Heat

New England can be a cold place. My house came with a forced hot air oil furnace. I don’t know if you’ve heard but oil is kind of expensive and pretty nasty stuff.

Fortunately, the house also came with a beautiful brick and slate hearth. I kept going back and forth on whether I wanted a wood stove, or a wood pellet stove.

A wood stove just taking hunks of cord wood, being filled probably twice a day, requiring a wood shed, but allowing me to harvest all my heating fuel essentially for free. I have one friend who heats his house and apartments entirely with wood that he scavenges all year from people giving it away on craigslist, or from people in need of having a fallen tree removed from their yard. But he works pretty hard at collecting it, plus he spends a good deal of time tending the stoves in the winter time and can never stray too far from home when it’s below freezing.

You could also just pay to have cut and split wood delivered. Around here, if I bought green wood and seasoned it myself (by letting it sit in a wood shed with good ventilation, exposure to the sun and out of the rain for about a year or two) I could get it for apparently under $200 cord, and I’d probably only need just over two cords per year for my small house. Though there’s still the work of stacking the wood into the shed, and then hauling it to the house throughout the winter and tending the stove.

A pellet stove, on the other hand, takes small pellet sized pieces of wood that look a lot like rabbit food. They’re made from waste wood, saw dust, and timber specifically harvested for pellet production. They’re basically run through a machine that just pulverizes the wood and then compresses it into these small, manageable pellets. There’s still some work and stove-tending involved since a pellet stove needs to be loaded with pellets and cleaned of its ash regularly.

Neither is as easy as gas or oil, obviously. But using sustainably harvested local wood is pretty much carbon neutral, and pretty cheap. And it’s not subject to the rapid price changes that fossil fuels are.

I decided to go with a large pellet stove I found that can hold 120 lbs of pellets. Most stoves only hold about 40 lbs requiring you to refill it daily, if not more often. Whereas my stove can go for about 3 days of continuous burning on its lowest setting without any attention. I got it at a local shop and trailered it home. With the pipes and stove the total cost came to about $1,700. I ordered 3 tons of pellets for just under $800 delivered on a pallet set right outside the door next to the stove so they only need to be carried about 10 ft. I’m told I’ll probably only need about 2 tons, but I would rather have extra to save for next winter than run out and be scrambling in February for a last minute delivery.

I put the stove and piping in in only a couple of hours. And we have already had some cold days to test it out and it’s working great. There’s a glass door with a flickering flame that lights up the kitchen with a warm light, and it’s capable of pushing out an impressive amount of heat.

So right now I don’t have any plans to use any oil this winter.

Once downside of the pellet stove is that it requires electricity to run. Not a significant amount, it just uses electricity to self-light itself, and then to run a couple of fans and an auger that turns at set increments to distribute more pellets into the burn chamber to keep the fire going. However, in the event of a power outage, which, in a New England winter, is pretty much to be expected, it won’t be able to run without a generator. Which is now on my shopping list. In fact, I think I might buy 2. One for me, and one to sell at a scandalous markup during the next extended power outage when all the hardware stores have run out of generators and they sell on craigslist for 3 times their typical list price.

A wood stove might be nicer in some fantasy, extended disaster scenario when it might be hard to get pellets delivered. But I could stock up on pellets. Or, worst case, I could pull out the pellet stove and put a wood stove in its place with just a few hours work. I plan on putting a wood stove in the garage at some point so I’ll already have one on hand anyway. And nothing bad is going to happen anyway, so I don’t think about those scenarios too much ;-)

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5 Comments

  1. Posted November 6, 2012 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    I’m a big fan of wood stoves, though they are admittedly more labor-intensive. Someday if the plan falls into place, our future dream house in the woods will be heated largely by our high efficiency wood stoves which run on wood harvested from our dozens (hundreds?) of acres of forested property. Of course the wood stove would be supplemented by the solar-heated water which circulates through our baseboard radiators.

    In your case, an oil furnace would also have required some electricity, so moving up from oil to wood pellets makes a significant environmental improvement, even if it does still require connection to an electricity source.

  2. Posted November 9, 2012 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    @executioner Have you looked at rocket stoves or masonry stoves? A rocket stove looks like it would be a lot of fun, but they’re so heavy it would be hard to retrofit one into an existing house.

  3. Dr. Z
    Posted November 16, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

    Nice job on the pellet stove install. I use a Harman wood furnace (similar to an oil or gas furnace, but wood-fired) to heat my home. It heats the closed-loop baseboard piping. An added bonus is that it has a domestic hot water coil attached to it, which provides all my hot water. I’m looking into getting solar hot water panels for the summertime when the wood furnace is not in use.

  4. lurker
    Posted November 25, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I hear solar hot water works well. you should be all set.

  5. Posted December 12, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    @ Dr. Z My parent’s have a similar setup but it uses wood pellets. It’s a central boiler in their basement that uses baseboard hot water to transfer the heat upstairs, plus it provides the house hot water. It works pretty well. I’ve also seen the completely automated pellet boilers that have large silos for the fuel and automatic ash removal systems so that they require zero attention day to day making bio mass pellet use just as convenient as gas or oil but more environmentally friendly, generally cheaper, and definitely with fewer and smaller price swings through the years. There are even some high schools in New England being entirely heated with large wood pellet boilers. It’s also great because it keeps money in the local economy employing lumber jacks in New Hampshire and Maine instead of oil/gas drillers in the middle of the country or abroad.