The Newest in Stylish, Warm Room Heating

With controls ranging from basic to highly sophisticated, pellet stoves are increasingly more efficient, easier to use and cleaner.
By Chris Hanson | March 26, 2014

Long known as being great for room heating, pellet stoves have the potential to meet all the heating requirements of the smaller, energy-efficient homes of the future, especially if centrally located in a home with an open floor plan. The 2010 U.S. Census shows that the average size of new, single family homes declined from a peak of 2,582 to 2,392 square feet in just two years, and a 2011 National Association of Home Builders survey suggests that single-family homes will continue to shrink.

“Stoves and inserts can be centrally located in such a way and be large enough that they can pretty much meet the heating demands of the house, but that’s not necessarily what they were intended for and some do it better than others,” says Scott Williamson, owner and independent pellet appliance servicer of Massachusetts-based Pellet Stove Service. “80 percent of my customers achieve maybe 75 to 100 percent of their heating needs off of one little appliance. It’s not what they were designed to do, but it’s the way pellets are adopted and used in the U.S.” Once consumers cross a certain threshold for heating requirements, then it would make more sense to install a pellet furnace or boiler, he adds.

Pellet stoves and fireplace inserts are more popular in the U.S. than boilers and furnaces, Williamson says, due to their relatively lower price and faster return on investment for consumers. He advises consumers to look beyond price, however, and consider control systems, plus investigate the technology involved in the burn pot. “The burn pot needs to stay free and clear so the air can move through it,” he explains. High quality pellets give the best performance, but consumers sometimes use pellets that contain recycled wood that may contain corrosive salts. These salts can cause the ash to fuse together at lower temperatures, clogging the vital ventilation holes. “Your burn pot can become a mess very quickly. You have to shut the whole unit down, clean it all out, put it back together and start it back up again.” To address this issue, some manufacturers use agitators, bottom and horizontal-feeding designs that push obstructions to the fringe of the burn pot and keep the chamber free and clear for air movement, Williamson says. 

Increasingly, pellet appliance manufacturers are adding features to increase efficiency and ease-of-use for consumers, Williamson says, noting a few interesting brands and models. In this issue, Pellet Mill Magazine offers a sampling of the pellet stoves available to consumers that illustrate a range of features, and a quick look at European designs for comparison. A future issue will take a look at larger pellet furnaces and boilers. 

Harman XXV

One of the most recognized names in the biomass stove market is Harman, from Hearth & Home Technologies. The XXV model boasts 50,000 Btu heating input, achieves 76 percent efficiency and can heat a 900- to 2,300-square-foot area. Pellets are pushed up into the burn pot from the 65-pound storage hopper. With the bottom-feed design, the incoming fuel drives any obstructions outward to the edges of the burn pile.

Electrical power is required in all pellet stoves to operate the stove, run the fans, feed the pellets and provide operational information. An exhaust sensing probe (ESP) system in the Harman stove adjusts heat output and fuel rate. The built-in ESP microprocessor uses settings from the built-in thermostat and data gathered from room and exhaust sensors to maintain heating temperatures within one degree. In addition to setting the temperature, the ESP control panel allows the user to select between manual and automatic ignition and provides status updates, alerting the presence of operational irregularities. The XXV model is certified by the U.S. EPA with an emission rating of 2.4 grams per hour. 

One of the drawbacks of the internal thermostat, Williamson adds, is that it currently cannot be integrated with an external thermostat. Hearth & Home, however, expects to release the first of its newer models this summer that feature touch controls utilizing Wi-Fi signals, says Karen Smeltz, marketing specialist for Hearth & Home. “We’re really marketing to the younger generation that will be buying a home or renovating and who want the smartphone-like experience that they are used to.”

Quadra-Fire Classic Bay 1200

Another model of pellet stove from Hearth & Home technologies is the Quadra-Fire Classic Bay 1200. The CB 1200 is also EPA certified and is capable of reaching 17,200 to 47,300 Btu per hour. Similar to the Harman XXV, the CB 1200 has an average heating area of 2,350 square feet, but with a higher efficiency rating of 85 percent.  Depending on the density of the pellets, the CB 1200 can store 80 pounds of pellets and has a remote-control and programmable wall-thermostat options.

St. Croix Hastings

When looking for pellet stoves, some users might not expect to see one from the Midwest. Nebraska-based, St. Croix Genuine Stoves offers multifuel stoves capable of operating with a range of fuels, such as wood pellets, corn and even cherry pits. The St. Croix Hastings model is an EPA-certified, cast iron pellet stove, which operates at 78 percent efficiency, has a heat output of roughly 35,000 Btu and an emissions rating of 0.7 grams per hour.

