There are three basic facts of life: taxes, death and cold New England winters. As fuel costs rise, homeowners are seeking alternate ways to heat their homes at increasing levels, and wood pellet burning stoves have become extremely popular throughout the northeast. Jumping on the bandwagon myself, I too purchased a pellet stove and use it as a primary source of heat. As with all other purchases, pellet stoves too come with fine print. Manufacturers and sales representatives are less inclined to touch on these issues and trial and error becomes the learning tool by default for the homeowner.
When pellet stove shopping, be sure to visit a reputable dealer. Ask friends and family members for insight as word of mouth can provide you with some valuable knowledge which will ultimately aid in your investment.
Take your time with the stove dealer and talk in detail about the stove you are interested in purchasing. Focus on the sales reps knowledge of the particular model and upkeep requirements for the stove you are concentrating on. Be sure you are comfortable with his knowledge before any purchase. Trusting your stove dealer is important as you will be stepping into a relationship with him that will last for the life of your purchase. If you are uneasy with him, find another stove dealer.
If a fire resistant base mat is required, use one. If your stove dealer doesn’t sell them, find another dealer to do business with. These mats come in an abundance of styles and colors. Choose one that fits your room’s dÃ?Â©cor.
Most importantly, and least likely to be mentioned by your sales representative, before solidifying any pellet stove purchase, be sure pellet fuel is available in your area and that you have a dry place to store the fuel (two tons of pellets equals roughly 160 cubic feet of bagged pellets). Depending on your heating needs, you will need anywhere between one to three tons of pellet fuel for a typical burning season. Without the availability of pellets for your new stove, your investment will be nothing more than an expensive floor ornament.
Understand that pellet stoves do take time and attention on a daily basis just to maintain proper operation. If you don’t wish to devote this time, then a pellet stove is just not for you. If you still like the idea of purchasing one, here are some other things to consider during your purchasing phase as well as some additional safety steps once it has been installed into your home:
Avoid the temptation to purchase a first generation stove – First generations are nice, but in choosing a first generation pellet stove, you are opening yourself up to a handful of problems. Being a first time buyer, this decision is particularly detrimental as you haven’t built your knowledge or opinion of a pellet burning stove yet. Choose a stove that has compiled a history and proven itself. In first generations, some problems haven’t even been identified, never mind having had the bugs worked outand buyers become test subjects at a full price sale.
Choose a suitable location for your stove – Your new stove will be a permanent room fixture. It is not as easy to move around as a couch or curio cabinet. Know in advance where you want to place the stove in your home as you will be cutting straight through your wall to the outside for venting.Be sure your chosen location is free from furniture and drapery to within three to five feet, as the stove itself can get quite warm on the outside while in operation. Keep in mind that radiating heat is always a potential fire risk when flammable items are placed too close to a pellet stove. Further, make it a practice from the very beginning to never lay gloves or boots on top of your stove, a common thought in the winter months.
Have your stove installed by professionals. I know most do-it-yourselfers gain great pride in knowing they’ve accomplished projects with little to no help, but in the case of a pellet stove, have the professionals install it. The manufacturer’s manual doesn’t help in this area as it offers detailed instructions for proper installation, making it a little more appealing to do it yourself. The professional installers know where to seal, how to balance and how to piece together exhaust tubing. Should the unfortunate event of fire occur, it is to your advantage to have a professional license behind the installation for insurance purposes as compared to a self-install by the homeowner with limited knowledge.
Read the manufacturer’s operation manual – Read the operation manual. It provides information about things that you haven’t thought about asking and your sales agent and installers didn’t think to tell you. If your stove comes with a first time buyer’s video, don’t toss it aside. Watch the video. You’ll learn something from it that you didn’t realize, I promise. Use the cleaning tools provided with your stove until you can determine for yourself that other tools will be appropriate for you, like a paintbrush for better ash removal. Plan to purchase a vacuum cleaner for the sole purpose of stove cleaning, separate from your home vacuum. Nothing elaborate is necessary. You can purchase a one-gallon Shop-Vac with a filter for under $20.00 from your local department store.
