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Sweep's Library: Why don't you sell pellet stoves?

Q: I've been hearing a lot about these stoves that burn wood pellets lately, and they seem like a pretty good idea. I notice you don't feature any pellet stoves on your website. Are these something brand new? Do you know anything about them?

Sweepy A: Pellet stoves are nothing new: the reason you're hearing about them lately is marketing. These days, Americans are looking for heating fuels that are domestically produced. As a result, wood stoves and gas stoves are selling in record numbers, and the pellet stove industry is advertising like crazy, trying to capture a piece of that market.

As it happens, we have extensive experience with pellet stoves dating back to 1982. At that time, pellet stoves looked like a great product, for two reasons: they produced far lower emissions than the woodstoves of the day, and they enabled the mountains of worthless sawdust generated by sawmills, etc. to be used as inexpensive fuel. At one point, we sold pellet-burning models from seven different manufacturers.

With hundreds of pellet-burning appliances installed, we began to realize that pellet stoves might not be the miracle heating products they had seemed. Our customers complained of the noise of the auger and blower motors, superfine pellet dust all over the house each time they dumped a bag of fuel into the hopper, and the inability to operate during power outages. Our service department logged breakdown calls of a frequency several times the level we were accustomed to from our wood and gas appliance customers.

The fuel savings advantage didn't last long. In a short period of time, the demand for sawdust began to exceed the available resource, and pellet manufacturers were forced to buy and grind up trees to make pellets, resulting in price increases that have continued to spiral in ensuing years. at this writing, pellet fuel costs over FIVE TIMES what it cost in 1982, making it nearly twice as expensive as cord wood in some areas. Not surprisingly, since pellet stove owners are a captive audience, there seems to be very little pricing competition among brands of pellets: pellet customers must pay the going rate.

Hidden operating costs are another factor. Pellet stoves are electrical appliances, and will not operate unless the exhaust fan, circulating blower and auger motor are running. Not only does this amount to over $50.00 in annual power usage for the average pellet burner, but repair and replacement expense must be factored into operating costs as well, as these expensive motors break down and wear out.

Pellet emissions levels no longer look so low. The environmental advantage of pellet stoves virtually disappeared back in the early 1990's, with the introduction of clean-burning EPA approved woodstoves.

Our experience eventually led us to the conclusion that pellet stoves just aren't the heating alternative they were touted to be, and we stopped selling them several years ago. Wood stoves are less expensive to purchase than pellet stoves, and also much more economical to operate ( fuel wood, which doesn't have to be ground up, pelletized and bagged, will always be cheaper than pellet fuel ). Today's high-efficiency gas stoves are also less noisy, less messy and less expensive to operate than pellet stoves. For a chart comparing the heating expense of various fuels, click here.

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