The True Cost of Pellet Stoves
By Richard Connolly
Patriot Ledger Correspondent
Despite all these years, the resentment still hangs in the air like heavy smoke. Each day during the heating season, my children were required to bring into the house eight pieces of wood for the Jotul stove in the living room. My daughter picked the pile for the smallest pieces, while my son groaned and complained about the unfairness of it all.
My noting that they did not have to milk the cows before their five-mile trek to school in a raging snowstorm brought no comfort.
Neither would ever forgive my wife and me for sentencing them to wood duty and practically robbing them of their childhood. Adults now with young families, they keep their houses warmer in the winter than ours.
After seventeen years of burning wood, we purchased two Whitfield pellet stoves in 1993. We installed one in the living room and the other in the fireplace in our family room. Gone was the injustice, hard labor on the woodpile, and ash dust. The initial cost of $4,500 was offset $400 by selling the Jotul and another wood burner in the family room.
The complaining, for the most part, disappeared, too. My wife and daughter had neither the strength to lift a 40-pound bag of pellets nor interest in cleaning the stoves. Those responsibilities fell to my son and me. He had become more cooperative, his calling himself Stove Boy notwithstanding.
Everyone loved the pellet stoves. Compared to the Jotul, they were clean and provided a steady flow of warm air to our 2,300-square-foot, all-electric garrison colonial. We regulated the temperature by changing the rate of flow from 1 to 5.
Rarely did we run the living room stove on a setting higher than 1 because the heat would have been oppressive. Because the heat was constant and rose, it made no sense to seal the upstairs bedrooms.
We used the fireplace insert whenever the outside temperature dropped into the teens. A paddle fan there helped to move the heat into the adjoining kitchen.
Relatives and friends marveled at the stoves’ simplicity and attractiveness. My daughter-in-law, a genuine house cat, headed straight for the living room stove when visiting. She enjoyed curling in a comfortable, stuffed chair nearby, wine glass in hand, as the warm air blew gently in her direction.
Our grandsons excitedly held their spinners to the blowers and asked us to increase the speed. Unlike the Jotul, we were not worried about burn accidents because the surface of the Whitfield, except for the door, is warm to the touch.
The cost to operate the stoves during the 2006-07 heating season – not including electricity – was approximately $900 for pellets and $300 for servicing. The labor for stove boy or me to haul three tons of pellets into the house and feed and clean the stoves was free.
Two years ago, my wife and I installed a $4,050 electrical heating system to replace the original, which had been used only the first few years after we built the house in 1973. The heating bills back then were confiscatory, and we were deeply worried about losing our home.
For reasons I cannot explain, we did not use the new system the first year and continued with the pellets. Undoubtedly, it had something to do with the terror of those electrical bills in the days before the Jotul.
My son was baffled. “Why not run the new heat for only a month and compare the cost to last year?” he challenged. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
“I’ll waste several hundred dollars,” I countered.
“How do you know?” he pressed.
Good point, so I did.
When the first electric bill arrived, I opened it more with curiosity than dread because it covered September, which is not a high demand month for heat. The cost was $54.69 less than the previous year and included 31 reading days versus 30.
Nice, but not proof. Even so, I made the humble pie call to my son.
October’s bill was similar, $64.41 less for the same number of days. Nicer still, but unpersuasive. November, however, showed a leap of $143.16, but that was still insufficient for me to get an electro-cardiogram.
A month later, the red flag on my mailbox was up and my heart rate, too, as I reached for December’s bill, wondering if my wife and I had planned well enough for retirement. I was shocked, but not for reasons I had expected. The bill was $9.48 more than the previous year, although it included three fewer reading days.
By February’s bill, the trend was clear: we were saving money – eventually more than $1,000 – by not operating the pellet stoves. After 30 years of using an alternative heating system, we had come full cycle. How could it be?
Well, for one thing the new heating system was, indeed, efficient. The key, however, was control over its output, which programmable thermostats on the first floor accomplished. Their settings were the same for the week: 68 degrees from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and 55 degrees thereafter.
Whenever my wife or I were not home, we set the thermostats to 55 degrees. The upstairs bedrooms have individual thermostats and were unheated unless occupied.
What happened to the pellet stoves? An ad fetched $1,400 and more than 70 responses. 1/2 And everyone is enchanted by the prospect of a crackling fire in the re-commissioned fireplace with glass doors.
We love the new heating system, especially its comfort, cost and convenience. Relatives and friends do, too, although my son quipped one night, “It’s getting late. Time to go home before the heat turns off.”