for 10 percent of their cost -- up to $300 [source: Fireplaces.com].

If you installed a wood pellet fireplace in years past, you could still be eligible. Check to see what tax benefits were offered then, and find out if you can benefit: You may be due a credit.

1
The Downsides
These little pellets may cause respiratory problems -- to help avoid this, buy the highest quality pellets you can find.
These little pellets may cause respiratory problems -- to help avoid this, buy the highest quality pellets you can find.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Wood pellet fireplaces offer a lot of benefits, such as wallet- and eco-friendly properties, but they don't deliver perfection. Because wood burns differently than natural gas or oil, some people may experience respiratory difficulties. Lower quality pellets will exacerbate this.

Pellet fireplaces need power to operate, so if your power goes out, so does your heat. You'll need to invest in backup generators if you want to ensure continued use (although some wood pellet fireplaces come with backup batteries). Also, be sure that if your wood pellet fireplace is close to your central heating thermostat, it's not delivering a skewed gauge of your whole-home heat, making the rest of the house too cold.

The fireplaces aren't cheap: Plan on spending $1,500 to $3,000 or more, not including installation. Finally, some users report that pellet fires are more noisy and not as pretty as the crackling of log fires.

To learn more about fireplaces, check out the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Biomass-Events.com. "Wood pellet market in Canada and USA." (April 30, 2011) http://biomass-events.com/promo-wood_pellets.html
  • Consumer Reports. "Alternative energy." October 2009. (May 1, 2011) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine-archive/october-2009/home-garden/alternative-energy/overview/alternative-energy-ov.htm
  • Consumer Reports. "Buyer's guide to pellet- and wood-burning stoves." August 2009. (May 1, 2011) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/appliances/heating-cooling-and-air/wood-stoves/buyers-guide-to-pellet-and-wood-burning-stoves-1-07/overview/0701_pellet-stove.htm
  • Fireplaces.com. "2011 Tax Credit FAQs." (May 1, 2011) http://www.fireplaces.com/Resources/Tax%20Credit/2011%20Tax%20Credit/2011%20Tax%20Credit%20FAQs.aspx
  • Fireplaces.com. "Pellet Stoves." (May 1, 2011) http://www.fireplaces.com/en/Browse/Stoves/Pellet%20Stoves.aspx
  • Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. "2011 State of the Hearth Industry Report." (May 2, 2011) http://www.hpba.org/media/hearth-industry-prs/2011-state-of-the-hearth-industry-report
  • Vandervort, Don. "Pellet Stoves Buying Guide." HomeTips.com. (April 30, 2011) http://www.hometips.com/buying-guides/pellet-stoves.html
  • Wood Pellet Stoves. "A Consumer's Guide to Pellet Stoves." (May 1, 2011) http://www.woodpelletstoves.net/