How to Pick a Pellet Stove


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Jan 14, 2024

How to Pick a Pellet Stove

Many of us are, understandably, looking for sustainable ways to heat our homes

Many of us are, understandably, looking for sustainable ways to heat our homes with something that reduces our reliance on fossil fuels. Pellet stoves are becoming a more compelling option with each passing winter. New models can tie into home thermostats, offering push-button convenience similar to that of a typical HVAC system. You can use a pellet stove to boost heat in a single chilly room or have several models working in tandem to offset your reliance on a central heating system.

Burning sustainably harvested pellets can reduce fossil fuel use for home heating. And that's huge.

A single stove can warm up a chilly room or offset reliance on a central heating system.

Beyond practicality, some designs can add significant aesthetic impact to a room.

But! Pellet stoves can prove to be more work than some owners expect.

But choosing a pellet stove can be overwhelming, and using one regularly isn't exactly effortless. We can help you learn more about the capabilities of a pellet stove, to see whether it's a good fit for your lifestyle. And if it is, we have some suggestions on how to go about picking the right one for your home.

I’ve lived in New England for roughly 45 years, and I am a long-time filler and stoker of wood stoves (as well as a splitter and stacker of wood). I grew up in a house that was mostly heated by wood, and I have five wood stoves at my current house (four active and one spare). I also installed wood stoves in each of the two homes I previously owned. During a typical winter, I go through roughly three or four cords of wood. And I use a wood-fired evaporator to make maple syrup in the late winter. To me, building a fire and warming up by a wood stove is one of the deepest joys in life. As much as I love wood stoves, they do require a hands-on mentality that isn't for everyone. Looking into pellet stove alternatives, I picked up a lot of information that I consider to be valuable to a wood stove owner, like myself, or to anyone else contemplating wood heating for the first time.

For this article, I spoke with Pablo Fleishmann, owner of Green Energy Options in Keene, New Hampshire. Fleishmann, who founded the store in 2007, sells pellet stoves, wood stoves, mini-split heat pumps, and solar installations. Due to the variety of what he offers his customers, Fleishmann has an excellent understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of each style of heating system.

We also interviewed three people who work at Hearth & Home Technologies, the parent company to 12 stove manufacturers, including Vermont Castings, Harman Stoves, and Quadra-Fire. Included in our interview was Jeni Foreman, senior VP of stoves; Karen Smeltz, category director, stove brands; and Ken Gross, director of product management (stoves). Smeltz also serves on the board of directors of the Pellet Fuels Institute, which sets the standards for pellets across the country. And because her father founded Harman Stoves, she also literally grew up with pellet stoves. These three provided background and technical information on pellet stoves. Hearth & Home owns companies that sell gas stoves and wood stoves, as well as pellet stoves. So these three have a business interest in selling stoves, but they also have a well-rounded view of the pluses and minuses of each style of heating., a user-generated forum for stove enthusiasts, proved to be a great resource as well. Through the mostly anecdotal information there, we were able to get a sense of the pros and cons of various styles of stoves and what some people like and don't like about them.

We spent time researching many other websites and reading a lot of varied opinions on pellet stoves, but the Alliance for Green Heat was a particularly useful source. It is an advocacy organization for wood and pellet heating systems. Its site offers a lot of background information on pellet stoves, and it conducted the only credible side-by-side pellet stove test (PDF) that we could find.

Pellet stoves, like wood stoves and mini-splits, are generally not for whole-house heating. But they can be excellent for toasting up a commonly used room, adding an extra bit of heat to a seasonal space (like a room above a garage), or lessening your central heating system's reliance on fossil fuels.

These stoves combine wood heating with conveniences like thermostatic controls and an auto-feeding system, which eliminates the constant tending of a wood stove. In practical terms, pellet stoves walk an attractive middle line between other supplemental forms of heating: They’re easier to deal with than a wood stove but more attractive than the average mini-split. "You almost could think of it as modern wood heat," said Hearth & Home's Smeltz.