Follow all town ordinances – Make a friendly visit to your town’s Inspection Services Department. More than likely you will be required to take out a permit for the installation. They may also offer you some additional pamphlets for you to take with you concerning pellet stoves, methods of venting and operation guidelines. Arrange an appointment to have an inspector pay a visit to your home to evaluate your stove and the exhaust venting setup prior to your initial use. If you locate your new stove in a small area or room, the inspector may further require you to add a fresh air vent kit rather than use room air circulation.
Seal all joints and connectors – There are several methods of sealing pipes, none of which are overly pretty, but remember the pipes are behind the stove and probably not visible to anyone but yourself. While your installer will seal seams and joints when they install your stove, you might find the need for additional sealing after it is allowed to operate a few times. Heat resistant silicone specifically for wood and pellet stove applications that can withstand heat of up to 800 degrees is your best bet. Foil wrap sealers are also a consideration. Use both if you wish. Before you light your first fire, place a lit flashlight in the burn pot and close the door. Look around the door to make sure no light shines through. If you can see light shine through the closed door, you are allowing a route for sparks to find their way through the door and into your room. Lastly, upon the first operation of your pellet stove, shine a flashlight in the area of the exhaust pipes to check for leaks. If any are present, you’ll see small wisps of smoke. If you suspect an area to have a leak, you can also hold a damp paper towel over that area for a few seconds. Soot will deposit onto the paper towel if a leak is present.
On first startup, expect smoke and unpleasant odors – The paint on your new pellet stove will finish its curing process only under heated conditions. Since this is not done on the show room floor, expect it to occur inside your home. Salesmen may downplay this event and suggest the possibility of a little smoke on first startup. Consider this highly understated. The more raw, uncured paint your stove has on it, the more smoke and noxious odor you’ll have inside your home. People sensitive to smells would do well to leave the home during the first firing. The smoke on your initial start up may also activate your fire alarm system. The smoke and odors will rapidly dissipate over repeated burns. Opening a window during your first burn would be a good practice however, do not open windows that are located near the exhaust pipe.
Become intimately familiar with your stove – Take note of the guts of your stove when cleaning it. Listen and learn the sounds your stove makes when it’s running. Take note of any smells that are obvious to you. You may smell a bit of a clean wood burning smell, this is normal. You shouldn’t smell exhaust, that is not normal. The feed auger makes some noise when it feeds fuel, this is normal. An auger making excessive banging noise is not normal. Rattles you may hear when the pellet stove is operating may be indicative of a level problem. The pinging or crackling sounds of the metal in your stove is normal as metals do expand and contract when under heating and cooling conditions.
Cleaning your pellet stove frequently will save on the wear and tear of your stove which allows the stove to work more efficiently. Clean your stove daily even if it looks like it doesn’t need it. As part of your cleaning routine, check the hopper for sawdust and periodically vacuum out whatever sawdust you can. Sawdust will gum up the auger and ultimately require a service technician visit.
Remember the exhaust vent – Unlike a car exhaust, the exhaust vent in your pellet stove does require cleaning and is often times overlooked. Clean your vent pipe seasonally, more if you have a lot of ash debris inside your pellet stove requiring frequent dumping of your ash pan contents. Special pellet stove vent brushes can be purchased in most hardware stores at a reasonable cost.
A CO detector is your watchdog – You are burning organic matter. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of all burning organic matter. Make sure your home is equipped with CO detectors and feel free to place one within ten feet of your stove.
Service Calls – Don’t just ride through a concern you might have. Educate yourself and call for a service technician to visit if you are unsure of anything that doesn’t seem part of the normal operation of your pellet stove. Call for a technician when you have identified a problem that needs fixing. It may seem an easy fix to you, but the technicians are trained to locate problems that you might not be aware of. The problem that you were able to identify may very well have been caused by another issue altogether.
With these things in mind and taking advice from pellet stove owners might prove helpful in the proper operation of your own stove. Taking the steps to properly educate yourself and offer your loved ones a safer environment is priceless. Following the instructions in your operation manual, the recommendations of your sales team and some of the often overlooked items I’ve listed above and you should expect nothing less than many years of safe operation from your pellet stove.