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Sustainability 66: Pellet Stoves
The pellet stove is an interior stove, often quite similar in appearance to, and not much larger than, a traditionally styled ‘Franklin stove’. The fuel used in the pellet stove is most often some form of compressed wood, wood waste or other biomass (such as agricultural waste of hay or straw, for example). The distinguishing characteristic of most pellet stoves is their hopper-feed, which slowly allows fuel pellets to enter the combustion chamber from a storage hopper over time, thereby regulating the burning process to provide relatively constant and low-maintenance heating.
The pellet stove, probably introduced in America’s Norhwest in the 1980s, is but a modern variant of an old-school heating method. Braziers using charcoal and other such fuels date back to antiquity. Backyard barrel stoves and the oil drum fires employed throughout the Depression (and still in use in many impoverished areas today) are precursors of the pellet stove. So too are the sawdust and scrapwood ovens of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The Presto-Log of the 1930s consisted of compressed sawdust and other waste, much like the improved pellets of today.
As the pellet stove matures, manufacturers keep introducing variants of design, fuel use and operational features. It is now possible to use a pellet stove either as a free-standing unit, as an insert into an existing fireplace, or as replacement of a home’s furnace. Some pellet stoves burn only wood pellets, while others may burn corn husks, compressed waste paper, sawdust or a variety of other biomass fuels (wood chips, cherry pits, wheat, sunflower seeds).
The operation of a pellet stove, like that of a furnace, can be automatically thermostatically controlled or remote-controlled. Most have automatic ignition, and all pellet stoves require some electrical power for operation. Like zero-clearance fireplaces, pellet stoves usually employ layered enclosures and ventilating air to keep the stove enclosure cool enough for safe contact with humans and household materials and pets. For proper and safe operation, pellet stoves demand installation, operation, maintenance, cleaning and safety practices similar to any home furnace or fireplace.
Since pellet stoves are considered a more sustainable heating option — due to their consumption as fuel of what would most often otherwise be waste — many states offer a tax credit against their purchase and installation. And, for the same reasons, a number of states also exempt pellet fuel from sales taxes.