Pellet stoves generate heat through the burning of wood pellets, which are usually made of compressed sawdust and look like something a pet rabbit would eat. Most Northern states produce them locally, and they can be produced in a renewable fashion.

Pellets are typically loaded into a hopper at the top of the stove, and a motor-driven auger brings them into a combustion chamber at the desired rate, where they are ignited in a controlled fashion. Gases are expelled through a vent pipe with the help of a fan while a separate blower pushes the heat from the combustion into the room. Pellet stoves run on electricity. So instead of manually building a fire with paper, kindling, and wood, they start up with the push of a button.

Due to the efficiency of the controlled burning process, pellet stoves are minimalists when it comes to creating pollution, at least compared with wood stoves. The EPA refers to them as "the cleanest solid fuel, residential heating appliance." This cleanliness means that a pellet stove can vent in a way that is much easier than a wood stove. The Alliance for Green Heat points out that pellets don't burn as cleanly as fuels like gas, oil, and propane. But: "When harvested sustainably, pellet heating likely has far less negative environmental impacts than fossil fuel heating."

Because of the way they work—with the bulk pellet storage and the automated auger system—pellet stoves can be loaded up for a day or two and set to maintain a certain temperature, either via a thermostat or from the stove's control panel. This gives the pellet stove a significant advantage over a wood stove, which needs regular tending. (If tending is not properly done, it can create substantial temperature swings and potentially the need to rebuild and restart a fire.) Adding to the convenience of a pellet stove: Some models can be scheduled to run at certain times and have remote controls. And any model can be plugged into a smart outlet for remote operation. Right now, there are no integrated smart-home options available in the US. But, according to Fleishmann, "We’re absolutely heading in that direction, they’re already doing that in Europe."

"When harvested sustainably, pellet heating likely has far less negative environmental impacts than fossil fuel heating."

Pellet stoves can reduce your reliance on fossil fuels, which on its own is a major enticement for some people. Others may be lured more by the cost savings. Smeltz told us, "For an average 2,000-square-foot home, if someone had oil and they were switching to pellet, they’d be saving about $800 to $1,000 that year on heating costs. If it was today's [winter 2021–22] price of propane versus pellet, they’d be saving more like $1,200 and going electric to pellet, more like $1,400." The fuel calculator at Efficiency Maine backs up Smeltz's statement. The calculator also lets you plug in your own local cost numbers, so you can get an even better sense of the potential savings.

Heat from a pellet stove is different from that of a wood stove. With a wood stove, it's the body of the stove that radiates heat into the room (although some do incorporate convection heating as well). But with a pellet stove, a fan blows air warmed by a heat exchanger through a vent into the room. This makes a pellet stove similar to a forced-hot-air system. The result is a more-even heat throughout the room, but a pellet stove does lack the coziness of a wood stove.

Because the body of a pellet stove does not get up to 600 degrees Fahrenheit (or more), as a wood stove does, the installation clearances to adjacent walls are much smaller. This means a pellet stove can have a smaller footprint than a wood stove, and it can be snuggled up fairly close to a wall or put deep into an inside corner. As one example, the Piazetta Marcella 2.0 can be installed 2¼ inches away from the rear wall. With its double-walled chimney pipe, the Jotul F 400 Castine (PDF)—one of my favorite wood stoves—needs to be at least 19 inches from a combustible rear wall. By adding heat shields (pieces of sheet metal that are attached to and stand off the stoves’ body) to the Castine, that distance can be reduced to 7 inches (which is still about 5 inches farther into the room than the Piazzetta needs to be).

In addition to the reduced clearances, pellet stoves require smaller hearths, too. Looking again at the Piazzetta Marcella 2.0 (PDF), it needs a pad that is roughly 33 by 27 inches. By contrast, the Jotul F 400 Castine (PDF) requires one that is 44 by 42 inches. All of these inches are valuable, especially considering that much of the hearth sticks out in front of the stove. You can buy hearth pads that eliminate the need for large, involved brick or masonry hearths.