Like the other pellet stoves, the Hastings model has a control box that allows for general operation and alerts the user to potential problems within the unit. The model allows the user to toggle between manual, internal and external thermostat settings. The internal thermostat mode, or T-Stat, will heat the room to the desired heating level on the control board and drop to the lowest setting once the temperature reaches the desired level to maintain heat. The external SmartStat setting gives the stove the ability to relight itself when heat is required and judge whether to turn off or go into a pilot mode, based on how often the thermostat requires heat.

St. Croix stoves tend to have tight heat exchangers that make heating and emissions cleaner and more efficient, Williamson says.

Travis Industries AGP Lopi

Travis Industries Inc.’s AGP Lopi stove is certified by the EPA and produces less than 1 gram per hour of emissions. The unit can hold 80 pounds of pellets in its hopper and produces roughly 41,000 Btu to heat approximately 2,000 square feet.

The AGP Lopi has a control panel at the back of the stove and dials for selecting the desired heating level and fan speed. The fan speed control has an automatic setting to make the unit more user friendly. Additionally, the control panel allows the user to program multiple heating settings that can align with demands from an external thermostat.

Enviro M55 Cast Iron

Canada-based Sherwood Industries Inc. manufactures the Enviro brand of heating appliances. With a 76.6 percent efficiency and a two grams per hour emissions rating, the EPA includes the stove on its list of certified wood stoves.

The M55 Cast Iron has a 2,500-square foot-heating area and holds 60 pounds of pellets in its hopper. Like the other stoves, the M55 Cast Iron has attractive features that set it above older models on the market. The unit has a side control panel, powered by standard 120 volt power, that can toggle between premium and regular pellets as well as adjust heating levels. Other features include an agitator to clear obstructions within the burn pot and safety switches to deactivate the unit if the stove overheats or the fire dies and the exhaust temperature drops below 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Like the other U.S.-manufactured models, the stove has the more traditional wood-stove look.

The Slick Europeans

North American manufacturers are keeping an eye on the high-tech designs coming from European manufacturers entering the U.S. market. “A lot of European stoves model their combustion delivery process and air intake the same way. They all kind of use the same technology,” Williamson says.“But the Rika brand does it very well.” The Austria-headquartered manufacturer uses algorithms that measure the rotations per minute in the combustion motor and the amount of electricity and air pressure within the stove to determine the correct amount of fuel to feed into the burn pot to keep the unit at its highest efficiency, Williamson says.

MCZ-Wittus Ego

For comparison, Pellet Mill Magazine profiles a unit from Italian manufacturer, MCZ Group S.p.A, which sells its pellet appliances under the Wittus label in the U.S. The Ego Air model has an EPA-observed 78 percent efficiency rating, a hopper that holds just over 33 pounds of pellets and has a 24,000 Btu output. The appliance is controlled through multiple inputs. It features a topside control panel, but is capable of syncing with a remote and external thermostat. The control panel displays basic information, such as operating temperature and alerts. An optional remote control can adjust fan speed and flame levels, as well as power the unit up or down. The stove can be also be integrated with an external thermostat. With the multiple controls, the Ego Air can be manually controlled or programmed to automatically adjust to the heating demands of the room.

European stoves are highly customizable to the user, but that customization can be a downfall, explains Williamson. For instance, a novice user might not know how to find the most efficient settings, thus leading to more ash build up, extra maintenance or improper handling. “That’s one of the problems Europeans have, they try to give too much control over what’s going on. It’s like sitting in a Mercedes and adjusting the seat to find a radio station. It’s impossible,” says Williamson. U.S. stoves tend to be more user-friendly and simple to operate, but finding an ideal unit can be a challenge. Another thing to consider is installation. European stoves tend to be powered with 230-volt connections, most likely requiring the expense of wiring a new outlet, whereas the North American stoves are powered with standard 120-volt connections.

This review of a handful of the many models of pellet stoves available on the market illustrates the multiple features and benefits that need to be weighed by consumers when choosing a new appliance. External thermostats allow the user to set the desired room temperature, while some models do not have that option. Different stoves require different maintenance schedules. Some suggest daily cleaning while others may have only weekly or monthly suggested maintenance intervals.

Price is always a big factor, as  is appearance. Pellet stove purchases and installation costs can range between $2,000 and $3,500, says John Ackerly, president of the Alliance for Green Heat. "They are easily half to one third of the price of a boiler."

North American-made stoves tend to have a more traditional wood stove appearance, while European designs have more contemporary styling.

For pellet producers, the improved designs for pellet appliances, increased efficiency, ease-of-use and reduced emissions, all promise to attract new customers who quickly discover pellet heating provides not only a warm, comfortable heat, but an affordable and renewable alternative.

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Pellet Mill Magazine