Finally, chimney placement is much easier with a pellet stove versus with a wood stove. In fact, for a pellet stove, it's not really a chimney—it's just a 4-inch vent, and it can go right out the exterior wall behind the stove. The vent doesn't need to be terminated above the roof line, either. So installing it involves a lot less work (and is significantly less expensive) than installing a double-lined metal wood stove chimney or even lining an existing masonry flue (as you would have to do for a wood stove). Wood stove chimneys need to be vented up and above the roofline of the house. Building code requires the top of the chimney to be 2 feet higher than anything within 10 feet of it. I installed a full metal chimney at one house, and the materials alone ended up being more expensive than the wood stove (a Jotul Castine) I bought.

This information on clearances and chimneys is geared toward free-standing pellet stoves. Fireplace inserts are also available, with many of the same features as free-standing stoves. Just note that if you install a fireplace insert into a masonry chimney, the chimney will still need to be lined with the properly sized vent pipe for the stove.

Although the heating part is relatively effortless (at least compared with that of a wood stove), pellet stoves do require a hands-on mentality—both when using the pellets and for the regular maintenance needed to keep the stove functioning at peak efficiency.

"The complaints we hear about pellet stoves in general are that they’re a lot more work than people thought they were going to be."

Pellets, typically available in 40-pound bags, need to be purchased and stored properly so that they don't take on any moisture. In most locations they can be bought in bulk, by the ton, and delivered on a pallet. So unless you plan on buying them on a daily or weekly basis, you’ll need a place to store them, like the corner of a dry garage. Depending on the size of the stove (specifically, the size of the hopper) and the desired temperature, many pellet stove owners say they add a bag of pellets anywhere from once every couple of days to twice a day. Even with the higher amounts here, adding a bag of pellets morning and evening still requires far less effort than having to constantly load wood into a stove. If you live in a cold climate and run a pellet stove extensively, Smeltz estimated, "you’re going to use somewhere between three and four tons of pellets" during a winter.

Pellet stoves also need fairly thorough daily, weekly, and annual cleanings to maintain their highest efficiency (higher-quality stoves can be cleaned less often). Every stove is different, but this Harman video takes you through the general cleaning process. If left uncleaned, the moving parts, like the feed auger, can become blocked or otherwise rendered inoperative, leading to malfunction or a loss of efficiency. So although a pellet stove has the aura of convenience, skimping on this regular maintenance is not a good idea. "The complaints we hear about pellet stoves in general are that they’re a lot more work than people thought they were going to be," Fleishmann told us. Compared with using a wood stove, he added, with a pellet stove "you eliminate the need to cut, split, and stack your wood, but you still have to lug bags and still have to clean your stove on a regular basis." Thermostat automation can help one stove regulate its heat, or it can help multiple stoves maintain a steady household temperature similar to what you get with a traditional central heat system. But if you’re making that comparison, you must factor in your own season-long extra effort to maintain each stove's pellet supply and cleanliness.

Because of the fans, feed auger, and automated combustion, a pellet stove also needs electricity to run (the Wiseway Pellet Stove is one of the few we found that doesn't). This is a substantial difference between a pellet stove and a wood stove—one that, according to Fleishmann, many are initially unaware of. "A lot of times people don't realize that they require electricity," he told us. So in the case of a power outage, a pellet stove would need an alternate power source, like a generator or power station. These moving parts, especially the fan, also mean that pellet stoves make noise when they’re generating heat.

Finally, with all of these electronic parts and the circuit board that controls them, pellet stoves simply have many more delicate pieces that can wear out or break over time than do wood stoves. "Almost all pellet stove brands need repairs in their first three to four years of service, and some even more," according to the Alliance for Green Heat. This only increases the importance of getting a model that has a solid warranty and a good support network.

You can get a pellet stove through Amazon or at a big-box store, but we think it makes sense to go to a specialty dealer. A reputable dealer will guide you through the entire buying process, from getting the right-size stove to finding the ideal spot for it in your home. "We don't want to sell you the wrong product," Fleishmann told us. Specialty retailers will often install the stove themselves, or they have relationships with quality installers who will install it to their specifications. Also, specialty retailers are likely to have a more-transparent warranty process, and they typically stock replacement parts for the models they sell. "Box stores don't stock parts, so you have to reach out to the manufacturer to get parts," Fleishmann said.

As for which specific stove to buy, our recommendation is to go with a premium brand. These higher-end stoves offer more options, a more-polished aesthetic, and better temperature control, and they typically have better warranties. It's also more likely that a premium stove is efficient enough to qualify for a decent government tax credit equal to 26% of the cost of the stove and installation. So a more expensive stove might end up being a cheaper option in the end.

Premium stoves are likely to offer a better day-to-day experience. "You’re paying for convenience. For less maintenance and for better user interface," said Smeltz. "More premium brands are going to be more hands-off. They’re also going to give you more information, for example, it will tell you when to clean it. They’ll also be more accurate with the heating temperature." Hearth & Home's Ken Gross told us, "As you go from basic, mid-range, to premium, you’re seeing an enhancement in temperature accuracy, so maybe going from 3-4 degrees from set to one degree, which is extreme accuracy."

Better stoves also tend to have a better look, with the aesthetics becoming more stylized to fit a personal taste. The inexpensive box-store models are little more than square-cornered steel boxes. But with more of an investment, you can get cast-iron models that take the appearance of a traditional wood stove or ones with a polished European look, like those from Piazzetta.

Fleishmann, who sells Piazzetta and Ravelli pellet stoves, said he's not impressed with the more-budget-oriented models. "I’d like to have a good one, that was $1,000 or $2,000 less than our $4,000 one, but I haven't found one yet." We asked Fleishmann about inexpensive stoves found on Amazon and in the box stores, and he said they tend to be basic models with limited options and sheet metal bodies. "Some people have great success with them. But with other people, the stove lasts a year or two before they throw their hands up and say, ‘Oh my god, this piece of crap, I just want to get rid of it.’"

From our research, we found that a high-end pellet stove (with no installation) generally ranges in price from $4,000 to $6,000. That's a decent amount, especially considering that many box-store models cost anywhere from about $1,000 to $2,500. The good news is that there is currently a sizable tax credit on high-efficiency stoves (those with a 75% or higher efficiency1) that equals 26% of the total cost of the stove and installation (it drops to 22% for stoves installed in 2023). "So if someone buys a $4,000 stove and then they spend $1,000 on the actual install, they’re going to get $1,300 back as their rebate, which is pretty cool," said Hearth & Home's Smeltz (in early 2022). This is a nice benefit that makes it a little easier to get a better stove. Now, the Alliance for Green Heat casts doubt on the manufacturer-provided efficiency numbers for actual heat output. Still, for the tax credit, those are the numbers that matter most.

The exact model and size you should get often depends on your home's unique heating needs. You’ll also want to find distributors located conveniently enough for you to do business with, and that may alter which brands are really available to you. Once you determine your brand options, you may have additional decisions to consider regarding aesthetics, price, and other options that may make the stoves easier to use or maintain.

While we were researching this guide, several names came up often, and we’ve listed a number of them here in roughly the order of priority we’d use to begin our own search. Many of these brands offer fireplace inserts as well as free-standing stoves.

Piazzetta and Ravelli—the brands Fleishmann sells—are known as high-end brands from Italy, where pellet stoves are much more the norm than they are in America. These stoves have a very polished and vertically oriented look. And they have an extremely high listed efficiency, typically in the 80%-plus range. Piazzetta claims its stoves can even be hooked up to short ducting runs (up to about 50 feet) to get heat to a room above or adjacent to the stove. Models from both companies have built-in humidifiers, and many Piazzetta stoves offer a "night function," which shuts off the fan and relies on silent convection. Piazetta offers a one- to five-year warranty (PDF), depending on the part in question. Ravelli does not provide warranty information.

In the Alliance for Green Heat test, the Piazzetta was the most efficient stove tested. But it required the most daily upkeep, needing a quick scrape-out of the burn pot every day or two. The Ravelli scored high marks for emissions and flame visibility but mid-range marks for efficiency.

Harman pellet stoves are highly regarded and generally have the look of a traditional wood stove. But its Allure50 has a vertical design similar to that of the Piazettas and Ravellis. In our research, Harman was clearly the most-talked-about brand, and it's one that should be well represented at local dealers. The general consensus at the forum is that these stoves are expensive, but you get what you pay for. Features like a remote sensor, onboard diagnostics, and the ability to hold a specific temperature with extreme accuracy distinguish Harman pellet stoves from many other brands. Harman models meet the threshold for the tax credit, but they aren't as efficient as the Piazettas or Ravellis. Harman's warranty ranges from one year to a limited lifetime, depending on the part.

The Harman stove tested in the Alliance for Green Heat round-up had the highest consistent scores, performing at or near the top of the pack in the categories of heat output, efficiency, flame visibility, and maintenance. It did not score well for emissions.

Quadra-Fire is Hearth & Home's mid-range brand. Of the six pellet stoves this company offers, only one has a high enough efficiency rating for the tax credit. The others all have efficiencies in the 60% range, which is on the low side for pellet stoves. The Alliance for Green Heat found the Quadra-Fire stove to be excellent in emissions, maintenance, and flame visibility, and mid-range for heat output and efficiency.

Enviro offers a number of styles, and its stoves are all efficient enough for the tax credit. Many contributors to the forums are very happy with theirs. Enviro's controls are fairly basic, especially when compared with those of Harman stoves, but the Enviro models also don't cost as much as the Harmans. The warranty goes from one year to limited lifetime, depending on the part. The Enviro stove tested by the Alliance for Green Heat did well in every category other than efficiency.

Lopi has a good reputation and, like many of the companies here, also makes wood stoves. It sells two stoves, both of which meet the tax-credit criteria. These stoves can be connected to external thermostats and have a two- to seven-year warranty.

Regency Fireplace Products offers three free-standing stoves and two inserts of varying designs, but none of them meet the efficiency criteria for the tax credit.

The pellet stoves from Thelin Hearth Products have an interesting pot-bellied, steampunk vibe. Of the two freestanding pellet stoves offered, the Parlour (the larger of the two) meets the EPA's requirements for the tax credit.

ComfortBilt stoves, available at Home Depot, Tractor Supply, and Amazon, are about half the price of the Harman stoves. But only some of the models meet the efficiency threshold for the tax credit; for example, the HP21 (PDF) does, but the HP22 (PDF) does not. Considering the cost differences between these stoves and, say, Harman and Piazetta models, it's not surprising that the ComfortBilt stoves lack some features, have simpler controls, and have a less-polished aesthetic. Also, if you buy from a box store, you’re on your own for installation and dealing with parts, and warranty might be more difficult.

In the big-box stores, you’ll find PelPro (owned by Hearth & Home). These stoves are very stripped-down, with higher than 75% efficiency ratings. Their controls are very simple, and they cannot be hooked up to a room thermostat (and programmed). The stoves have a minimalist look, with none of the flourishes of the more-expensive brands. Pel-Pro offers a one- to five-year warranty, depending on the part. If you buy through a big-box store, you’ll have to deal directly with the manufacturer for the warranty.

Cleveland IronWorks is another box-store brand with inexpensive, basic stoves. Most models can be bought for under $1,500. The customer feedback at Amazon is so-so.

The Wiseway Pellet Stove does not use electricity at all, so there is no feeding auger and no blower fan. Pellets are gravity-fed into the burner (which is manually lit), and the body of the stove radiates heat into the room, much like a wood stove. The stove is vertically oriented and looks like a giant, metal marble run—not an aesthetic everyone will appreciate.

A pellet stove is not directly burning a fossil fuel, like heating oil or natural gas. So it's tempting to think pellets are a categorically more-sustainable fuel than traditional heating sources. They certainly can be, but that depends on a few key details related to their production and distribution.

Pellets are produced either directly from trees or from the byproducts of other wood industries, such as the waste from sawmills and furniture making. Large-scale production of pellets, mostly of those sold to create electricity in Europe and Asia, has raised many ethical questions about pellets as a viable energy source. There does not appear to be a consensus as to the environmental benefits or drawbacks of wood pellets. Many of the ethical questions surround a Maryland-based company named Enviva, possibly the largest manufacturer of pellets in the world. But even when pellets are produced on a smaller scale, questions persist. The Alliance for Green Heat acknowledges the potential for "bad actors" in the logging industries associated with the manufacture of pellets.

Contrasting the industrial production, there's also been a proliferation of small-scale pellet manufacturers. This helps wood pellets offer something that other fuel sources don't: choice. With pellets, you can shop around and find a manufacturer that aligns with you on a philosophical level. This kind of flexibility isn't the case with gas and oil. From our research, we found many small-scale pellet companies that do operate with an emphasis on sustainability. For example, Energy Pellets of America makes its pellets out of recycled shipping pallets, and Northeast Pellets, LLC in Maine uses the sawdust and wood shavings from local mills, as do many others we found. So, unlike with fossil fuels, with pellets you have much more control over where your dollar is going and whom it is supporting.

In many practical ways, pellet stoves compare very favorably to wood stoves. Pellet stoves are easier to install, take up less space, require less work, are cleaner, and can be controlled by a thermostat. And you don't have to spend hours splitting and stacking wood. But wood stoves still hold a valuable, irreplaceable spot in the heating world.

Wood stoves are completely untethered from the electrical grid, and the radiating heat they create is unique in its warmth and coziness. But here's what many people, including me, find most appealing: the art, craft, and skill inherent in running a wood stove. I enjoy the structural challenge of a good wood pile and the delicate act of building a fire, creating a draft, and getting a blaze going. There is also an appeal to the diligence and duty needed to keep the supply of wood going, which often means trips to the woodshed in below-zero weather to make sure there is enough to get through the next morning. The old saying goes that wood heat warms you three times: when you split the wood, when you stack it, and when you burn it. And it's in that process where the unquantifiable appeal of a wood stove lives.

So for some, the convenience of a pellet stove will be very appealing, as it should be. But if you keep hearing a little voice advocating for a more-rustic vision of home heating, there is nothing like a wood stove. The research I did for my own purchases led me to Jotul, Morso, and Vermont Castings. If you’re thinking about a wood stove, I recommend starting with those companies.

This article was edited by Harry Sawyers.

Pablo Fleishmann, owner, Green Energy Options, phone interview, January 2022

Jeni Foreman, senior vice president of stoves, Hearth & Home Technologies, phone interview, January 2022

Karen Smeltz, category director, stove brands, Hearth & Home Technologies, phone interview, January 2022

Ken Gross, director of product management (stoves), Hearth & Home Technologies, phone interview, January 2022

Wood Pellets — An introduction to their production and use, University of Tennessee Extension

Alliance for Green Heat

Doug Mahoney

Doug Mahoney is a senior staff writer at Wirecutter covering home improvement. He spent 10 years in high-end construction as a carpenter, foreman, and supervisor. He lives in a very demanding 250-year-old farmhouse and spent four years gutting and rebuilding his previous home. He also raises sheep and has a dairy cow that he milks every morning.

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